The two prose works collected in A Jewish Mother from Berlin: A Novel/ Susanna: A Novella (1997, tr. Brigitte M. Goldstein) read like disenchanted but dreamlike tales, focused on misfits that behave like ancient mythical figures driven by hubris but trapped in a world that seems to be slowly falling apart.
In A Jewish mother from Berlin (1997, tr. Brigitte M. Goldstein. Original: Eine Mutter/ Die jüdische Mutter, written in 1930/31, and first published posthumously in 1965), the eponymous mother is Martha Wolg (née Jadassohn), a young woman married to a gentile businessman, Friedrich Wolg. Despite facing strong opposition from Friedrich’s family, they marry for love. From the beginning, we sense that Friedrich is plagued by his parents’ stereotypes about Jewish women (as well as by his own prejudices against New Women, their drive to build a career, and their sexual assertiveness). They soon have a daughter, but the relationship gradually cools down, and Friedrich emigrates to the United States (only to pass away shortly after).
Widowed at an early age, Martha decides to build a life of her own, away from her parents-in-law. She moves to a working-class neighbourhood with her five-year-old daughter Ursula (Ursa) and starts to earn a living as a studio photographer.
One evening, after coming home from work, Martha notices that Ursa has disappeared. After many nightmarish hours of frantic search, Martha finds her daughter in an old shack, lying unconscious and blood-soaked: Ursula had been abducted and raped by a paedophile. As she lies in a coma in the hospital, the doctors seem to believe Ursa will not recover from her severe physical and psychological trauma.
Overwhelmed by shock and grief, and mourning the emotional injuries inflicted on her child, our Jewish mother ponders whether she should redeem Ursula by killing her, so as to spare her from further pain. From then on, we follow Martha’s fall from grace, as she descends into alienation and madness. Driven by the sole purpose of finding the culprit and avenging her child, she seduces a former acquaintance of her deceased husband, so as to use him to find the perpetrator, in exchange for sex.
As she embarks on an obsessive hunt for her daughter’s rapist, we follow our Jewish mother to all seedy corners of 1920’s Berlin, where we can feel the growing anti-Semitism and Nazi propaganda lurking in the background. As she roams through the city, Martha seems to be also wandering through different stereotypes against Jewish women – and she will be eventually swallowed by them.
As scenes in a dream, we follow Martha’s encounters with various characters. Their interactions touch on topics such as infanticide, sexual deviance, retribution, God (or the lack thereof), and truth. Martha tries a session with a clairvoyant, a visit to a synagogue, and a consultation with a lawyer, but no one seems to have the answer for her desperate search for justice, which is driven forward by an eery combination of maternal guilt and desire for revenge. “There is no God, there is nothing. There is absolutely nothing there (…) I have to carry all of this on my own”.
The novel is fuelled by an ancient hatred that has a taste of the Old Testament. Martha is bitter, angry, and haunting; a kind of Medea, thrown into despair in a hopeless situation, and forgotten by her god. She will eventually find justice in the river Spree, on her way into the water, hugged to a ghost.
Susanna (1997, tr. Brigitte M. Goldstein. Original: Susanna, written in 1939/1940, and first published posthumously in 1959) is narrated by a Jewish governess, as she reminisces about the time she took a job in a small East German town, to look after a 20-year-old girl, the eponymous Susanna, who suffered from an unspecified form of mental illness.
The narrator tells us that Susanna is ‘gemütskrank’. The girl lives in a fantasy world of her own, where animals and humans can fall in love and marry, and dream and reality mingle. Our Susanna seems unable to distinguish between reality and imagination, and tends to understand everything in a literal sense.
One day, the governess inadvertently overhears a conversation between Susanna and a man, Rubin, and discovers that they have fallen in love. Opposing the affair, his family dispatches him to Berlin. Unwilling to sacrifice her love, Susanna decides to go to the city. When the ticket vendor jokes that, since she has no money for the train fare, she should walk on the train tracks to her destination, Susanna follows his advice literally – and meets with a tragic end.
The highlight of this story, for me, is the contrast between Susanna’s fantasy world and her governess’ disenchanted grasp of reality: they perceive the world differently, and behave like two opposing forces. How real is fantasy? How much fantasy is there in what we consider real? You manage to blur the lines, as these two realms finally collapse into each other.
Both A Jewish mother from Berlin and Susanna have a flavour of French symbolism and decadence, combining a fairy tale atmosphere, mythical elements, and hints at deviance and madness. In both, we can sense a clash between female desire and morality, and Martha and Susanna’s quests for self-determination unfold as tales of ever-increasing alienation and collapse. Beneath the surface of both narratives, we find a world that, like the protagonists, is gradually falling apart: innocence and salvation have no place here, god is a broken puzzle, and Martha and Susanna must carry its debris on their own.
“She thought: the girl is right. This awkward, fire-red, dusky animal, the ungainly, lonely member of a dying species – that is who I am.” – Gertrud Kolmar, A Jewish Mother from Berlin
“She looked back. Behind her a snowy slope, a hill suspended in the bluish light of the bleary moon. A flower silence, completely unfolded, so dead, so pure. A shroud. It was woven of silver glass threads, of lilies and the night.” – Gertrud Kolmar, A Jewish Mother from Berlin
About the book
- Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1997, tr. Brigitte M. Goldstein, 202 p. Goodreads
- Original: Eine Mutter/ Die jüdische Mutter, written in 1930/31, and first published posthumously in 1965
- Original: Susanna, written in 1939/1940, and first published posthumously in 1959
- My rating: 4,5
- Projects: Read More German Books in 2020, hosted by Mel and Britta; Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen; Women in Translation Month, hosted by Meytal (August)