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