Gabriele Tergit (1894-1982)

Gabriele Tergit’s given name was Elise Hirschmann. She was born in East Berlin to a well-off Jewish family. Her father owned cable factories and a car tyre factory. Her first newspaper article was published in 1915 – this was the year she adopted the pen-name of Gabriele Tergit, because at the time it was frowned upon for a young woman from a well-off family to work as journalist. In 1928 she married the architect Heinrich Reifenberg and became Elise Reifenberg. However she is known today under her literary pseudonym Gabriele Tergit.

From 1919 to 1923 she studied history, philosophy and sociology, first in Munich, then in Heidelberg, Frankfurt am Main and Berlin. In 1925 she completed her PhD on the scientist and liberal politician Karl Vogt, who was a representative at the first German national parliament in 1848-49. One of Tergit’s professors in Munich was the sociologist Max Weber. Like Weber she was a political liberal who was opposed to Marxism; unlike Weber she affirmed the need for social security programmes in line with the conservative sociologist Gustav Schmoller, whom she cites at length in Chapter 17 of her novel Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm; Käsebier takes Berlin (1931; English translation 2019).

From 1920 onwards Tergit worked full time as a journalist, first as a freelancer. Then she worked as a court correspondent, first for the Berliner Börsen-Courier (1923-24) and then for the Berliner Tageblatt (1924-33). She also contributed regularly to Carl von Ossietzky’s journal Die Weltbühne, using another pseudonym: that of the Enlightenment author, Christian Thomasius. Her many friends in Berlin included the novelist Georg Hermann (known as ‘the Jewish Fontane’), the city planner and architectural critic Werner Hegemann, and the playwright Felix Joachimson, who later wrote the screenplay for the Hollywood film Destry Rides Again (1939).

When the Nazis seized power in 1933, the Reifenbergs moved first to Czechoslovakia and then to Palestine. During her five years in Palestine she wrote a book about the political situation in Palestine which was critical of the Zionist movement; the book was never published. Tergit described it as follows: ‘Ich habe einen Journalistenbuch über Palästina geschrieben, mehr kontra als pro, ich kann nun einmal Nationalismus in keiner Verkleidung leiden’ (‘I have written a book of journalism about Palestine, more contra than pro, I cannot stand nationalism in any guise’ – Tergit, letter of May 1946 to Ernst Rowohlt, held in the Deutsches Literarturarchiv (DLA) in Marbach, quoted in Hans Wagener, pp. 70-71).

In 1938 the family moved to London, where Tergit spent the rest of her life. She had been a member of the writers’ association PEN since 1931, and from 1957 to 1981 she worked as the secretary of the PEN centre for German-speaking authors living outside Germany.

Tergit is best known for her novel Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm; Käsebier takes Berlin (1931; English translation 2019).

She also wrote an epic family novel, Effingers (1951) which can be seen as a German-Jewish pendant to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.

A further novel, So war’s eben (That’s How It Was) was never published. The typescript of this novel is held in the Deutsches Literarturarchiv (DLA) in Marbach. The Berlin publisher Schöffling & Co. is currently republishing Tergit’s works, and there is a possibility that it may be published soon for the first time (!), see here.

Tergit’s published works include:

Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (1931) Käsebier Takes Berlin (literally: Käsebier conquers the Kurfürstendamm)

Effingers (1951)

Das Büchlein vom Bett (1954) The Little Book of Beds

Kaiserkron und Päonien rot. Kleine Kulturgeschichte der Blumen (1958) Imperial Lilies and Red Peonies. A Short Cultural History of Flowers

Das Tulpenbüchlein (1965) The Little Book of Tulips

Etwas Seltenes überhaupt. Erinnerungen (1983) Something Strange. Memoirs

Atem einer anderen Welt. Berliner Reportagen (1994) The Air of Another World. Berlin Reports

Im Schnellzug nach Haifa (1996) Express Train to Haifa

Wer schießt aus Liebe? Gerichtsreportagen (1999) Who shoots out of love? Reports from Court

Der erste Zug nach Berlin (2000) The First Train to Berlin

Frauen und andere Ereignisse. Publizistik und Erzählungen von 1915 bis 1970 (2001) Women and Other Events. Journalism and Stories, 1915-1970

English Translation

Gabriele Tergit, Käsebier Takes Berlin, trans. by Sophie Duvernoy (New York: NYRB Classics, 2019)/(London: Pushkin Press, 2020)

* * *

Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (1931); Käsebier Takes Berlin

[literally: Käsebier conquers the Kurfürstendamm]

The title character is a folk singer, Georg Käsebier (literally: Cheese-beer), who is catapalted to overnight fame when the famous novelist Otto Lambeck writes a glowing review of his show. But Käsebier is only an extra in this novel. The novel is not about Käsebier, but about the way he – or rather, his image – is exploited by everyone around him: the media, Berlin high society, property developers, financiers, toy manufacturers, the list goes on and on. The novel portrays the decline of the Weimar Republic in various ways, through the short-lived career of Käsebier himself, through the decline in quality of the newspaper, which is run into the ground by the unscrupulous publicist Willi Frächter, a fictional disciple of Alfred Hugenberg, the right-wing press baron, and through the property speculation scheme which collapses due to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and which leads to a bank collapse. The main protagonists of the book are the liberal journalists Miermann and Fräulein Dr. Lotte Kohler, who work for the Berliner Rundschau, a liberal newspaper loosely based on the Berliner Tageblatt where Tergit was employed. Although they are very highly educated people, both of them are too wrapped up in their own concerns to prevent the disaster unfolding.

Further Reading in English

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Women Writers in the “Golden” Twenties’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Modern German Novel, ed. by Graham Bartram (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 123-37

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Urban Modernity and the Politics of Heimat: Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm’, German Life and Letters 72:1 (2019), 14-27

Helen Chambers, ‘“Eine ganze Welt baut sich im Gerichtssaal auf”: Law and order in the reportage of Joseph Roth and Gabriele Tergit’, in Vienna meets Berlin: Cultural Interaction 1918-1933, ed. by John Warren and Ulrike Zitzlsperger (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005), pp. 95-108

Fiona Littlejohn, ‘Mobility in the Metropolis: Responses to the Changing City in Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm and J. B. Priestly’s Angel Pavement’, in New Readings 5 (2000)

Ernest Schonfield, Business Rhetoric in German Novels: From Buddenbrooks to the Global Corporation (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2018), Chapter 3, pp. 57-77: ‘Organizing Speech in Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm, 1931’

Fiona Sutton, Models of Modernity: Readings of selected novels of the late Weimar Republic. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham (2001)

Fiona Sutton, ‘Weimar’s Forgotten Cassandra: The Writings of Gabriele Tergit in the Weimar Republic, in Karl Leydecker (ed.), German Novelists of the Weimar Republic: Intersections of Literature and Politics, Rochester, NY, 2006, pp. 193-209

Christina Ujma, ‘Gabriele Tergit and Berlin – Women, Urbanism and Modernity’, in Practicing Modernity: Female Creativity in the Weimar Republic, ed. by Christiane Schönfeld (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2015), pp. 262-77

Further Reading in German

Elke-Vera Kotowski, Gabriele Tergit. Grossstadtchronistin der Weimarer Republik, Jüdische Miniaturen 203 (Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich, 2017)

Eva-Maria Mockel, Aspekte von Macht und Ohnmacht im literarischen Werk Gabriele Tergits (Aachen: Shaker, 1996)

Liane Schüller, Vom Ernst der Zerstreuung. Schreibende Frauen am Ende der Weimarer Republik: Marieluise Fleißer, Irmgard Keun und Gabriele Tergit (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2005)

Juliane Sucker, “Sehnsucht nach dem Kurfürstendamm”. Gabriele Tergit – Literatur und Journalismus in der Weimarer Republik und im Exil (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2015)

Christina Ujma, ‘Heil und Sieg und fette Beute: Gabriele Tergits Roman Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm in der Originalfassung’, literaturkritik.de, April 2004

Hans Wagener, Gabriele Tergit. Gestohlene Jahre, Schriften des Erich Maria Remarque-Archivs 28 (Göttingen: V & R unipress, 2013)

Web Link in German


Memoiren der Journalistin Gabriele Tergit: "Sie kam aus Berlin, sie liebte Berlin". Nicole Henneberg im Gespräch mit Joachim Scholl, 25 June 2018