83. Aunt Friederike.

By Peter Fraenkel

There are, I’m sad to say, some miscreants in my family who try to deny our relationship, though happily none in my closer family have done so.

Friederike was a poetess – though, I’m advised, to be politically correct, I should refer to her as a poet.

Why? Don’t know.

Is it also wrong to refer to her as a maiden lady?  In one of her poems she assures us that “my corset does embrace a well-proportioned body”.

Friederike wrote in German and German critics largely agree she was the worst poetess (or poet) in their language but also one of the funniest. She has been dubbed “das Genie der unfreiwilligen Komik” – the genius of the unintended comic.

My father would reap great applause when he recited one or two of her poems at family parties. Friederike had been the sister of his grandmother. Or was it the sister of his great-grandmother?

She has, indeed, been a source of embarrassment to some. One of her nephews, Alfred Kempner, (or was he a nephew?) was, at the time of the Weimar Republic, the leading theatre critic of Berlin.  He found it politic to change his name to Kerr – not a total denial but it could have helped to obscure his relationship.

It didn’t.

When he got into a dispute with an author whose new play he had panned, the man struck back, saying it showed Kerr’s affinity to that terrible aunt of his. Kerr fired back in some verses that ended

Wenn dem Esel sonst nichts einfaellt, faellt ihm meine Tante ein.”

If the donkey can think of nothing else, he thinks of my aunt!

Fast forward one generation:

The great theatre critic’s daughter, Judith Kerr, an émigré in England, became well-known as the author of books for children. I never met the lady but I did correspond with her once. I wrote to ask her whether she knew where the family’s money had come from. It was obvious they did have money.

Acutely, embarrassed when Friederike’s first, self-published volume of poems came out, her family went behind her back, bought up all the copies they could find and had them pulped.  Friederike, delighted that her poems appeared to be selling so well, arranged a larger reprint. That, too, was pulped secretly. This happened again and again – eight times! There must have been a great sigh of relief when she died in 1903… and was buried a good while later.

The 2009 edition brought out by Reclam does, however, assert there is no evidence that such pulping ever occurred.

On her visiting cards Friederike described herself as Rittergutsbesitzerinwhich could be translated as Lady of the Manor. She did own a country estate – Friederikenhof near Droschgau in Silesia.

How had the family come by this wealth?  Judith Kerr replied to my query to say I was in error.  She was not related to Friederike.

Did she really not know any better? Or was she lying?

Aunt Friederike died 104 years ago, but her poems are still being republished. Another re-issue has just been advertised for late 2019.  They now refer to her as ‘The Silesian Nightingale’ or as “The Silesian Swan.”

Good poetry is difficult to translate.  Bad poetry – almost impossible.

When a verse of hers refuses to scan she boldly inserts extra syllables – creating words that have never, ever been heard before.

There are poems mourning the death of Kobusch, her pet parrot – “a bird of rare spiritual qualities.” Another of her poems praises Nero, her dog, whose look alone can cure all the wounds of her soul.

Many poems are campaigning tracts – against vivisection; against the solitary confinement of prisoners; against the mean people who refuse alms to the poor; against antisemitism:

She loves animals – except, as she stresses repeatedly – the evil snake.

The Animal.

God has created it like us –

equipped with feelings like our own.

It loves and hates, feels joy and sorrow

But this we must all up-to face:

It can’t speak French,

That, surely, does not change my case?


She campaigned against vivisection, against the solitary confinement of prisoners, against antisemitism:

“Psalms are all Semitic,

Our ten commandments, too,

So is our joyful weekend rest –

A true Semitic ‘do’.

She struggles – vigorously – against the training of circus animals which, she asserts, is cruel. In one of her poems, divine justice redresses this. The lion-tamer’s beautiful daughter puts her head into the maws of the beast …. and that’s the end of poor Johanna.

Johanna ist tot, doch ist sie ganz

She’s dead – but she’s intact!                    

Friederike corresponded with the German Kaiser and the Czar of Russia and many politicians. Her energetic campaign against the early burial of the dead resulted in success.  She did manage to get the law in Germany changed!  This had long been an obsession of hers.  At the early age of 20 she had made a serious study of the decomposition of the human corpse so that she could decide how many days ought to elapse between a presumed death and the burial.  She was convinced many of us were interred alive.  One of her long poem ends

Wisst ihr nicht wie weh das tut

Wenn man wach im Grabe ruht?

 My late friend Victor Price rendered her conclusion into English

Know ye not how sore we ache

Lying in the grave – awake?

The story has it that she had herself buried with a bell-push in her hand but that is another of the myths that circulated about her.  She had given precise orders that her corpse was not to be buried until decomposition was apparent!

A formidable aunt!  On my side of the family we do not hide our relationship.  We boast about it – and chuckle.