[This page by Florian Strob]
Rose Ausländer (1901-1988)
If bookshops are a reliable indicator of a writer’s popularity with the common reader (in this case with the reader of poetry), then Rose Ausländer must be one of the most popular German language poets of the 20th century. In the small (and often well hidden) poetry sections of contemporary German bookshops Ausländer’s works are to be found close to the works of Paul Celan, Hilde Domin and Erich Fried. While Celan is one of the most critically acclaimed poets of the 20th century, Ausländer surely belongs to those poets who have been read by many but who have not received much scholarly attention. For example, she has not been awarded any of the most prestigious literary prizes. However, Ausländer’s works need to be seen as a lasting contribution to German poetry after 1945, in line with other German language Jewish poets of the same period (like Paul Celan, Hilde Domin, Erich Fried and Nelly Sachs).
Born on 11 May 1901 in Czernowitz into a Jewish family, Rosalie Beatrice Scherzer was a citizen of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and its culture. After her father’s death in 1920 (and a brief period as a student of literature and philosophy at the University of Czernowitz) Rosalie Scherzer was forced by her mother to emigrate to the United States of America in 1921 because her mother saw no other way to secure her daughter’s future. After first working as an assistant editor for a magazine, Ausländer soon became an employee of the Bower Savings Bank. She settled in New York and married Ignaz Ausländer, who had emigrated to the United States with her. In 1926 she obtained US citizenship. It was in New York where she became a poet and published her poems in German speaking newspapers and journals.
After falling in love with Helios Hecht during a visit in Czernowitz in 1926, Ausländer only returned to New York to be divorced (1928-1931) and so as not to risk the loss of her US citizenship (1934). But in 1935 her love affair with Hecht ended and despite her efforts to secure it, she lost her US citizenship in 1937 and subsequently became a Romanian citizen. This was because her hometown of Czernowitz and the surrounding Bukowina belonged to Romania after World War One. Between 1933 and 1939 Rose Ausländer lived mostly in Bucharest, as a secretary (foreign language correspondence clerk) and part of a group of Romanian and German language authors. It was with the help of one of her Bucharest friends, the poet Alfred Margul-Sperber, that Ausländer was able to publish her first book of poetry (‘Der Regenbogen’) in a small publishing company in Czernowitz in 1939.
Ausländer was visiting New York when World War Two started. Despite this, her mother’s ill health forced her to go back to Czernowitz and live at home under Soviet occupation. From 1941 to 1944, however, Ausländer lived in the city’s ghetto which was established by the SS and Romanian troops. Together with her mother, sister-in-law and her nephew, Ausländer survived these years of terror and fear as a forced labourer and in hiding (towards the end of the war).
In 1946 Ausländer moved back to New York and quickly regained her US citizenship in 1948. During this time in New York she worked again as a secretary (foreign language correspondence clerk) until 1961. Between 1948 and 1956 Ausländer only wrote poems in English. The American poet Marianne Moore convinced her to try and find a way back into the German language and literary tradition. But it would take a few more years until Ausländer would be recognized as a poet and find a readership in the German speaking countries. After decades spent in New York and travelling through Europe, 1965 marked a turning point in Rose Ausländer’s life and writing. At the age of 64, she moved to Düsseldorf (obtaining a second citizenship from Germany) and published a second book of poetry (‘Blinder Sommer’), this time in the former capital of the long-gone Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna. In the following years she continued her travels and published her poems in newspapers, journals and anthologies. It took, however, until the late 1970s and 1980s for her poetry to be widely published, read and reviewed. From 1978 until her death in 1988 Ausländer did not leave her room anymore, rarely saw anyone and spent her last years focused on nothing but writing. Rose Ausländer died on 3 January 1988 in her room in Düsseldorf. She once declared that writing was a drive for her (‘Schreiben ist ein Trieb!’).
The story behind Rose Ausländer’s several citizenships and frequent travels is not only the paradigmatic story of a constantly threatened life in the 20th century, but the biographical pre-text for much of her poetry. Helmut Braun (her long time editor, one time publisher and literary executor as well as head of the Rose Ausländer foundation) referred to her writing as being biographical. The closeness of her biography and works is, for Braun, unique, as stated in his afterword to Ausländer’s Selected Poems (S. Fischer Verlag 2001). This sort of uniqueness is not without its problems – and merits. Firstly, she obscured her biography by telling legends (or lies, e.g. regarding the year of her birth) and developing myths about her past. Her life of travel, changes of place etc. add to the difficulty of reconstructing her biography. (Not commenting on whether they have fully succeeded or not, I would like to mention the biographies by Cilly Helfrich and Helmut Braun). Secondly, the close link between biography and text makes a reading of Ausländer’s poetry at first sight relatively easy for the everyday reader. He or she knows what to expect given the relatively frank and straightforward autobiographical sketches of someone who lived an interesting, albeit unsteady, life. And the reader is what counted for Ausländer after all. She wrote because she had an innate drive to write and because she wanted to be read; the literary prizes awarded on the basis of readers’ responses meant the most to her. If there are different categories of poets she was a reader’s poet (not a poets’ poet like Nelly Sachs or a scholars’ poet like Paul Celan).
Now, with all Holocaust poetry (or poetry written by Jewish poets during and after the Shoah) it is generally difficult to exclude biographical readings of their works. We know of the biographical problem in Celan and Sachs scholarship, too. Yet, in Celan’s and Sachs’s works, the biographical is often part of a universal and/or historical aspect; the biographical aspect in their works seems to be somewhat suggestive or manifested/obscured through what is often called a ‘dark’ or ‘hermetic’ mode of writing. When, in the mid-1950s, Ausländer returned to German poetry she met again with Paul Celan (they had first met in the ghetto of their hometown Czernowitz in 1944). Allegedly, Celan played an important role in her renewed writing style and return to the German language. Unlike her earlier poems, Ausländer’s new poems of the mid-1950s moved away from rhyme and other traditions towards a simpler, shorter style. Ausländer did not only admire Celan’s poetry (even his early works in Czernowitz), but also Nelly Sachs’s poetry. Importantly, Celan and Sachs, especially in their late works, tended to write shorter and shorter poems. Such a style could be seen as part of a certain tradition of modernist poetry - in all their difficult, dense, dark and complex shortness – however, the increasing simplicity of Ausländer’s poems is of a different kind. In her best poems Ausländer reaches a great simplicity full of musicality and beauty – dense and complex at times, but never difficult or dark like Celan’s and Sachs’s poems. What seems incredibly easy and effortless in Ausländer’s poems is often the result of extensive re-workings over years, or sometimes decades. In a vast oeuvre like hers – nearly 2400 published poems of approximately 3000 written in total during her lifetime – it is not surprising, however, that not all of them are of the highest standard. What in her best poems is of great simplicity (e.g. ‘Anklage’, ‘Einsamkeit’, ‘Mutter Sprache’, ‘Schreiben’), turns out be a rather blunt and empty shortness in her less successful texts (not reaching beyond the biographical ‘I’).
Ausländer published many of her 2400 poems in the late 1970s and 1980s, reworking earlier sketches, notes or versions of poems. It is not surprising that she found her audience, or rather a wide readership, long after the success of Sachs’s and Celan’s dark modernism in the 1960s. With what in literary history is termed ‘Neue Subjektivität’ (new subjectivity) in the 1970s and 1980s, Ausländer becomes a contemporary poet of a generation of much younger writers like Nicolas Born, Ulla Hahn and others. Or to put it differently, with Ausländer’s poetry the 1970s and 1980s reader finds contemporary literature rooted in history.
Helmut Braun edited a collected works in eight volumes, including Ausländer’s few short prose pieces and excluding her journalistic work and letters. Ausländer’s poetry has been translated into several languages, among them English. Ausländer also wrote poems in English and translated English poems into German.
Collections and Cycles of Poems include:
Der Regenbogen (1939); The Rainbow
Blinder Sommer (1965); Blind Summer
36 Gerechte (1967); 36 Righteous People
Inventar (1972); Inventory
Ohne Visum (1974); No Visa
Andere Zeichen (1975); Other Signs
Noch ist Raum (1976); There Still Is Space
Doppelspiel (1977); Duplicity
Es ist alles anders (1977); Everything Is Different
Mutterland (1978); Motherland
Ein Stück weiter (1979); One Bit Further
Einverständnis (1980); Consent
Mein Atem heißt jetzt (1981); My Breath Is Called Now
Mein Venedig versinkt nicht (1982); My Venice Does Not Sink
Südlich wartet ein wärmeres Land (1982); A Warmer Land Waits in the South
Ich zähl die Sterne meiner Worte (1985); I Count the Stars of My Words
Der Traum hat offene Augen (1987); The Dream With Open Eyes
Ich spiele noch (1987); I Am Still Playing
Gesammelte Werke (8 vols. 1984-1990); Collected works (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1984-90)
Rose Ausländer, Selected Poems, trans. by E. Osers (London: Magazine Editions, 1977)
Rose Ausländer, An Ark Of Stars: Poems, trans. by Ingeborg Wald, drawings by Ed Colker (Cornwall, NY: Hayburn Press, 1989)
Rose Ausländer, Mothertongue, trans. by Jean Boase-Beier and Anthony Vivis (Todmorden, UK: Arc Publications, 1995)
Rose Ausländer, While I Am Drawing Breath, Bilingual Edition, trans. by trans. by Jean Boase-Beier and Anthony Vivis (Todmorden, UK: Arc Publications, 2014)
Further Reading in English
Kathrin M. Bower, Ethics and remembrance in the poetics of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000)
Kathrin M. Bower, “Rose Ausländer (1901–1988), Austria-Hungary/Germany”, in Women Writers in German-Speaking Countries: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, ed. by Elke Frederiksen and Elizabeth Ametsbichler. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998)
Further Reading in German
Claudia Beil, Sprache als Heimat – Jüdische Tradition und Exilerfahrung in der Lyrik von Nelly Sachs und Rose Ausländer (München: tuduv, 1991)
Helmut Braun (ed.), Rose Ausländer: Materialien zu Leben und Werk (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1991)
Helmut Braun, “Ich bin fünftausend Jahre jung”: Rose Ausländer. Zu ihrer Biographie (Stuttgart: Radius, 1999)
Cilly Helfrich, “Es ist ein Aschensommer in der Welt”. Rose Ausländer: Biographie (Weinheim: Beltz Quadriga, 1995)
Recordings of Ausländer reading her own poems
An entry on Ausländer in the Jewish Women’s Archive by Kirsten Krick-Aigner