The life of German-Jewish poet and artist Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) was a continual conflict between reverie and reality. In her bohemian Berlin circle, she replaced the prosaic names of her friends with those of figures from mythology or scripture, chief among them her beloved “Saint Peter”, writer Peter Hille. She served with valour in the culture wars of Wilhelmine Germany, where the Modernist vision she represented met the granite edifice of the reactionary Kaiserreich. And while its demise may have given way to a more sympathetic environment for her literary activities and everyday eccentricities, she was rarely more than a few hot meals from penury. A string of tragedies, including the death of her son Paul, made life’s rich potential for desolation impossible to ignore.
Recently I’ve been reading more about Lasker-Schüler for a translation project, and it has revealed a writer far more engaged with the affairs of the world than I had previously thought. When she attended the 1930 Berlin premiere of All Quiet on the Western Front, it may have been intended primarily as a diversion to amuse her grand-nephew who was visiting town. But when she was attacked by Nazi thugs protesting the film’s anti-war message, terror suddenly had a face, and she recognised it.
In 1932 Lasker-Schüler won Germany’s most prestigious literary prize; it didn’t bring her the financial security she had long hoped for but nor did it buy her silence. Shortly before Hitler came to power she interrupted a reading on the radio with an impromptu plea for the pope to come to the aid of the Jews (although “technical difficulties” prevented audiences from hearing much of her entreaty).
After a further assault Lasker-Schüler left Germany in spring 1933 for Switzerland. Sleeping rough on the shores of Lake Zurich, she was presumed to be a vagrant. She was banned from working and as early as 1934 the official verdict was that “the continued presence of the petitioner is neither necessary nor desirable”. Nevertheless she toughed it out for a further five years, reliant on charity, her brief trips abroad overshadowed by the fear that she would be denied re-entry. But even her begging letters reflect her distinctive temperament. In a letter to a Swiss journalist she asks if he “could ask in passing if the gentlemen of the Federal Council might let me back into Switzerland” because “the seagulls of Lake Zurich have been writing me such longing letters”. She solicited aid from Thomas Mann in the guise of the Prince of Thebes – a favoured identity – and extended a greeting to his wife Katia, “the caliph’s daughter” (which may also have served to remind Mann that his Jewish wife might have shared her fate).
In 1939, on her third trip to Palestine, Lasker-Schüler learnt that she was temporarily barred from returning to Switzerland; the outbreak of war a few days later made the expulsion permanent. She settled in Jerusalem, poor and isolated, but never forgot those even less fortunate than herself, joining protests when British Mandate authorities stemmed the flow of Jewish refugees from Europe. Nor was she blind to the tensions in her adoptive home. Her proposal for ensuring harmony between Jews and Arabs may have been whimsical, even provocatively so (it essentially amounted to sending them all to a funfair), but underlying it was the knowledge that segregating a multi-ethnic nation could only bring suffering.
Although Lasker-Schüler’s highly idiosyncratic cosmography accommodated an idealised view of the Holy Land, the reality of settling in a country and a culture so removed from her own, and at an advanced age, revealed it to be nothing like the promised land of her imaginings. “My soul is burning up in the evening colours of Jerusalem”: the words she set down in her first volume of poetry in 1902 proved eerily prophetic.
Else Lasker-Schüler died in Jerusalem seventy years ago today.