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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.

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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!

Irmgard Maria Rexroth-Kern (1907-1983)

8 Jun

(First, I must thank Fr. Kern’s son, Vincent Rexroth, Heidelberg, for his gracious assistance in providing information about his mother. I would not have found most of the sites that provided me with details of his mother’s life without his help. Vielen Dank!)

In 1974, I had a Fulbright scholarship to Germany. The topic that I was to study was “the artist’s ambivalent relationship to the machine.” The Fulbright Commission, determining that I should study at the Bauhaus-Archiv, sent me to Darmstadt–where the Bauhaus-Archiv had been housed in the Ernst-Ludwig Haus on the city’s famous Mathildenhöhe for many years until that year, when it had, apparently unbeknownst to the Fulbright Committee, been moved to Berlin! No matter: the Werkbund-Archiv was still there and also in the Ernst-Ludwig Haus. I spent many hours walking to and from that delightful hill, with its many Jugendstil buildings by architects who would become well-known figures in the history of modern German architecture.

Walking up the Mathildenhöhe path one day after I had been in town for a few months, I smiled at and said “Guten Morgen” to an elderly woman who was coming toward me, leading on a leash an Airedale terrier. She was so surprised that a stranger would greet her that she stopped, turned around, and asked me, in German, if I was an American.  When I said yes, she immediately switched to perfect English, and we began a conversation which led to coffee and a continuation of conversations throughout the rest of my year in Germany.

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Joseph Oppenheimer, Irmgard Kern, 1916, Berlin Museum (now Märkisches Museum).

Her name was Irmgard Rexroth-Kern, her married name being Rexroth, her maiden name Kern. She had led an extraordinarily eventful life, determined in large part by the tumultuous circumstances of 20th-century Germany. She was born in Berlin on November 11, 1907, the daughter of a prominent art historian and artist, Guido Joseph Kern (1878-1953). She had two younger brothers. (On Guido Kern, see http://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz40604.html#ndbcontent) She grew up in comfortable circumstances as part of a family connected to the most vibrant artistic and intellectual circles in Berlin. Her first memory, at 4 years old, was of being in Florence when her father was working at the Deutsches Kunsthistorischen Institut there.  Guido Kern was until 1911 assistant to the renowned director of the Berliner Nationalgalerie, Hugo von Tschudi, with whom he worked on the first catalog of the Berlin painter Adolph Menzel; later, he published many books on other German artists as well as continuing his own artistic practice. In these active, prosperous years, while Irmgard’s mother was still alive, her father commissioned a portrait of his only daughter from Joseph Oppenheimer (1876-1966), at that time the leading society portraitist in Berlin.  She was 9 when she sat for the artist. (On Oppenheimer, see http://www.josephoppenheimer.com/index.html) This is so far the only portrait I have of her.The family was prosperous enough that Irmgard was privately tutored as a small child, and then was sent to the most progressive schools in Berlin. She also described spending many happy days at  her father’s family’s estate near Aachen.

Here is one of her father’s early drawings:

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And a later beach scene, from 1932:

Kern_Die Kunst für alle; Malerei, Plastik, Graphik, Architektur (48.1932-1933), S. 314-1

While Fr. Kern did share some of these stories with me when I knew her in Darmstadt, I gleaned most of this information about her early life from the charmingly insightful series of reminiscences that she published anonymously in 1934 in the Frankfurter Zeitung under the title “Neue Wege-Autobiographie einer jungen Frau” (New Paths-Autobiography of a Young Woman). In 13 segments in June of that year, the newspaper presented on its first page her memories of coming of age in Berlin right before and during World War I; they end with her going off to university in Heidelberg, newly independent from her family. Her memory was phenomenal: she wrote of their time in Florence when she saw a poster of the Titanic on a kiosk across from their house; she remembered her stuffed animal named Füffi and her first governess when she was a very little girl, as well as her first communion and travelling in an automobile for the first time.  Her most fascinating insights are of the hardships of the war and its aftermath. She recounted how everyone had to stand in line for hours for bread rations and her mother’s family’s loss of their brewery and grand property, “Falkenrode”, in Westphalia during the inflationary period.  The most traumatic event of her young life was the death of her mother during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, a terrible blow that caused her father to send her to the countryside to stay with her mother’s family for many months; her small brothers, who had also been ill with the flu, survived. She recounts how her grandmother cried on seeing photos of Irmgard’s mother: “Von ihren Kindern hatte sie meine Mutter am meissten geliebt”–“of all her children, she had loved my mother the most”.

When she returned to a shattered post-war Berlin–only 11, motherless and with a mean new housekeeper–she got caught up for a while in the proto-fascist youth groups that so many of her fellow students were joining. In her recounting, she gives an amusing picture of their home-made clothing and their penchant for nude sunbathing. She soon tired of their purist dogmas, and so became lonelier and more isolated, and began, as so many other young German women would, to read the romantic stories of Hedwig Courths-Mahler, and to pour out  in her diary all her sadnesses and frustrations. She loved spending time with her father, who took her to museums, talked to her about art, and even arranged a trip for the two of them to the Eifel region. He praised her artistic efforts and encouraged her activities at school in student government. From her descriptions, she must have accompanied her father to some of the Expressionists’ exhibitions–and even the famous Dada show in Berlin–which she found “verrückt”, crazy.  Her father explained that they were indeed crazy, but not in the way she thought; they were just intended to be doing something else than she thought art was supposed to be doing.(Or perhaps he didn’t introduce her to modernity: according to a recent article, Guido Kern was a vehement anti-modernist who actively participated with the Nazi regime to remove “degenerate” artworks from German museums. See Kai Artinger: Bilder “ohne Herkunft”. Der Kunsthistoriker Prof. Dr. Guido Joseph Kern und die Bilder von Carl Blechen in den Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz.  In: Kunstgeschichte. Open Peer Reviewed Journal, 2014 [urn:nbn:de:bvb:355-kuge-403-9]).   Through her father’s circles, at 14, she met her first professional woman–a female who had a career! From then on, she knew it was possible and determined that she would go on to university and have a professional life.

Within that year (in 1922), her father remarried. Her new mother was Franziska Müller, one of those educated, professional women, who became a sympathetic and important figure in Irmgard’s life. But her angst-ridden teenage years coincided with the disastrous events of 1920s Berlin, all of which Irmgard described in terms of her own experience.  The assassination of Rathenau in 1922 affected them all deeply, so much so that school was cancelled. During the worst of the inflation, she embroidered hankies that she could sell abroad for real money, which was the only way she could afford to buy a book that she wanted. A teacher at her school was sacked because he allowed the older students to read the newspapers and discuss politics in class. She suffered all the usual longings of a sensitive intelligent girl of the era:  she pined after boys, she found nature transcendent while on a school outing, she continued to draw animals at the zoo, and she struggled to understand why there is suffering in the world. She passed her school exams, and was still uncertain what she wanted to study or do, but determined she would go to art school. As a reward for succeeding in her Abitur, her parents sent her with two other girls to England for 4 months–the beginning of Irmgard’s lifelong love of all things English, and the source of her fluency in the language.

Still uncertain of her path, but longing to break free from home and family, she gave up the idea of art school and started studies in history and philology at the University of Berlin.  She was beginning to savor all the exciting newness of Berlin during the Weimar era, and was present for some of its monumental events. About some of these she told me stories when I knew her in Darmstadt. When she learned how fascinated I was with Brecht and Weill and The Threepenny Opera, she remembered how she had seen one of the first performances in 1928. When other young people walked down the Kurfurstendamm, she said, they would start humming the “Moritatenlied”–Mack the Knife–and everyone would smile knowingly at each other.

Dreigroschenoper

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The ship’s manifest, showing Irmgard Kern arriving in the U.S. as a student in 1929.

Irmgard still longed for independence:  according to her autobiography, at this stage, when about 21, she rebelled, insisting on leaving for another university. Her parents would not support this move financially, and so she was now on her own.  To make ends meet, she babysat, tutored in English, did secretarial work–and from the sound of things, had a ball. She gained a circle of friends, and felt that her independent life was beginning. From stories she told me in Darmstadt, she took classes from the likes of Paul Tillich (with whom, she told me, she had an affair–as he seemed to have with many of his students) and began to  write for newspapers and magazines. And in 1929, at 22, she began another great independent adventure, as the first German exchange student at Wellesley College. She especially loved to talk about this time , telling me how she was known as “Kernel” by the other students, and spending Christmas with one of her roommates’ families in Connecticut. She studied Psychology and Government, and by the time she returned to Germany, she had decided that she wanted to be a journalist more than anything.  Being at an American woman’s college in 1929 and 1930 must have been a liberating experience for a proper Catholic girl from good Berlin family.

(Wellesley students in 1928:)

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Cazenove Hall, Wellesley College

Cazenove Hall, Wellesley College

But what a time to return to Germany:  the beginnings of the worldwide Depression, and the catastrophic rise of Nazism in her country.  Tragedies and joys and hardship were in her future.  Irmgard Maria Kern’s young life of privilege and culture ended with this chapter of her life.  Much, much more would follow, but that will wait for the next chapter.