Christine Rieck-Sonntag

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Series: Penthesilea | Orpheus & Eurydike | Birchlight | War | Pomerania
Roses for Ilse | Hommage à Verlaine | Asphalt-Zebra | Europe à la Carte | Pura Vida
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"Roses for Ilse" - a painted life
It was a short but intense friendship. I met Ilse very late. She was already 89 years old. The Ilse and Otto Mainzer Foundation had invited my husband to give a lecture on Otto Mainzer and his novel Prometheus at New York University.

Naturally, I had read Mainzer’s poems and his essay "Die sexuelle Zwangswirtschaft" ("A Sexual Controlled-Economy"). While reading the novel, I asked myself what was biographical and what not. How did a man who propagated free love live his own partnership? No, that’s not right. I am actually more interested in the lives of women rather than men. What sort of life did she live as a woman at his side? I was curious to meet his widow.

As a welcoming gift she gives us a little pouch made in India full of quarters, these coins that are in constant need in New York but never at hand. How ingenious, I think, yet caring and practical! She studies me with young and alert eyes and says in a slightly mocking manner, "Oh, so you are the woman that Hans Krieger does not want to come without to New York!" My "yes" comes out a bit stubborn. Actually, I’m slightly insecure. I have read Ilse’s autobiography in which she writes very frankly about her life. I am somewhat ashamed to know so much about her. Her childhood in Berlin in a well-off Jewish bourgeois doctor’s family, her favorite place to play under the grand piano where surrounded by music she builds her own little world, the death of her father who died from typhoid in a faraway military hospital during World War I. He had volunteered to join the army to fight for Germany like so many other Jews. Ilse was four at the time - and her big brother, only two years older than she, became the man of the family. But he, too, is killed in China, shot during the political turmoils. Ilse had just broken off her blossoming career as a concert pianist to marry a young Jewish pianist from Poland and was able to flee with him from Hitler’s Germany to Japan. However, because of her brother’s death she risks returning to Berlin to be with her grieving mother and console her. She who has lived through all this, coped with it all, now stands before me tiny and frail and I, in contrast, have been spared by life and lack such vital experiences.

But the pianist also stands before me with her unbelievably delicate hands, sensitive fingertips, yet a firm clasp of the hand. With calculated glances out of the corner of our eyes we become friends. The pianist and the painter, that was the bridge for us. With Hans she plays pieces for four hands on the grand piano. I listen, watch and draw. I draw her frail and bent shape, sitting at the piano with a pillow in her back and while playing she begins to grow, turning agile and youthful. Ilse interrupts, jumps up, explains - ah, that is the piano teacher now. Her dedication and liveliness gives her an air of dancing at the instrument.

From my impressions during this visit in New York a whole series of drawings emerged at home. Ilse, enthusiastic about the pictures and happy to see me again, helps me to ex-hibit them in the gallery of New York University. I spend five weeks in New York during the following year. Five whole weeks in which we see each other almost daily in the evening eating a large bowl of salad in her apartment between Lincoln Center and Central Park with a view of lights glowing in skyscraper window-rows. We are immersed in deep conversation about her youth, the lively and politically hot Roaring Twenties in Berlin. She talks about the hard times in Chicago and repeatedly recounts her mother’s death. Like many Jews, this woman also believed for too long a time that nothing would happen to her in Germany. She knew that her daughter Ilse was safe. Through her marriage with the pianist Max Janowski Ilse had obtained a Polish passport and a travel permit to go to Japan. However, after her brother had been shot in China Ilse travels across Asia back to Europe with the Transsiberian Railroad, and returns to her mother in Berlin. And with her Polish passport Ilse fights her way into Hitler’s Germany again. Time and again she repeats this story to me. She no longer has a residence permit for Berlin. Every week she must travel to an aunt in England and then reenter Germany to visit her mother, always this returning to Nazi Germany. Our tea gets cold. Horrified each time I listen to her story I ask her over and over again if she did not feel her own time to escape running out: But only her mother mattered to her. In the end Ilse’s husband who had by then immigrated to the United States sends her a visa and presses her to follow him.

Her mother has the piano shipped to the States along with the dining room table and chairs and the good china. And the mother? Ilse desperately tries to find an American sponsor, but having just left her husband and now jobless in Chicago, she is unable to find one. Again and again she tells me how she tried everything, all the people she had asked for an affidavit, how she begged her mother to emigrate to Cuba as a last resort. Every evening her despair spreads out anew onto the dining-room table. I listen to her, helpless, hoping that my listening will provide some solace.

We take long walks in Central Park walking farther than Ilse would on her own, often all the way to the wilder hilly parts where we sit on one of this gnarled benches. "This is where Otto and I used to meet in the evening. He used to write in the park. The rooms he had rented were small and cheap. So he worked outdoors. After my music lessons we met here!...". For decades she supported him, he who had also escaped from the Nazis and had to come to terms living in a new place as a writer with a language not his own. After the war he tried to have his novel published but in vain. Ilse who earned a modest income playing the organ and conducting a choir in a synagogue gave him financial support. She had met him in Chicago on Lake Michigan when she was 31. "... with a handkerchief on his head, you know, with the corners tied in four knots to protect himself against the sun. He looked quite funny. But his eyes! and his merciless directness. His thoughts about love, you read his book "Die sexuelle Zwangswirtschaft" in which he writes about the erotic complementary factor, sexual freedom - that was something very strange and new in philistine America. At the same time it was like a familiar breeze from my younger years spent in Berlin. You know, it was he who helped me find myself. He was my friend, my companion and yes, my lover."

"And what about your career as a pianist?" - "That was difficult. He often slept in my living room where the piano stood. And Otto didn’t like it when I practiced for hours... But I also liked giving lessons, I enjoyed working with female students. I needed a steady income. Then Otto started playing the stock market. At first he just kept losing but later he made a lot of money and struck it rich. Now I can live comfortably from that." But we also talked about another man while we were sitting on that bench, about Erwin Chargaff, the Viennese Jew who by the scruff of his neck just missed getting the Nobel Prize, and who as a professor emeritus picked up the pen and wrote some of the most lucid and critical essays about the United States. Hans had given the laudatory speech for him at a prize awarding and so we decided to visit the man. Both Hans and I felt that Ilse should meet him. They only live a few blocks apart. They have so much in common, their history, their sense of awareness, why haven’t they met? "My last boyfriend" is what she later called him. He was very "impressive" we agreed and Ilse and I were terribly dis- appointed, almost childishly angry that "he just died and left us alone so shortly after we had come to know him". We planned a little a book about him "..with that portrait on the cover that you painted, it really captured him, even though you had painted it by heart. But what shall I write, there was really nothing between us. We just talked. I brought him some German gingerbread during Advent and his only comment was that he had eaten better ones as a boy at the Café Sacher in Vienna. He was definitely not charming. Anyway, he was too old for me, he was 96. But he was pleased when I came by and we had some good talks. He was an intellectual, I don’t even now if he took me seriously.."

We are sitting on the park bench like teenagers, she happy that she has someone to talk to about him, and I fascinated to see a ninety year old woman enchanted like some young girl. I take her by the hand and remind her. "He was in hospital, about to end his days here on earth - I think of Abraham who died old and satisfied. And who did Chargaff phone, who was the only one he wanted to see? You. You went to the clinic and were with him. And after you had left, he was able to leave, too. Two hours later he passed away, went to die. You were the person he wanted to see, you were the one he needed to say farewell to the world." After this we are both silent and watch the robins flying through the bushes. "But I still have one of his books, from him who never let anybody have one of his 10 000 books. ’There is a gap now’, he said, ’until you bring it back.’ But the last book, the one bound in yellow cloth, I wasn’t able to bring it back to him any more." She smiles roguishly. "Well, see how difficult he made it for himself to give you a book. And his son is also making it hard for himself.." Ilse had asked his only son for something small as a token. And it seems that he was incapable of finding some small item amongst that large estate. After weeks of clearing he brings a floor lamp. "That is wonderful," I comment "this means that Chargaff wants to say, ’Ilse, you were the light of my old days.’." - " How will you know?" she asks smiling but "well, I must say it sounds nice."

Zermatt. Our last days together. I am shocked by her condition when she arrives and bury all our plans we had made by phone across the Atlantic, riding the cable-car, short mountain hikes to see the Matterhorn. She only had a few days left, days of nursing. For me these are days of intimate closeness. She lies in bed with the balcony door open to a view of the Matterhorn. "I walked all the way to the Hoernli Cabin with Otto. I was wearing a skirt and there was a terrible wind. And over there under the high larches we had a picnic. We always took sandwiches with us, Otto was very thrifty. We saved all year for this trip to Europe." The trip to Zermatt had been the first holiday that Otto Mainzer had dreamed of and saved for while living in the States. Parts of his novel Prometheus are set in these mountains and over in Grindlwald. Since Otto’s death Ilse has travelled alone to Zermatt. Every year she came into the coolness of the mountains and the landscape full of memories.

We talked about death. I told her about the Indian shamans, how they soul-travel with elder people to a river and let them look across, how they help them gain trust and confidence to cross over to the unknown other bank, how they describe dying as a conscious act of decision. I also tell her all the stories about Persephone and Demeter, about Isis, about the old Bavarian Percht, about Job and Abraham’s lap, the era of the Maccabees in Judaism and the Christian hope of resurrection. "You are the first one to talk to me about dying," she says. "This subject was an absolute taboo among Holocaust survivors. You know, I don’t really believe any of this, I am too rational and scientific. But please tell me about the Indians again." And we make plans for my next visit to New York. "We’ll go out every night" she promises "to concerts at the Lincoln Center" and I continue dreaming aloud "and to a ballet with the Alvin-Ailey Dance Company and you must come with me to my beloved Jane Street Theater. I have to discuss this Debbie play with you. I think it’s just how Otto would have liked it, an explosion out of inhibition. Then I can show you my room upstairs in that old hotel Riverside where the survivors of the Titanic slept. I don’t think it has been renovated since then."

We both know very well that we will not attend another ballet nor a concert together. And I think: "How I would like to have one of your teaspoons, Ilse, so that I can think of you when I stir my coffee and that small yellow cloth bound book". But I want to believe that there is still much time left to voice my wishes.

With her last ounce of strength and much assistance Ilse is able to fly back to New York. When I phone her I imagine a wire that ties us together as if to hold on to her voice becoming weaker and thinner. She can’t hold the phone any more... But it is a relief to know that she is not in pain. I am not flying over for the funeral. I said good-bye in Zermatt. I will not be there to lay a rose on her casket. Her voice is still in me, I start to draw. The pages out of the Manhattan telephone book have been lying in the corner of my studio for the past three years. Now I know why. Ilse at Lake Michigan - but it is in New York. Ilse giving a concert, she is dancing on the piano keys, on the notes. Ilse has found an apartment with Otto. Thoughts about her mother, hoping that she might still catch a ship. Early years in Berlin and suddenly out of nowhere those funny kidney shaped coffee tables and lamps from the late fifties materialize on the paper, remnants from my own youth. I paint Ilse’s memories, my feelings, lines across the city map, along the skyline and down the rows of windows, incorporating the columns of phone numbers, very free and open but ultimately finding a form, rhythm and structure - just like Ilse did it in her own language on the piano. My roses for Ilse. Christine Rieck-Sonntag

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