Background

Who was Senna Hoy?

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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.

Where is Rixdorf?

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It’s an understandable question that arises whenever we venture forth with our books: where does the name Rixdorf Editions come from?

Rixdorf is and was an actual place, although its contours are not always easy to define, with the area to which the name is attached growing and shrinking over time. Its Medieval origins pre-date even the city of Berlin into which it was later incorporated, and it has cycled through the stages of chivalric outpost, village, district, city and back to village again. And its history is interwoven with successive strands of migration that continue to the present day, a tale of Bohemians and bohemians, riotous taverns and shisha bars, imperial censure and tabloid hysteria.

Bethlehemskirche, Richardplatz

Bethlehemskirche, Richardplatz

Our story begins about 800 years ago with the Knights Templar, who settled in – and gave their name to – Tempelhof. Later this would be very much a part of (southern) Berlin, with an enormous parade ground that was turned into an airport and now serves as a park. But at the time Tempelhof was a modest elevation above a largely unpopulated plain. It was about this point that the knights of Tempelhof established an outpost to the east. And presumably one of their number was named Richard, giving his name to ‘Richardsdorp’, as the first recorded mention has it in 1360 (‘dorp’ being an old Germanic designation for ‘village’, which survives in Dutch and Afrikaans) on the site of the present-day square, Richardplatz. Over time the village’s name contracted to ‘Rixdorf’ and at some point it was taken over by the rival order of St John, and a church, the Bethlehemskirche, was established. Around this time the village came under the control of the twin towns of Berlin and Cölln to the north, but it was some distance away from even this modest hub and kept largely to itself.

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The village fared poorly in the Thirty Years War, although it did come out the other side with its own blacksmith – a sign of its growing importance. One of the key moments in Rixdorf’s history came in 1737, when Protestants cast out of Bohemia settled there with the permission of Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I. Rixdorf was divided into ‘German’ and ‘Bohemian’ parts, the latter still remembered in locations like Jan-Hus-Weg, Böhmische Strasse and the Comeniusgarten named for 17th-century Czech philosopher John Amos Comenius. The grateful exiles erected a statue of their royal benefactor which still stands on Kirchgasse.

In the mid-19th century Rixdorf was devastated by fire and partly rebuilt. A horse-drawn omnibus connected the village with Berlin (which had long since devoured its twin, Cölln), and the rapidly expanding metropolis drew ever closer. The name Rixdorf was now applied to the neighbourhood north of the original village as well, which hosted a number of beer gardens and the huge Neue Welt amusement park which drew pleasure-seekers from all over the greater Berlin area. In 1874 German and Bohemian Rixdorf joined to form one community, known as ‘the largest village in Prussia’, but on the eve of the 20th century Rixdorf became a city in its own right.

Greater Berlin in 1900, showing Rixdorf in the south-east

Greater Berlin in 1900, showing Rixdorf in the south-east

Close up of RIxdorf in 1900

Close up of RIxdorf in 1900

As the new century dawned, Rixdorf had a rapidly growing proletarian population, and was fast developing a reputation. Music halls and other pleasure spots sprang up in this relatively out-of-the-way location, bringing thousands of revellers, along with prostitution, public drunkenness and (gasp) close dancing. A popular song of the time, ‘In Rixdorf is Musike’, hymned the pleasures of a night out on the lash in this louche, lively neighbourhood, sung in broad Berlin dialect. Soon the very name Rixdorf stood for unsavoury and insubordinate elements, and the consternation went right to the top.

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The more conservative city fathers, supported by the prudish Kaiser Wilhelm II, launched a rebranding exercise. With Cölln off the map they figured no one would mind if they adopted (and adapted) the name. And so in 1912 Neukölln was summoned into being by imperial decree (if you’re familiar with London and have ever wondered why Clapham Junction station isn’t actually in Clapham – it was the same problem; Battersea, where the station is in fact located, had become tainted by the area’s seamy reputation). Along with this renaming came a ban on close dancing. Neukölln had over a quarter of a million inhabitants but in 1920 it surrendered its short-lived city status to be officially absorbed into Berlin as a borough that also included neighbouring Britz, Buckow und Rudow.

Richardplatz

Richardplatz

Neukölln was always a working class district, and in 1933 the decidedly anti-Nazi council was forced to stand down, but throughout the Third Reich the district harboured a number of undercover resistance cells. In 1940, the last Czech-speaking inhabitants of Bohemian Rixdorf died. In contrast to central Berlin, much of Neukölln’s building stock survived the Second World War, but in the Cold War it found itself hard up against the Berlin Wall on its entire eastern and southern periphery. Immigration continued, and this corner of the American sector in West Berlin became a home to Gastarbeiter (guest workers), from Turkey in particular.

[Aside: a radical art collective emerged in the 1960s calling themselves Werkstatt Rixdorfer Drucke, although they were actually based in Kreuzberg; they combined interventions, poetry and highly innovative letterpress images and their work is well worth seeking out.]

Villa Rixdorf, Richardplatz

Villa Rixdorf, Richardplatz

After reunification, Neukölln was afflicted by high levels of unemployment and race-baiting populists pointed to the large number of foreign-born residents and claimed that it was a ‘no-go area’ — a recurring right-wing trope. But it never was, and the district’s crime rates always corresponded largely with those for Berlin as a whole. The northern part of Neukölln increasingly became home to Arab immigrants, particularly in 2015 when Syrian refugees were admitted in large numbers. Simultaneously, this area has followed a cycle of gentrification familiar from formerly down-at-heel parts of East London and Brooklyn.

Rixdorf Christmas market

Rixdorf Christmas market

Today the name Rixdorf refers – unofficially – to more or less the area of the old village(s), which still retains much of its historic flavour in the midst of the city, where you can still see the Bethlehemkirche, the blacksmith’s and a number of original houses. The borders of Rixdorf are difficult to define but are generally held to encompass the few streets surrounding Richardplatz, which each year hosts an extremely popular Christmas market, as well as a traditional Czech hay bale rolling competition in summer.

So that’s Rixdorf, but why Rixdorf Editions? Well, our office is located in Neukölln (in Germany’s most densely populated square kilometre, no less), a few streets from the historic village. But when it came to choosing our name we were particularly drawn to the period of iniquity, insurrection and illicit pleasures that so discomfited the authorities, especially as that period also produced the works that we are now bringing to a new readership. Once abandoned in disgust, the name ‘Rixdorf’ is one our books wear with pride.

Comeniusgarten, once the site of a perilously overcrowded apartment block which housed numerous left-wing residents; in 1931 the SA attempted to take over the tavern that stood at the front of the building but were driven out by the locals. The building was demolished in 1971.

Comeniusgarten, once the site of a perilously overcrowded apartment block which housed numerous left-wing residents; in 1931 the SA attempted to take over the tavern that stood at the front of the building but were driven out by the locals. The building was demolished in 1971.

Beauty in the metropolis

Ephraim-Palais

Ephraim-Palais

Berlin-born architect and theorist August Endell issued his most important text, Die Schönheit der großen Stadt, in 1908. And this year brings not only our English translation of this title (The Beauty of the Metropolis) but also an exhibition currently running in Endell's hometown that takes the name and content of the book as inspiration. Where the text drew numerous examples from the German capital in its celebration of the urban environment and the aesthetic riches it has to offer, the exhibition focuses on canvases capturing views of a city that has had numerous qualities ascribed to it, but rarely ‘beauty’.

On a bright, cold day with Siberian winds strafing the Spree (this was a while ago, you will note) I made my way from Jannowitzbrücke station to the centrally located Ephraim-Palais, a bijou Rococo palace originally built for the jeweller to the court of Frederick the Great, although deconstructed and reconstructed in the 20th century. The close identification of location and subject matter was confirmed by two works that offered views of precisely the route I had just taken, from differing historical perspectives.

The exhibition takes us from the Biedermeier era to the early 2000s, or as the subtitle has it ‘Berlin images from Gaertner to Fetting’, i.e., from someone you've probably never heard of to someone else you've probably never heard of. This is something of a misdirect, as the show actually offers work by the far more recognisable likes of Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and Jeanne Mammen. Wisely the pieces are grouped thematically rather than chronologically, but the selection sticks almost exclusively to oil on canvas, with no etchings, drawings or other works on paper. And no photography, although as I note in the afterword to The Beauty of the Metropolis, it is arguably in this medium that Endell’s vision of a citizenry in full aesthetic possession of its urban surroundings is most compellingly realised in the present day.

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Extracts from The Beauty of the Metropolis adorn the walls of the show, and both the work and its creator are at home in these surroundings. It wasn’t his building or design works that first brought Endell to public attention, but a rousing piece of art criticism published in 1896, entitled Um die Schönheit (On Beauty). It addressed a major exhibition in Munich that year, in which doughty offerings by seasoned academicians appeared alongside explosive new experiments in form and theme. The text announced Endell as a new and original thinker, one who proposed a radical submission to aesthetic input:

But those who learn to give in to their visual impressions completely, without associations, without secondary objects of any kind, those who just once feel the emotional impact of forms and colours, will find them to be an inexhaustible source of extraordinary, unimagined pleasure. And the moment when the understanding for these things first awakens should be an event in every person’s life. It is like an intoxication, a madness that comes over us. The joy threatens to destroy us, the profusion of beauty to suffocate us. Those who have not experienced this will never understand visual art.

These ideas in turn informed his perception of the city a dozen years later when he wrote The Beauty of the Metropolis. Certainly the variety of experience of which Endell speaks in the book is reflected in this selection. Sharing the same feverish, pre-World War One period with Endell’s text is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s well-known Nollendorfplatz, which depicts a relatively new district as the meeting place of almost irreconcilable axes of motion, while Ludwig Meidner’s desolate images of building sites show the city simultaneously claiming yet more of its sandy environs for itself.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Nollendorfplatz 1912

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Nollendorfplatz 1912

There are, it has to be said, a few works evidently selected for their affinity with the theme at hand, with artistic excellence a secondary consideration. Conversely, other artists are exposed in a new light. Jeanne Mammen's images of demi-mondaine city-dwellers may be familiar, but here she is represented by an unpeopled image of a church (thought to have been executed in the late 1930s), rendering the scene in a way that didn't at all conform to the Nazis' approved styles. And while I was dimly aware of the work of Impressionist Lesser Ury from reproductions, here they appeared as a revelation, one that brought Endell’s words vividly to mind. The most thrilling and evocative was a nocturnal study of the Landwehr Canal, and Endell’s depiction of this waterway in The Beauty of the Metropolis could be a transcription of Ury’s image (which unfortunately doesn't reproduce well):

The thick treetops prevent light from making its full impact. The quiet buildings rise darkly behind the shadowy clouds of the treetops. The gas lanterns seem like points of light attracting cabs and automobiles; a fine, blinking web of stars spreads out above this dark mass. The smooth, turgid water is completely dark, and this silent, spectral mirror below reflects the gentle life of the night above, shimmering at the passer-by.

Lesser Ury Abend am Landwehrkanal 1889

Lesser Ury Abend am Landwehrkanal 1889

Night takes on a far more sinister iridescence a century later in Wolfgang Peuker’s imagining of the (old) Chancellery, a scene populated solely by outsized martial statuary at the entrance of Hitler's intimidating lair. This is a rare retrospective view, with most artists sticking to their own eras, as seen in Louise Rösler’s deceptively festive Marsden Hartley-esque study of Kurfürstendamm on the eve of the Second World War, and Karl Hofer’s desaturated view of the bombed-out city after its conclusion. Konrad Knebel’s Straße mit Mauer (1977) is one of numerous works to depict the divided city in the Cold War, but while it depicts the Berlin Wall itself, its perspective magnifies the adjacent apartment blocks with the odd effect of reducing the barrier to the status of an almost incidental plane. Meanwhile Stefanie Bürkle’s Weinhaus Huth (1995) brings us forward to the redevelopment of the post-reunification era. Here skeletal concrete behemoths dwarf a tenacious remnant of old Berlin in the form of the eponymous building, almost the last original structure left standing on or around Potsdamer Platz following wartime bombing and the construction of the Wall.

Perhaps the most surprising work here is Oskar Kokoschka's Berlin, 13. August 1966. For one, I had no idea Kokoschka was still active in 1966 (and was further surprised to discover he lived until 1980). Not just that, the work was created at the behest of Axel Springer, and depicts the view over East Berlin from the top of the publisher's new high-rise, built right on the course of the Wall. Springer’s conservative, staunchly pro-American tabloid provocations would soon make him one of the bogeymen of West Germany’s ’68 generation, so it is all the more unusual to find him here in association with a survivor of the Weimar avant-garde.

For anyone familiar with Berlin, it is difficult to avoid trying to identify locations and individual features, but here – again – Endell is way ahead of us. It is not the metropolis that we should be seeking, but the beauty within it:

But only in our present era have we slowly begun to realise that form and colour do not derive their beauty from the object, that there may indeed be a beauty that is not even perceived in the object when we observe it for purely practical purposes, and that it is only artistic vision that confers upon the object the beauty that resides in form and colour, independent of all material relationships.

Die Schönheit der großen Stadt continues at Museum Ephraim-Palais, Berlin, until 26 August 2018

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Metropolis Documents

Magnus Hirschfeld’s 1904 report Berlin’s Third Sex – probably the first sympathetic account of gay and lesbian city life ever published – is a remarkable enough book in its own right. But in fact it was just one part of a much larger project. The Großstadt-Dokumente, or Metropolis Documents, of which Hirschfeld’s book was the third instalment, were issued by the Hermann Seemann publishing house between 1904 and 1908. In all there would be 51 volumes, together representing one of the most far-reaching studies of urban existence ever undertaken, a vast portrait of the city at the outset of the 20th century. And around three quarters of the titles were about one city in particular: Berlin.

The original German edition (1904) of  Berlin's Third Sex

The original German edition (1904) of Berlin's Third Sex

The books appeared at an astonishing rate (up to 16 in a single year) and were printed on cheap stock to be sold at the price of one mark – significantly less than the average paperback of the time. Later they were issued in hard cover thematic anthologies of five volumes apiece. They were the brainchild of Berlin-born writer Hans Ostwald (1873-1940), and reflected his enormous interest in the society around him, particularly those of its members who stood outside the mainstream – including bohemians, prostitutes, cult followers, socialists, petty criminals, vagabonds, unwed mothers and juvenile delinquents. Each book addressed a different phenomenon of urban life. Five of the titles were by Ostwald himself, while the 39 other writers he chose were typically young, male journalists of his acquaintance, few of whom found lasting renown. The sole female author, Ella Mensch, used her platform to attack what she regarded as overly radical elements in the women’s emancipation movement.

Hans Ostwald

Hans Ostwald

It all began with Ostwald's own Dark Corners of Berlin (1904), which took the reader to dive bars, homeless shelters and other haunts of the down and out ordinarily invisible to the bourgeois reader. Subsequent volumes blended reportage, polemics and sensationalism, and while they certainly pushed at the limit of what Wilhelmine Germany would allow, only one volume was actually banned from sale – Germany’s first major study of lesbianism, written by Wilhelm Hammer. But even the less contentious titles revealed parts of the city readers might never otherwise encounter, including court rooms, sweatshops and the offices of public servants. The last of the Metropolis Documents was Edmund Edel's Neu-Berlin (1908), a stroll amid the bright lights and consumerist revelry of the Ku’damm and other gathering places of the moneyed bourgeoisie in the rapidly expanding city.

Rixdorf Editions' collection of  Metropolis Documents  anthologies

Rixdorf Editions' collection of Metropolis Documents anthologies

Even within Germany this remarkable series excites little recognition beyond academic circles, in contrast to the broad, educated readership Ostwald originally had in mind (any German-speakers who wish to find out more are directed to Ralf Thies’s exhaustively researched 2006 book, Ethnograph des dunklen Berlin). Berlin’s Third Sex is the first of the titles to appear in English and considering how much these books tell us about Berlin at the outset of the century it would define like no other, it is remarkable that over 100 years later the Metropolis Documents are all but unknown to Anglophone readers.

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Tossed in translation

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Happy International Translation Day!

Forthcoming fiction collection The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe is the first book by German author Franziska zu Reventlow (1871-1918) to appear in English. Reventlow herself was a prolific translator, almost exclusively from the French, introducing well over 40 works to German readers. Titles by Marcel Prévost account for almost half of those works, along with Guy de Maupassant, Anatole France and one book by Emile Zola.

Reventlow – look away now, conscientious translators – was not above taking shortcuts with her work, as she admitted in a 1901 letter to her lover, philosopher Ludwig Klages: "You should know that I am very haphazard with the novels, and I cut wherever they seem too long."

In addition to French books, Reventlow translated one novel by Norwegian author Bernt Lie and a sole English work, perhaps the strangest entry in her bibliography. Originally entitled The World Allies: A Survey of Nationalism, Labour and World-trade, it was written in 1917 by eccentric American millionaire John Wesley De Kay, who made his fortune with sausages in Mexico. De Kay, evidently quite the polymath, wrote a number of works on big issues of the day as well as a 1910 dramatization of the life of Judas, for which he enlisted no less a stage presence than Sarah Bernhardt. It was banned in New York after just one performance.