Born in 1907 in Austrian Galicia, Mascha Kaléko was an immigrant and refugee twice. Fleeing poverty, her family moved in 1914 to Germany, settling in Frankfurt and then Berlin. Her poems reflect this experience in that many are written in the Berlin dialect she came into adulthood speaking. She left at around 16 and entered the working world as a secretary, at the same time beginning to write seriously.
Mascha’s poems, with their Berlin dialect and humor, were informed by a sense of uprootedness and alienation. She was soon being published in newspapers and journals to a widening audience. As she became increasingly popular, her writings were both read and performed on radio and in cabaret productions, sometimes by herself and sometimes by others. She also became a figure of the Berlin Bohemian scene of the Weimar years, centered around the Romanisches Café, along with Else Lasker-Schüler, Kurt Tucholsky, and other important literati. In the 1930s she started publishing whole volumes of her poetry, even though by this point the Nazis had seized power and some close Jewish acquaintances – artists, writers – were starting to flee the country.
Mascha Kaléko’s second experience as a refugee began in 1938, when she and her second husband, the musicologist and conductor Chemjo Vinaver, began a new life in exile in the United States. After a brief itinerant period, including a sojourn to Hollywood, Mascha, her husband and their young son settled in 1 Minetta Street, a walk-up on the edge of Greenwich Village. Mascha helped support her family the best she could, composing commercial jingles and doing public relations for her husband’s choir. Things were tight for many years, and in New York Mascha was almost forgotten, and overlooked by other German-language exile writers who were fighting for their own work to be published. Only one volume of her work is known to have been published during these first years of exile, Verse für Zeitgenossen (Cambridge, Mass. : Schoenhof, 1945).
Despite their economic constraints, the Kaleko-Vinaver family had a rich cultural life in Greenwich Village, which Mascha later described in a number of literary sketches written for German media in the 1960s. (These sketches were later collected and posthumously published in Der Gott der kleinen Webefehler; Spaziergänge durch New Yorks Lower Eastside und Greenwich Village. Düsseldorf: Eremiten, 1977). From the eye of a German-Jewish refugee poet, she presented the hodgepodge of cultures in the Village and the neighboring Lower East Side:
The Village is the melting pot in the melting pot … In the Third Street Bar Lesbians meet, and diagonally across from that come three black-hooded Genoese women down from marble steps, measured steps, with the worth of the dignity of the “old world”; they were at the early service in Our Lady of Pompeii.
Her “Spaziergänge” (“walking tours”) of the Village, also gave a taste of its cultural as a “Brutstätte der Genies” (“hotbed of genius”):
Here, on 12th Street, Thomas Wolfe had his shack, – he taught on Washington Square, at the New York University, expectant from the success of his first book, and here in the Village he had a love nest for the secret rendezvous with his lovers, that he then portrayed so detailed … the illustrators and editors of the famous New Yorker let their humor and spirit sprinkle, in the artists’ cafes of the Village, the poet E.E. Cummings and so many prominent poets still breathe in Patchin Place, in the tree-lined artists-garden house, and around the corner, in the Cornelia Street, hangs a handwritten name sign over the bell: W.H. Auden.
Her sketches also showed the “foodie” culture, in the Village and Lower East Side, where you could buy Moishe’s Jewish pumpernickel (It’s not clear if she meant the well-known Moishe’s Bake Shop, which recently closed and is now a French bakery), and other Jewish specialties; where on Friday on Rivington Street (the “fromme Ecke” or “pious corner”), you could buy freshly grated horseradish along with fish. In Little Italy, there was the “sweet-herb scent wafting out of the dark inners of stores, – oregano, thyme, basil, and other spices. The garlic aroma of giant salamis, wrapped in green-white-red and shaking from the ceiling, and in the shop windows hang golden-smoked cheese bricks, like organ pipes.” In her eye’s description, everything was a clutter of sights and smells, of different cultures and Bohemians life-styles.
After the War, her work was rediscovered, especially in Germany. Her poems now were largely an expression of her life in exile, of never belonging, of longing for a place that felt like home. In 1956 her first volume of verse was reprinted in Germany. Two weeks later it was a best-seller, and Mascha returned to Europe for a series of successful book readings and events.
In 1960 she was nominated for the Fontane Prize for Literature. However, she declined the nomination when she learned a former member of the SS was on the jury.
The same year she moved to Jerusalem because of her husband’s career. However, she never felt at home there. She wrote more poetry, and published more volumes, but she again was fading into obscurity in the world of German literature. In 1968 their son, who had started a successful career as a dramatist and director in the United States, died suddenly. Mascha and Chemjo never recovered from this blow. Chemlo died in 1973, which only isolated Mascha further. She died of cancer in Zürich, while on a trip to Europe from Jerusalem, in 1975.
Kaléko, Mascha. Die paar leuchtenden Jahre. Edited, introduced and with a biography by Gisela Zoch-Westphal. Munich: DTV, 2005.
FemBio: Notable. Women. International. URL: https://www.fembio.org/english/biography.php/woman/biography/mascha-kaleko/. Retrieved April 25, 2021.
For the original, see: Mascha Kaléko in Greenwich Village. Courtesy of the LBI.