"Here lived from 1942 to 1959 the German poet Mascha Kaléko (1907-1975)."
Who was Mascha Kaléko? And how did she end up in the heart of Greenwich Village? To answer this question I turned to Jutta Rosenkranz's fine 2012 biography Mascha Kaléko.
Mascha Kaléko was born in what is today Poland but picked up German as a young girl when her family moved to Frankfurt as WWI broke out. Eventually, they settled in Berlin, which became Mascha Kaléko's spiritual Heimat. She eventually went to work as one of the smart, young female office workers described so vividly in Irmgard Keun's 1932 best-seller Das kunstseidene Mädchen. But Mascha also had a precocious facility with Berliner dialect and started publishing her short, witty poems in the Vossische Zeitung and the Berliner Tageblatt. She became a fixture in the Romanisches Cafe, where all of the luminaries of Weimar culture - such as Kurt Tucholsky, Bertolt Brecht and Max Liebermann - would come and go.
She published her first volume of poetry - Lyrisches Stenogrammheft- in 1933, and it caught the attention of Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Alfred Polgar. The book sold well and Mascha Kaléko's career as a writer was taking off. Her short, witty, immediately accessible poems tinged with melancholy reflected perfectly the urban reality of the late Weimar Republic. Lyrisches Stenogrammheft is "leichte Poesie" - "light poetry" - in the tradition of Christian Morgenstern and Joachim Ringelnatz. Unfortunatly, we don't have a tradition of "leichte Poesie" in American literature, other than negative examples like Ogden Nash. Mascha Kaléko's work is also similar to Erich Kästner's Gebrauchslyrik - poetry meant to be "useful". If the Zeitroman is the dominant literary form of the Weimar Republik, Lyrisches Stenogrammheft represents the equivalent form in poetry - Zeitlyrik.
Mascha Kaléko seemed destined for a brilliant career as a writer and poet in Berlin. But she was a Jew, and after 1934 it was no longer possible for her to publish her work in Germany. It is instructive to compare Mascha Kaléko's fate with that of another Jewish poet in Berlin- Gertrud Kolmar. Gertrud Kolmar was a visionary poet with a unique lyric voice who also was coming into her own as the Weimar Republic collapsed. Her book Die Frau und die Tiere was pulped by the Nazis in 1938. Shortly after that she was forced into slave labor and was eventually murdered in Auschwitz. Mascha Kaléko managed to leave Germany with her second husband Chemjo Vinaver and young son just weeks before Kristallnacht. Like many German exile intellectuals, they first tried to market their talents in Hollywood (see my review of Pazifik Exil). When that failed, the family ended up in a fifth floor walk-up on Minetta Street in Manhattan, where they stayed for the next 17 years. Mascha and Chemjo eventually obtained US citizenship.
If I have a quibble with Jutta Rosenkranz's book, it is that she devotes little space with Mascha Kaléko's New York years. We learn little about how the family lived, how they viewed America. There are twice as many pages covering the poet's six-month "comeback" tour of Germany in 1956. Mascha Kaléko's "comeback" stalled; her whimsical and witty style never gained traction in a Germany traumatized by war. Still, she was offered the Fontane Prize in 1959, which would have brought some recognition, but turned it down because a member of the jury - Hans-Egon Holthusen - had been in the SS.
In 1959 Mascha Kaléko and Chemjo moved to Jerusalem- more for the sake of Chemjo's career. It was not a happy move for Mascha: she spoke no Hebrew and felt isolated in Israel. Still, she and her husband kept their US passports - "just in case." America meant freedom and security.
Mascha Kaléko outlived both her husband - Chemjo had been her anchor - and her son Steven. The last years were difficult, as Mascha battled depression and myriad health issues. She died in relative obscurity in 1975 (in Zurich). Today there is growing interest in her work. Several of her books of poetry remain in print.
Ich werde fortgehn im Herbst
von Mascha Kaléko (aus Heute ist morgen schon gestern)
Ich werde fortgehn im Herbst
wenn die grauen Trauerwolken
meiner Jugend mich mahnen.
Keine Fahnen werden flattern
keine Böller knattern
Krähen werden aus dem Nebel schrein
Schweigen, Schweigen, Schweigen
hüllt mich ein.
Ich werde gehen wie ich kam
(I will go in autumn
I will go in autumn
when the grieving grey clouds
remind me of my youth
No flags will fly
No salute will fire
Out of the fog crows will cry
Silence, silence, silence
I will go as I came