Kolmar, Gertrud (1894–1943)
Kolmar, Gertrud (1894–1943)
"Poet of women and animals," gifted linguist, and writer whose works, mostly unknown at the time of her death, now identify her as one of the best German poets of the 20th century. Name variations: Gertrud Chodziesner. Born Gertrud Chodziesner on December 10, 1894, in Berlin; died after being sent to Auschwitz in 1943 (her date of death unrecorded); daughter of a prominent attorney in a wealthy German-Jewish family; studied linguistics after completion of high school; never married; no children.
Worked as a translator for the Foreign Office during World War I and published Gedichte, a volume of poetry (1917); tutored sick and handicapped children while continuing to write poetry (1920s–30s); removed to Berlin ghetto (1939); was sent to Auschwitz (February 1943).
Gedichte (1917); Preussisch Wappen (Prussian Arms, c. 1918).
Gertrud Kolmar, Germany's "poet of women and animals," perished in Auschwitz in 1943. The power and beauty of her poetry outlived the evil that destroyed her.
Born on December 10, 1894, in Berlin, Gertrud Chodziesner was the eldest of four children in a typical upper-class German-Jewish family; they considered themselves German first and Jewish second. Her father was a well-to-do lawyer, and the Chodziesners' wealth allowed them to own an estate with large gardens, the spacious Villa Finkenkrug in the Brandenburg area, where the children spent a great deal of time. Gertrud loved animals and nature and felt a strong affinity for the Brandenburg peasantry and the fishermen who worked on the many lakes of the region.
After completing high school in 1911, Gertrud decided to study foreign language and literature. She soon proved a gifted linguist, fluent in French, English, and Russian, and was also interested in history, especially in Robespierre and the French Revolution. During World War I, she worked in the German foreign office as a translator and interpreter, as well as with prisoners of war; she also experienced an unhappy love affair. It is uncertain when she began to write poetry, but a volume of her verse, Gedichte, was published in 1917. As a poet, she used the last name Kolmar, the name of the city from which her father came.
In the postwar period, Kolmar became a teacher and private tutor, specializing in the education of deaf-mute, sick, or handicapped children. After her mother died in 1930, she took care of her aging father. Living in seclusion, detached from the literary mainstream, she has been compared to American poet Emily Dickinson . Kolmar was influenced more by the natural world than by current literary fads, and her poems repeat none of the modish psychology so popular at the time as poetic themes. Describing the dark forests and landscapes inhabited by animals, she wrote as if from their inner experience. At times her poems appear closer to ballads than poetry, while some echo the work of Walt Whitman. In many, there appears to be a demonism at work, a feature considered unusual in the poetry of women. In her "Metamorphoses," for instance, she identifies with the feelings of a bat:
Oh, man, I dream your blood; my bite is death.
I'll claw into your hair and suck your breath.
Kolmar's frank expression of female sexuality is unprecedented for a woman writer of her time. Born in the late 19th century, when society's taboo-ridden moral code barely admitted to female sexual desire, she lived an extremely reserved life, and yet her poetry reflects a furious power elevated to a high plane of poetic art, unimpeded by feminine delicacy. Consider her poem "Troglodyte":
Nude, I crouch on taloned toes
Sharpened red on rendered meat;
In the reeds of swampy groves
I hide hunted and in heat.…
Suddenly, with howling moans
Out I leap from mud and weeds,
Claws and body dragging down
A wanderer who lost his way.…
Gasping, I devour my prey.
Kolmar's second book of poems, Preussisch Wappen (Prussian Arms), appeared at the end of the war. During the 1920s, she wrote furiously but did not publish much. Many of her poems were love poems and have been compared with the Biblical Song of Solomon. Being childless was one of Kolmar's great regrets and on numerous occasions she addressed the mother-child relationship, especially the mother who has lost her child, with poignancy. "Madness" reflects this theme:
The night outside the door, the cradle void.
And rocking it, a woman, pallid-faced,
With stringy hair as black and thick as tar,
and in her heart there gathers gray on gray.…
After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, his National Socialist Party espoused anti-Semitic beliefs that gradually brought the world as German Jews knew it to an end. Initially, however, few took the party's anti-Semitism seriously, including many Jews. The language of hate had been used before. For many both inside and outside Germany, Hitler represented economic stability and an alternative to communism. But when the Nuremberg laws were implemented in September 1935, declaring that citizenship in the Third Reich was determined by blood and forbidding marriage between Aryans and Jews, many members of Kolmar's family, including all her siblings, left Germany. Many Jews also chose to stay in Germany, however, since it was the only country they knew, and Kolmar remained behind with her father, who was old and frail. During their first years in power, the Nazis were sensitive to world opinion. For example, when the Olympic Games were held in 1936 in Berlin, the International Olympic Committee successfully pressured the Nazis to accept Jewish athletes on German teams. There was a lull in the country's anti-Semitic propaganda during the Olympics, which encouraged the belief that Hitler's regime would moderate or fail. There was some rationale for this thinking. A great deal of evidence points to the fact that although the German populace supported Nazi economic policies they were largely uninterested in the Jewish question. For its part, the National Socialist Party was not of one mind in this regard. Many "moderates" in the party wished to force immigration on the Jews while the more militant felt the entire race should be exterminated.
Unknown to average Germans, however, the Nazi regime had begun to gear up for war, and the extremist wing of the party felt that the Jewish question must be settled before the war was under way. In the late 1930s, there was still no mass extermination of Jews, but by this time German leftists and dissidents had perished in concentration camps. The Jewish question became more important after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, because an additional 200,000 Jews were thereby added to the Third Reich. On November 9, 1938, Nazi extremists were dealt a favorable hand when a Polish Jewish student in Paris, Hershel Grynszpan, shot a bureaucrat in the German embassy to protest the deportation of Polish Jews from Germany to Poland. The murder became the Nazis' excuse for organizing a pogrom, the infamous Kristallnacht ("Night of the Broken Glass"), in which Storm Troopers and other thugs throughout Germany attacked Jews and destroyed their property. At this point, Kolmar's life and the lives of many Jews were changed forever. New laws required the sale of Villa Finkenkrug and forced Kolmar and her father to move from their large house and beautiful gardens into a shabby apartment in Berlin's Jewish ghetto, where other families soon joined them in sharing the small cramped flat. Kolmar was assigned to work long hours in a state factory and wrote to her sister, Hilde:
It seems to me that things are changing their face and shape today with a furious swiftness … and what once took years or decades to change now needs only a few days. And meanwhile I've withdrawn deeper and deeper into the lasting, the existing, that which happens eternally (this does not have to be only "religion," it can also be "nature," can also be "love").
Never having considered herself anything but German, Kolmar was forced to examine her identity because of the actions of the Nazis. In 1940, she began studying Hebrew, perhaps as a way of reclaiming her heritage. Because letters were censored, she could not refer directly to her daily experiences. What is clear in another letter to Hilde is her exploration of her own inner landscape:
The day before yesterday I was walking along Martin-Luther-Strasse and Neue Winterfeldstrasse, which I don't know very well. I suddenly realized with some bewilderment that contrary to my usual custom I hadn't really noticed the houses, the shops, or the people I encountered at all. "Be observant and pay attention," I commanded myself. Good. But five minutes later I stopped "seeing" again, and my gaze once more turned inward, as it were, like a day-dreaming and inattentive pupil in school. Soon we'll have been here for six months, and I simply can't establish a relationship—bearable or unbearable—with this neighbourhood. I'm as alien here as I was on the first day.
In a long letter written on Christmas Eve 1941, she wrote to her sister about an unconsummated love affair with a factory worker half her age. In the account, illusion and reality are difficult to separate, perhaps indicating a survival mechanism as circumstances grew increasingly grim.
On January 20, 1942, the Wannsee Conference was held (named after a Berlin suburb) and, not far from where Kolmar was writing and dreaming, her fate and that of the vast majority of other German Jews was decided by Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Müller, Adolf Eichmann and others. The fine points of "final solution" were conceptualized according to a simple basic plan: those Jews who could work would be worked to death; all others—the elderly, children, the handicapped—would be annihilated. Since the Einsatzgruppen, or mobile death squads, had already found individual killing tedious and demoralizing in the course of exterminating 1.4 million in the East, the plan heretofore was to use modern mechanized methods for the eradication of 11 million people. Soon the European ghettos began to be emptied into concentration and death camps, where rations were kept at starvation levels, prisoners who could work were often allowed no more than five hours' rest, and a lack of sanitation combined with starvation and exhaustion led to many deaths. Those who did not die in these ways were to be gassed and cremated.
Many Germans did not know what was happening to the Jews, only that they were being "resettled" in the East. The Nazis maintained the polite fiction that old people were being sent to rest homes and younger ones were being relocated, but from 1933 to 1945 a quarter of a million Germans (mostly German Jews), on average, were being imprisoned by the Nazis every year, and inquiries of any kind were considered foolhardy. The rest of the world remained ignorant or incredulous. For example, Kolmar's sister Hilde knew that both Kolmar and her father had been "relocated." Their father was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp, five months before Kolmar went to Auschwitz, in late February 1943. A letter by Kolmar written in December 1942 suggests that she knew for some time the
end that awaited her: "I will also step up to accept my fate, be it high as a tower, black as a cloud." In her last letters and poems, written after midnight or before five in the morning despite her exhausting factory work, she raised a cry for justice. "Oh that I could raise my voice like a flaming torch in the dark desert of the world!"
No one knows when Gertrud Kolmar died. No one knows whether she was worked to death or gassed. But in 1943 all letters and poems to her sister ceased. After the war, Hilde arranged for the publication of the letters and poems that have ensured Gertrud Kolmar a place among Germany's greatest 20th-century poets. One wonders how poetry could come from such a time.
Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. London: Franklin Watts, 1982.
Blumenthal, Bernhardt G. "Gertrud Kolmar: Love's Service to the Earth," in The German Quarterly. Vol. 42. September 1969, pp. 485–488.
Eben, Michael C. "Gertrud Kolmar," in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 40. Edited by Paula Kepos and Laurie DiMauro. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1991, pp. 173–187.
——. "Gertrud Kolmar: An Appraisal," in German Life and Letters. Vol. 37, no. 3. April 1984, pp. 197–210.
Kolmar, Gertrud. Dark Soliloquy: The Selected Poems of Gertrud Kolmar. Translated by Henry A. Smith. NY: The Seabury Press, 1975.
Langer, Lawrence L. "Survival Through Art: The Career of Gertrud Kolmar," in Leo Baeck Institute Year Book. Vol. 23. London: Secker and Warburg, 1978, pp. 247–258.
Langman, Erika. "The Poetry of Gertrud Kolmar," in Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies. Vol. 14, no. 1. February 1978, pp. 117–132.
Picard, Jacob. "Gertrud Kolmar: The Woman and the Beasts," in Commentary. Vol. 10, no. 5. November 1950, pp. 459–465.
Ryback, Timothy W. "Evidence of Evil," in The New Yorker. Vol. 59, no. 38. November 15, 1993, pp. 68–81.
Shafi, Monika. "'Mein Ruf ist dünn und leicht' Zur Weiblichkeitsdarstellung in Gertrud Kolmars Zyklus 'Weibliches Bildnis,'" in The Germanic Review. Vol. 66, no. 2. Spring 1991, pp. 81–88.
Young, Gloria. "The Poetry of the Holocaust," in Holocaust Literature. A Handbook of Critical, Historical, and Literary Writings. Edited by Saul S. Friedman. CT: Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 547–574.
Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia