Beyond "Everyday Poetry": The Life and Works of Mascha Kaléko

By William, Jennifer Marston | Shofar, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Beyond "Everyday Poetry": The Life and Works of Mascha Kaléko


William, Jennifer Marston, Shofar


Beyond "Everyday Poetry": The Life and Works of Mascha Kaléko Review Essay Mein Lied geht weiters Hundert Gedichte, by Mascha Kaléko, edited by Gisela Zoch-Westphal. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2007. 159 pp. euro6.00.

Mascha Kaléko: Biografie, by Jutta Rosenkranz. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2007. 300 pp. euro14.50.

Mascha Kaléko was born in 1907 to a Russian father and an Austrian mother in Galicia, in what is now Chrzanów in southern Poland. She and her family were forced to flee westward to Germany in 1914 to avoid falling victim to pogroms in the region. While her father was detained due to his Russian nationality, the rest of the family moved around within Germany in relative poverty until settling in Berlin after the war. The appearance of Kaléko's first volume of poetry. Das lyrische Stenogrammheft, coincided with the National Socialists' rise to power; her work was blacklisted in 1937, and in the following year she emigrated to America with her second husband, the musician and composer Chemjo Vinaver, and son Steven. Kaléko remained in New York until 1959 when she and Chemjo moved to Israel, where - in between extensive European travels - she spent much of the rest her life, before dying of stomach cancer in 1975.

In her biography of the poet, Jutta Rosenkranz emphasizes that Kaléko felt like an outsider in each of her life stations, a sentiment to be found throughout much of her poetry. Kaléko also battled depression for much of her life, and her poems often testify to her despondent mental state after devastating changes, such as being uprooted multiple times and, most of all, the death of her son.

Rosenkranz contends that Mascha Kaléko is one of the most underrated poets of the German language; as stated in the prologue, she hopes to reawaken interest in the writer with this biography, which is replete with new facts and previously unpublished poems and photographs. Rosenkranz makes a strong case for securing this prolific writer's position within German literary history, and she does an admirable job with piecing together her life story from rather scanty documentation, and with situating the biographical facts within their respective socio-historical backdrops.

Rosenkranz had her work cut out for her: Kaléko was not especially forthright in answering questions about her life, often referring people to her autobiographical (but rarely explicit) poems for the answers. She also destroyed documentation and correspondence that would have been enlightening in regard to, for example, her childhood, her first marriage to Saul Kaléko, and the details of her second marriage to Vinaver. Kaléko stopped keeping a diary in 1944 and did not resume it until just a few years before her death. Rosenkranz does not dwell on this missing evidence, however, nor does it seem to hinder her from compiling a cohesive, if not quite complete, picture of the poet (it is telling that the term vermutlich - "presumably" - appears frequently). The result is an odd mixture of both fascinating and trivial details, from Kaléko's correspondence with Albert Einstein (pp. 102-03), to how much she paid for a taxi, including tip, during a trip to Hamburg (p. 118). In general, however, the level of detail is compelling and revealing, especially in regard to Kaléko's impressions upon her return trips to Europe during the postwar era.

The actress Gisela Zoch-Westphal, editor of the poetry collection Mein Lied geht weiter: Hundert Gedichte, has made great strides in keeping Kaléko's name alive in the literary landscape of the German-speaking world, having written the first biography of Kaléko in 1987 and ensuring since then that her works remain readily available. This collection includes a short epilogue by Zoch-Westphal in which she relates her friendship with Kaléko, recalling how she read for her at a public reading shortly after the death of Kaléko's only child, Steven Vinaver, who died of pancreatitis at the age of 31. …

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