Thank goodness lockdown is easing and once again I can browse the shelves of City Library in Manchester. And this book is the kind of gem that you can only find in public libraries. The name “Moos” stopped me as I had already read Merilyn Moos’ extraordinary novel, “The Language of Silence,” and recently read her new book, “Anti-Nazi Germans” co-authored with Steve Cushion.
David Perman – who wrote this book – got to know Lotte (1909-2008) in the early 1980s when he heard her perform her poetry. She was then in her 70s, and was gaining a reputation for her poetry which was appearing in magazines and publications. David went on to publish her Collected Poems in a Rockingham Press imprint.
But he knew little about her past – and what a life she had lived. Lotte and her husband Siegi had fled Germany to the UK in the 1930s, leaving behind her parents. Not an unusual story for that era, but Lotte was not the usual refugee.
The British authorities , who were never that keen on allowing refugees from Germany into this country , suspected her of being a Communist spy which was not surprising as Lotte went from England to Moscow in 1936 and then on to USA in 1939. Returning to England in 1940 she was interned in Holloway Prison and interrogated by M15. In 2003 two thick MI5 files on Lotte’s life were released into the National Archive which laid bare her life and the interest that the British authorities had in it.
David, and many of her friends, did not know the turbulent life that Lotte had lived. Her daughter, Merilyn, only became aware of the extent of Lotte’s writings when she cleared her flat in Hackney when Lotte went into a care home.
As David says: “Lotte began writing in the aftermath of the First World War and continued writing compulsively into her late eighties. She really was a narrator of her turbulent century with its revolutions, wars and massive movements of people as refugees. Lotte regarded herself as a refugee for most of her life and had a particular sympathy for other refugees.”
Lotte was born in Germany on 9 December 1909 as Margaret Charlotte Jacoby into a middle class, wealthy family. Like many German Jews their Jewishness was not an issue until the Nazis began persecuting Jews in the 1930s.
She began telling stories from an early age, both at home and at school. In the 1920s as the political situation deteriorated Lotte, on her way to school, watched as refugees from Poland and Russia, escaped into Germany: she recorded this in a story that was published in the Berliner Tagesblatt.
Lotte wanted to be an actress and attended the Berlin State Theatre School in 1926. Failing at this she went onto to become a photographer’s assistant. Interested in politics she joined the left wing Workers’ Theatre and it was there she met her husband Siegi Moos. He was a communist who wrote radical plays and poetry and Lotte joined the party around the same time.
In 1932 politics in Germany shifted to the right with the rise of the Nazis. In the New Year the Left staged a demonstration of over 100,000 people in the centre of Berlin which Lotte and Siegi took part. But events took a turn for the worst when the Nazis came to power: left wing parties were outlawed and their leaders and deputies were murdered or arrested.
In 1933 Siegi and Lotte fled Germany for Paris. Lotte summed up her experience in a story called “Arrival” written many years later. “I am no historian, nor someone who has studied history. What I have to tell is history suffered, so to speak, by someone who was turned into a refugee in 1933.”
Lotte and Seigi made a life in the UK. Siegi took up a career in economics, eventually becoming an adviser in Harold Wilson’s government of 1966. Lotte continued her writing and had some success. In 1944 she had their only child Merilyn.
In 1976 both of them joined the Hackney Writers Workshop and a whole new chapter of their lives began as they took part in a group that encompassed people of all ages and produced work that reflected the politics of the working class community they lived in.
Lotte never forgot her own refugee status and she reflected this in her poetry. She took the side of the oppressed and championed their rights. Her poem “If You Think” (1981) sums this up.
If you think
struck in Ireland
Won’t hurt you
They will hurt you
If you think
Slid between the ribs of a Pakistani
Will glance off your lighter skin
If you think
Bullets hissing towards beating hearts
In some country we know nothing about
Will miss you
They will not miss your beating heart
If you think
Jabbed into veins
To make the blood run docile
Won’t prick you
They will hurt you, hit you, prick you
And they will not miss you
We are all one
One trembling human flesh.’
It is Lotte’s own words in stories, plays and poems that illuminate this book. We hear her voice, walk alongside her through some horrendous experiences, and can only be inspired by her, Siegi and many other comrades as they lived the history of this period.
David Perman should be commended for writing this inspiring biography of Lotte. It is well written and includes an appendix of her work. It is also produced by a small, independent press and so is without the usual “Cold War” politics that are rampant in many books produced about this era.
Today poetry has never been so popular, but much of it is individualistic and shallow. What we need is a revival of writers’ workshops that will bring in working class people and activists who will write up their experiences and reflect the reality of life in this country.
You can see Lotte performing a poem in this film about the community in Hackney in the mid 1980s https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-somewhere-in-hackney-1980-online
If you cannot find the book in your local library you can still buy secondhand copies here https://www.abebooks.co.uk/book-search/title/stranger-in-a-borrowed-land-lotte-moos-and-her-writing/author/perman-david/