Keepers of the Motherland: German Texts by Jewish Women Writers, by Dagmar C.G. Lorenz

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Keepers of the Motherland: German Texts by Jewish Women Writers, by Dagmar C. G. Lorenz

Professor Dagmar C. G. Lorenz's expertise in "issues of marginality" in Germanlanguage literature and Central European culture of the nineteen and twentieth centuries has produced an impressive body of publications. In Keepers of the Motherland Lorenz focuses on a particularly fascinating aspect of these issues, the lives and works of German-speaking Jewish women writers from the end of the eighteenth century to the present. Historical surveys more limited in scope precede this work, but like studies of literary movements, genres, or individual authors they obscure the complexities of the subject Lorenz thoroughly investigates here.

The term Motherland clearly identifies the ultimate source of all aspects of marginalization experienced by the Jewish women whose artistic medium is the German language. A blend of the masculine German concept of Vaterland (Fatherland) and the feminine Muttersprache (Mother tongue), it negates the double marginalization imposed on them by the patriarchal, androcentric structures characteristic of both Jewish and Gentile culture. Lorenz demonstrates convincingly how in the wake of emancipation and assimilation these women struggle to forge these two concepts so vitally important to the perception of self into an entirely new understanding of homeland in which both they and the people who inhabit their literary works can live. As Lorenz's study makes clear, the loss of the Ashkenazic sphere exacts a steep price. No matter how much it remains a part of their consciousness, no matter how hard they try to recreate it, the purely external sources of conflict discernible in the writings of such pre-emancipation writers as Glikl Hamil are compounded by internal anguish and dislocation among the women of succeeding generations, forcing them to constantly redefine and relocate their physical, emotional, spiritual, cultural, artistic, and political homeland.

This new homeland is the Motherland, and Lorenz's discussion of its elusive nature, inseparably intertwining Jewishness and female identity, forms the book's fascinating center. "It may be set in the past or transposed into utopia, or it may denote the whole of Ashkenaz, the territory and culture of European Jewry and the Yiddish language, or merely the Jewish nuclear family," the author observes. What it does not include are eroticism and sexuality, the symbols of freedom prevalent in the works of male writers. Rather, Jewish women "de-emphasize the phallocentric concerns of male writers, circumcision, heterosexuality, and sexual prowess." Likewise, the Jewish nuclear family of the Motherland frequently excludes men, consisting of mother and daughter, idyllic even in the face of extremity, as in Ronnith Neumann's 1991 novel Nirs Stadt, tormented and tormenting, as in Ruth Klüger's 1992 novel weiter leben, or murderous, as novelist Cordelia Edvardson's autobiography Gebrarnntes Kindsucht das Feuer (The Burned Child Seeks the Fire) -- a searing play on the German proverb Gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer (the burned child avoids the fire) -- describes her relationship with her mother Elisabeth Langgässer, a devout Catholic who could not or would not protect her child from deportation to Auschwitz. …