Marja Grólmusec: The Rosa Luxemburg of the Sorbs

“Marja Grólmusec: The Rosa Luxemburg of the Sorbs”  is a paper by Dr Charles Wukasch that was presented to the Slavic and East European Languages and Literatures Section of the South Central Modern Language Association Convention that was held in New Orleans, Louisiana on 29 October 2004.

Marja Grólmusec – The Rosa Luxemburg of the Sorbs

At SCMLA 2000 in San Antonio, I gave a paper titled “Edith Durham: The Rebecca West of Albania.” I decided to use that title as a template and to title the present paper ” Marja Grólmusec – The Rosa Luxembourg of the Sorbs.” Of course, personal analogies, like historical analogies, are probably inexact at best. Still, I like to think that Marja Grólmusec continued the tradition of leftist women like Rosa Luxembourg, Nexhmije Hoxha (the wife and comrade of Enver Hoxha, the leader of Albania between 1944 and his death in 1985 – under Hoxha, Albania was the only truly Marxist society in the world), Frida Kahlo, and Emma Goldman. (If I may digress for just a moment, my wife and I visited the Frida Kahlo home/museum during a trip to Mexico City this past August. It is interesting that the painting which is still on the easel in her workroom is that of Joseph Stalin.)

            My interest in Grólmusec derives from several areas of interest: the Sorbs, multiculturalism (in this context, writers, political activists, etc. who are or were members of traditionally disadvantaged groups), and politics in general. I learned of and became interested in Grólmusec while researching my book A Rock against Alien Waves: A History of the Wends, which has just appeared.

            This being a Slavic section, I assume that all of us know at least something about the smallest of the Slavic peoples: the Sorbs (not to be confused with the Serbs) or Wends. (The preferred scholarly term is Sorbs, although some Sorbs have “reclaimed” the pejorative term Wends. The most common name for the Sorbs in Texas has always been Wends.) Still, let me comment on them briefly just in case some of you are not familiar with them. The Sorbs are members of the West Slavic subgroup, thus being related to the Czechs, Poles, and Slovaks. The Sorbs live in the southeastern corner of Germany. There are actually two Sorbian languages: Upper and Lower, Upper being the more widely spoken of the two. Whether the Sorbs comprise two ethnic groups can be debated.

The tragedy of Dr. Marja Grólmusec (1896-1944 (G Maria Grollmuß)) is a moving and interesting one. Grólmusec (her middle names were Karolina Elisabeth) was born on April 24, 1896, in Leipzig, but spent her childhood vacations in Radwor (G Radibor), her father’s native village. (Radwor is a few miles northwest of Bautzen, the cultural center of the Upper Sorbs.) It was in Radwor that she got in touch with her Sorbian roots. Radwor was Grólmusec’s father’s native village; her mother, Carolina (neé Koelitz) was, however, an ethnic German from Karlsruhe. Two years later, on November 22, Grólmusec’s sister Cäcilia was born, also in Leipzig.

Grólmusec received a Catholic education in Leipzig in the school where her father was principal. After eight years at this school, she attended a Mädchenschule (girls’ school) for one year. In 1911, her mother died of tuberculosis and heart disease, and an aunt took over the role of mother in the family. In 1912 Grólmusec was confirmed. Her choice of patroness was interesting: Joan of Arc. (Allow me to include a bit of trivia which relates to the title of this paper. Bernadette Devlin, the Northern Irish Catholic activist in the late 60’s, became annoyed when she acquired the sobriquet “The Irish Joan of Arc.” Devlin said that she wanted to be thought of as the Irish Rosa Luxembourg; in other words, she considered Joan of Arc a religious fanatic, not a revolutionary.)

If one is into psychobiography, one may read something into Grólmusec’s choice of Joan of Arc as her patroness. By psychobiography, I am referring, of course, to the interplay of psychology and history. For example, some scholars have wondered whether Karl Marx’s poverty and bad health might have contributed to his economic beliefs, whether Hitler acquired his anti-Semitism at least partially because of the death of his mother from breast cancer and Hitler’s possible feeling that her Jewish doctor had not treated her cancer the right way. Anyway, although it might be tempting to look for parallels in the lives of Joan of Arc and Marja Grólmusec, Grólmusec may have chosen Joan of Arc as her patroness merely because she was an icon of the Catholic church. One mustn’t always look for deeper meanings to an act. As Freud famously said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke.”

She later taught school for one year in 1918 in Leipzig. In this same year, she joined the Sorbian Academy of Sciences Maćica Serbska, and a year later she helped found the Sorbian student group Wita. Between 1920 and 1925, she studied at the Universities of Leipzig and Berlin, with a major in history and minors in German and French. Grólmusec’s political activity began at this time. She joined the Verband Sozialistischer Studentengruppen (Union of Socialist Student Groups), serving as a delegate to their international conference (Fédération Internationale pour la Société des Nations) in Geneva in 1924. She also visited France and Czechoslovakia. In this same year, her father died; Eugenie Koelitz’s death occurred soon thereafter.

In 1925 she submitted her doctoral dissertation, her topic being “Josef Görres und die Demokratie.” (Görres was a progressive activist of the Napoleonic era. On a humorous note, the full title – in true German form – was ” Josef Görres und die Demokratie. Aufstieg und Höhepunkt. Von den Anfängen biz zum Jahre 1819.”) She chose a historian and a Germanicist for her committee; unfortunately, they turned it down on the first reading and asked her to revise it. (I know the feeling!)

In 1925, Grólmusec published a pamphlet titled “Die Frau und die junge Demokratie. Ein Versuch über Frau, Politik und Demokratie” (“Woman and the New Democracy: An Examination of Women, Politics, and Democracy”) This was followed in the following year by an article titled “Über die weibliche Form in der Politik” (“On the Feminine Form in Politics”; this article appeared in the journal Die Schildgenossen (The Comrade’s Shield ). She also got hired as a journalist for Die Deutsche Republik (The German Republic) in Frankfurt (am Main).

In 1927 probably, Grólmusec joined the Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). The years 1929 to 1933 were rough ones. She got another teaching job, this one in Berlin, but it was just for one semester. She experienced some unemployment; at other times, she was underemployed. During this troublesome period of time, there was at least some good news: In 1929, her dissertation was accepted; in the same year, she took her orals in history, German, and sociology and passed them. She was now Dr. Maria Grólmusec.

In 1929, she took the more radical step of joining the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD). However, after just nine months in the party, she was expelled because of her disagreement with the party on the subject of labor unions. She then joined the Kommunistische Partei Opposition (KPO). This party was a break-off from the regular Communist Party of Germany; it split off over opposition to Stalinism in the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands. (Disunity has been one of the weaknesses of the Left ever since the time following Lenin’s death: Stalinism vs. Trotskyism, i.e., socialism in one country vs. the permanent revolution; disunity in the American left during the war in Vietnam; etc.)

It seemed that Grólmusec had difficult in finding a permanent home in any one faction of the Left. In 1932, she was expelled from the KPO and joined the newly founded Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei (SAP), a party which broke off from the SPD. (It would be an understatement to say that the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei is not to be confused with the Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (in other words, the Nazi Party). In 1932, she unsuccessfully twice tried her hand at electoral politics, running for the Reichstag as the candidate for Dresden-Bautzen. In 1933, she was expelled from the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei and rejoined the Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands

            In 1933, she moved to Radibor. One of Grólmusec’s areas of activity was attempting to forge an alliance between the Catholic left and the secular left. In other words, she anticipated what is today called liberation theology. She did not feel that there was any necessary conflict between the teachings of Marx and those of Christ. It was now that her political activity became – from the viewpoint of the authorities – of a criminal nature. She served as a courier, traveling between Germany and Czechoslavakia.

Not surprisingly, she came to the attention of the Nazi regime. Grólmusec was arrested in 1934 by the Gestapo for her activities both as a secret courier to Czechoslovakia and as a campaigner for political prisoners in Nazi Germany. She was first incarcerated in the Dresden jail, but then received a six-year sentence and was transferred to the prison at Waldheim. In December 1936, the University of Leipzig revoked her doctorate.

In the closing days of 1940, the German government tried to “turn” Grólmusec. They offered her both her freedom and medical care if she would aid the Nazi cause. She refused and in January 1941 was sent to the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp., she worked with another Sorb, Marja Grofowa, to lessen the plight of Soviet and French prisoners-of-war. A fellow inmate referred to Grólmusec touchingly as “eine wahre Gabe des Himmels” (“a true gift from Heaven”). She suffered martyrdom in Ravensbrück in 1944.

One remembrance which Grólmusec, this courageous fighter for human rights, left behind is her correspondence from behind bars, although most of it, sadly, was destroyed. The letters which I am aware of consist of a letter from the jail in Dresden to her friend and former colleague from her teacher days, Marlis Ebner; 14 letters from the prison in Waldheim to her sister Cäcilia, and 11 letters to Cäcilia from the concentration camp in Ravensbrück. The letters to her sister begin affectionately with “Mein Klienerchen” (“my little one”) and end with Grólmusec’s nickname Ali. They are all written in German; this may reflect Grólmusec’s lack of fluency in written Sorbian and/or restrictions of censorship. (The authorities may have insisted that all letters be written in German.)

A study of Grólmusec’s correspondence would go beyond the limits of this brief overview of her life. However, I would like to quote several very moving lines from one of them. (I will give an English translation. Let me also make a comment on Sorbian culture. The Christchild is a teenage girl who brings gifts to the children.) This is from a letter written from Waldheim on New Year’s Day 1939:

When you come home at five and ring our evening bells, you then sit down with your new sweets at the tea table, turn on the Christmas lights, and listen to a bit of music on the radio, which cheers up and comforts your heart. But will you find any? Yes, my little one – I know it – you think back to other Christmas Eves. It hasn’t been so long since you look so happily and with such amazement at the Christmas lights as that young girl, the Christchild, brought you a beautiful doll. It’s been a few years! But everything is now so dark and grave, and the doll is no longer sitting under the tree. And we know that the broken doll will never be fixed, and we’ll never be little girls again, and so, we’ll never laugh again the way we once did: easily and light-heartedly. Too much darkness has entered our lives, too much for us to be able to forget. But we don’t want to lose hope and courage.

(Two Grólmusec scholars, Prégardier and Mohr, wonder if the phrase “the broken doll” might not be an allusion to the early death of Marja’s and Cäcilia’s mother and thus refer to their broken childhood. However, Marja and Cäcilia were 15 and 13, respectively, when their mother died. While still tragic, it is not as if they had been, say, eight and six.)

In another letter to her sister (May 19, 1940 from Waldheim) Grólmusec says that “In dark times, one must light a new fire. In dark times one can’t have too much light.” After attending a lecture on the letters of Rosa Luxemburg, Grólmusec wrote “the quiet things, which strengthen the soul for struggle.”


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