1894 – 1943
In a letter of July 1941, Gertrud Kolmar writes to her sister Hilde: “I am a poet, yes, that much I know; but I never want to be a writer.” The German-Jewish author considered poetry a more spiritual and superior form of writing that allowed for a revelation of spiritual beliefs and personal growth. Kolmar published three collections of poetry during her lifetime, primarily detailing the experiences of women as mothers, childless women, lovers, mourners, travelers and the persecuted. Kolmar’s later poems voice the outrage and powerlessness experienced by persecuted German-Jews during the Shoah by revealing the unspeakable and the unthinkable through symbolic imagery. Her poems of staggering sadness are transcended by a hope for humanity that enables readers to value her work more than a half century later. Because Kolmar’s work reveals the tension between her identification with the German literary culture and her outrage against German antisemitism, her poetry can be read in the context of other German-Jewish writers, such as Else Lasker-Schüler, Nelly Sacks, and Rose Ausländer, whose Jewish heritage was a focal point of their work.
Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner was born in Berlin on December 10, 1894 into an assimilated German-Jewish family. Her father Ludwig Chodziesner (1860/1–1941), a loyal monarchist, worked as a criminal lawyer. Her mother Elise (Schönflies) Chodziesner came from an intellectual mercantile family. Kolmar was the oldest of four children: Margot (b. 1897), George (b. 1900), and Hilde (b. 1905), to whom Kolmar grew especially close. Kolmar would later take her pseudonym from the German name of the town Chodziez in the province of Posen (Poznan), where her father’s family originated. According to Hilde the family, who did not practice traditional Jewish rituals, accepted her own marriage to the non-Jewish book dealer Peter Wenzel. Hilde also stated that her parents would never have changed their name nor would they have been baptized as was common practice at this time. She later stated that she associated her Jewishness only with her father’s mother, Johanna.
Kolmar grew up in a family that loved to read and write, perform plays and read prose at the dinner table. Although her father had published short stories in the local paper Kolmar was apprehensive about making her own writing public. She had no ties to the literary community of Berlin even though she had written fictional works since her childhood and her family welcomed such interactions. Kolmar was shy and would not often share her written works or ideas, instead hiding her works in a brown starch crate. She considered herself “a simple, unliterary person,” “who had never experienced the artistic struggles of other poets,” yet who fought to be strong and committed to personal growth, as she wrote in a letter to Jacob Picard (1883–1967).
From 1901 to 1911 Kolmar attended a private girls’ grammar school, continuing her studies at a women’s agricultural and home economics school in Arvershof near Leipzig. She worked at a public kindergarten and studied Russian before receiving a teaching degree as a French and English language instructor and military interpreter in 1916. The following year Kolmar had her first and bitterly disappointing love affair, during which she became pregnant. Her parents forced her to have an abortion—surely a traumatic event at a time when abortions were illegal in Germany, which may explain Kolmar’s focus on childless women and mother figures in her poetry.
According to Hilde, it was their father who first urged Kolmar to publish her book of poetry Im Herbst (In Autumn) in 1917. In 1936 three of Kolmar’s poems were published in a journal of the Jewish Book Club (Jüdische Buchvereinigung). In 1938 Kolmar’s collection of poems, written ten years earlier, Die Frau und die Tiere (The Woman and the Beasts) was published by the Jewish Publishing Company Erwin Loewe (Jüdische Buchverlag Erwin Loewe). It is unclear whether all six thousand members received their printed copies, since the book appeared only two months before the publishing house was forced to shut down during the November 1938 pogrom. In response to reviews of her poetry Kolmar wrote to Hilde that their father was happier than she was by the review stating that she was the most important Jewish poet since Else Lasker-Schüler. In other letters to Hilde, Kolmar commented on the act of writing, associating the process of writing as being like giving birth after an overdue pregnancy. Kolmar also described suffering from headaches which she referred to as “hangovers” following a night of writing poetry. In her autobiographical poem of 1930, Die Dichterin (The Woman Poet), Kolmar pleads with the reader to respect her fragility: “My heart beats like that of a little bird/In your fist. You who read this, take care;/For see, you turn the page of a person./ Though for you it is only made of cardboard” (“Mein Herz wie eines kleinen Vogels schlägt/ In deiner Faust. Der du dies liest, gib acht;/ Denn sieh, du blätterst einen Menschen um./ Doch ist er dir aus Pappe nur gemacht”).
Kolmar’s feelings of isolation and alienation are evident in her poems concerning salvation, justice, and metamorphosis, which feature animals and female figures. Although her works are atypical of the expressionist style of her time and have instead been likened to the poetry of French Symbolists such as Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), she can be considered a modernist due to her poetry’s dark themes of madness and her use of a non-traditional and individualistic language. Her impassioned lyrical writings are comprised of both carefully constructed rhymes and melodic free verse that transform everyday objects and situations into visionary and mystical images. Her poetry cycles about Napoleon and Robespierre are historical portraits, while the fifty-four poems Alte Stadtwappen (Old Municipal Coats of Arms) demonstrate her identification with the Prussian provinces of her German homeland.
At the end of World War I, Kolmar served as governess and teacher in private households. In 1927 she took a summer course at the University of Dijon, where she graduated with a teaching degree, achieving the highest honors ever given to a foreign student. After her mother fell terminally ill in 1928, Kolmar returned to Finkenkrug, running the household and caring for her mother until her death in 1930. She then took over her mother’s position in the household, became her father’s notary assistant, and focused on her own writing. Kolmar’s experiences of isolation and loneliness as a woman and Jew are expressed vividly in the poetry she wrote during this time of growing antisemitism. In Die Jüdin (The Jewess), published in Blätter der jüdischen Buchvereinigung in Berlin in 1936, Kolmar expresses her longing to rediscover the Jewish heritage from which she feels removed: “I wish to set up an expedition to my own ancient land.” A Jewish widow complains of her child’s mistreatment by National Socialist children in the 1933 poem “Die jüdische Mutter.” From 1930 to 1931 Kolmar wrote her only novel, Die jüdische Mutter (The Jewish Mother), which first appeared in 1965, under the shortened title Eine Mutter (A Mother) and then again in 1978 with the altered title Eine jüdische Mutter (A Jewish Mother). In the novel the Jewish mother Martha Wolg discovers that her five-year old daughter Ursa has been raped and will not recover from her severe physical and psychological trauma. Ending her daughter’s life by administering poison, the mother searches for the rapist out of a desire for revenge but takes her own life when she realizes that she is in fact her child’s murderer. In Kolmar’s short story Susanna (1940), the first-person narrator, an aging Jewish woman who is the governess of the depressed teen-aged Susanna, confesses: “I didn’t know Judaism, my faith” and regards the Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of the town, where the Eastern European Jewish inhabitants speak Yiddish-German, as a foreign world. Kolmar’s dramatic works from this period, Cecile Renault (1935) and Nacht (1938), have not been published.
The letters in which Kolmar describes the Diaspora as an unavoidable fate of the Jews have been the subject of much controversy. In a letter of October 26, 1941 to Suse Jung in Düsseldorf, Kolmar writes that “she will not be unhappy or exasperated by what may come, because she knows that she is going the path set by herself and that she is willing to go on this preordained ‘journey.’” In one of her last letters to Hilde, Kolmar views her persecution as penance for previous sins: “But I knew that I didn’t live as I should have, and was always prepared to pay for it. And all the suffering that came over me and that may come over me I will take on as penance and it will be just. I will carry it without complaints and will somehow discover that it is what belongs to me, that I was created to endure it and somehow to survive it.”
In 1938, as the antisemitic political and social climate became intolerable for Kolmar, she made plans to escape Nazi persecution by emigrating to England to work as a governess. Her sister Hilde Wenzel emigrated to Switzerland in 1938. That same year Kolmar and her father were forced to sell their house in Finkenburg and move to a so-called “Jewish house” in Berlin-Schöneberg. Despite terrible living conditions Kolmar continued her writing, including Susanna, which she wrote out of a sense of her own powerlessness. In her effort to escape persecution Kolmar also sent her resumé to her uncle Fritz Crzellitzer, who had emigrated to Palestine. In 1940 Kolmar began to study Hebrew, in part because she hoped to emigrate to Palestine, and wrote prose in this language, also translating a poem by Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873–1934) into German, as stated in letters sent to her sister. However, she was unable to leave Germany since proof of employment was necessary in order to receive a visa for Palestine. In mid-1941 Kolmar was forced to work at an arms factory. Her eighty-one-year-old father’s dependence on her led her to remain with him until his deportation to Theresienstadt in September 1942, where he died the following year. Kolmar was arrested by the SS on February 27, 1943 and deported on March 2, 1943 with the “eastern transport” to Auschwitz. It can be assumed that at the time of her arrest and deportation the Nazis destroyed her personal papers, letters, and documents. The exact date of Kolmar’s death is unknown.
Kolmar’s surviving work consists of four hundred and fifty poems, three plays, and two short stories that exist as manuscripts or typoscripts. Although much of her work has been published, some of it is also held at the Gertrud Kolmar archives in Marbach, Germany. A three-page resumé and a series of letters to her lawyer Jacob Picard from 1937 to 1939 and to her sister from 1938 to 1943 make up her non-literary writings. Her most poignant letters are those written between 1939 and 1943 to her sister and her niece Sabine in which Kolmar wrote of her suffering under antisemitism. Two surviving letters from 1934 were written to her cousin Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), who described the geographic landscape of Kolmar’s childhood in the Berlin of assimilated Jews in his Berliner Kindheit um 1900 (Childhood in Berlin around 1900). Shortly after the November pogrom, Kolmar had begun sending her most treasured writings to her sister in Switzerland and giving other manuscripts to her brother-in-law, Peter Wenzel (divorced from Hilde in 1942), and to Hilde Benjamin, the wife of her cousin Walter’s brother. After the war Peter Wenzel wrote to various publishing companies, writers, and critics so that a collection of her manuscripts, which he had sent around the world to friends in order to save them from destruction, would be published. Wenzel’s contact with Peter Suhrkamp (1891–1959) led to the posthumous publication of poems Welten (Worlds) in 1947. A second and larger poetry collection was planned for the following year but could not be completed due to a lack of interest and therefore lack of funding. In 1955 Kolmar’s readership grew with poems from her posthumous collection Das lyrische Werk (The Lyrical Work), which was expanded and reprinted in 1960.
What little is known of Kolmar’s biography can be viewed in sharp contrast to the rich spiritual life made evident in her poetry. It is in the poems that the internal and intimate self rather than the external everyday existence is revealed. In the context of the process referred to as “coming to terms with one’s past” and a renewed appreciation for Kolmar’s work, the poet—as she wished to be identified—has reached an international audience which responds to the powerful attraction of her writing. Renewed interest in Kolmar’s work was sparked by the publication of her poems in 1955 and again in 1993 with a new edition of the short story Susanna. Translations of her work and biographies, primarily in the context of feminist criticism, have fueled Kolmar’s popularity since the 1990s. Kolmar’s work is a vehicle for readers of the early twenty-first century to come to terms with the events of World War II and the Shoah, as well as for German-Jewish identity through reflection and remembrance.
Die Frau und die Tiere. Berlin: 1938; Gedichte. Berlin: 1917; Preussische Wappen. Berlin: 1934.
Brandt, Marion, ed. “Gertrud Kolmar an Jacob Picard: Briefe aus den Jahren 1937–1939.” In Jüdischer Almanach 1995 des Leo-Baeck-Instituts, edited by J. Hessing, 141–149. Frankfurt a. M.: 1994; “Das Bildnis Robespierre.” In Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft. edited by Johanna Zeitler, 553–580. Volume IX, 1965; “Susanna.” In Das leere Haus. Prosa jüdischer Dichter. Edited by Karl Otten, 293–336. Stuttgart: 1959; Briefe. edited by Johanna Woltmann. Göttingen: 1997; Dark Soliloqui: The Selected Poems of Gertrud Kolmar. edited by Henry A. Smith. New York: 1975; Das lyrische Werk. Munich: 1955/1963; Eine jüdische Mutter. Berlin: 1981; Eine jüdische Mutter. Edited by Friedhelm Kemp. Munich: 1978; Eine Mutter. Munich: 1965; Frühe Gedichte (1917–1922)/Wort der Stummen (1933). Edited by Johanna Woltmann-Zeitler. Munich: 1980; Selected Poems. Edited by David Kipp and trans. London: 1970; Susanna. Edited by Thomas Sparr. Frankfurt a. M.: 1993; Weibliches Bildnis. Sämtliche Gedichte. Munich: 1987; Welten. Auswahl und Nachwort von Hermann Kasack. Berlin: 1947; Woltmann-Zeitler, Johanna, ed. Briefe an die Schwester Hilde 1938–1943. Munich: 1970.
Brandt, Marion. Schweigen ist ein Ort der Antwort. Berlin: 1993; Eichmann-Leutenegger, B., ed. Gertrud Kolmar. Leben und Werk in Texten und Bildern. Frankfurt a. M.: 1993; Jäger, Gudrun. Gertrud Kolmar. Publikations- und Rezeptionsgeschichte. Campus Judaica, Volume 12. Frankfurt/New York: 1998; Kambas, Chryssoula, ed. Lyrische Bildnisse: Beiträge zu Dichtung und Biographie von Gertrud Kolmar. Bielefeld: 1998.
In this engaging collection of essays about the poetry and biography of Kolmar, Anja Colwig’s article, “Eine jüdische Mutter: Erzähltes Berlin, deutsches Judentum,” is noteworthy.
Kunisch, Hermann. “Gertrud Kolmar.” In Handbuch der deutschen Gegenwartsliteratur. Munich: 1965.
Lindemann, K., ed. Widerstehen im Wort. Studien zu den Dichtungen Gertrud Kolmars. Göttingen: 1996.
Müller, Heidy Margrit, ed. Klangkristalle Rubinene Lieder: Studien zur Lyrik Gertrud Kolmars. Bern: 1996.
von Arx, Katia. “Gertrud Kolmar als Dichterin der Moderne. Eine Interpretation der Gedichte ‘Verwandlungen’ und ‘Wahn.’”
This article is one of many important contributions in this volume concerning Kolmar’s poetry.
Shafi, Monika. Gertrud Kolmar. Eine Einführung in das Werk. München: 1995.
Sparr, Thomas. “Gertrud Kolmar.” Metzler-Lexikon der deutsch-jüdischen Literatur: jüdische Autorinnen und Autoren deutscher Sprache von der Aufklärung bis zur Gegenwart. Edited by Andreas Kilcher. Stuttgart: 2000.
Woltmann, Johanna, ed. “Gertrud Kolmar, 1894–1993.” Katalog Marbacher Magazine 63 (1993).
Gertrud Kolmar-Leben und Werk. Göttingen: 1995.
Blumenthal, Bernhardt, ed. “Love’s Service to the Earth.” The German Quarterly 42 (1969): 485–488.
Frantz, Barbara C. Gertrud Kolmar’s Prose. New York: 1997.
Langer, Lawrence. “Gertrud Kolmar and Nelly Sachs: Bright Visions and Songs of Lamentation.” In Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit (1982): 191–250.
Langer, Lawrence. “Survival through Art: The Career of Gertrud Kolmar.” Year Book des Leo-Baeck-Instituts 23 (1973): 247–258.
Langman, Erika. “The Poetry of Gertrud Kolmar.” Seminar: A Journal of German Studies 14 (1978): 117–132.
Lorenz, Dagmar C. G. “The Unspoken Bond: Else Lasker-Schüler and Gertrud Kolmar in their Historical and Cultural Context.” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 4 (1993): 349–369.
Picard, Jacob. “Gertrud Kolmar: The Women and the Beasts. ‘I’ Am Going the Way I Have Chosen to Go…” Commentary 10 (1950): 459–465.
“Gertrud Kolmar’s Reminiscences.” Jewish Frontier 3 (1960): 15.
Smith, Henry A. “Gertrud Kolmar’s Life and Works.” Gertrud Kolmar: Orte. (1994): 129–137.
Zohn, Henry. “The Poetry of Gertrud Kolmar.” The Jewish Quarterly 24, no. 1–2 (1976): 26–28.