- My Gaze is Turned Inward: Letters, 1934-1943
Letters written by Jews during the crucial years of the Holocaust are scarce. For the most part they were written to people who, like the letter writers, perished. Neither writers nor recipients survived the conflagration. That these letters from an extraordinarily gifted poet survived is remarkable, and their translation into English is more than welcome, for they allow us a glimpse into the thinking of a sensitive woman and poet on the eve of her destruction.
Although biographical information about Gertrud Kolmar and her poetry and prose works is not lacking in German, 1 she is still relatively unknown to English speaking readers. A full biography remains to be written, and most of her poems still await translation. 2 The small volume published here consists of 103 letters, a chronology of her life, five pages of Nazi anti-Jewish ordinances, notes to the letters, a preface by the translator, and a postscript by the editor. Of the 103 letters, two are addressed to Kolmar's cousin, Walter Benjamin, and six to the poet Jacob Picard (1883–1967). Twelve letters are addressed to her niece Sabine, and the rest are to her younger sister, Hilde Wenzel.
Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner was born in 1894 into an educated Jewish upper-middle-class family. In 1917 she published her first volume of poetry under the pen name Gertrud Kolmar, to be followed, in the 1920s and 1930s, by further poetry and prose narratives. In 1923, the family purchased a villa in Finkenkrug, a comfortable and spacious home that is frequently mentioned in her letters after its forced sale in November 1938. Kolmar's sister Hilde left Berlin as a tourist in March 1938 and, at a stopover in Zurich, requested [End Page 295]asylum in Switzerland. Hilde's five-year old daughter Sabine was brought to her by relatives, while her non-Jewish husband remained in Berlin. 3 Kolmar was conscripted to work in Germany's war industry in July 1941, and on February 27, 1943, she was rounded up together with other Jews. A week later she was deported to Auschwitz, where she perished at the age of 48.
Due to censorship (letters from Jews were easily identifiable after January 1939, when all Jews were required to add Sara or Israel to their names), Kolmar wrote very little about her situation and how she felt about it. When she did, her references were veiled, even at such crucial times as when her father Ludwig Chodziesner was deported, in September 1942 (p. 125). On January 5, 1943, all she mentioned to Hilde was that she had not heard from him, and she hoped that perhaps Hilde had. Of course, she had no way of knowing that he had been taken to Theresienstadt, and she still hoped for a sign from him. Despite this understandable lack of candor, the letters are of major interest for what they have to tell of subjects like the people with whom Kolmar was forced to live after leaving Finkenkrug; literary matters, including her poetry; work in the factories; and the men with whom she came into contact at work.
At various times, different sets of people came as tenants to the apartment on Speyererstrasse to which the family was forced to move after having to give up the villa. The first group, which arrived in spring 1941, did not seem too bad—a retired judge, his aged mother, and her caretaker (p. 69), but the second group, in the fall, was quite different. Gertrud no longer had a room of her own and had to make do with a bed set up in the dining room. She describes the tenants as "outright social animals," including a daughter who loved to talk endlessly about the good old days (p. 78). In May 1942 she declared that home was no longer home: "The alien, loathsome nature of our threesome tenants irritates me more and more every day. . . . [They are] self-serving...