Mascha Kaléko

also available in German

born June 7, 1907 in Chrzanów (Schidlow), Galicia, Poland
died January 21, 1975, in Zurich, Switzerland

Polish-German-Jewish poet
40th anniversary of death January 21 2015

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Made famous at an early age by her witty satirical verses in the tradition of Heine and Tucholsky, Mascha Kaléko lived out the fate of many of those forced to give up their home and career by the Nazis. After publishing two highly successful volumes celebrating and satirizing urban life in the late Weimar Republic, Kaléko, a Jew, was forced into exile. Although she was later able to write again, her comeback in the 1950´s was short-lived, and her later years were marked by disappointment and isolation.

Kaléko knew the feeling of being a homeless outsider from an early age, when her family emigrated to Germany from poverty-stricken Galicia (in Poland), and she successfully assimilated by learning to speak the local Berlin dialect, as her first poems reflect.

Kaléko left school at around 16 and worked as a secretary; she delightfully captured the trials and tribulations of this work in her early poems, published first in newspapers, then by Ernst Rowohlt as Das lyrische Stenogrammheft (The Lyrical Stenobook; 1933) and Das kleine Lesebuch für Große (The Little Reader for Big Folks; 1935). Popular for their combination of quick Berlin wit and the melancholy of the Jewish East, Kaléko´s songs and chansons were performed on the radio and in Cabarets by herself and by such performers as Claire Waldoff, Rosa Valetti, Annemarie Hase and Tatjana Sais, and after being forbidden by the Nazis, were handcopied and circulated secretly. Kaléko herself was celebrated as a youthful talent, and like Irmgard Keun, she pretended to be five years younger than she was in reality. She had contact with the literary and artistic avant-garde of Berlin, and spent much time in the Romanisches Café, together with Tucholsky, Lasker-Schüler and others.

In 1928 Mascha had married the Hebrew philologist Saul Kaléko, whom she divorced ten years later in order to marry Chemjo Vinaver, a musicologist and conductor specializing in Chassidic choral music and the father of her son Evjatar. The family emigrated to New York City in 1938; and the long difficult period of exile began. Devoted entirely to the care of her small son and the advancement of her husband’s career, Mascha wrote in her diary: "Meine Welt has sich ‘verengt’ auf zwei Menschen: Chemjo und Evjatar. Sie hat sich dennoch erweitert" ("My world has ‘narrowed’ to two persons: Chemjo and Evjatar. It has nonetheless expanded.") The joys of watching her child’s growth provided a counterweight to the discouragement of not having the time or linguistic context for her own work and the financial and personal strain of Vinaver’s failure to gain a foothold in the music world. An attempt to make a new start in Hollywood (1940) proved a disaster, and the family returned to New York more hopeless than ever. Mascha earned money writing jingles for commercials, and did public relations and organisational work for her husband’s chorus.

In Verse für Zeitgenossen (Verses for Contemporaries; Cambridge, Mass., 1945), Kaléko represented her experiences in exile in satirical poems which were reprinted in Germany in 1958. Kaléko’s comeback had begun with the reprinting of Das lyrische Stenogrammheft in 1956, again by Ernst Rowohlt; after two weeks it was on the best-seller list, and Kaléko made successful speaking and reading tours in Europe.

In 1960 she was nominated for the Fontane Prize for literature, but declined it because a former member of the SS was in the jury.

She moved to Jerusalem in 1960 because of her husband’s work, but never felt truly at home there. Besides children’s books and more poems Kaléko wrote epigrams; although she published more volumes during the 60’s and early 70’s she lapsed into relative public neglect. Both Chemjo and Mascha were in increasingly poor health, and in 1968 their son, who had become a successful dramatist and director in the USA, died suddenly. They never recovered from this blow; and after Chemjo´s death in 1973 Mascha’s discouragement and isolation deepened still more. After her death (from stomach cancer) Kaléko’s works again began to be reprinted, in large part due to the efforts of her literary executor and later editor/biographer Gisela Zoch-Westphal.

Joey Horsley


Ich aß die grünenden Früchte der Sehnsucht,
Trank von dem Wasser das dürsten macht.
Ein Fremdling, stumm vor unerschlossenen Zonen,
Zur Heimat erkor ich mir die Liebe.

I ate the greening fruits of longing,
Drank from the water that causes thirst.
A stranger, gone mute before unopened realms,
I chose love to be my homeland.

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See the German version for literature and websites about Kaléko.

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Hedwig Dohm