“Always unswervingly herself”

Else Lasker-Schuler memorial in Wuppertal © Bernd Thissen

The "greatest poet Germany has ever had" – this is how Gottfried Benn once characterized his fellow poet Else Lasker-Schuler. 75 years ago the writer died in Jerusalem.

Colorful and daring she must have looked when she walked through Berlin's streets dressed as "Prince Juf of Thebes" in imperial times. The black hair cut chin-length, plus wide pants, colorful robes, flashy jewelry. This will have caused a stir.

Perhaps her getup also seemed a bit crazy. Else Lasker-Schuler, however, did not attach any importance to public opinion. She was an exotic, a loner. On 11. February 1869 she was born in Wuppertal-Elberfeld. To this day, Lasker-Schuler is regarded as an outstanding representative of avant-garde literature. Especially her poems became famous. She was less known as a draftswoman.

Growing up in the Bergisches Land

Elisabeth" – called Else – grew up in the Bergisches Land as the youngest child of the Jewish private banker Aron Schuler and his wife Jeannette. Together with her five siblings, she initially lived a sheltered childhood; the family was wealthy. When she is eleven, her favorite brother dies; at 21, she loses her mother.

In 1894, in her early 20s, she married the doctor Berthold Lasker and moved to Berlin, where she took drawing lessons. Through her friendship with the writer Peter Hille, she made contact with the literary scene and published her first poems – the beginning of her career. She is friends with numerous artists, including the painter Franz Marc, the "blue rider," as she calls him, who writes her numerous painted postcards to the "star poet" and "imperial highness" Prince Juf. She interweaves her life closely with her poetry and, imaginative as she is, sometimes invents autobiographical data about herself.

The tone of Lasker-Schuler's poetry is correspondingly childlike and playful; she often uses oriental motifs.

One of her most famous poems is "Tibetteppich" from 1910: "Deine Seele, die die meine liebet/Ist verwirkt mit ihr im Teppichtibet" ("Your soul that loves mine/Is forfeited with it in the carpet Tibet"), the love poem reads. Often her texts are also about religion and about the "Hebrew land", the "Bible land", as she calls Palestine. In the poem cycle "Hebrew Ballads" from 1913, for example, she processes the contents of the Old Testament and also translates them into drawings. She believes in reconciliation between Jews and Christians, Jews and Arabs.

The marriage with Lasker does not last and is divorced in 1903. And also the second marriage with the writer Georg Levin, who at Else's suggestion bears the pen name Herwarth Walden, fails in 1912.

This also marks the end of her middle-class life. From now on she constantly changes her place of residence, living in small rooms and shabby boarding houses.

Lasker-Schuler lived alone in Berlin from the beginning of the 20th century. She lived in over 20 different places until her emigration in 1933.

Escape from Germany

"For I am the eternal Jewess," she explained her restless behavior to a friend, "always wandering" – and often penniless. When the artist George Grosz, who was a friend of hers, once met her outside the house, she came along without shoes: "In slippers with paper stuck on them, because there were holes in them".

To an acquaintance, who invited her to dinner, she said: "Make trouble, butter bread I have alone."

In 1927 her son Paul dies of tuberculosis, an event she can never overcome. In 1932 Else Lasker-Schuler receives the prestigious Kleist Prize. In 1933, she finally leaves Germany because she no longer feels safe there and flees to Switzerland. When the Second World War breaks out in 1939, she is just in Palestine. The much-vaunted "Hebrew land" becomes her new home, but she ultimately experiences it as a disappointment. Political Zionism is alien to her.

Else Lasker-Schuler "was the greatest lyric poet Germany ever had," Gottfried Benn (1886-1956) said of her. "Her themes were Jewish; her imagination oriental, but her language was German … Always unswervingly herself …". 75 years ago, on 22. January 1945, Else Lasker-Schuler, the "Black Swan of Israel," as her friends called her, dies in Jerusalem of a heart attack.

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