Perhaps it is appropriate that as our country descends into the absurdity of discussions and worse, legislation, surrounding transgender bathrooms, I profile Else Lasker-Schuler, an extraordinary and enigmatic figure from literary history. Else believed passionately in living as she chose without regard to society’s norms and taking a stand against what she saw as an unjust politic. She became notorious in the circles she traveled, dressing often as boy and filling her drawings with a figure, the Prince of Thebes, whose persona she adopted, signing her letters with the man’s name Yusuf.
I discovered Else as the woman Mamah Borthwick befriends in Nancy Horan’s novel Loving Frank during Mamah’s time abroad translating the works of Ellen Key a Swedish feminist of the era. Else was born in 1869 in Elberfeld, Germany to an affluent German Jewish family. She became a poet, playwright, artist, and avant-gardist who moved among the literati that frequented Berlin cafes during the 1930s. Labeled the Queen of Expressionism, she has been recognized as one of the most important poets of twentieth century German literature.
Else led a troubled life, stuck in customs as we might say today. Her life straddled multiple cultures and was a constant battle, ending in near poverty. She wrote in German while living in Israel and became enthralled with all things oriental, a fashionable obsession of the times.
She gained renown as a poet, received the prestigious Kleist Prize for literature and did poetry readings across the German-speaking world. When the Nazi’s came to power in the 1930s, she fled the country after suffering a beating by a rod-wielding group of Nazis, according to one source. Else emigrated to Switzerland but was visiting Israel when war broke out. She was not allowed to return to Switzerland and lived out her life in Israel. Unfortunately, though Else wrote of her hopes for the destruction of Nazism, she died in 1945 before the end of the war and the collapse of the Nazi government.
Today, Else Lasker-Schuler is best known for her poetry, though some criticize her poems as being overly romantic.
At night I used to steal
The rose of your mouth,
So that no other woman could drink there.
Else’s words could also be sharp in their attack on the status quo of religion or politics.
My motherland is souless.
No rose blooms
in the tepid air.
As an artist, Else painted in a striking, hard to define style. Her characters often face left or are in profile as in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings, a popular style of the day. They are also often of an indeterminate gender.
Else Lasker-Schuler was a woman of her times, influenced as some claim by the “gender-bending” stage performances of Sarah Berhardt, the controversial writer George Sand, and the emergence of Freud’s sexually-infused psychoanalysis and, of course WWI, the depression, and WWII.
If you find the woman as fascinating as I do, read more at the National Library of Israel’s site (nli.org/Lasker-Schuler) or the Jewish Womens Archive (jwa.org/lasker-schuler). My Blue Piano is the title of a collection of her poetry. On a Triangle Reflected Between Here and the Moon written by Dani Dothan is a historical novel that covers Else’s years in Jerusalem, though I could not find an English-language version.