Frau Kern, part II: Germany and the War

25 Jun
book burning 1933

Book burning, Berlin, 1933.

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Anti-Nazi rally, Berlin, 1932.

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Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1933.

(While I am still acquiring more information about this period of Fr. Kern’s life, and hoping for photos to arrive from her son, I wanted to get all of this down before I travelled to Europe, where I might be able to carry out more research on all of my German women. So there will be updates!)

When I knew Frau Kern in Darmstadt in 1974, she was living in modest circumstances with her beloved Airedale (whose name I have forgotten–he was a lovely friendly dog). But she was still active on several fronts, writing essays and organizing the Erbach English Language Club ( Erbach is a town in the Odenwald not far from Darmstadt). I remember giving a talk there for the group, and enjoying watching her speak and moderate the discussion with great gusto. Many times she told me stories about her past, and especially the fraught years after she returned from Wellesley, and met her husband. Now as I try to retrieve some of the threads of our conversation, I am finding some information, but there are lots of gaps in what I can reconstruct and remember. I hope this writing might prompt others who remember her to write with information, corrections, and additions.

Irmgard Kern returned to Berlin in in the summer of 1930, but at some point ended up in Frankfurt, where she finally received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the university there in 1935. The topic of her thesis was Shaftesbury’s vision of man (it was published by Quakenbrück during the war, in 1943).  No doubt it was at the University of Frankfurt that she met her husband, Hermann-Georg Rexroth (1907-1944). Rexroth was born in Frankfurt and also studied at, but did not graduate from, the University; his surname has strong links to Erbach and the Odenwald, where Irmgard later established the English Language Club. When searching for her “Autobiografie eines jungen Mädchens” in the Frankfurter Zeitung, I found an article by Rexroth published there in 1932, so perhaps they were already working together as writers by this time.  In any case, by 1936 they were married, and living in Berlin.

rexroth_3_stundenglas

Irmgard told me great stories about him and their time together: he was a promising writer who published several well-received books, chiefly with H. Goverts Verlag. (Eugen Claassen, one of the founders of the press, later described Rexroth as “wirr, aber nett”:  confused, but nice.) The two of them, Irmgard and “H.G.” Rexroth, as he was known in his writings, were enjoying active writers’ lives in Berlin, and knew many of the major literary figures in Germany during this tumultuous time. In Darmstadt in 1974, she recounted to me how they had together met the American author Thomas Wolfe, along with his German publisher Ernst Rowohlt, when he visited Berlin.

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Thomas Wolfe in Berlin, 1935.

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Ernst Rowohlt (middle) with FZ editors, 1941.

Wolfe was very tall and Rowohlt was very short, and the two of them came to the Rexroth house at some time (probably 1935 when Wolfe was known to be in Berlin); Irmgard had an amusing photo of the two of these “Mutt and Jeff”  characters together. Irmgard’s son remembers that she told him she interviewed Wolfe at that time.

But these were anxious, horrible years in Germany, as Hitler’s forces began their campaigns of aggression, disenfranchisement and censorship. It was not a good time to be an aspiring, apolitical writer or artist of any kind.  I say “apolitical” to stress that many artists and writers of the time, including Rexroth, were neither Nazis nor radicals, but ordinary people who had wanted to live an ordinary life filled with culture and art. In 1940, H.G.’s first novel, Das Stundenglas, appeared in 1940 (its second edition was renamed Junge und alte Liebe). The publication year was inauspicious: very soon after this happy event, their life together effectively came to an end, as Rexroth was called up to military service. Irmgard still remembered waving goodbye to him, she told me, as he went off to the front as a war correspondent with his comrades. In the field, H.G. wrote his best and most bleakly realistic book, recounting the horrors of war on the Eastern Front, Der Wermutstrauch (The Wormwood Bush). He had completed the text by 1943, and sent it to the publisher–or, most likely,had been able to come back to Berlin briefly from the Front. In any case, because of the wartime shortages in paper and the pressures of wartime censorship, the publisher Goverts was unable to publish the book until later in that year.

And now the story takes that tragic turn that the times made nearly inevitable:  first their apartment was destroyed by a bomb in November 1943. By this time Irmgard and H.G. had, according to a letter she wrote to a publisher, suffered a “seriously demoralizing crisis in their marriage” (to translate from Horst Denkler’s Werkruinen, Lebenstrümmer: Untersuchungen zur deutschen Literaturgeschichte, DeGruyter 2006). On September 8, 1944, Hermann-Georg Rexroth fell on the front somewhere between La Spezia and Genoa in Italy, leaving his pregnant wife behind. In the chaos of wartime Berlin, already being bombed, Irmgard evacuated to the countryside, to Sangerhausen in Thüringen, where her son Vincent was born. According to the American feminist and labor activist Alice H. Cook, who met Irmgard after the war at women’s conferences,  she found work in Thüringen with the Americans stationed there. The American forces then took her to Frankfurt, where, having a young son to care for, she began her work as a journalist in earnest (see A Lifetime of Labor: The Autobiography of Alice H. Cook by Alice H. Cook and Arlene Kaplan Daniels, Feminist Press at CUNY, 2000).

Here I want to translate a paragraph from Denkler’s book about this “lost generation” of writers, in which he quotes from Frau Kern’s letters to Claassen:

” ‘Thrown on to the abominable trash-heap of this horrendous time,’ the ‘poor guy’ left behind–aside from his pregnant wife, who had been demoralized by their marital strife and already evacuated–the ‘torso’ of his literary work. Despite the enormous efforts of his widow after 1945 his work found no ‘resurrection.’ So H.G. Rexroth must be described as the poster child for that ‘unfortunate generation’ that, as Hans Georg Brenner complained when he received his death notice in 1944, had the misfortune to be ‘ground up’ by the “European tragedy that was World War II.” (From the German, in Denkler, Werkruinen, p. 206.)

By many accounts and evidence in the archive, Frau Rexroth-Kern did make every attempt to see her husband’s work rediscovered, but to no avail. The archives contain numerous letters that she wrote to Claassen and other publishers, as well as documents in many libraries demonstrating her efforts to see his literary career saved from obscurity. Not until the end of the century, when scholars began reassessing this period in German history, was there any acknowledgment of H.G. Rexroth’s writings.

The archives are also filled with all kinds of letters to famous people from Frau Kern, who worked as a freelance journalist throughout the 1950s and 60s in Frankfurt. (At some time she also lived in Erbach, according to her son.) She seemed to write many articles based on interviews with literary figures, ranging from the critic Eugène Jolas to the writer Malcolm Cowley. When I knew her in Darmstadt, she showed me some of her work, but not many pieces. When I was getting ready to leave after the end of my Fulbright year, she gave me a book of Novalis’s poems, which I still have, and a coffee-table book about Darmstadt for which she wrote a poetic essay.  When George came to join me at the end of my German stay, she often had us over for tea and we had lovely chats. She was for some reason a bit ashamed of her circumstances, although she had a perfectly nice small apartment; she didn’t want any photos taken of her or her place. She was very proud of her son, who at that time was in England, beginning his studies in architecture.  In the last few weeks of my time in Darmstadt, she fell ill, and was in the hospital–a fact I only learned about from my host family, whose husband was a doctor.  I did get reports about her occasionally, but never received any letters, I don’t know why.  Despite all the travails of her life, she remained engaged and interested in the world, and I loved talking to her.  I only wished I had begun this memoir before she died, in 1983. But at that time I was caught up in my own young life, and never thought about such ideas, until the invention of the internet and the convenience of the blog.

Frau Kern, lebe wohl, träume schön! It was an honor to know you!

7 Responses to “Frau Kern, part II: Germany and the War”

  1. Martha Ingalls June 25, 2015 at 7:59 am #

    Well written my dear…

    • esauboeck June 25, 2015 at 3:21 pm #

      Thanks, Marbs. Did you read part I? You’ll like that part even better.

  2. Sebastian Bonner November 25, 2017 at 5:57 pm #

    I met her in 1971. Her nickname was Kernel. I was 17 at the time, living in New York City. I’d flown to Frankfurt and bought a bike, just starting out on a 3-month bike tour through Europe. Erbach was my first stop and I met Kernel in the post office. She was a wonderful person. I stayed in Erbach a few days (longer than I’d expected) and even passed through again on my way back. She introduced me to a few people, including one family who redrew my route taking me through wonderful areas I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. I stayed in touch with her for years by mail. I’m fascinated by your article.

    • esauboeck November 25, 2017 at 6:32 pm #

      Thank you so much for your reminiscence of Fr. Kern, Sebastian! How did you find my blog, if I may ask? I am just now getting ready to submit these writings, about Fr. Kern and the two other “German women of influence” I have written about here, to a publisher interested in turning them into a book. Would you by any chance have ANY photos of Kernel? Her son, who still lives in Heidelberg, has not been forthcoming with photos, and as I have written, she wouldn’t allow me to take any photos of her when I knew her. I would be most grateful for any additional information you could send! And thank you again for taking the time to write!

      • Sebastian Bonner November 25, 2017 at 9:18 pm #

        Somewhere I’ve got photos of her, maybe only on a contact sheet. I’ll search. They include at least one shot of her and that lovely little dog, whose name I can’t remember either. I found your blog by googling her name and Erbach. She told me some very interesting stories about growing up, and about some of the things she’d written. And she showed me a couple of pictures. One was of her as a young woman, very thin, with a pronounced white streak in her hair, like Indira Gandhi’s. When she handed me the photo she said, “You see, the elephant was once a giraffe.” Great sense of humor. Then she told me the story of the origin of the white streak. I’m not sure whether it would be appropriate to share that story in a public forum, but I’d be glad to send it to you some other way.

  3. esauboeck November 25, 2017 at 10:15 pm #

    Oh, this is such a fortuitous connection! Please do send me the story about her white streak, and I would DEARLY love it if you could find photos of her! I have NONE, except for the painted portrait of her as a little girl. You can email me at esauboeck@gmail.com. I will, of course, be entirely discreet! I hope you found all three of my entries about Fr. Kern? The obituary was particularly moving, I thought.

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