Jakob van Hoddis

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Jakob van Hoddis.

Jakob van Hoddis (May 16, 1887 in Berlin – 1942 in Sobibor) was the pen name of a German-Jewish expressionist poet Hans Davidsohn, of which name "Van Hoddis" is an anagram. His most famous poem Weltende (End of the world) published on 11 January 1911 in Der Demokrat, is generally regarded as the preliminary expressionist poem [1] which inspired many other poets to write in a similarly grotesque style; he is also seen as perhaps the only German predecessor of surrealism (which did not exist as a movement in Germany).


He was the oldest son of doctor Hermann Davidsohn and his wife Doris. Mrs Davidsohn gave birth to twins, but the other baby was stillborn. He had four other siblings, Marie, Anna, Ludwig and Ernst. Due to his temper (although he was extremely intelligent), he was not a successful student. In 1909 he created a Der Neue Club (The New Club) with his friend Kurt Hiller; and in March of the following year, they introduced their ideas at an evening they called Neopathetisches Cabaret (The Neopathetic Cabaret). They were joined by Georg Heym, Ernst Blass and Erich Unger, soon followed by others, for example Alfred Lichtenstein. Else Lasker-Schüler participated too (she said about van Hoddis´ performances "His verses are so ardent that one wants to steal them" [2]). The last, ninth, evening of the Cabaret took place in the spring of 1912; it was a tribute to the tragically deceased Georg Heym. The Cabaret was very popular, often attracting hundreds of spectators. It was during one of these evenings when Weltende was recited, and electrified the audience totally. Many artists later remembered the impact the eight lines had on them that day.

During this part of his life, things started to get worse. Not only was he expelled from university, but he lost his father and his close friends, Heym and Ernst Balcke. He suffered a breakdown and voluntarily entered a mental hospital. Although he was released, he was soon forced to come back after attacking his mother. His mental health continued to decline, and he lived in private care from 1914 until 1922. After 1927, when his mother lost her money, he came under the care of a state clinic (Christopsbad in Göppingen). In 1933, immediately after Hitler's nomination as Prime Minister, Van Hoddis' family escaped to Tel Aviv (where his broken-hearted mother died a few months later). It proved impossible for him to secure an entrance certificate to the British Mandate of Anglo-Palestine due to his mental illness. He was thus was forced to remain in Germany where expressionism had come to be seen as an absolutely unacceptable or degenerate art form.

Some expressionist artists managed to flee the country with many more either committing suicide or were murdered in concentration camps. Given that Van Hoddis was Jewish, an expressionist artist, and also mentally ill (which then meant in Germany that he was subject to "mercy killing"), his murder in Nazi Germany was almost guaranteed. On the 30 April 1942, he and all the other patients and staff (five hundred people) of his sanatorium were transported to Sobibór via Krasnystaw. None of them survived. The date of van Hoddis´ death remains unknown.[3]


Only one book, Weltende, was published during his life, in 1918. André Breton included van Hoddis into his Anthology of Black Humor. In the English-speaking world he remains almost unknown.

Posthumous collections:

  • Paul Pörtner (ed.): Jakob van Hoddis, Weltende. Gesammelte Dichtungen. Arche, Zürich, 1958 - Collected poems
  • Regina Nörtemann (ed.): Jakob van Hoddis. Dichtungen und Briefe. Wallstein, Göttingen, 2007, ISBN 978-3-8353-0178-8 - Poetry and Letters

German original and its translation[edit]

Historical dike burst, copper engraving, 1661

Van Hoddis’ poem Weltende has been often translated into English. One of the closest versions—considering both, the verse form and the spirit of the original, may be the adaption of Natias Neutert.[4]

Literary influence[edit]

Weltende is referenced in a poem by Catalan author Gabriel Ferrater called Fi del món ("End of the world"), which paraphrases some of its images.[5]

References and external links[edit]

  1. ^ name="Expresionismus">Kundera, Ludvík. Expresionismus. p. 10. 
  2. ^ Kundera, Ludvík. Expresionismus. 
  3. ^ History of Holocaust
  4. ^ Cf. Natias Neutert: Foolnotes. Smith Gallery Booklet, New York 1980, p. 18.
  5. ^ https://books.google.com/books?id=g3KPVqFdFCIC&pg=PA68