Gertrud Kolmar's recognition as an important lyric poet seemed assured with the publication of Die Frau und die Tiere. The book received positive reviews and well-known writers such as Ina Seidel praised Kolmar as the most important Jewish poet since Else Lasker-Schüler. Unfortunately, Kolmar's fame was short-lived: Die Frau und die Tiere came out just a month before November 9, 1938 Kristallnacht. The Nazis pulped all remaining copies and all Jewish writers were forbidden to publish. Kolmar continued to write, and was able to send much of her work to her sister who had managed to escape to Switzerland (Kolmar had stayed behind in Berlin to tend to her ailing father). Life became more and more difficult for her - and all the remaining Jews in Berlin. In 1941 she was forced into slave labor at a munitions plant; shortly thereafter her beloved father was transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp where he very quickly died. In the fall of 1943 Kolmar, along with, 1,800 other Berlin Jews, was transported to Auschwitz. At the Selektion upon arrival at the camp Kolmar was directed into the gas chamber. She left behind about 400 poems of extraordinary visionary power and two works of prose fiction: a novel - Die jüdische Mutter - , and a novella, Susanna, which I have not yet read. A number of poems - including all the poems Kolmar wrote in Hebrew - were lost.
Kolmar is sometimes compared to Emily Dickinson: a female poet living a monastic existence shut out from the world and forced to invent a private world with the sheer force of imagination. A better comparison might be Marianne Moore, who was devoted to her mother the same way Getrud Kolmar was devoted to her father. Like Moore, Kolmar was enthralled with animals, and many of her best poems she "becomes" an animal - such as a spider or salamander. But Marianne Moore was a modernist. Kolmar draws on traditional forms and infuses them with a feminine intensity that was daring for the time. Although she never married, Kolmar wrote frankly about female erotic desire. Childless, she wrote about the joys and travails of motherhood.
Motherhood and female sexuality are at the center of her novel Die jüdische Mutter, which was written shortly before the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. It is a strange novel - part pulp fiction, part myth-like depiction of Jewish suffering. But there are also many intense passages that help to illuminate Gertrud Kolmar's poetry. The plot is almost banal in its predictability. Martha Wolg (the Jewish mother) is a young widow living with her young child Ursula - the product of a loveless marriage with a Gentile businessman. Martha works as a photographer (of animals) while a babysitter looks after Ursula. One day the child is abducted by a pedophile and brutally raped. Martha finds the half-dead child and, in her shock and grief, decides to kill the girl to spare her from further pain and misery. The second half of the novel deals with Martha's attempt to find Ursula's rapist and bring him to justice. She seduces a former associate of her dead husband and enlists him in the effort to find the perpetrator. He eventually leaves her, and in despair Martha drowns herself in the Spree River.
It is Martha's Jewishness that sets her apart - although she seems to relish her isolation and "otherness." Her father-in-law tried to warn his son to stay away. "Alttestammentarisch sieht sie schon aus; sis müsste Lea, nicht Martha heissen. [...] Jerusalem am Nordpol." And later Martha does not seem to refute her lover Albert Renkens when he calls her the most vile names.: "Nur eine Wahrheit sollst du noch hören, eine sehr dreckige Wahrheit: Du bist eine Dirne. Ein Freudenmädchen, sonst nichts. [...] Mit einer Nutte macht man nicht viel Geschichten." Shortly before she drowns herself in the Spree, Martha picks up a piece of Nazi propaganda - Blätter für völkisches Denken :
...". zwischen den Titeln umkrallte ein Rabe ein Hakenkreuzschild. Sie blätterte ein wenig herum; es bot sich da, was sie suchte."...hat Juda hinterlistig das Joch für germanische Nacken gezimmert ...Der wahre Feind ....geht plattfüssig, dickbäuchig, krummnäsig, scharz tagtägich an euch vorüber...Die Söhne und Töchter Israels ... Schmarotzerpflanzen am deutschen Stamme..
And so, despite her relative isolation, Gertrud Kolmar could see quite clearly - in 1930 Berlin - what was in store for herself and for all Jews. Shortly after the Nazis came to power in 1933 she wrote the poem "Wir Juden" where she foresaw her fate in "hills of ashes" (Aschenhügel).
Knöchel. Ihr schleppt doch Ketten, und gefangen klirrt mein /Gehn.Lippen.
Ihr seid versiegelt, in glühendes Wachs /gesperrt. /
In Käfiggittern einer Schwalbe flatterndes Flehn. /
Und ich fühle die Faust, die das weinende Haupt auf den /
Aschenhügeln mir zerrt.