Why I Love/Hate the German Language

By the beginning of my senior year at college, I had decided not only to major in art history, but to apply to graduate school as well. My advisor encouraged me to take German; it was essential for graduate study in my field and I might as well get an early start. I knew she h a d only my welfare in mind, but she had obviously not considered that for a Jew of the post-Holocaust generation such a suggestion was not as morally neutral as she intended.

The fact was, I had no desire to study German. No, that is an understatement: I bitterly resented the idea, and it was only after I had been completely convinced that the attainment of an advanced art history degree could not be accomplished without it, that I relented.

My first German teacher was not the blond, blue-eyed Aryan I had dreaded. Instead, he was olive-skinned and dark-haired, with bright black eyes and terrifyingly white teeth. Interspersed with his dutiful presentation of the complicated declensions and unwieldy compound nouns, he told witty tales about Teutonic life, culture and art. He lovingly evoked the coffee houses of Vienna with their Sachertorte and Kaffee mil Schlagsahne (coffee with whipped cream), the Weinstuhe (wine cellars) famous for their heady, German brews, and the dazzling Oktoberfeste.

The class was delighted with his fanciful excursions; he was adored by everyone. Everyone, that is, except me. Four mornings a week, I sat at the back of the classroom nursing my sullen silence. I didn’t want to hear about German culture—too many of my relatives had perished as a result of that culture gone berserk; too many people 1 knew or had read about had suffered too much for me to take an innocent pleasure in any of this. I felt like I knew too much already, and my knowledge both embittered me and prevented me from wanting to know anything more.

One day, the professor asked if he could see me alone for a few minutes. I lowered my eyes, refusing to meet his, and waited until we were the only two left in the room.

“It seems to me that you’re unhappy in my class,” he said pleasantly. “Is there something I can do to help?” I finally looked at him then, his open, friendly face, filled with such unmistakable good will. Without any warning, I burst into tears. It all came spilling out then: how repelled I was by Germans and all things German, how I didn’t want to be in the course at all. “I can see that you’re very upset,” he said when I had finished, “but I think you’re making a mistake by condemning a whole culture because of one black period in history.” He tried to tell me then about the other Germany, the one of Bach and Beethoven, Heine and Mozart, but I wouldn’t or maybe couldn’t hear.

I passed through the rest of the course cherishing my isolation. I didn’t even mind the “C” I received, so noticeable amid my bevy of “A”s. On the contrary, I was perversely proud of it, like a badge of honor, or even, perhaps, a stigma.

By the time the next semester rolled around, I knew I was ready for a change. I had resigned myself to finishing out the year, but I switched to another section, where the teacher was not herself a German. With her muted tweeds and soft cashmeres, the woman evoked the image of the English gentry, and I took this to be an enormous improvement.

But there was another reason I began to feel better about my German classes, and this had to do with their content as well as their formal presentation. Like it or not, I had actually been learning something all those months, and was now ready, with the rest of the class, to start tackling sentences of a greater complexity than “Ich bin eine Studentin.”

We had started reading Goethe’s Faust, and although I wouldn’t admit it out loud, I actually found myself falling under its spell. When Gretchen learns that she has been abandoned by Faust, she sings a lament whose refrain chilled me in its poignancy: “Meine Ruh ist hin/Mein hen ist schwer/Ich finde sie nimmer/Und nimmermehr.” [“My peace is gone/ My heart is heavy/ I’ll find it never/ And nevermore.”]

Naturally, I was not the first to discover that this was great poetry—simple, clear and absolutely heartbreaking—but the discovery was nevertheless important to me, and to the way I felt about German as a whole: If poetry I could love was written in this language, then the language itself must contain poetry within it. I might be resistant to finding it, but for the first time, I could see that it was there.

The following fall, my first semester as a graduate student, found me enrolled in yet another German course; this one was designed to help students from a number of departments pass the language examination required by the university for the Master’s degree. Here, no one sung praises of German culture. The members of the class wanted to pass the written examination, and they wanted to pass it soon. I spent the next two months furiously translating articles on medieval churches and Romantic painting; when I wasn’t doing that, I was creating stacks upon stacks of index cards on which I printed the various nouns, verbs and adjectives 1 needed to expand my vocabulary. The effort paid off: I passed the exam on the first try. If I wanted, I would never have to read, hear or think another German word in my life.

For about a year, that is exactly what happened. But then one day (one destined day, perhaps), I found myself browsing in a bookshop that specializes in large tables of remaindered books. A muted rose cover on which was inset the black-and-white photograph of an intense-looking young woman caught my eye. The book turned out to contain, in both German and English, the poetry of Gertrud Kolmar, a German-Jewish poet who had perished, in her prime, at Auschwitz. The volume was priced at fifty-nine cents; even then, that was less than the price of a subway token.

I bought the book and found myself immediately hypnotized. Kolmar’s work was like nothing I had ever read; even in translation, I knew I had encountered a rare spirit. The German originals were printed on the facing pages, and so eager was I to devour these remarkable poems, that without a second’s hesitation I began reading them. And where I found my German rusty, unequal to the task of deciphering this strange and marvelous work, I went back to the dictionaries and grammar books I swore I would never open again. Nothing less than the true coin of the original would do; the translations seemed pale counterfeits which no longer satisfied. While a stanza like the one that follows is compelling, even in English, it doesn’t possess the haunted urgency of the original:

Auf verdorrten schwarzen Krautern Lieg ich stumm im Hohlenhaus; Schwer an trankgeschwelten Eutern Hangen Kind und Fledermaus Da im Mondforst Auerhdhne, Eine Hexe bellend neckt, Die mit fahler Widdermahne.

My cave house is black as ink; There I lie on dried leaf mats. And on udders swelled with drink Heavy hang a child, bat. Outside in the moonwood howls A witch that frights the unicorn On her head a ram’s wool cowl Covers golden curving horns.
(translated by Henry A. Smith)

German’s capacity for compound nouns created wildly expressive possibilities: trankgeschwellten (“swelled” or “swollen”) is literally a swollen, heavy word; Kringelhorner (“curving horns”) evokes a magical image which “curving horns” can only approximate. And Auerhahne (“howl”) has an onomatopoetic moan that English doesn’t capture. Even the title of the poem, Troglodytin, in German tells the reader immediately that the speaker is female, while the neutered English “Troglodyte” is mute on the subject.

I felt that to understand Kolmar, and her powerful, transcendent verse, it was necessary, even imperative, that I understand German as well. I found myself presented with a moral dilemma of a complexity 1 could not have imagined two years earlier. Yes, Kolmar wrote in that hated tongue, German; she was, after all, a German citizen her entire life. But she was also a Jew! If I refused to read German out of some atavistic desire to resurrect my family or maintain my integrity, my entire rationale quickly broke down when it came to her work. For if I turned my back on German— the language in which her poetry had budded and blossomed—then I was in effect turning my back on her. And to do that would be to consign her to precisely the kind of oblivion that the Nazis had intended.

In one sense, of course, the Germans succeeded: the woman Gertrud Kolmar has been dead these forty years. But if there is any hope of immortality in our sadly faithless times, then perhaps it is the immortality of art. By reading Kolmar, and reading her in German, perhaps I could succeed in giving her back, if not her life, at least her resonant voice. [See sidebar.]

My exploration of Jewish writers who wrote in German went further; a friend with whom I discussed the subject recommended Paul Celan. Unlike Kolmar, Celan, a Roumanian Jew, survived the Holocaust. His parents, however, did not, and the longing and sorrow engendered by their loss permeates his poetry:

Runder Stem, du schlingst die goldne Schleife.
Meine Mutter Herz ward wund Blei.

Eichne Tur, wer hob dich aus den Angein?
Meine Sanfte Mutter kann nicht kommen.

Round star, you wind the golden loop.
My mother’s heart was ripped by lead.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return. 
(translated by Michael Hamburger)

I noticed, in my dual language edition, that the translation of the last line read: “My, gentle mother cannot return.” I looked back at the German original and puzzled over it for a while. Kommen didn’t mean return, not exactly. The dictionary offered me several possibilities for the word “return,” but none of them were kommen. I knew what the translator had meant in choosing that word, but it seemed to me the translator might be wrong. Kommen or “come” was far more suggestive, far more ambiguous than “return,” for it implied that not only would the poet’s mother never literally return, but that her death, brought about in such a hideous way, made even the recalling of her painful and problematic.

“My gentle mother cannot come,” he tells us, as if to say, “Even the memory of her refuses to coalesce easily in the imagination.” If I hadn’t studied German, such subtleties would have been lost on me, but because I did, I was able to reach back across the time and distance, and for a brief and incandescent moment, gain a sense of what Paul Celan might have meant.

It is now more than ten years since I sat in my first German class, and I have watched myself do a complete about-face as far as my feelings about the language are concerned, and yet the motivation for those feelings has essentially remained the same. At one time, I believed that if I were to have any integrity as a Jew, I would have to hold myself aloof from Germany and things German. I can see now how fundamentally naive such a position was, for it didn’t take into account the terrible complexity of history and of culture.

Kolmar and Celan have helped teach me that. Unthinkable as it once seemed to me, I have developed a real love for this dolorous and beautiful language and for the incredible depth of feeling it permits. And like most loves, it is at least in part based on recognition, on that wonderful moment of gazing into the eyes of the beloved, and seeing some apparition of oneself contained within.

Yona Zeldis McDonough is a novelist and short-story writer. She is currently at work on a children’s book about biblical heroines.

Gertrud Kolmar
by Yona Zeldis Mcdonough

Gertrud Kolmar, born Gertrud Chodziesner in 1894 in Berlin, has been largely forgotten. Still, those “few who do know her work consider her to be one of the greatest Jewish women poets. Cynthia Ozick writes that, “the American poet she is most likely to remind us of is Emily Dickinson—not so much for her stoic singleness, the heroism of a loneliness teeming with phantasmagorical seeing, but for the daring pressure she puts on language in order to force a crack in the side of the planet, letting out strange figures and fires: she is a mythologist.”

Kolmar, whose upbringing was actually comfortable and middle-class, published her first collection of verse at age seventeen. Over the next fifteen years she produced dazzling poetry—her poetic themes centering on the nature and passions of woman and the sensual wonders of nature. In her forties she taught herself Hebrew and wrote many poems in that language, though not a single one has survived.

Throughout the 1930’s, Kolmar often talked of leaving Germany, but she was reluctant to abandon the elderly father for whom she had become both nurse and companion. In September 1938, her book Die Frau and die Tiere (The Woman and the Animals) was published, only weeks before the worst pogrom in German history—Kristallnacht— occurred. The Jewish newspapers which had so recently reviewed her work were closed; all the copies of her book were destroyed.

In 1939, Kolmar and her father were forced to sell their home because of new laws affecting Jewish property. Months in a depressing Berlin tenement were followed by deportation to a labor factory in Berlin Lichtenberg, and finally to Auschwitz, where she was murdered at age 48.
The poem below, translated by Henry A. Smith in Dark Soliloquy: The Selected Poems of Gertrud Kolmar (Seabury Press, 1975), suggests Kolmar’s, and the Jews’, dark future: 

Mulatto Rose
by Yona Zeldis Mcdonough

Mulatto rose. A half-breed. In your veins
Your blood dreams painted idols, chiseled blades,
And strong baboons in dusky jungle glades,
With rose-brown flesh and silver flowing manes.

You bend aloft to drink the blazing rain.
Because it was from heat that you were made,
Your green hands do not hide your face in shade,
But hold a basin where the sun has lain.

Then, shyly, underneath your wild brown eyes.
Another redness rises in your cheeks.
On evening’s edge the flocks break up their play.

The last bird utters somber velvet cries.
A blond-haired boy runs past along the creek.
And in the dark his footsteps die away.