There were two ways to respond to that unbearable reality. Either one could despair entirely or one could occupy a different, spiritual reality[...] And while we waited for death, there were those of us who dwelt in dreamwords--our traumatic home amidst our homelessness. To write was to live.
-- Rose AusländerThe issue of language and grief continues to fascinate me. For many years, I've admired the poetry of Rose Ausländer. I discovered her work through the anthology After Every War: Twentieth-Century Women Poets, edited and translated by Eavan Boland. I recently learned about an episode in Ausländer's life when she abandoned her mother tongue, refusing to write in German after the death of her mother.
Ausländer was born in 1901 to a German-speaking family in Czernowitz, Bukovina, a territory then part of Austria-Hungary but presently part of Ukraine. In 1921, she moved with her husband to the United States and began publishing poetry. Within a few years, the marriage was over and Ausländer returned home. She would make another move to the United States before settling once more in Czernowitz to take care of her ill mother around the time of World War II.
In 1941, Czernowitz fell under Nazi occupation and Rose and her mother were forced to live in a Jewish ghetto where they often hid in cellars to avoid deportation. It was during this time in the Czernowitz ghetto that Ausländer met the poet Paul Celan. The two would remain friends for their entire lives. In 1944, the ghetto was liberated by the Russians who continued to persecute the Jewish community. In 1946, Ausländer fled to the United States. Her mother died a year later, before Ausländer could obtain a visa for her.
The death of Ausländer's mother was a traumatic experience. Though she had published poetry in German since the 1920s, she refused to write in her mother tongue for the next ten years. Over the course of that decade, Ausländer wrote and published poetry solely in English.
Her choice to reject German is understandable, considering the catastrophe of World War II. Maybe writing in English represented a break with the past, the promise of a new beginning in a new language that held more possibilities. German was the language of her parents, but it was also the language of her persecutors, the Nazis. Or maybe it was another form of speechlessness. Her mother died and Ausländer literally could not speak in the primary language she had always known. She could not find the words for her own personal loss or for the historic loss of millions of people.
Over that lost decade, Ausländer still believed in language. She was not silenced. She translated her emotions and memories into English, but she could not forget her mother tongue. Her friends Marianne Moore, whom she befriended while living in New York, and Paul Celan encouraged her to write again in German.
Influenced by American Modernism and Celan, Ausländer returned to the German language, writing the poems that would bring her great acclaim during her lifetime. In German, she affirmed her profound belief in the life-saving properties of writing. Multiple poems attest to her dedication, perhaps even obsession, with words. Take, for instance, the poem "Mother Tongue," which seems to celebrate her reunion with German:
I have changed
from myself into myself
from moment to moment
sprung into fragments
on the word path
you piece me together
a human mosaicNow that her mother is dead, language, her mother tongue, will guide her, even love her, as we see in the poem "Words":
Keep me in your serviceHer relationship with words is like a love affair. She gives her life to language, she loves it and imagines that it can love her in return, that it can make her whole despite the devastation she has suffered.
my whole life long
let me breathe in you
I thirst for you
drink you word for word
Your angry glitter
you bloom in me
word of spring
I follw you
even into sleep
spell out all your dreams
We speak the same language
we love each other
German was the language of the Nazis, but it's also the language of the victims and the survivors, of Celan and Ausländer, the language of horror and grief and beauty and splendor. It took ten years for Ausländer to realize that she still had something to say in her mother tongue, that the words were there, ready for her, and all she had to do was find them and let them do their work.
Note: All quotes, biographical facts, and poems are from Mother Tongue: Selected Poems by Rose Ausländer, translated by Jean Boase-Beier and Anthony Vivis