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Her family moved from Galicia to Germany after World War I.
In 1928 she married the Hebrew teacher Saul Aaron Kaléko. From 1929 on, she published poetry presenting the daily life of the common people in the newspapers Vossische Zeitung and Berliner Tageblatt. In her poetry that was positively reviewed by Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Alfred Polgar she captures the atmosphere of Berlin in the 1930s. She attained fame and frequented places like the "Romanisches Café", where the literary world met, among them Erich Kästner and Kurt Tucholsky.
In January 1933, Rowohlt published her first book with poetry Lyrisches Stenogrammheft, which was soon subjected to Nazi censorship, and two years later her second book Das kleine Lesebuch für Grosse appeared, also with the publisher Rowohlt. In 1938, she managed to emigrate to the USA with her second husband, the composer Chemjo Vinaver, and their one-year-old son Steven, who became a talented writer and theatre personality in adult life. Steven fell ill with pancreatitis while directing a play in Massachusetts, and died at the age of 31.
While in the USA, Mascha lived at several places (New York City and a few months in California) until settling on Minetta Street in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1942. Her fifth floor walkup apartment Minetta Street was a safe haven she always remembered fondly. Mascha became the family's breadwinner with odd jobs, including some writing copy for advertisements. The family's hope of a possible career for Chemjo in the film industry was crushed, and they returned to New York after a brief stint in Hollywood. The Schoenhof Verlag in Cambridge, MA published Kaléko's third book "Verse fuer Zeitgenossen" in 1945 (German edition in 1958 by Rowohlt Verlag).
In 1956, Kaléko returned to Berlin for the first time. Three years later she was supposed to receive the Fontane prize, which she declined since it would have been handed over by a former Nazi official.
In 1959, she moved to Jerusalem, Israel, since her husband, who was conducting research on Hassidic singing, had better working conditions there. Mascha lacked knowledge of Hebrew and was thus somewhat isolated.
Kaléko died in January 1975 in Zurich where she fell ill en route back to Jerusalem from a final visit in Berlin. She is buried on the Jewish cemetery Friesenberg near Zurich.
Her work has been compared to that of Erich Kästner and Joachim Ringelnatz, among others, but her poetic voice is unique and memorable in different ways than those of her (mostly male) contemporaries.
Various attempts have been made to translate individual poems into English. In March 2010, for the first time, a representative number of Kaléko's poems appeared in English translation in the book "'No matter where I travel, I come to Nowhereland' - The poetry of Mascha Kaléko" (The University of Vermont, 2010, 112 pages). The author, Andreas Nolte, has selected poems from every phase of the poet's life. His translations follow the original German texts as closely as possible in order to maintain the kalékoesque content, diction, rhythm, and rhyme. Brief introductions provide additional information on Kaléko’s remarkable biography.
From the poem Mein schönstes Gedicht"
Mein schönstes Gedicht?
Ich schrieb es nicht.
Aus tiefsten Tiefen stieg es.
Ich schwieg es.
My best poem ever?
I wrote it never.
From deepest depths uprushed it.
I hushed it.
From the poem Was man so braucht:
Man braucht nur eine Insel
allein im weiten Meer.
Man braucht nur einen Menschen,
den aber braucht man sehr.
One only needs an island
alone and lost at sea.
One only needs one person,
but this to have is key.
(translations: Andreas Nolte)
The poem Pihi:
Vom Vogel Pihi hab ich einst gelesen,
Dem Wundertier im Lande der Chinesen.
Er hat nur einen Fittich: Stets in Paaren
Sieht man am Horizont der Pihi Scharen.
Zu zweien nur kann sich das Tier erheben;
Im Singular bleibt es am Boden kleben.
- Dem Pihi gleich, gekettet an das Nest,
Ist meine Seele, wenn du mich verläßt.
I once read of the Pihi bird,
The mythical animal in the land of the Chinese.
It only has one wing: always in pairs
One sees flocks of Pihi on the horizon.
Only in twos can the animal lift off;
Alone it sticks to the ground.
-Like the Pihi, chained to the nest,
Is my soul, if you leave me.
(It seems likely that she read of the Pihi bird in Apollinaire's Alcools, published in 1913.)
- Das Lyrische Stenogrammheft. Verse vom Alltag (1933, reprint 1956)
- Das kleine Lesebuch für Große. Gereimtes und Ungereimtes, Verse (1934)
- Verse für Zeitgenossen (1945)
- Der Papagei, die Mamagei und andere komische Tiere (1961)
- Verse in Dur und Moll (1967)
- Das himmelgraue Poesiealbum der M.K (1968)
- Wie's auf dem Mond zugeht (1971)
- Hat alles seine zwei Schattenseiten (1973)
- Feine Pflänzchen. Rosen, Tulpen, Nelken und nahrhaftere Gewächse (1976)
- Der Gott der kleinen Webfehler (1977)
- In meinen Träumen lautet es Sturm. Gedichte und Epigramme aus dem Nachlaß.(1977)
- Horoskop gefällig? (1979)
- Heute ist morgen schon gestern (1980)
- Tag und Nacht Notizen (1981)
- Ich bin von anno dazumal (1984)
- Der Stern, auf dem wir leben (1984)
- Mascha Kaléko: "'No matter where I travel, I come to Nowhereland' - The Poetry of Mascha Kaléko." Translated and introduced by Andreas Nolte. Burlington/VT: The University of Vermont, 2010. ISBN 978-0-9817122-6-0
- Jutta Rosenkranz: "Mascha Kaléko - Biografie". Munich: dtv-Verlag, 2007. ISBN 978-3-423-24591-3
- Andreas Nolte (Editor): "'Ich stimme fuer Minetta Street' - Festschrift aus Anlass des 100. Geburtstags von Mascha Kaléko." Burlington/VT: The University of Vermont, 2007. ISBN 0-9770731-8-1
- Andreas Nolte: "'Mir ist zuweilen so als ob das Herz in mir zerbrach' - Leben und Werk Mascha Kalékos im Spiegel ihrer sprichwörtlichen Dichtung." Bern: Peter Lang-Verlag 2003. ISBN 3-03910-095-5
- Gisela Zoch-Westphal: "Aus den sechs Leben der Mascha Kaléko." Berlin: arani-Verlag, 1987. ISBN 3-7605-8591-4
- phil-fak.uni-duesseldorf.de (German)
- Mascha Kaléko (German)
- author page at Lyrikline.org, with audio and text (German)