“You live from one day to the next” by irmgard keun

This volume of letters illustrates that decency and solidarity are possible even under a dictatorship. Franz Hammer and Irmgard Keun exchanged ideas in the 1930s, as if the censors of the National Socialists were not omnipresent. In supplementary letters, the writer writes of the hardships and fears in shattered Cologne. Breathtaking and oppressive are these documents. A review by Stefan Berkholz.

New section

Irmgard Keun: One lives from one day to the next
Edited by Michael Bienert.
Quintus publishing house, Berlin 2021.
176 pages, 24 Euro.

She did not allow herself to be incorporated into the National Socialist Reichsschrifttumskammer – and nevertheless published, forbidden and under her own name, far more than thirty articles in newspapers and magazines between December 1933 and January 1936; she speaks disparagingly of "my harmless pale stories". In October 1935, her collar burst:

"Why I was not admitted to the Reichsverband? I don’t know. I am purely Aryan, my family tree is never ending. It pisses me off to have to say and write such things."

Letters in a gloomy time

It is astonishing how quickly two endangered people find trust in each other, how openly and politically unambiguously they exchange their views in these letters in a gloomy, monitored time. On her flight through Europe, Irmgard Keun writes from Lemberg in Poland in February 1937:

"How are you? How things are going in Germany? I feel as if I have been on the road for many, many years already. My life may be interesting but it is terribly tiring. Gradually I rushed through half of Europe. (…) One lives from one day to the next, never has any money."

Decency and friendship under a dictatorship

It was a short, intense pen friendship between Franz Hammer and Irmgard Keun, it actually lasted only a year and a half, from July 1935 to February 1937. These twenty letters seem like beacons of light from a dark time; decency and friendship were possible even under a dictatorship.

In addition, the editor Michael Bienert has added ten more letters by Keun, in which she reports, among other things, in panic about the bombing raids on Cologne and the surrounding area. In October 1944 she writes to a friend.

"Then came acute air danger. Major attack on Bonn and the surrounding area. Godesberg also got. I stood with other people in the corner of a cellar (the cellar was at ground level) on a pile of coals and was more afraid than ever before. The next day I was still in despair and stunned by horror. (…) As soon as I hear shooting, I am gripped by a horror of the whole world."

What has been lost

And then, after the end of the war, the devastation of Cologne and the desperate yet hopeful attempt to rebuild. Breathtaking and oppressive also these observations from April 1946.

"All the rubble has been cleared away, d.h. it’s still in front of the house – but no longer in it. (…) It seems like a fairy tale that a room could emerge from these ruins (…). Glass window and door are already inside. (…) The room looks a little like a soldier’s squad room in miniature."

A small, very fine book is available, differentiated and rich in material commented and accompanied by the editor Michael Bienert. As a reader you get again an idea of what was lost by the time between 1933 and 1945.

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