Printed books Reflections

In Memory of Mimi Grossberg

Honoring the Legacy of an Austrian Poet in Exile

By Alex Dimeff, graphic designer

If you’re ever in Vienna, you can stroll past Edith-Piaf-Straße and Ada-Lovelace, circle the park on Hannah-Arendt-Platz, head one block west and find yourself on Mimi-Grossberg-Gasse.

The plaque below the street sign offers the briefest of biographies: Emilie Grossberg: Schriftstellerin, 1905-1997. Nowhere is it mentioned that, unlike Piaf and Lovelace, Grossberg was born in Vienna. Similarly unexpressed is the fact that she didn’t stay in Austria, that she fled. The streets of her home city, which now include the three-block alley bearing her name, were once hostile to her.

If whoever labels the roads in Vienna had made more room on the plaque below the street sign, they might have added the following:

Mimi Grossberg (birth name Emilie Buchwald) was born in 1905 to Saloman Buchwald and Adele Durst. After graduating high school, she obtained a position as a librarian then later completed an apprenticeship as a milliner. She had a curious mind and loved to learn. While she was working, she enrolled in psychology and music composition courses for adults. 

Grossberg published her first volume of poetry in 1935, two years after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and three years before he annexed Austria.

Shortly after the Anschluss, Grossberg escaped to the United States. Even in that moment of upheaval, she kept her dry wit, penning a humorous poem about her interactions with US customs.

Like many immigrants and refugees, when Grossberg came to the US, she landed in New York City. Despite her efforts to secure exit visas for her family, her parents never made it out of the German Reich. They died in Auschwitz in 1942.

A refugee in the sprawl of Manhattan, Grossberg must have felt alone. We can see this in her poem “The Listener.” In it, she writes, “Sometimes, I stop at strangers’ doors, held back by secret strings….inside, there is a home…inside, a radiator sings.” Only a person who’s known profound loneliness could pause and imagine, with such longing, the inner sanctuaries of strangers.

But Grossberg didn’t remain alone in the world. With her help, her younger brother Julius Buchwald obtained his US visa in 1946 and joined her in New York. He was a poet in his own right, as well as a composer and chess player. 

Mimi Grossberg kept busy in America. Between her various jobs (copyist, hat factory employee, volunteer air raid warden), she wrote. And between writing, she elevated other writers, publishing several volumes of poetry by fellow Austrian refugees and giving lectures on their work.

Back in Austria, the Nazis had decided there was no room in Central and Eastern Europe for Grossberg and other Jewish people like her. In New York, by celebrating fellow poets in exile, Grossberg helped carve out the space that Austrian refugees had been denied in their home country.

In the end, that’s all we can do: make space. We give each other room in our towns and cities and in our imaginations. Hannah Arendt, whose namesake street neighbors Grossberg’s in Vienna, once summarized the ultimate character flaw of war criminal Adolf Eichmann as “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Another exile of the Reich, Arendt saw that an evil worldview does not leave room for other perspectives. It crowds them out. It shouts over them. It talks a lot, but it never listens. It never pauses outside a stranger’s door and imagines what lies inside, thinking, “That’s why my heart begins to thaw, my soul grows secret wings…inside, there is a home…inside, a radiator sings.”

Read “The Listener” and other poems by Mimi Grossberg in Blossoms in Snow: Austrian Refugee Poets in Manhattan, selected and translated by Joshua Parker.

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