The life story of Else Lasker-Schüler is the story of German Jewry from the late nineteenth century until World War II: Jews who were neither a part of the traditional Jewish way of living, prevailing in Eastern Europe, nor fully assimilated into the non-Jewish German society. But it is also the fascinating and tragic biography of a uniquely original and talented poet, highly praised in Germany both during her lifetime and after her death.
Else was born in 1869 in Elberfeld, Germany to an assimilated Jewish family. As a child she knew she was Jewish, but was unaware of Jewish tradition. On Yom Kippur her parents would invite friends and have a huge meal, and young Else would wonder what it was that they were celebrating. Due to an illness she left school at the age of eleven, and acquired her education from her mother, herself a poet. At the age of thirteen her beloved brother died; eight years later her mother passed away. Else was a very unusual young woman – somewhat depressive, creative, imaginative, eccentric.
She married and divorced twice, and had a son whose father was unknown, an extremely uncommon occurrence at the time. In the first two decades of the twentieth century she was a key figure in Berlin’s bohemian circles; her poems were highly appreciated. Extravagantly dressed, ignoring social conventions, she wandered around Berlin’s coffee shops with her son, adored by artists and intellectuals, a leading female character in German expressionism. In 1932 she won the prestigious Kleist Prize. Yet the poems she wrote at this time reveal her sense of alienation; a feeling of never being part of a social circle, always alone, immersed in an inner spiritual world. She didn’t feel part of German society, yet was utterly detached from Jewish life.
Growing anti-Semitism made Else delve into Judaism. Since she lacked any knowledge of beliefs and customs, she began reading the Bible. The biblical figures became vivid in her mind as though they were her contemporaries, and the depictions of the ‘Heavenly Jerusalem’ were as real to her as a place which one could actually visit. Her poems and drawings portray the stories of the Bible in a penetrating and imaginative way. A well-known collection, Hebrew Poems, describes the characters of David, Saul, and Deborah the prophetess.
In 1927 her son Paul died of tuberculosis. Broken-hearted, her poems from that period were consumed with agony and death. In 1933, at the age of sixty-four, she was beaten in the street by a group of Nazi thugs. As she returned home she decided, in her impulsive way, to leave Germany immediately. She didn’t tell any of her friends that she was leaving and as a result she was declared a ‘missing person’ until she was found safe in Switzerland.
Else made three journeys to Palestine. The first two left a deep impression and inspired some wonderful drawings and poems. In 1939, at the age of seventy, she traveled for the third time to Jerusalem, but with the outbreak of World War II, the Swiss authorities prohibited her return to Switzerland.
She spent the last six years of her life in Jerusalem, suffering poverty, illness, and above all, solitude. She was often seen feeding street cats and birds while talking to them; a bizarre – not to say deranged – woman, ignoring everything besides the animals and a few German friends. Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet, remembers the children of Jerusalem mocking her. And Leah Goldberg, also a poet and a scholar, recalls watching her: “The café was almost empty. She sat in her usual place, gray as a bat, small, poor, withdrawn … this dreadful poverty, the terrible loneliness of the great poet.”
The encounter between the real Jerusalem and the imaginary one was very painful for Else, though not all destructive. At the time the city combined a universal spirit with the state of mind of a small town. The tensions between Arabs and Jews, the poverty of some quarters, the pilgrims of all religions, many religious and cultural symbols so many cherish – they all were details in her spiritual path. She was devastated by the news coming from Germany, worried about her friends, but fully aware that there was nowhere for her to return to after the Holocaust. She drew many pictures of Jerusalem, and completed her last collection of poems, My Blue Piano.
In 1945 Else died at home, alone. She was buried in the cemetery on Mt. Olives. Very few people attended her funeral.
My Blue Piano/ Else Lasker-Schüler, 1943
At home I have a blue piano.
But I can’t play a note.
It’s been in the shadow of the cellar door
Ever since the world went rotten.
Four starry hands play harmonies.
The Woman in the Moon sang in her boat.
Now only rats dance to the clanks.
The keyboard is in bits.
I weep for what is blue. Is dead.
Sweet angels, I have eaten
Such bitter bread. Push open
The door of heaven. For me, for now —
Although I am still alive —
Although it is not allowed.