Last reviewed: June 2018
May 11, 1901
Czernowitz, Bukovina (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine)
January 3, 1988
Rose Ausländer , born Rosalie Beatrice Ruth Scherzer, enjoyed a protected childhood in Czernowitz, Bukovina, in the foothills of the eastern Carpathian Mountains. Her father, Sigmund Scherzer, studied to be a Hasidic scholar before becoming a businessman. Jewish feast days were observed in the home, but the family was freethinking. Her mother, Etie Scherzer, instilled in Scherzer a love of the German language and its literature. A gypsy woman who read Rose’s palm foresaw great danger but assured her she would live. She survived the Holocaust. Rose Ausländer.
The first disruption in her life occurred during World War I. Chernovtsy was occupied by Russian troops, and the Scherzer family sought refuge in Vienna. When they returned, the city belonged to Romania. Rose finished high school and began to study at the University of Chernovtsy, where she developed a lasting interest in the pantheism of the contemporary German Jewish philosopher Constantin Brunner (the pen name for Leo Wertheimer).
Her time at university ended when her father died. Her mother felt she could not support Rose and her brother and so persuaded Rose to emigrate. A friend from her philosophy class, Ignaz Ausländer, accompanied her to the United States in 1921. They went to Minnesota and then to New York, where Rose worked in the Bowery Savings Bank. She married Ignaz in 1923 and left him in 1926 but kept his surname after their divorce. Ausländer means “foreigner” in German.
While visiting in Europe in 1927, Rose Ausländer met the graphologist Helios Hecht, who lived with her until 1935. From 1934 to 1939, Ausländer worked as an English correspondent for the Vacuum oil company in Bucharest. The publication of her first book attracted little notice. Europe was increasingly unsafe for Jews, so she went to New York but returned to Chernovtsy when she learned her mother was ill. Ausländer was imprisoned for three months as a suspected foreign spy. In 1941 she, her mother, and her pregnant sister-in-law were among the sixty thousand Jews the Nazis confined to the Chernovtsy ghetto. All but five thousand were killed. Ausländer was forced to do heavy construction work under inhuman conditions.
In these terrible circumstances Ausländer met Paul Antschel, whose pen name was Paul Celan. Both wrote poetry to remove themselves mentally from the horrors of the ghetto. Celan’s well-known poem “Death Fugue” uses the striking image of black milk, an image borrowed from Ausländer’s poem “Ins Leben” (into life). Critics accused Celan of plagiarism, but Ausländer wrote that she considered it an honor that a great poet had found inspiration in her work and had raised the metaphor to the height of artistic expression. Ausländer’s poetry is also compared to that of Else Lasker-Schüler and Nelly Sachs, both of whom, like her, were persecuted by the Nazis and had strong ties to their mothers.
Ausländer moved back to New York in 1946 and wrote in English until the American poet Marianne Moore recognized her talent and persuaded her to write again in her native German. From 1950 to 1961, Ausländer worked as a translator and foreign correspondent for the international shipping company Freedman & Slater. Her salary was low, and she lived in inexpensive rooms. In 1957 she went on a six-month tour of Europe, a trip that provided her with memories for the rest of her life. She particularly liked the relaxed atmosphere in Venice.
In 1963 she traveled to Vienna, where her brother Maximilian was in a refugee camp. While there, she realized that to work, she required a German-speaking environment. She moved to Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1965 and in the same year published her second book of poetry, Blinder Sommer, considered by some to contain her best work. Encouraged by its positive reception, Ausländer began in earnest to edit and to revise the thousands of poems she had written and carried with her over the years. She moved into the Jewish senior citizens’ home the Nelly Sachs House, where she stayed in her room to concentrate on her poetry. In 1975, she met the helpful publisher Helmut Braun. After publishing some of Ausländer’s work in his own press, he arranged for it to be transferred to the large S. Fischer publishing company, though he personally edited her complete works.
Ausländer’s manuscripts and papers are the property of the city of Düsseldorf, where they are preserved in the Heinrich Heine Institute. The Rose Ausländer Foundation in Cologne, Germany, has additional materials and initiates and promotes scholarly work. The poet who wrote to console herself received eleven awards for literature and found a large following.