Snapshotsof German-Jewish History and Culture
Farewell to a Poet:
Else Lasker-Schüler – Ein Gedenkblatt (An Epitaph) by Manfred Vogel, Jerusalem 1945
Today, we would like to introduce you to two German-Jewish literary figures whose paths crossed in exile in early 1940s Jerusalem: the poet Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) and the author and journalist Manfred Vogel (1923-1983). Both had left Germany to escape persecution by the National Socialists and became part of the small circle of German-Jewish intellectuals in Mandate-Palestine.
The charismatic poet and artist Else Lasker-Schüler was born in 1869 in Elberfeld (today a part of Wuppertal) into an assimilated German-Jewish banking family. After developing a form of epilepsy aged 11, she was home-schooled by her mother, Jeanette Schüler, who encouraged the imaginative girl’s interest in poetry from a young age. Along with biblical themes, oriental imagery and passionate love poesy that often includes implicit references to eroticism, the deep bond between Else Lasker-Schüler and her mother also features prominently in her poetic work. Following her marriage to the physician Jonathan Berthold Lasker in 1894, the couple moved to Berlin, where she trained as an artist. Her colourful drawings embody many of the biblical characters featured in her writings and frequently depict her alter-ego, Prince Jussuf of Thebes. From 1899 onwards, Else Lasker-Schüler began to publish a wide range of poetry and prose and she quickly rose to become a leading member of the bohemian avant-garde in Berlin. Her first volume of poetry, Styx, came out in 1903 and was followed by collections of prose such as Die Nächte der Tino von Bagdad (The Nights of Tino of Baghdad), 1909. In 1911, Meine Wunder (My Miracles), a further collection of poetry, established her as the leading female author of the German Expressionist movement. Her works were even translated into English for the first time in 1909. However, shortly after having been awarded the prestigious Kleist medal in 1932, Else Lasker-Schüler was forced to flee the Nazi regime and she left Germany for exile in Switzerland in 1933. Lasker-Schüler documented her first journey to Mandate-Palestine in the evocatively illustrated volume Das Hebräerland (The Land of the Hebrews) which was published by Oprecht Verlag during the time of her Swiss exile in 1937. Her most famous publication is, however, Mein Blaues Klavier (My Blue Piano), 1943 which is widely quoted as the epitome of exile literature.
Her powerfully sensual writing, as well as a highly eccentric demeanour and her Orientalist and gender-defying style of dress caused both outrage and delight amongst her contemporaries. The colourful universe of Else Lasker-Schüler’s imagination persisted alongside the factual experiences of poverty, the ongoing uncertainty of her legal status in Switzerland, the loss of loved ones and the solitude of exile. Ever since her first appearance as a poet, a multi-layered mythology surrounded her persona that was both carefully self-orchestrated and rooted in the manifold possibilities to read her work and her biography. The political sensitivity and acuteness of her texts, however, is often overlooked. Perhaps the most adequate description of Else Lasker-Schüler is that she was indeed one of a kind: a female German-Jewish writer growing up in the wake of Jewish emancipation who navigated various layers of a German-Jewish woman’s identity with a mesmerising power of expression in the German language that she deeply embraced as her own.
In 1939, at the age of 70 and in the wake of her third journey to Mandate-Palestine, Lasker-Schüler found herself involuntarily stuck in Jerusalem. The Swiss authorities refused her a permit to return to her exile in Switzerland and thus brutally cut her off from her friends and supporters in Europe. It is at this time that she encountered Manfred Vogel who captured her final years in the very personal epitaph Else Lasker-Schüler – Ein Gedenkblatt (1945).
Manfred Vogel was born in 1923 into a prominent merchant family in Berlin, where he also spent his early years. After fleeing Nazi persecution and emigrating to Mandate-Palestine aged sixteen in 1939, he studied art history and theatre studies in Jerusalem. Vogel also worked as a journalist for Arnold Zweig’s German-language paper Orient and the Palestine Post (since 1950: The Jerusalem Post). Today, he is mostly remembered for editing the anthology Ariel: Ein Almanach für Literatur-Graphic-Musik (Jerusalem, 1941), a collection of German-Jewish exile literature, graphics and music that also features two poems by Else-Lasker Schüler. In 1943, Vogel wrote one of the first reviews of Lasker-Schüler’s famous collection of poems Mein blaues Klavier in the Hebrew daily newspaper Mischmar (Tel Aviv). After moving to Vienna in 1952, Manfred Vogel worked as an author, journalist and theatre critic. He is also known for the translation of 17 Shakespeare plays and was a member of the PEN-Centre for German authors abroad. Manfred Vogel died in Vienna in 1983.
Vogel and Lasker-Schüler met being part of a group of German-Jewish intellectuals who had come to Mandate-Palestine fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s. Hence, the epitaph Else Lasker-Schüler – Ein Gedenkblatt gives a personal impression of both her final years and the experience of the German-Jewish minority in Mandate-Palestine who had to cope with the violent loss of their Heimat. Speaking and writing in German lead to a social stigmatisation that fuelled Else Lasker-Schüler’s loneliness. The perception of German in Mandate-Palestine as the language of Nazi barbarism made it particularly difficult for German-Jewish writers and poets to pursue their careers. Despite the challenging circumstances from 1941 onwards, the poet tried to continue her work in Jerusalem with a privately organised literary salon named Kraal (Afrikaans for a circular African village). Among many others, her literary salon featured names such as Martin Buber, Ernst Simon and Hugo Bergmann. Manfred Vogel’s epitaph is a homage to Else Lasker-Schüler as a person and illuminates the enduring magnetism and impact of her personality on her audiences.
The Leo Baeck Institute London holds a copy of Manfred Vogel’s 32-page epitaph Else Lasker-Schüler – Ein Gedenkblatt (Epitaph on Else Lasker-Schüler) that was published shortly after the poet’s death in Jerusalem in 1945. Only some 200 copies of this extremely rare pamphlet were circulated at the time amongst the small circle of German-speaking Jewish intellectuals in Mandate-Palestine. The epitaph is part of the collection of historical pamphlets within the Leo Baeck Institute London’s specialist library on German-Jewish history and culture, which can be accessed via the library at Queen Mary University of London.
We would like to thank Dr Stefan Litt, Prof Itta Shedletzky, and Dr Karl Jürgen Skrodzki for lending us their expertise for this post.
The photographs of Else Lasker-Schüler are courtesy to the Deutsches Literatur Archiv Marbach and to Dr. h.c. Friedrich Pfäfflin whom we would like to thank for their generous support of this snapshot.