Esther Dischereit’s childhood and indeed her entire life were marked by her mother’s survival in hiding together with a daughter, born in 1937, from her first marriage. After the war, her mother married a German physician and had two daughters, of whom Esther, born in 1952 in Heppenheim in southern Hesse, was the younger. Her parents divorced when Esther was seven and the children lived with their mother, who saw to it that they were instructed in Jewish religion and customs. They attended Hebrew School at the Jewish Community in Darmstadt, participating in the Holiday held on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (on the 15th day in Jerusalem) to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people in the Persian empire from a plot to eradicate them.Purim plays, and on Friday evenings an Orthodox rabbi came to their home. When Esther was fourteen her mother died and the children lived with the father and his new family, including a half-brother and half-sister, in a small town in northern Hesse. Esther developed rapidly. She completed gymnasium (high school) in record time and attended university briefly, “fleeing” from it because there were “too many superfluous words” (Gelebte Zeit…, 144). After getting a degree in education she wanted to become a teacher since “children are all that counted for me” (Übungen jüdisch…, 199). Her first book was a children’s book. But she had come of age with the rebellious generation of 1968 and had been active in the “red cells.” This precluded a career in a public school. She apprenticed as a typesetter and worked for several years in print shops, playing an active role in the trade union. She lives in Berlin with her two daughters and holds a position with the German Trade Union Federation.
Among the small but growing number of Jewish writers in twenty-first–century Germany, Esther Dischereit stands out in several respects. Her prolific production covers a wide spectrum of genres: novels, stories and essays; poetry, plays, including radio plays; opera libretti and sound installations. She collaborates with composers and jazz musicians and founded the avant-garde project “WordMusicSpace/Sound-Concepts.”
The experience of her mother’s physical and psychological traumas are intertwined in Joëmis Tisch (Joëmi’s Table, 1988). With its fragmented shifting perspectives and time levels, this is arguably her most difficult book. It is an elliptic work with many omissions, “as if someone were speaking with an open mouth and the words don’t want to come out.” The same experience informs the sequel, Merryn (1992), and her first collections of essays Übungen jüdisch zu sein (Exercises in Being Jewish, 1998) and Mit Eichmann an der Börse: In jüdischen und anderen Dingen (At the Stock Exchange with Eichmann: On Jewish Matters and Other Things, 2001). In several of these essays Dischereit depicts her predicament—knowing she is Jewish but not knowing many things which Jews and non-Jews expect of her. “Never been to Israel! Oh, my God!” But she lights the Yahrzeit candle for her mother because she saw her mother lighting the candle for her mother. It is Dischereit’s desire to see a diversity of forms of Jewish life emerge in Germany, which would allow her to be Jewish without such pressures as having to attend synagogue or visit Israel.
Dischereit also reflects on what it means to be a woman and an intellectual. As a young union activist she “abhorred” various women’s committees which published proclamations on world peace and other lofty goals: “I was interested in wages.” In several jobs she encountered the same problems. While the employers rejected her union activism, the union rejected her as an intellectual. In her essays and newspaper articles Dischereit focuses on such topics as German-Jewish identity (as in “Ein sehr junges Mädchen trifft Nelly Sachs” [A Very Young Girl Meets Nelly Sachs, 1998]) and antisemitism (as in her commentary on the debate between the German author Martin Walser [b. 1927] and the President of the German-Jewish Congress, Ignaz Bubis [1927–1999] on whether to put an end to the depiction and discussion of the Holocaust in the German media [“M. Walser,” 1998]). In an interview in the journal Die Philosophin she elaborated on how she became a writer, which proved possible only after she abandoned the political perspective of those who were marked by their experience of 1968. In her essay “Die Linke und der Antisemitismus oder warum ich das Thema nicht mochte” (The Left and Antisemitism, or Why I Disliked This Topic) she nevertheless devotes forty pages to it and confesses that she was able to free herself from ideological constraints only after writing nothing but poetry for one year.
In her poetry, body and intellect, eroticism and spirituality are closely related or even interlocked. This is already evident in her first collection, Als mir mein golem öffnete (When my golem opened for me, 1996). In the second collection, Rauhreifiger Mund (Hoarfrosted Mouth, 2001) it is no longer an explicitly Jewish poet writing from the perspective of a minority woman in an environment where relationships with the majority have an additional and ultimately unbearable weight. These poems are less heavy but the same physicality is present. They are situated in a wintry cityscape, but in spite of rain, snow and slush they emanate an affirmation of life and a certain optimism. In the winter poems her sparse language is full of light and the love poems are as poetic as they are unsentimental. Dischereit renounces rhyme and meter, preferring instead short free verse that creates its own lively rhythm.
Dischereit is a “rhythmic” poet. This is nowhere more evident than in her plays, including the radio plays which form an important part of her oeuvre. In most of these plays for two to five voices the protagonist is a woman. These women are often “carriers of history,” not just of contemporary history. They are seers, “intermediaries and messengers between Hades and the upper world.” Dischereit’s radio plays are extremely varied. In Gertrud Conners (1998) a fragmented plot evolves around the theme of memory. The protagonist had been incarcerated in East Germany. In inimitably laconic monologues she recalls life in a country where she was unable to find a job because she was considered “unfit for Marxism-Leninism.” Her present situation in West Berlin is anything but privileged. She received five thousand marks compensation for her imprisonment, but a plot of land which was taken by the East German authorities has been returned full of land mines. Mellie (2003) is a minimalist experiment in which the poet’s voice, electronic music and text fragments, including quotations from her poetry, produce an extraordinary combination of sound and text, an “inner monologue” of moments remembered and present in a woman’s life. Broadcast by leading German public radio stations, Dischereit’s plays are beautifully performed by excellent actresses with original music.
Esther Dischereit’s is a unique, important and enlightening voice that speaks to a variety of audiences in Germany.
SELECTED WORKS BY ESTHER DISCHEREIT
Joëmis Tisch. Eine jüdische Geschichte. 1988; English: “Noëmi’s Table.” In Contemporary Jewish Writing in Germany, An Anthology. Lincoln, Nebraska: 2002; Merryn (prose, 1992); Als mir mein golem öffnete (When my golem opened for me). Poetry. Frankfurt/Main: 1996; Übungen jüdisch zu sein (Exercises in Being Jewish). Essays. Frankfurt/Main: 1998; Rauhreifiger Mund (Hoarfrosted Mouth). Poems. Berlin: 2001; “Gelebte Zeit und aufgeschriebene Zeit” (Lived Time and Recorded Time). In Mit Eichmann an der Börse. Berlin: 2001; Gertrud Conners. Radio play. 1997; Sommerwind und andere Kreise (Summerwind and Other Circles). Radio play. 2002; Mellie. Radio play, 2003.
Gilman, Sander, ed. Reemerging Jewish Culture in Germany. Berlin: 1994; Lerz, E. “Geschichtserinnerung und Weiblichkeitskonstruktion bei Esther Dischereit und Anne Duden.” Aschkenas 1 (1996); Shedletzky, Itta. “Eine deutsch-jüdische Stimme sucht Gehör.” In In der Sprache der Täter, edited by Stefan Braese. Opladen: 1998; Schruff, Helene. Wechselwirkungen. Deutsch-jüdische Identität in erzählender Prosa der zweiten Generation. Opladen: 2000.
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Bauschinger, Sigrid. "Esther Dischereit." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 16, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dischereit-esther>.