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Gertrud Kolmar: A Literary Life

Gertrud Kolmar: A Literary Life

by Dieter Kuhn

Linda Marianiello here translates into English for the first time Dieter Kühn’s highly praised and definitive biography of one of Germany’s greatest poets, Gertrud Kolmar. Kolmar carried German-language poetry to new heights, speaking truth in a time when many poets collapsed in the face of increasing Nazi repression. Born Gertrud Käthe


Linda Marianiello here translates into English for the first time Dieter Kühn’s highly praised and definitive biography of one of Germany’s greatest poets, Gertrud Kolmar. Kolmar carried German-language poetry to new heights, speaking truth in a time when many poets collapsed in the face of increasing Nazi repression. Born Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner in Berlin in 1894, she completed her first collection, Poems, in 1917. She took her pen name, Kolmar, from the name of the town where her family originated.

Kolmar’s third collection of poems appeared in 1938 but soon disappeared in the wake of the overall repression of Jewish authors. At the time, she served as secretary to her father, Ludwig Chodziesner, a prominent lawyer. In 1941, the Nazis compelled her to work in a German armaments factory. Even as a forced laborer, the strength of her poetic voice grew, perhaps reaching its highest level before her deportation to Auschwitz. From gentle nature verses to stirring introspection, these are poems in which we can still find ourselves today. Both she and her father died in Nazi concentration camps, he in 1942, she the following year. The translation of Dieter Kühn’s biography conveys the tragic, yet courageous, life of a great poet to an English-speaking audience. 

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Northwestern University Press
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Gertrud Kolmar

A Literary Life

By Dieter Kühn, Linda Marianiello, Franz Vote

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2008 work of Gertrud Kolmar: Suhrkamp Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-2879-8


Gertrud Kolmar

Alive, you dead, you're alive; for I'm alive today. You may well once have died, once been different. But be now, and be this: for me.



In the future, someone will surely ask, "Who was the father of this great poet?" More precisely, what sort of person was this with whom Gertrud not only shared a home these many years but also collaborated so closely? I've planned to write down my recollections for quite some time. You just asked me about it again the other day. My response was more of a postponement, for I wasn't hedging the question. But the undertaking brooks no further delay.

I can assure you of one thing straightaway, dear Hilde: I won't be penning any memoirs. Particularly in view of Gertrud, I'd rather leave it to you to write our family chronicle. Insofar as work in chambers allows, I can merely do the preparatory work. You can do what you like with whatever I gradually submit to you.

So this letter will be a sort of script, a source document. You're already familiar with what I'm putting down here initially, but it's still worth mentioning. As a jurist, I must first come to terms with what is, for me, a new kind of written statement. However it may turn out, I'm saving you a bit of trouble in terms of what you have to ask about or track down. And I'll provide myself with a clear point of departure by starting with what's familiar, what's already known within our family.

I've given Gertrud the day off. A fair copy of my expert opinion can wait until tomorrow. She's making use of the nice weather to take a walk in the woods with the dog. Since that will drag on for another hour or two, I can think back a ways and bring to mind the roots of my life that are, and shall remain, closely entwined with those of your sisters and brother. As I said, it remains to be seen whether you will choose the same starting point. I am simply submitting a kind of "building material" to be freely exploited and utilised.

Now then, let us begin with the usual particulars! We Chodziesners got our name from the little town of Chodziez, north of present-day Poznan.

I must pause here, stop myself, for our name mustn't remain a mere, "bare" footnote, as it were. After all, Gertrud has done her part to ensure that it is known beyond the family circle. Up to now, I've spoken to you children about it only indirectly, so let me fill you in. For the record, I must add that neither you, your sister Margot, nor your brother Georg has ever really asked me about it. So I'll catch you up without getting caught up in resentment—I am allowed this little pun and have spiced up my summations with similar asides in the past.

Chodziez, the town that gave us our name, lies about one hundred kilometres north of Posen. As a brief reminder, the entire province was annexed and absorbed by Prussia during the First Partition of Poland in 1772. But our Chodziez is in the eastern half of the province, where the majority spoke Polish (and still do), so it kept its Polish name for a while. Until, approximately eighteen years after I was born, a district administrator by the name of von Colmar strongly favoured bringing the newly planned Posen-to-Schneidemühl railway line as close to Chodziez as possible. The town was thus connected to the railway, and not by a station way out in the steppe but reasonably close to the centre of our admittedly small city. To express our gratitude, the citizens decided to rename the city after the district administrator, with one tiny alteration: To differentiate ourselves from Colmar near Strasbourg, we replaced the C with a K. And that is how the city got the name which, in turn, became the name of a person. Or the nom de plume of our Gertrud, at any rate. The only thing to add is that, meanwhile, in compliance with the disgraceful Treaty of Versailles, Kolmar reverted to Chodziez and Posen to Poznan. Still, the area was Prussian for a century and a half. This had a significant impact on the appearance of the village-size town with a rectangular market square and prominently visible church.

We were actually supposed to schedule a family day in Chodziez so that a few of us could get together: your quartet of grown-up "children," plus my sister, my three brothers, and their families. Since I am one who longs for fresh air and exercise, which occasionally inspires you to ridicule, the first thing I'd have done would have been to take you to the town lake, Lake Miejskie, which is part of the Chodziez Lakeland. However, this means plenty of reeds, numerous footbridges, and dense borders of trees that mainly cause problems for fishermen. Oh, and the water lilies that grow in abundance along many shores, the ones that Gertrud loved so much. An altogether wonderful opportunity to swim, row, sail. Since there are hills in the vicinity, invariably called mountains by lowland residents, everything combines to justify the name "Switzerland of Chodziez."

I write this down in the hope—yea, the expectation—that you will insert these remarks in the chronicle. As a result, our rather rough, indeed unwieldy family name could finally acquire a bit of elegance, a certain aura.

On the other hand, my birthplace, Obersitzko, can hardly be written about in detail and is barely worth the effort. You could leave it at a simple mention. Like Posen, Obersitzko lies on the Warthe River and has about one and a half thousand residents. And it's identified with textiles, such as wool spinning and stocking manufacturing. So it's little wonder that my father, a dry goods dealer, had various products for sale that were linked to the processing of fabrics and cloth—with, in a word, sewing.

In the early days, his "store" may well have been a vendor's tray. Although it hasn't been explicitly recorded, my understanding of human nature and the world entitles me to this assumption.

You must picture my father, your Grandfather Julius, as a hardy man. A person like him was not only out and about in the bright sunshine; he set off in bad weather, too, accompanied by his dog. Otherwise, he'd have been badly out of pocket, and the family along with him. How many kilometres, how many miles must he have trekked through the province of Posen, within his own area or region, at any rate? I see him marching along, striding broadly, breathing freely, his face tanned by wind and weather. Even as I write this, I picture him on his way through the hinterlands of Obersitzko. Since he couldn't always return home, given the distances involved, I imagine he occasionally spent the night in barns, stalls, or little, sparsely furnished rooms. And he would set off again to each successive village with a box-shaped basket on his back. At the entrance to the village, he would stock and decorate the little vendor's tray in which he presented his buttons, buckles, needles, yarn, and twine. Going door-to-door, he would also occasionally offer toys that were made of wood, so that the weight didn't become burdensome.

In your eyes, I may be laying myself open to the charge of wanting to idealise a bit. But I certainly would not like to stand accused of that! So without any heckling or criticism from you, I asked myself whether Father ever had stones thrown at him or was chased by dogs on his trade routes? Whether, at the very least, people shouted spiteful things at him like "crooked-nosed, flat-footed Jew," and whether drunken village lads ever emptied his basket or dared to attack him? While he might have defended himself with his club, and the dog could have ensured that people kept a respectful distance, this might not have always done the trick. After all, a person was invariably attacked by a group in cases like this. But Father never spoke about incidents of this kind, so why should I, his son, make an issue of it?

Anyway, Father was mostly gone while I was growing up. So the chickens and ducks that ran around behind the house were all the more important to me as a child. Rabbits came with them, as well they should. Oh, and I mustn't forget the geese! Whenever I left the house via the back entrance, I passed through what amounted to a small zoo.

In the village, there was obviously a shortage of many things that we big-city folk seem to take for granted. Chief among these was medical care. There was a country doctor in town who often had to undertake long journeys in his horse and carriage. He also ran a little chemist's shop and pulled a tooth in a pinch—even our father, Julius, was not exempt from the latter. Yet there was no cure for his rheumatism. I know just how he felt at times, how much he needed a soothing remedy at the very least. There was no real protection from the dampness that affected his joints in the old familiar way on his long treks in the rain and sleet. If he ever limped as a result, it was more than likely that someone would call out to him, "Zydzie idz do Palestyny!" ("Jew, go back to Palestine!").

People have also said the same or similar things to me. But that wasn't the reason we finally left Obersitzko.

As they say here in Berlin, I was still a "young nipper" when my parents moved to Woldenberg. To simply mention the name of the town would not be helpful in this case either. We should begin with images or associations, at any rate. So I'd like to stress that Woldenberg explains my fondness for small types of settlements in close proximity to nature. Berlin is still the place where I am most professionally active. But I only feel truly at home in settlements of manageable size, perhaps with woods and water nearby.

Well then, Woldenberg is a railway stop on the Stettin-Posen line. This little city of no more than four and a half thousand residents is in the Deutsch Krone Lakeland, a region where lakes and rivers abound. Like Chodziez, the town lies directly on a lake, Woldenberg Lake. The Parish Church of Saint Mary, a Gothic brick structure, occupies the highest spot in this village of narrow lanes and little houses, though the town hall is magnificent. Linking the lakes is the Woldenberg Stream with its reeds, piers, and fishing platforms. A wooden bridge has been cut into the side of a hill above the railway line. Farther out of town, the natural surroundings are pristine and cannot be developed or cultivated because they are mostly swampy, at least at the edge of the softly flowing lakes and rivers. That's all I'll say about my second childhood home for the moment.

And the question arises as to why my parents moved there? Woldenberg is at the intersection of various trade routes. Most important, it lies on the road from Berlin to Königsberg. That's why quite a few businesspeople settled there, and cloth makers joined them. As far as that goes, it was the right environment for Chodziesner, the dry goods dealer. He gave up his vendor's tray and rented a shop. (Anyway, that's the order of events I've come up with.) In Switzerland, people would call it a haberdashery. Customers often came from afar. Whether shoulder pads or sewing needles, everything was on display, on offer. Business was good, and Father could put money aside. I was the eldest son, and this money came in handy for my education.

Speaking of education, we had one Evangelical and one Catholic school in town, and Jewish children went to the Evangelical school. Whether Evangelical or Catholic, the rod was the most important teaching aid in those days. It was quick to dance on the backs of smallholders' children, but spared the son of the goods inspector. Although most children spoke Polish, classes were conducted in German (also the official language, incidentally) by virtue of the directive from His Imperial and Royal Majesty Wilhelm II. Wongrowitz and grammar school now follow in sequence. Here, too, it may sound pretty feeble to simply mention them, so do me a favour and elaborate a bit. I don't mean for you to embellish but to explain. Readers of our chronicle will surely not be made up of Wongrowitzers for the most part. So here are a few pointers, if you don't mind.

This small city of about forty-five hundred residents lies about fifty kilometres north of Posen. It has a Cistercian monastery, district court, and humanistic grammar school. Would you like further information in encyclopaedic style? Commerce in grain and pigs, if you please.

Now you'll probably burst out laughing, but Wongrowitz also lies on a lake! Lake Durowskie is its name. It's not a large pool or pond but a lake you can sail way out on, a lake with thick woodlands on the shore opposite the little town. A small river, the Welna, runs through town and connects this lake to other lakes. They call it Wongrowitz on the Welna. This basic constellation of little towns, lakes, and forests, precisely in that sequence, has shaped me to a fair degree. This should be brought out accordingly, emphasised as a portent of things to come or how I became who I am. And this, in turn, had consequences and repercussions for Gertrud. Whoever wishes to understand her must first understand her father. For, in many respects, his eldest daughter followed in his footsteps.

Now we can prepare for the leap to Berlin. The lake and forest lad became a student. You must remain cognizant of the fact that, in those days, it was only possible for a Jew to be upwardly mobile if he left the provinces—in my case, to study jurisprudence. In terms of jurisprudence, you need not hide the fact that I turned out to be an extremely successful, highly acclaimed lawyer. A saying just occurred to me that I cannot attribute to anyone in particular: "Only nobodies are modest." I need to hide my light under a bushel about as little as my talented if not quite so successful brothers, especially not in view of the many dark circumstances and developments in recent years.

How about a few bright splashes of colour to balance out the image of your father? I can call myself as a witness here. In a letter to my sister, Rebecca, I sketched myself as a young man in my late twenties with a head of very short hair, an elegant hat, and a smart walking stick. In those days, family members liked to emphasise the fact that I looked like Kaiser Wilhelm: similar build, hairstyle, and moustache. When I cycled through Grunewald, children saw me as the kaiser on a bicycle. If I went out riding, people called after me, "The kaiser, the kaiser!" And it wasn't only children who noticed the resemblance. There was a series about "Famous Lookalikes" in a magazine, which I'll look up for you sometime, and there we were, pictured side by side: Kaiser Wilhelm II and the renowned defence counsel Ludwig Chodziesner.

At the same time, I should emphasise how we differed. For as long he was emperor, Wilhelm II especially liked to be driven around in an automobile. But, as you know, I look down on autos as parvenu vehicles. For me, the most beautiful form of rapid transport takes place on the back of a horse, provided I don't take the train. Just a passing remark.

I am coming to the end of my comments for today. For thirty years, I was a partner in Max Wronker's local law practice. And, by the way, he is also from Posen. I may rightly report that I quickly made a name for myself as a powerful speaker in the courtroom.

The question immediately comes up as to why I became a lawyer and not a judge? Social conventions and circumstances were to blame. The legal system was already rife with antisemitism at the beginning of the century. I would call myself a Reform Jew or, more pointedly, an assimilated "holiday Jew." It is still typical for holiday Jews to appear in synagogue only on the High Holidays. Of course, people in Wilhelmine society hardly ever made subtle distinctions, such as "religious Jews" and "non-Aryan Christians." A Jew was a Jew and remained a Jew; baptized or not, the nose remained. To a great extent, Jews were barred from holding judicial office. So the only possibility open to me after studying law was to set myself up as a lawyer.

If I were you, I would stress an important distinction. Most jurists come from relatively well-to-do families, from a liberal, upper-middle-class milieu. The fact that the son of a Jewish small-business owner became an eminent lawyer, and the fact that my brothers also became lawyers, may allow us draw conclusions about how energetically we Chodziesners literally worked our way up.

This was finally acknowledged outwardly by the office of the joint practice and presented on the letterhead as follows: "Max Wronker, Lawyer and Notar; Ludwig Chodziesner, Lawyer; Kaiser-Wilhelmstrasse 49, Corner Burg-Str." If you'll forgive me for saying so, we were soon considered the king and viceroy of criminal defence in Berlin.

Excerpted from Gertrud Kolmar by Dieter Kühn, Linda Marianiello, Franz Vote. Copyright © 2008 work of Gertrud Kolmar: Suhrkamp Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dieter Kühn has received countless awards for his novels, short stories, biographies, and radio plays, including the Hermann Hesse Prize and the Literature Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts.

Linda Marianiello is an experienced translator of literary biography, belles lettres, and music.

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