In March I joined a small poetry reading group on Zoom. This was during covid when we were more housebound. There was a catch though – at each meeting we had to learn a poem off by heart and ‘read’ it from memory. I find it slow work to memorise a poem. To make it easier on myself I chose mainly short poems—often by Rose Ausländer.
On my last visit to Germany I had bought a little book of her poetry—a selection of poems called ‘Regenwörter’ (Rainwords).
I enjoyed introducing this German language poet to our little Zoom group and would read the German and English versions. She was part of my culture, my language, my background. Being a German of my generation, that comes with a lot of ambiguity and soul-searching and Rosa embodied that.
Many of her poems are short, clear and rhythmical, playful even. The themes of her lyrical poetry reflect her life—her sense of home and longing for it, her childhood, her relationship to her mother, her loves, losses, being Jewish, the Holocaust, exile and later ageing and death. They often include nature and her connection to the natural world as a companion and intimate friend. She invented words, which you can do in German by stringing words together. Many of her poems have a soothing quality despite their themes of loss and longing.
She lived through wars and genocide, exile and home-coming. She said, ‘I survived because I was able to write, that writing was like a drive, an instinct.’ She wrote more than 3000 poems and made her home in words.
They buried it
in my motherland
Rose Ausländer was born 11 May, 1901 into a Jewish family in Czernowitz, a town in an area called ‘the Bukovina’. At the time of her birth it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and a flourishing part of central Europe. It was a melting pot of ethnic groups, languages and customs. After World War 1, Bukovina became part of Romania and after World War 2 became part of the Ukraine. In 1957, she wrote this poem about her beloved Bukovina—‘land of beech trees’.
butterflies in her hair
says the sun
red melon milk
white maize milk
I made them sweet
Violet pine cones
airwings birds and foliage
The Carpathian ridge
to carry you
songs in four languages
who understand each other
When she grew up, most middle class and liberal Jews spoke German. She studied literature and philosophy at the German university in her hometown. As a student she was introduced to the work of Constantin Brunner, a popular philosopher throughout the German speaking world at the time. He was influenced by Plato and especially Spinoza. These teachings sustained her all her life.
Her father died when she was nineteen. As a consequence she had to leave university and her family urged her to emigrate to the USA.
She emigrated in 1921 and joined relatives in a small town in the Mid West and a year later settled in New York. There she married a school friend from her home town. She worked in a bank and as a journalist and translator. The marriage lasted only a few years. She became an American citizen in 1926. But she missed her family and culture and in 1931 returned to Czernowitz to care for her mother.
In 1935 she lost her American citizenship. Some years later her first collection of lyrical poetry was published but then suppressed by the Nazis.
Between 1941 and 1944 Rose, her mother, brother and sister-in-law had to live in the Czernowitz ghetto and do forced labour. Later they went into hiding and survived the holocaust.
She returned to New York in 1946 with the plan for her mother to join her. But her mother died and Rose again struggled to feel at home in New York.
She received American citizenship and wrote in English until 1957. Fellow poets encouraged her to find her way back into the German language.
In 1964 she moved to Vienna and in 1965 settled in Düsseldorf, Germany. The same year her poetry collection, ‘Blinder Sommer’ (Blind Summer) was published and was well received. She traveled widely in Europe and to Israel over the next few years and met poets and writers.
In my deep dreams
the earth cries
into my eyes
When people come
with multicoloured questions
go to Socrates
made me in into poetry
inherited the future
My breath is called
In 1972 Rose moved to the Nelly Sachs Haus, a Jewish aged care facility in Düsseldorf.
She met Werner Braun who published and championed her work thereafter.
In 1977 she broke her hip and did not leave her room anymore.
Rose Ausländer died on 03 January, 1988.
She has become a much loved poet in Germany. When I was collecting information on her life I discovered that there is a private museum dedicated to her poetry in a small town not far from where I grew up. I will make sure to visit it next time I am there.
Listen to this…
You’re here, still
Throw your fear
into the air
your time is over
under the grass
your dreams fall
the carnation smells sweetly
the thrush sings
still you may love
give words away
you are here, still
Be what you are
Give what you have