Kolmar, Gertrud

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KOLMAR, Gertrud

Pseudonym for Gertrude Chodziesner. Nationality: German. Born: Berlin, 10 December 1894; cousin of Walter Benjamin. Education: Obtained diploma to teach English and French. Career: Language teacher in private homes, primarily in Berlin and Hamburg, beginning in 1919. Died: Presumed murdered, Auschwitz, 1943.



Selected Poems of Gertrud Kolmar. 1970.

Weibliches Bildnis: Sämtliche Gedichte. 1980.


Gedichte … 1917.

Welten. 1947.

Das lyrische Werk. 1955; as Dark Soliloquy: The Selected Poems of Gertrud Kolmar, 1975.

Tag-und Tierträume: Gedichte von Gertrud Kolmar. 1963.

Die Kerze von Arras: Ausgewählte Gedichte. 1968.

Das Wort der Stummen: Nachgelassene Gedichte. 1978.

Frühe Gedichte: (1917-22); Wort der Stummen: (1933). 1980.

Gedichte. 1983.


Eine Mutter. 1978; translated as A Jewish Mother from Berlin and published with Susanna, 1997.

Susanna (novella). 1993; translated as Susanna and published with A Jewish Mother from Berlin, 1997.


Briefe an die Schwester Hilde (1938-1943) (correspondence). 1970.


Critical Studies:

"The Poetry of Gertrud Kolmar" by Erika Langman, in Seminar, 14, 1978, pp. 117-32; "Gertrud Kolmar: An Appraisal" by Michael C. Eben, in German Life and Letters, 37(3), April 1984, pp. 196-210; "The Unspoken Bond: Else Lasker-Schuler and Gertrud Kolmar in Their Historical and Cultural Context," in Seminar, 29(4), November 1993, pp. 349-69, and "More Than Metaphors: Animals, Gender, and Jewish Identity in Gertrud Kolmar," in Transforming the Center, Eroding the Margins: Essays on Ethnic and Cultural Boundaries in German-Speaking Countries, edited by Dagmar C.G. Lorenz and Renate S. Posthofen, 1998, both by Dagmar C.G. Lorenz; "Gertrud Kolmar (1894-1943): German-Jewish Poetess" by Brigitte M. Goldstein, in Modern Judaism, 15, October 1995, pp. 265-77; "1932 Gertrud Kolmar Completes Her Poetry Cycle Weibliches Bildnis and Thus Reshapes Her Identity As a Jewish Woman Poet" by John Bormanis, in Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture, 1096-1996, edited by Sander L. Gilman and Zack Zipes, 1997; "Reconsidering Gertrud Kolmar through the Cycle 'German Sea,"' in Transforming the Center, Eroding the Margins: Essays on Ethnic and Cultural Boundaries in German-Speaking Countries, edited by Dagmar C.G. Lorenz and Renate S. Posthofen, 1998, and "Gertrud Kolmar (1894-1943) Germany," in Women Writers in German-Speaking Countries: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Elke P. Frederiksen and Elizabeth G. Ametsbichler, 1998, both by Monika Shafi; "Narrative Witnessing As Memory Work: Reading Gertrud Kolmar's A Jewish Mother " by Irene Kacandes, in Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, edited by Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer, 1999.

* * *

Gertrud Kolmar, who has been frequently compared to Else Lasker-Schüler and Nobel Prize winner Nelly Sachs , is not generally characterized as a writer of Holocaust literature. There were no extant mentions of death camps in surviving works or letters—perhaps because she knew that these would not pass censorship, perhaps because she did not know the full extent of the Final Solution until she was deported in February 1943 to Auschwitz, where she presumably died soon after arrival. Her poem cycle Words of the Silent was written in September and October 1933. These poems chronicle her experience of the early days of National Socialism in Germany and exhibit an extensive knowledge of the conditions in the early concentration camps and "special prisons" in the Berlin vicinity in 1933, as well as Kolmar's uncanny foresight of events to come.

Kolmar's relatives could not convince her to leave Germany, but not because she was blind to the danger of staying. Her attempts to save her literary works, entrusting multiple copies to relatives who did emigrate, suggest that she was cognizant of her situation. The last major work saved was Susanna, a novella written during 1940-41, whose narrator is a Jewish governess waiting for an affidavit that will permit her to emigrate. Kolmar remained in Germany partly to care for her ailing, elderly father, but primarily out of the sense that this was her destiny as a Jew and it would be weakness to try to deny or escape it. After Jewish emigration was forbidden in 1941, Kolmar wrote to a relative: "No matter what comes, I will not despair or be unhappy, because I know that I am travelling the path that is my destiny. So many of us have taken this road over the centuries, why should I want to take a different one?" (all translations by Elizabeth Loentz). For Kolmar submission was empowering: "I will submit to my destiny, be it high as a tower, dark and threatening as a cloud … I know that I haven't lived as I should and have always been ready to atone. I will accept all suffering as just penance, and bear it without complaint, realizing that it is part of me, that I was born to bear it, and that I am capable of bearing it" (letter to Hilde, 15 December 1942). The problematic notion expressed here, that anti-Semitism and Nazi persecution were just punishment for an individual's or collective sins, was tempered in Kolmar's poems. In the "Jewish Mother," the child suffers innocently. The sins he bears are those of his oppressors, hypocrites, who "nod to what the preacher says, and then go out and kick this soul like an animal." The poem "We Jews" rewards innocents' suffering with the promise of justice in the future, "Cast yourselves among the lowly, be weak, embrace your suffering. Until some day your weary walking shoes will walk on the necks of the mighty."

While the above-mentioned poems address the Jewish situation in particular, other poems in the cycle convey Kolmar's solidarity with other persecuted groups. The lyrical I of "The Abused" is a (Christian-raised) atheist, socialist male. Numerous poems rely heavily on Christian imagery. In "In the Camp" Christ is ever-present, wordlessly dragging his cross to the place of execution. In the ironically titled "Anno Domini 1933" Christ appears, visibly Jewish, to indict "Christian" Germans for poisoning their children with hate. The accused reject his warnings: "You dress up like Jesus Christ, but you're just a Jewish communist." The poem concludes with an analogy between Christ's crucifixion and the persecution of Jews in the "Third, Christian-German Reich."

A common theme of several poems in "Words of the Silent" is the dehumanization of victims of Nazi oppression. In "The Jewish Mother" the child is "kicked like an animal." In "The Prisoners" the prisoners are "like livestock" waiting for the knife. They are without heart or soul, "only bodies," "only names." It should be noted that Kolmar did not subscribe to a hierarchy that valued human over animal life. Being soul-less is not an attribute of animals but of animals that have been robbed of their souls by humans. As the woman in "The Jewish Mother" chastises, "Well-meaning people don't kick animals." Identification with animals and human outcasts is a common theme throughout Kolmar's oeuvre, especially in the poem cycles "Image of a Woman" and "Animal Dreams" and in Susanna, whose title figure is considered deranged in large part because she lives in a rich fantasy world that does not distinguish between animals and humans.

In "To the Prisoners" and "We Jews" Kolmar explores the poet's responsibility to combat injustice. This role requires strong empathy with the persecuted. In "To the Prisoners" the poet "I" exclaims, "Oh, I should be with you, crawling on wet stone, cramped, beaten, hungry, lice-ridden, bound in iron shackles." As someone who knows their suffering, the poet must be their voice, and "raise [her] voice like a glowing torch in the dark desert of the world: Justice! Justice! Justice!" ("We Jews"). Kolmar knew that this role was a perilous one. The poet "I" of "To the Prisoners" is certain that she will become one of them, "Because if they find this page, they will arrest me."

—Elizabeth Loentz

See the essay on Dark Soliloquy: The Selected Poems of Gertrud Kolmar.

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Kolmar, Gertrud

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