Mascha Kaléko (b. 1907, Chrzanów; d. 1975, Zurich) published her first two poems in 1929 in the art magazine Der Querschnitt (“The Cross-Section”). These poems, her introduction to the readers who almost immediately fell in love with the new, young, ironic, and humorous tone of the 22 year-old hipster — it is said, she presented herself to the editors of the magazine, wearing a “sport jacket, whatever that is in the 20’s, and a red cap on her wind blown hair” — were written in a Berliner dialect.¹ And even though it was uncommon for her to write in dialect later on, this early tactic symbolized to a great extent the locality of her poems as well as a certain self-perception. In the poems, Kaléko was neither “Jewish” nor “German.” She was first and foremost a “Berliner” and later a New Yorker; or, even more specifically, a “villager,” which did not contradict her identity as a Berliner.
Kaléko passed away in 1975 during a layover between Berlin and Jerusalem in Zurich. She appeared in a few events in the divided German metropolis, but this time her reason to visit was to scout for an apartment. Kaléko stayed a Berliner throughout her life, and now — 14 months after her husband’s death and seven years after the tragic death of her son, Evyatar, at the age of 31 — the 68 year-old Mascha decided it might be the time to move back to her childhood streets.
Kaléko’s poems latch onto the hyperlocality of her childhood streets, so that there is very little room left for other identities to struggle to the surface. The ethnic, the cultural, and the national did not interest her as much, even if the world now expects it from her. How can one be Jewish in Germany in the 30’s and not write about these issues, the topic that Jewish poets in Germany today can barely avoid? Kaléko was not simply “Jewish in Germany” though she was “Mascha in Berlin,” and this affected her writings in more than one way.
Tying oneself to a smaller community rather than a nation or a religious pertinence has lingual consequences. Dialect is a good example of it. The wider the group is, the more distant its language is between speakers. The more people belong to a certain group, the more language is used in order to organize and control the masses. In small communities, it has the freedom of being dynamic and ever-changing, without threatening all the official paperwork with becoming obsolete overnight. German is the official language, yet Berliner is the one people use to communicate — the performance of a community — in the golden twenties.
Back to Kaléko. Her life suffered a very dense dynamism. She moved with her mother and sister to Frankfurt am Main from the Polish city of Chrzanów at the age of seven, only to move two years later to Marburg and two years after that, in 1918, to Berlin Mitte. She would move again to Manhattan (Minetta Street) and to Jerusalem. By the age of 31, Mascha’s last name changed four times and her first name changed once. She was born Golda Malka Aufen. Her parents married when she was 15, and she officially got her father’s last name, Engel, as well as Mascha instead of Malka. At the age of 21, she married Saul Kaléko and took his name. She would marry once again to Chemjo Vinaver — all before moving to New York.
The fluidity of the priority she gave her immediate environment over anything “bigger” is ever present in her language. This fluidity of language trickles eventually into the universe of her poems, as things usually trickle. In her time in New York, her poetry challenged the hard distinctions between natural categories, which now focused on animals and plants who in turn underwent personifications. In one biography, the title of her 1961 book Der Papagei, die Mamagei und andere komische Tiere is translated to English as The Pa-Parrot, the Ma-Parrot and Other Peculiar Animals. While I understand Pa and Ma as a child’s abbreviations of Papa and Mama, as in the original, their melting together does not survive the translation. I would try Parrot, Marrot and etc. for example. These would not be possible in the tongue of a nation, a national tongue such as German. This is possible in the tongue of a city, of a melting firstly of subjective speech, who text² with one another and create the texture of an actual lingual space.
But due to its ever changing character, an urban community is not only limited in space, but also in time. It was not only Berlin, which Kaléko missed, the uneternalizable she tried to eternalize in her poems, but also a certain time. Much like Stephan Zweig, it is the world of yesterday that she mourns. Even when she writes about the war and the destruction it left behind, it’s not the persecution of Jews under Nazi Germany she mentions, nor is it anything of the ideological and political crisis before, during, or after these days. It is the destruction of the old. And how can one mourn a radical change of a space and time which is mostly characterized by constant change? By hinting at the nationalist illusion that the ever-lasting is possible. It’s not Berlin she escaped from, in her poem “Minetta Street”; it is the “thousand years.” The Nazi concept of a thousand-year long political entity stands in this poem in contrast to Minetta Street, which, Kaléko reminds us, used to be an ever-flowing stream, and still is, in her dreams.
Translating Kaléko, therefore, is not an easy task. Translating poetry, generally, is always the act of carefully copying a movement without accidentally freezing it. But in Kaléko’s case, it is a movement about a movement. The change, as it happens and as it is aware of itself, thus puts up resistance. In her “Chor der Kriegswaisen”, for example, not only the words object to militarism, but also her choice, for once, to give up on a regular metre. It is not written in a free metre but every line of the poem is different such that various metric forms can still be identified. The first lines of the verses consist of dactyls. Then it switches to amphibrachic. By the end of the verse, we are already in iambs. Kaléko performs to us “remains” of metres, remains of these war drums that are silent and done, but still fragmented, heard from between the ruins.
To translate the ruins of war drums from German to Hebrew is a political act and perhaps one Kaléko thought of doing and never dared. She indeed knew Hebrew, and even translated Hebrew poetry into German in her younger years. Saul Kaléko, her first husband, with whom she lived for almost a decade, was her Hebrew teacher, and she did spend some years in Jerusalem.
But these weren’t any war drums, as these were German war drums. Maintaining a German sound through certain alliterations or assonances would have been possible. To combine it with the broken metre was a bit over the top for the translation, so I chose to represent the German language through the “Kriegswaisen,” the two words becoming one, such as in the English translation “Warphans.” In the Hebrew translation I translated literally a few words, for example “eiserne Zeit” turned into “הזְּמַן הַמְּבֻרְזָל,” which would definitely sound foreign to Hebrew speakers.
To translate poems so personal as the ones by Kaléko, one has to observe them, read them, read them out loud, analyze them, and search deeper for an element one is allowed to partake in.
But there is another issue to take with the “eiserne Zeit,” the iron time. It is not only an era made of iron, but an era cast in iron for all eternity. Just as the ghosts in “Kaddisch,” this world, these entities that make for “Jewishness” and “Nazism,” endures. They stand in both poems, “Chor der Kriegswaisen” and “Kaddisch,” in opposition to the dynamic, always moving, and shifting self (and especially urban self) as in the other two poems, “Interview mit mir Selbst” and “Minetta Street.” “Chor der Kriegswaisen” was published in 1933 and probably written earlier. It is a hint to the fact that these concepts were not always frozen in time. This poem refers in similar terms to the First World War. However dynamic Jewishness might have been in her eyes, the horrors of war froze it — as trauma usually does to a certain timeline. Every traumatic event rips time and splits it in two: one stays in a loop exactly there and then, where the trauma occurred (and keeps occurring), the other moves on. A world war is a world trauma, and her Jewishness seems to belong to the timeline that is captured in the traumatic loop. If poetry is the description of movement, for Kaléko, it is indeed “barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz,” as Adorno wrote. If she ought to write poetry, she ought to ignore Auschwitz, and that is what she does.
Mascha Kaléko is, despite and even because of all the nature in her poems, a poet of ever-changing urbanity. When she mourns, she rather grieves the end of the constant flow. The Germans might have lost the war, but in the ruins, and in the postwar world, which introduces arts and theatre of the absurd, existentialism, fear and doubt, it looks like the concept of the “thousand years” has won.
The hope for restoration of this flow is the actual flow: the rivers, the ever changing trees, and especially the willows, which stretch as if they’re pointing at the water. In “Kaddisch,” the empty Kaddish, that is the Jewish town hollow of its residents, where there is no one to even pray Kaddish on the victims; the willows take the job upon themselves. I would like to think these willows are the same ones, which later the lanterns of “Minetta Street” turn into at night, as if they were cinderellizing into their true form at midnight.