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May 2012 Journal

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Lotte Kramer’s collected poems

Lotte Kramer, born Lotte Wertheimer in Mainz in 1923, started writing poetry only relatively late, in 1979, when what she calls ‘the ice-break of words’ induced her to confront the traumatic experiences of her childhood: the humiliation and suffering inflicted on her as a Jew, the parting from her parents when she left for Britain on a Kindertransport train in July 1939, and the loss of many family members in the Holocaust, including her parents, who were deported to Piaski, near Lublin in Poland. These experiences are central to the substantial volume of her New and Collected Poems, published in 2011 by Rockingham Press of Ware, Hertfordshire, priced £9.99.

It was also to Piaski that the mother of Mainz’s most famous daughter, the novelist Anna Seghers, was deported. Seghers, whose real name was Netty Reiling, was born in 1900 and died in East Berlin in 1983, a convinced Communist. As a literary stalwart of the GDR, she was long boycotted in West Germany, which meant that her great novel Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross) (1942, subsequently made into a Hollywood film starring Spencer Tracy) and the unforgettable short story Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen (The Excursion of the Dead Girls) (written in exile in Mexico in 1943/44) have never enjoyed the acclaim they deserve. Only rarely, as in that part-autobiographical account of the schoolgirl Netty returning home from a school excursion on the Rhine in 1912, juxtaposed with the fate that would befall her, her family and her friends in both world wars - the deportations to the extermination camps, as well as the destruction of Mainz in an air raid – does Seghers refer to her own Jewish background.

For Lotte Kramer, as for Anna Seghers, the Rhine, at once the symbol of history in flow and the symbol of the permanence of nature, of the natural order and, by extension, of the humane values innate in human beings, marks a lasting reference point. The beauty, harmony and abundant fruitfulness of the Rhineland landscape continue to resonate in their works, even in distant lands of exile, made the more distant by the barbarism that had enveloped their native countryside in 1933, excluding them from the community to which they had belonged.

In her poem ‘Rhine’, Kramer addresses the river as a powerful protective force – ‘Always the father of my being/Unchanging in your majestic song’ – that is unaffected by the fickleness of humankind. While the sight of barges bearing goods on ‘the flow of your streaming’ reminds the poet of the river’s liquid transcendence of borders, its ‘sheltering fastness’ still remains a solid refuge against the storms of history, offering protection ‘with assuring presence’ even as the poet recalls how ‘Crusaders rampaged through Jewish quarters’, a historical premonition of the Nazi terror. (The reference is to the massacres of Rhineland Jews by crusaders under Emicho of Leiningen in 1096.)

But rivers take on a new significance in the light of Kramer’s enforced flight from Mainz to Britain, in the sense that by transcending boundaries they open up new perspectives and opportunities, especially for writers. ‘To cross a bridge’, she writes, ‘is walking to a new country’. A central theme in Kramer’s work is her awareness of having gained from her exposure to two cultures, which, as if they were the two banks delineating the channel of her life, have nurtured and enriched her, ‘the bloodstream feeding both sides’.

Above all, Kramer the poet has been enriched by exposure to two languages. Her poem ‘Bilingual’ conveys the well-defined intellectual order of German:

When you speak German
The Rhineland opens its watery gates,
Lets in strong currents of thought.
Sentences sit on shores teeming
With certainties.

English, by contrast, remains fluid and elusive:

When you speak English
The hesitant earth softens your vowels.
The sea – never far away – explores
Your words with liquid memory.

In ‘My Three Rivers’, she describes the course of her life as moving from the Rhine to the valley of the Thames, then to Peterborough, where she settled with her husband, a fellow refugee from Mainz, by the flat horizons and muddy arms of the Nene.

Kramer’s work reflects her life, which may stand for that of a generation of assimilated German-Jewish children who were brought up believing that they belonged in German society. The collection The Shoemaker’s Wife (1987) is replete with memories of sunlit summer days in Mainz, of happy family life, of Kramer’s grandmother’s ‘rooted security and village ways’, of schoolgirls enjoying the squashy sweetness of cherries, which decades later could still transport the poet back to the innocence of her childhood, before she had learnt what maggots could lurk in the flesh of the enticing fruit.

Kramer repeatedly invokes the service of relatives, including her father, in the Kaiser’s army during the First World War, the field grey of their uniform symbolising their loyalty to Germany and its subsequent betrayal by a disloyal fatherland. The poem ‘Delusions’, from The Phantom Lane (2000), describes how Jewish men like her own father had kept their wartime photos as soldiers, which their mothers had proudly framed. But, as Kramer puts it in her direct, concrete style: ‘They fooled themselves, as Jews,/That they belonged, were integrated,/German to the core and nothing could/Deter their constancy.’

Above all, it was the so-called ‘Crystal Night’ pogrom of 1938, ‘a November day/Bright with dread and ashes’, that shattered the illusion that there might yet be a place for Jews in Hitler’s Germany. Kramer’s poem in memory of her classics teacher Friedrich Sandels evokes in chilling clarity how ‘On the day of the burning school/He came walking towards us,/Face as grey as his flapping coat’, to inform the pupils of the Jewish school that their headmaster had gassed himself in despair, the beliefs of a lifetime reduced to ‘a splintered alphabet’.

Even under the Nazi tyranny, however, some friends remained true. The poem ‘Lament and Celebration’, for example, is dedicated to the memory of the poet’s lifelong friend Greta Berdolt, who as a child had defied the pressures of Nazi society by visiting Kramer: ‘Through streets of terror/You came as night’s shadow/Giving new names/To courage and love’ (from The Desecration of Trees, 1994). And the reason why the shoemaker’s wife had a collection of poems named in her honour was because she had come to her Jewish clients’ house in tears, after the ominous sign ‘No Jews’ had been affixed to her cobbler husband’s shop.

The separation from home, parents and family was a lasting trauma for Kramer, expressed in such poems as that dedicated to the solitary suitcase she had been allowed to take with her on the train to England and that now stands grey and tattered in an attic, ‘stuffed tight with mother love and heartache’. The enduring pain of that loss is attributed 60 years later to the suitcase: ‘Unable to forget the packed trains/Of ownerless children and platforms of tears.’ One of Kramer’s most movingly resonant poems, ‘Exodus’ (from Black over Red, 2005), refashions the story of the infant Moses to fit the children’s exodus of 1938/39:

For all mothers in anguish
Pushing out their babies
In a small basket

To let the river cradle them
And kind hands find
And nurture them

Providing safety
In a hostile world:
Our constant gratitude.

As in this last century
The crowded trains
Taking us away from home

Became our baby baskets
Rattling to foreign parts
Our exodus from death.

But also omnipresent in Kramer’s poetry is the consciousness of those other trains that bore their human cargo to the extermination camps. ‘What do we know of nights in cattle-trucks?’ is the opening line of ‘Deportation’, while ‘Red Cross Message’, recording her parents’ last message of farewell before they left on their final journey, ends by evoking ‘Your calvary of nails/And gas and graves’. Images of gas and chimneys abound in the poems, though often they suggest the gas chambers and crematoria of the Holocaust only obliquely. In ‘On Shutting the Door’, the everyday act of shutting the front door causes the poet to wonder how her parents would have shut their front door for the last time, after they had ‘turned off the water, gas …’. Since her parents have no known grave, she is fated ‘Never to share/Your last secrets,/Never to know/Where your breath ceased’ (from ‘Certainty’).

Kramer was fortunate in that she found a welcoming home in Britain, looked after by Mrs Margaret Fyleman and Sophie Cahn, a teacher from Mainz who had accompanied five Jewish girls to their new home in Tring, Hertfordshire, the house that is so vividly conjured up in the poem ‘Arrival’. Her experiences of Britain are also presented in a largely favourable light, though she long retained the sense of being an outsider. Her collected poems, like those of her fellow refugee poet Gerda Mayer, stand as a moving evocation of a childhood shaped by the experience of National Socialism, the Holocaust and the Kindertransport.

Anthony Grenville

next article:Art Notes (review)