Mascha Kaleko interpreted her life as a series of incarnations. Six of them, to be exact.
"In books of wisdom, I’ve read/that every seven years, your identity changes,” she wrote in one poem. In another, entitled “Life in the sixth incarnation,” she wrote, “The cat has nine lives/I’ve reached five/the first never really happened/but it’s considered a double one. Fear, hunger, darkness/and then came love.”
Kaleko's name may not mean a whole lot nowadays but to German Jews in 1933, it meant a great deal. That was the year her first book, "Das Lyrische Stenogrammheft. Verse vom Alltag" (The Lyrical Shorthand Pad), was published.
With the reissue of several volumes of her work, some of which are published posthumously, you could say Mascha Kaleko is now in her seventh incarnation.
Like chapters in a novel, Kaleko marked her incarnations by phases in her life.
In her first incarnation, Mascha Kaleko was on her own. In the second, she was with her first husband, Saul Aaron Kaleko.
In the third, she was with her second husband, Chemjo Vinaver. In the fourth, she was with Chemjo and their only son, Steven (Evjatar). In the fifth, Mascha and Chemjo mourned Steven’s premature death. The sixth found Mascha on her own once again.
And now the seventh is reintroducing her to readers.
Kaleko avoided questions of her own ethnicity in her poem. She even preferred to keep her age private and played coy with details of her early life. In one poem, “Interview with myself,” she offers just a small tidbit about her birthplace, calling it “a small city, full of peddlers, with a church, two or three physicians and a large insane asylum.”
Kaleko was born in 1907 as Golda Malka Aufen in the small city of Chrzanow, Austria in western Galicia (now Poland). When she was 7, she moved to Germany with her mother and sister. At first they lived in Frankfurt and then Marburg before moving, when she was 11, on to Berlin. When her mother remarried, she became Mascha Engel but several years later, after working as a clerk for a Jewish aid organization, she married the philologist Dr. Saul Aaron Kaleko and adopted his name – the second incarnation.
Dr. Kaleko's Hebrew textbook, "Hebrew for Everyone," intended mainly for German Jews, filled an immediate and urgent need as Germany became increasingly dangerous. Its first edition quickly sold out and the Judische Rundschau, the Jewish Chronicle, the weekly paper of the Zionist Federation in Germany (among whose editors were Robert Weltsch and Hugo Bergmann) published many editions of the book during the ensuing years. (My father, who was a music critic for Haaretz for many years, began learning Hebrew with the help of the book). Even though the book’s dedication read “To my wife,” Mascha never learned Hebrew, which proved an obstacle when she eventually arrived in Jerusalem.
Saul Kaleko immigrated to pre-state Israel without his wife. There, he changed his name to Barclay and published histables of verbs and nouns that Israeli pupils would study for generations. Mascha, left behind, kept her name and began publishing her poems in periodicals.
Mascha Koleko's poems draw on real life without embellishment, full of humor and written with grace in simple, down-to-earth language. Some compare her poetry to that of Joachim Ringelnatz or Erich Kastner but Kaleko has a special sound, and her poems are much less bitter and sarcastic.
Kaleko quickly joined the group of avant-garde writers who met regularly at the Romanisches Cafe in Berlin, an impressive gang that included Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann and Alfred Polgar, all of whom admired and encouraged her. She managed to publish a second book of poetry, "Das kleine Lesebuch fur Grosse" (The Little Reader for Grown-Ups) before the Nazis forbade her to publish any more.
In a rather dramatic third incarnation, a year later she had a son out of wedlock, divorced Saul Kaleko and married the father of her child, Chemjo Vinaver.
In 1938, she came to pre-state Israel for a visit because her parents and sister, Rachel, were already living there. But she was not yet meant to stay. Instead, she and her family tried their luck in New York, where she worked as a translator and advertising writer and helped her husband establish a choir. In 1945, she published a third book of poems in German, "Verse fur Zeitgenossen" (Verses for Contemporaries) and in 1952, she paid another visit Israel. Seven years later, in another incarnation, she immigrated there at last.
The move was not the fulfillment of a dream – she would have preferred to return to a German-speaking country to be close to her audience but she gave it up so her husband could devote his energy to an anthology of Hasidic music.
In Israel, Mascha was one of several writers deeply immersed in German language and literature, such as Elsa Lasker-Schiller, Arnold Zweig and Werner Kraft. All of them, so wedded to their words, never managed to make the transition to Hebrew. She understood the Hebrew alphabet, since she wrote a personal journal in Yiddish, but for the more than 15 years that she lived in Jerusalem, she remained completely anonymous, cut off from her German-speaking readers and never finding a Hebrew community. To the best of my knowledge, a lone translation of seven of her poems by Ronen Altman Kaydar was published in the periodical Heliconin 2009.
Kaleko was celebrated for her work, receiving the Fontane Prize by the Berlin Academy of the Arts, but she declined it because one of the judges, Hans Egon Holthusen, had been a member of the SS.
While in Jerusalem, Mascha wrote mostly for adults but produced two children’s books as well. Most of her poems were published posthumously by the executor of her estate, Gisela Zoch-Westphal, an actress and announcer who wrote the first biography of Mascha Kaleko, "Aus den sechs Leben der Mascha Kaleko" (From the six lives of Mascha Kaleko). In the meantime, her poems have become well-known again thanks to many female actors and singers who devote evenings to reading her poems or set them to music and perform them in concerts.
Shortly before the annual book fair in Frankfurt this year, a four-volume collection of Mascha Kaleko’s works was published. The first includes all her poems, the second and third her correspondence and her journal, and the fourth contains notes and commentaries. The volumes were edited by Jutta Rosenkranz, who also wrote an updated biography of the poet five years ago.