Margarete Susman ein Jahr vor ihrem Tod (1965)

«She was a pioneer of inter-religious dialog.»

Oded Fluss on
Margarete Susman

This mon­th, Omanut and the ICZ libra­ry, two Jewish cul­tu­ral insti­tu­ti­ons in Zurich, cele­bra­ted the phi­lo­so­pher Mar­ga­re­te Sus­man on what would be her 150th bir­th­day. Oded Fluss, the ICZ libra­ri­an and lec­tu­rer spo­ke with Nao­mi Lub­rich about the poet and scho­l­ar who influ­en­ced the Ger­man-Jewish post-war deba­te from Switzerland.

Nao­mi Lub­rich: Oded, Mar­ga­re­te Sus­man was born 150 years ago. Who was she?

Oded Fluss: Mar­ga­re­te Sus­man was a poet, a phi­lo­so­pher, a scho­l­ar of reli­gious stu­dies, and a litera­ry cri­tic from a midd­le-class Jewish fami­ly in Ham­burg. In 1933, she emi­gra­ted from Ger­ma­ny to Zurich. In Switz­er­land, she lear­ned of the fate of Jews in Nazi-Ger­ma­ny. She also lear­ned that her sis­ter Pau­la had com­mit­ted sui­ci­de in 1942 after fai­ling to escape. She later also lear­ned that her clo­sest friend, the poet Ger­trud Kan­to­ro­wicz, had been mur­de­red in the con­cen­tra­ti­on camp Theresienstadt.

NL: Sus­man was not initi­al­ly drawn to Jewish topics. What spar­ked her interest?

OF: Sus­man grew up in an assi­mi­la­ted fami­ly with litt­le inte­rest in Juda­ism. She knew and cul­ti­va­ted Ger­man majo­ri­ty-cul­tu­re. Her favou­rite holi­day was Christ­mas, which her fami­ly cele­bra­ted accord­ing to Ger­man cus­tom. Sur­roun­ded by anti­se­mi­tic children’s sto­ries and songs, she was asha­med of her Jewish­ness. In her ear­ly twen­ties, after the death of her father, she first beca­me inte­res­ted in Jewish topics. One rea­son was her encoun­ter with the libe­ral rab­bi Cae­sar Selig­mann, who gave her insight into her heri­ta­ge. Seligman’s and Susman’s friendship impac­ted her phi­lo­so­phi­cal wri­ting and las­ted her who­le life. A second rea­son why she beca­me inte­res­ted in Juda­ism was the Holo­caust: Immedia­te­ly after the war in 1946, Sus­man publis­hed «Das Buch Hiob und das Schick­sal des jüdi­schen Vol­kes» (The Book of Job and the Fate of the Jewish Peop­le). Des­pi­te her Jewish per­spec­ti­ve, her wri­tings were con­tro­ver­si­al due to their mes­sia­nic and Chris­ti­an under­ly­ing ideas.

NL: As a woman, was Sus­man ahead of her time?

OF: As a woman, she moved in cir­cles that were other­wi­se reser­ved for men. For instance, she was one of the few women inclu­ded in the so-cal­led Geor­ge-cir­cle, led by and named after the poet Ste­fan Geor­ge. She was the only woman who­se works were publis­hed in the antho­lo­gy «Vom Juden­tum» (On Juda­ism, publis­hed in 1913 by the Bar Koch­ba Asso­cia­ti­on of Jewish Pupils in Pra­gue), which also inclu­ded con­tri­bu­ti­ons by Mar­tin Buber, Gus­tav Land­au­er, Jakob Was­ser­man and Karl Wolfs­kehl. With the excep­ti­on of Fega Frisch, who wro­te a short after­word to one of her trans­la­ti­ons, Sus­man was the only fema­le aut­hor to be publis­hed in the Scho­cken Libra­ry, argu­ab­ly the most important Jewish book seri­es of the 20th century.

NL: How did Sus­man expe­ri­ence Zurich as her new home?

OF: Sus­man moved to Zürich in 1933 at the age of 61, when she was alrea­dy a respec­ted intel­lec­tu­al. Like all Jews during the war, she fea­red the sur­veil­lan­ce of the Swiss immi­gra­ti­on poli­ce and was restric­ted in her acti­vi­ties. Nevertheless, she lik­ed Switz­er­land. As a child, she had spent many years in Zurich and cal­led Switz­er­land her «second home». Her tit­le for a chap­ter on Switz­er­land was «Emi­gra­ti­on to the Home­land». She also lik­ed Swiss Ger­man. For her and other Jews, Ger­man was frau­ght. She expe­ri­en­ced Swiss Ger­man as a com­pro­mi­se, avoiding the sound of Ger­man yet still enab­ling her to com­mu­ni­ca­te in her mother tongue. She wro­te her most important works in Switzerland.

NL: What was Susman’s posi­ti­on in the Ger­man-Jewish post-war debate?

 OF: Mar­ga­re­te Sus­man never gave up on Ger­man cul­tu­re, even when her coun­try tur­ned against her. And she never tur­ned her back on non-Jews. She repeated­ly offe­red herself as a bridge buil­der bet­ween cul­tures and reli­gi­ons: She was a sup­por­ter of inter-reli­gious dia­log long befo­re it beca­me main­stream, and she advo­ca­ted the pro­tec­tion of all peop­le, regard­less of their ori­gins. Most of all, howe­ver, it is her wri­ting about Job as the ulti­ma­te, uni­ver­sal embo­di­ment of human suf­fe­ring which will inform the memo­ry of Susman’s writing.

NL: Oded, thank you for your per­spec­ti­ve on this remar­kab­le woman.

verfasst am 03.11.2022