The prominent poet who escaped pre-war Germany and finally found his voice as a refugee in New Zealand

by Sally Blundell / 05 September, 2016
In February 1933, the night after the Reichstag fire, German Jewish poet Karl Wolfskehl fled his ancestral home.
German Jewish poet Karl Wolfskehl in 1945. Photo/Supplied
German Jewish poet Karl Wolfskehl in 1945. Photo/Supplied

On July 3, 1938, the media noted a large man disembarking from the TSS Awatea at Auckland wharf. He cut a memorable figure: dark clothes, shock of hair, wide-brimmed hat. “Immense,” Frank Sargeson later wrote, “poet scholar patrician-bred Jew.”

And now refugee. At 68, prominent German Jewish poet, translator and essayist Karl Wolfskehl was fleeing Hitler’s Germany and a continent on the brink of war. New Zealand was a remote country, a “decent and truly humane society”, he wrote.

“He always looked back to Europe and complained about their destruction of their own heritage and values,” says Wolfskehl scholar Friedrich Voit at the University of Auckland. “But he saw New Zealand as a country without racism – it was an ideal.”

During the following 10 years of exile, before his death in 1948, Wolfskehl wrote what is widely considered his best work, including the poetry sequence Job, or The Four Mirrors, frequently aligning himself with Old Testament accounts of banishment and the Jewish diaspora.

“His Jewishness was always there,” says Voit, “but after 1933 his Jewish identity moved into the foreground. He projects the essence of mid-20th century Judaism against a background of what was happening in Europe. It is very erudite poetry, which might be quite difficult to read, but it is rewarding if one takes the time.”

But it is on leaving Europe, says writer and translator Andrew Paul Wood, on the ship and in New Zealand, that he finds his own voice. “He is writing about the prospect of freedom from what was going on in Europe and being in this distant country far from anywhere. You see these three threads coming together – the heritage of the Holy Roman Empire, Teutonic culture and Jewish culture.”

With his young lover, Margot Ruben, in Auckland’s Queen St in the 1940. Photo/Supplied
With his young lover, Margot Ruben, in Auckland’s Queen St in the 1940. Photo/Supplied

These “three worlds” form the title of Voit and Wood’s latest volume of translated poems by Wolfskehl. It is an extensive collection, including early work from the 1900s, but focusing on poetry written or completed during his exile in this far-flung corner of the English-speaking world. The writing, presented here in German and in English translation, is highbrow, often esoteric, but integral to the history of European literature and the little-told story of European émigré cultural figures in this country. As Wood says, “It is ridiculous that one of the most internationally prominent figures in New Zealand is one most people have never read, let alone heard of.”

Born in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1869 into an aristocratic family, Wolfskehl immersed himself in European cultural traditions and Germanic mythology. He was a key figure in the conservative and élitist group of Munich intellectuals gathered around the poet Stefan George.

But despite the staunch anti-modernism of this group, Wolfskehl, by then married with two young daughters, sought out a wider group of thinkers and artists, including philosopher Albert Schweitzer, writers Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke and artists Paul Klee and Franz Marc. He was a friend of Kandinsky; he bought paintings by Picasso and Rousseau.

Then, in February 1933, the night after the Reichstag fire, Wolfskehl fled his ancestral home, travelling first to Switzerland, then to Italy. When that country fell to German influence, he sought sanctuary as far from Europe as he could, eventually finding refuge, he wrote, on “the last rock in the ocean”.

Ruben, who was initially passed off as his niece. Photo/Supplied
Ruben, who was initially passed off as his niece. Photo/Supplied

Moving from one rental to the next and with deteriorating health, he was poor, near-blind, homesick and struggling with a foreign language. Reliant on his young lover, Margot Ruben (initially passed off as his niece), he had a sense of otherness that never left. This is evident in the Mediterranean cycle of poetry, written in Auckland and inspired in part by the surprising presence of a fig tree in the garden outside his flat, which he regarded as a fellow exile: “You’re in foreign parts, friend. Island children,/Who transplanted you, hate your jagged leaves./You’re quite out of place on a flat mown lawn,/And figs are hardly to their taste.”

On arriving in New Zealand, however, Wolfskehl was keen to meet the younger generation of writers. In Christchurch, he met Leo Bensemann and poet-publisher Denis Glover. In Auckland, he fell in with the North Shore literary set, including ARD Fairburn, Phoebe Meikle, RAK Mason, John Graham and Frank Sargeson.

But the aged poet was not an easy fit. He was well known in Germany, says Wood, and in Jewish literary circles internationally, but New Zealanders weren’t aware of the extent of his cultural output. While Auckland’s young writers found his erudition fascinating, “it was also an encumbrance. They didn’t want someone quoting Goethe at them. They were mainly interested in creating a New Zealand vernacular rooted in modernism: their models were English modernists – they were reading Eliot, Auden. Wolfskehl was not coming out of that modernist foment. He was an elderly man, the grooves were cut. He was too conservative for New Zealand’s cultural circle, too bohemian for middle New Zealand.”

In his autobiography, Sargeson describes this cultural chasm: “There were times with Karl Wolfskehl when I could feel myself overpowered, weighted down by so much civilisation, a feeling which I had often and keenly experienced during my time in England … and now here I was once again being overpowered by Europe, and this time in my own country.”

Although he was vehemently opposed to Nazi Germany (in a poem to Ruben, he refers to the “brown ape-time”, a reference to Hitler’s Brownshirts), in New Zealand he was the subject of suspicion. He was foreign – during the war his mail was censored, his travel within New Zealand monitored. He was Jewish – “which didn’t help in certain circles”, says Wood. And he was a married man living in sin with a woman a fraction of his age.

“Ordinary New Zealanders,” says Wood, “wouldn’t have known what to do with him.”

LS3416_b&c_Three-WorldsHe found sanctuary in the local Jewish and wider émigré community while continuing to work on his poetry, staying true to a premodernist idiom that was formal, says Wood, “and very high style”.

“He uses a lot of words from different German dialects, some very archaic. Some of the medieval history he references got me scurrying to ancient dusty tomes. But the poems talk to each other, the references talk to each other, you see a larger consistent picture of his vision of himself and of his culture.”

News of Wolfskehl’s death in 1948, although barely noted by the local media, reverberated through Europe, Israel and New York. Today, his tombstone in Auckland’s Wai­kumete Cemetery bears his name in Hebrew and German with the Latin inscription Exul Poeta (poet in exile) signifying the Jewish, Roman and German roots of a poet and intellectual inscribing his legacy on “the last rock in the ocean”.

THREE WORLDS/DREI WELTEN: SELECTED POEMS by Karl Wolfskehl, translated and edited by Andrew Paul Wood and Friedrich Voit (Cold Hub Press, $45)

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