Gertrud Kolmar was a highly praised German poet who has scarcely seen any recognition in the U.S. Though she wrote an impressive body of work under the harshest circumstances of Nazi Germany, Kolmar is largely remembered, if at all, as the cousin of Walter Benjamin. As Dieter Kuhn’s newly translated biography shows us, this is a mistake. Kolmar is not only a lyric poet of note, but was a courageous fighter against the tyranny of Nazism. She wrote poems bursting with life, anger, and criticism in a time of stifling fear. Nothing but a deportation to Auschwitz, where she ultimately perished, deterred her from writing poetry. Even as the Nazis forced her into labor at an armament factory, she persisted in her art, and arguably became a better poet as she faced the specter of death.
Dieter Kuhn’s biography fits into the rise of a sort of entrenched biography genre where the author doesn’t just attempt to convey information, but attempts to live the life of his subject. While this method often works well, it as often pushes Kuhn into the realm of hagiography. He starts to speak of Kolmar in almost Romantic and religious tones, which, given the actual heroic content of her life, feels like an unnecessary and heavy-handed tool. That said, the biography is still a wonderful introduction to a sadly neglected poet who deserves our recognition.