Johannes Holzmann

Who was Senna Hoy?

Senna Hoy.jpg

Our translation of Else Lasker-Schüler’s The Nights of Tino of Baghdad is prefixed with the words: ‘This book I give to my beloved playmate, Sascha (Senna Hoy)’. At least, this is the dedication in the 1919 second edition that formed the basis for our translation; the first edition from 1907 was dedicated to the author’s mother.

So who was Sascha, a.k.a. Senna Hoy? Behind these names was a man born in 1882 with the far less exotic handle of Johannes Holzmann. But it was as ‘Senna Hoy’ – a phonetic reversal of his first name bestowed by Lasker-Schüler herself – that the German-Jewish bohemian anarchist writer found a measure of fame, or at least infamy. The extraordinary image above appears to be the only photograph of him that has survived, but it offers a vivid sense of a man whose zeal, magnetism and rebellious spirit made a great impression on his contemporaries. It remains a mystery why no one has yet undertaken a biography of this enormously compelling character.

Senna Hoy was a member of the ‘Neue Gemeinschaft’, or New Community, which greeted the dawn of the 20th century with grand plans for society from their base in Schlachtensee, a lakeside district then south-west of Berlin’s city limits. It was here that Else Lasker-Schüler made numerous vital contacts as she embarked on a new life, having recently separated from her first husband, Berthold Lasker. She was particularly drawn to the handsome young Holzmann in a group that also included the reform-minded artist Fidus (born Hugo Höppener), the philosopher Martin Buber, radical activitist Erich Mühsam, anarchist pacifist Gustav Landauer, writer and part-time vagrant Peter Hille, as well Georg Levin, who would become Lasker-Schüler’s second husband and a vital catalyst for early modernism in Germany under the name Herwarth Walden – also an invention of his wife.

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In 1902 Senna Hoy became associated with the journal Kampf (or Kampf!), which began as a supplement to the Berlin newspaper, the Montags-Post. In 1904-05 it was a freestanding publication under Senna Hoy’s editorship and featured numerous contributions under his own hand and from his Neue Gemeinschaft colleagues, as well as Hanns Heinz Ewers, Paul Scheerbart and sado-maso cabarettiste Dolorosa. Senna Hoy was never shy of controversy, offering vocal support to workers, anarchists and homosexuals. He was one of the very first of numerous Western intellectuals to take inspiration from revolutionary Russia, eagerly following the 1905 upheavals in his journal. Apart from Kampf, Senna Hoy’s major literary work was an idiosyncratic 1904 novella entitled Golden Kätie, in which he makes direct reference to Lasker-Schüler and her alter ego of Tino.

Just about every second edition of Kampf was banned and in 1905 Senna Hoy left Germany, fearing arrest. He ended up in Warsaw and joined an anarchist gang who robbed the rich to fund their struggle. He was arrested by Russian imperial forces; the loyal Lasker-Schüler, who could barely keep herself in coffee, scraped together the money to visit him in Russia and desperately tried to gain attention for his plight. She referred to him as ‘Sascha, Prince of Moscow’, but it was not a palace that he inhabited there, but an asylum.

Efforts to free him were in vain. Having basically lived out the entire 20th century before World War One even started, Senna Hoy died of tuberculosis in 1914, aged just 31. He is buried in the Wiessensee cemetery in Berlin – a few metres from where Else Lasker-Schüler’s son Paul would be buried in 1927. Might the two young men have had a closer connection than previously assumed? Read the Afterword to our translation of The Nights of Tino of Baghdad and find out …

A 1914 edition of socialist journal  Die Aktion  dedicated to Senna Hoy, shortly after his death.

A 1914 edition of socialist journal Die Aktion dedicated to Senna Hoy, shortly after his death.