Gertrud Kolmar was a prolific Jewish German poet. 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. In 1943, Kolmar was deported to Auschwitz and died there. Her surviving work consists of 450 poems, three plays, and two short stories that exist as manuscripts or typoscripts. What little is known of Kolmar’s biography can be viewed in sharp contrast to the rich spiritual life made evident in her poetry. 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 Jewish German identity through reflection and remembrance.
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 Jewish German 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 Jewish Germans 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 decades 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 Jewish German writers, such as Else Lasker-Schüler, Nelly Sachs, and Rose Ausländer, whose Jewish heritage was a focal point of their work.
Early Life and Family
Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner was born in Berlin on December 10, 1894, into a middle-class, educated Jewish German 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, which 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” [Jäger, 47], 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 (Jüdischer Buchverlag Erwin Loewe). It is unclear whether all 6,000 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 with 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 54 poems of 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, from which 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), were not published until 2005, when scholar Regina Nörtemann revived them.
Rise of Antisemitism and World War II
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 she 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 81-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 450 poems, three plays, and two short stories that exist as manuscripts or typoscripts. Although much of her work has been published, further writings and documents are 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). The Leo Baeck Institute of Berlin and New York holds a small collection of letters from 1906 to 1929 by Gertrud’s mother, Elise, written to Kolmar’s sister, Hilde Wenzel, chronicling the daily lives of Kolmar and her family.
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.
Since the early twenty-first century, numerous volumes of and about Kolmar’s writings have been published in both German and English, renewing interest in the Jewish German experience of women in early twentieth-century Germany. Today, Kolmar is memorialized in various locations in and around Berlin: a local library in the district of Tempelhof-Schöneberg, a street in Berlin-Mitte as well as the street of her parents’ house in Falkensee-Finkenkrug, and a “stumbling stone” (Stolperstein) at that home’s site. In 2011, a new rose variety, cultivated in the “Gertrud-Kolmar-Rose-Garden” of the Museum Galerie Falkensee, was named the “Gertrud Kolmar rose.” In the United States, a Chicago public park was rededicated in 2022 as Kolmar Park, the ceremony attended by local residents and two of Kolmar’s living relatives, grand-nephew Paul Chodziesner and Toby Kaufmann-Buhler.
Kolmar’s unassuming biography can be viewed in sharp contrast to the rich and complex spiritual life made evident in her poetry as well as to the lasting impact of her literary work on her readership and scholars. 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 that 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 Jewish German identity through reflection and remembrance.
Works by Gertrud Kolmar Published During Her Lifetime
Die Frau und die Tiere. Berlin: 1938.
Gedichte. Berlin: 1917.
Preussische Wappen. Berlin: 1934.
Works by Gertrud Kolmar Published Posthumously
German and English
Brandt, Marion, ed. “Gertrud Kolmar an Jacob Picard: Briefe aus den Jahren 1937–1939” (Gertrud Kolmar to Jácob Picard: letters from the years 1937-1939). Edited by Jakob Hessing. Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer Almanach, 1995, 141-149.
“Das Bildnis Robespierre” (The portrait of Robespierre). Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft. Edited by Johanna Zeitler. Volume IX (1965): 553–580.
Briefe (Letters). Edited by Johanna Woltmann. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2014.
Dark Soliloquy: The Selected Poems of Gertrud Kolmar. Translated by Henry A. Smith. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1975.
Das lyrische Werk (Lyrical work). Munich: Kösel Verlag, 1960.
Das lyrische Werk.(Lyrical work). Edited by Regina Nörtemann. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2003. 3 Volumes.
Die Dramen (Dramatic works). Edited by Regina Nörtemann. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2005.
Eine jüdische Mutter (A Jewish mother). Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1981.
Eine Mutter (A mother), Munich: Kösel Verlag, 1965.
Frühe Gedichte (1917-22)/Wort der Stummen (1933) (Early poems/Word of the mute). Edited by Johanna Woltmann-Zeitler. Munich: Kösel Verlag, 1980.
Gertrud Kolmar. Gedichte: Neuausgabe des ersten Gedichtbandes von 1917 (Poems: reprint of the first volume of poetry from 1917). Edited by Karl-Maria Guth. Berlin: Hofenberg, 2022.
Selected Poems. Translated by David Kipp. London: Magpie Press, 1970.
Susanna. Edited by Thomas Sparr. Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer Verlag, 1993.
“Susanna.” In Das leere Haus. Prosa jüdischer Dichter (The empty house. Prose by Jewish poets). Edited by Karl Otten. Stuttgart: 1959. 293–336.
Weibliches Bildnis. Sämtliche Gedichte (Female portrait. Complete poems). Munich: 1987.
Welten (Worlds). Selection and afterword by von Hermann Kasack. Berlin: 1947.
Worlds. Welten. Translated by Philip Kuhn and Ruth von Zimmermann. Swindon, UK: Shearsman Books, 2012.
Briefe an die Schwester Hilde 1938–1943 (Letters to her sister Hilde 1938-1943). Edited by Johanna Woltmann-Zeitler. Munich: 1970.
My Gaze Is Turned Inward: Letters, 1934-1943. Edited by Johanna Woltmann. Translated by Brigitte M. Goldstein. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2004.
Brandt, Marion. Schweigen ist ein Ort der Antwort: Eine Analyse des Gedichtzyklus “Das Wort der Stummen” von Gertrud Kolmar (Silence is a place of response: An analysis of the poem cycle “The word of the mute” by Gertrud Kolmar). Berlin: C. Hoffmann, 1993.
Brandt, Marion. Orte (Places). Berlin: Kontextverlag, 1994.
Chryssoula, Kambas and Marion Brandt, eds. In Collaboration with Johanna Woltmann und Regina Nörtemann. Sand in den Schuhen Kommender. Gertrud Kolmars Werk im Dialog (Sand in the shoes of arrivals. Gertrud Kolmar’s work in dialog). Göttingen: Wallstein, 2012.
Damerau, Burghard. “Kolmars poetisches Bild eines Geliebten.” Zeitschrift für Germanistik. Neue Folge. Vol. 11, no. 1 (2001): 117-130.
Eichmann-Leutenegger, Beatrice, ed. Gertrud Kolmar: Leben und Werk in Texten und Bildern (Gertrud Kolmar: life and work in texts and images). Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer Verlag, 1993.
Fetscher, Justus. “An den Rändern der Reiche. Zeitgeschichte im Werk Gertrud Kolmars” (At the edges of the kingdoms. Contemporary history in the work of Gertrud Kolmar). Brüche und Umbrüche. Frauen, Literatur und soziale Bewegungen. Edited by Margrid Bircken, Marianne Lüdecke, and Helmut Peitsch. Potsdam: Universitätsverlag Potsdam, 2010.
Jäger, Gudrun. Gertrud Kolmar. Publikations- und Rezeptionsgeschichte (Gertrud Kolmar. The history of publications and reception). Campus Judaica, Volume 12. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 1998
Kambas, Chryssoula, ed. Lyrische Bildnisse: Beiträge zu Dichtung und Biographie von Gertrud Kolmar (Lyrical portraits: contributions to the poetry and biography of Gertrud Kolmar). Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 1998.
Kunisch, Hermann. “Gertrud Kolmar.” In Handbuch der deutschen Gegenwartsliteratur. Zweite, verbesserte und erweiterte Auflage (Handbook of Contemporary German literature: second, improved and expanded edition), Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1969-1970. 3 volumes.
Lorenz-Lindemann, Karin, ed. Widerstehen im Wort. Studien zu den Dichtungen Gertrud Kolmars (Resistance in word. Studies of Gertrud Kolmar’s poetry). Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1996.
Müller, Heidy Margrit, ed. Klangkristalle Rubinene Lieder: Studien zur Lyrik Gertrud Kolmars (Chiming crystals ruby songs: studies of Gertrud Kolmar’s poetry). Bern: Peter Lang Verlag, 1996.
Nörtemann, Regina. “Zur Wiederentdeckung und Rezeption des Werks von Gertrud Kolmar in der BRD und DDR” (The rediscovery and reception of works by Gertrud Kolmar in the FRG and the GDR). In Fremdes Heimatland. Remigration und literarisches Leben nach 1945 (Foreign homeland. Remigration and literary works after 1945). Edited by Irmela von der Lühe and Claus-Dieter Krohn. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2005, 199–215.
Nowak, Silke. Sprechende Bilder: Zur Lyrik und Poetik Gertrud Kolmars (Spoken images: The poetry and poetics of Gertrud Kolmar). Göttingen: Wallstein, 2007
Shafi, Monika. Gertrud Kolmar. Eine Einführung in das Werk (Gertrud Kolmar. An introduction to her work). München: iudicium verlag, 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. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2012.
Woltmann, Johanna, ed. “Gertrud Kolmar, 1894–1993.” Katalog Marbacher Magazine 63, 1993.
Woltmann, Johanna, ed. Gertrud Kolmar: Leben und Werk. Göttingen: Wallstein, 1995.
Blumenthal, Bernhardt, ed. “Love’s Service to the Earth.” The German Quarterly 42 (September 1969): 485–488
Cattell, Alec. "Reading Disability Ethically: Gertrud Kolmar's Susanna." Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 54, no. 3 (2018): 350-364.
Daffner, Carola. "The Feminine Topography of Zion: Mapping Gertrud Kolmar's Poetic Imagination." Amsterdamer Beiträge Zur Neueren Germanistik. 75, 1 (2010): 275.
Daffner, Carola. "Walking as in Veils: Spatial Projection and Cultural Rejection in Gertrud Kolmar's A Jewish Mother (1999)." Women in German Yearbook. 27 (2011): 131.
Frantz, Barbara C. Gertrud Kolmar’s Prose. New York: 1997.
Kacandes, I. "Making the Stranger the Enemy: Gertrud Kolmar's Eine judische Mutter." Women in German Yearbook. 19 (2004): 99-116.
Krobb, Florian. “Rupture and Dissolution: Gertrud Kolmar’s Prose Works and Modernity.” Year book - Leo Baeck Institute 63, no. 1 (2018): 83–99.
Kühn, Dieter. Gertrud Kolmar: a literary life. Trans. Linda Marianiello and Franz Vote. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013.
Kolmar, Gertrud. My gaze is turned inward: letters, 1934-1943. Edited and with an afterword by Johanna Woltmann. Translated from the German with a preface by Brigitte M. Goldstein. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2004.
Kolmar, Gertrud. Briefe. Edited by Johanna Woldmann. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2014.
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.” The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, vol. 23, issue 1 (January 1978): 247–258.
Langman, Erika. “The Poetry of Gertrud Kolmar.” Seminar: A Journal of German Studies 14, no. 2 (May 1978): 117–132.
Lölhöffel, Helmut. “Gertrud Kolmar (Künstlername) née Chodziesner.” Translation into English by Charlotte Kreutzmüller. Stolpersteine in Berlin. https://www.stolpersteine-berlin.de/en/munchener-str/18/gertrud-kolmar-kunstlername. Accessed January 12, 2023.
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.
Miron, Shira. “Unraveling Heimat – Recontextualizing Gertrud Kolmars Das Preußische Wappenbuch.” Disseminating Jewish Literatures: Knowledge, Research, Curricula, edited by Ruth Fine, Natasha Gordinsky, Kader Konuk, Glaudia Olk, Galili Shahar, and Susanne Zell, 89-99. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2020.
Picard, Jacob. “Gertrud Kolmar: The Women and the Beasts. ‘I’ Am Going the Way I Have Chosen to Go…” Commentary 10 (November 1950): 459–465.
Simonson, Michael and Tracey Felder. Gertrud Kolmar’s Lyrical Body. Poetry in Preservation. Leo Baeck Institute. New York and Berlin. https://www.lbi.org/collections/poetry-in-preservation/gertrud-kolmar/. Accessed January 11, 2023.
Smith, Henry A. “Gertrud Kolmar’s Life and Works.” In Gertrud Kolmar: Orte, edited by Marion Brandt, 129-137. Berlin: Kontext Verlag, 1994.
Zohn, Henry. “The Poetry of Gertrud Kolmar.” The Jewish Quarterly 24, no. 1–2 (1976): 26–28.