“The Mystery of Rosa Luxemburg’s Corpse”

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In a long piece appearing just days before we mark 140 years since Rosa Luxemburg's birth (March 5th), Emily Witt for the New York Observer assesses The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg alongside commentary on the mystery surrounding her corpse:

The story of the missing corpse is only the latest chapter in the collected mythology of Rosa Luxemburg. There's no shortage of romancing when it comes to her life: She was the subject of a 1986 biopic, "Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg", by Margarethe von Trotta; a 2005 historical novel, Rosa, by Jonathan Rabb; and, most recently, a 2010 French musical, "Rosa La Rouge." But as the introduction to a new book of her collected correspondence, The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, 512 pages, $39.95), points out, only a quarter of her written work has thus far been available in English, the rest inaccessible to the unfortunate "Anglophone monoglot."

Witt goes on to describe The Letters as "useful and exciting" for said Anglophone monoglot, first singling out Rosa's often pained correspondence with Leo Jogiches:

The bulk of the letters in the first part of the book are addressed to Leo Jogiches, an activist who was also murdered in 1919 and was Luxemburg's lover from the 1890s to 1907. Luxemburg variously refers to Jogiches as "precious gold," "my bobo" and "my little mite." Following their protracted arguments and reconciliations via one-sided letter is rather like trying to act sympathetic toward a friend whose boyfriend you hate. "He's a controlling asshole!" you want to tell her. But then you remember that this is a woman who devoted her life to things much greater than mere boyfriends.

There is some soap-operatic satisfaction to be gleaned, however, when she recounts "a brief and soft-spoken but frightening confrontation—during a trip on an omnibus" when, after he has learned that Luxemburg has taken a new lover (the dashing physician Kostya Zetkin), Jogiches declares that he would sooner kill her than lose her. After the bus ride, Luxemburg and Jogiches meet friends at a nice restaurant.

"A fine orchestra was playing, in the gallery, music from the last scene of Carmen," she writes, "and while they were playing L softly whispered to me: I would sooner strike you dead." Yikes!

Sharing the thoughts of many, Witt writes that, "[Rosa's] best letters are those written from prison." And Witt does a fine job of getting across the (often painful) beauty of these letters:

Here [in prison] monotony and loneliness provoke a literary unity between the smallest details of her everyday life and the larger political endeavors that she has tried to accomplish. She must face the depth of her commitment, and finds she has "become as hard as polished steel and from now on will neither politically nor in personal relations make even the slightest concession."

But she is drowning in memories. A wasp flies into her cell and she writes, "It's such a reminder of summer, of the heat, and of my open balcony in Südende with the broad view out onto the fields and the groves of trees shimmering in the heat, and of Mimi [the cat] lying in the sun all folded together like a soft package, blinking up at the buzzing wasp."

She recalls the moving shadows of tree limbs across a cafe table in Berlin, the jubilation of Karl Liebknecht on a country outing one summer, the minutia of a frozen bumblebee "cold and still as though dead, lying in the grass with its little legs drawn in and its little fur coat covered with hoarfrost." In her letters to her friends, who sent her, it seems, a near constant supply of flowers and cookies, she constantly asks them to join her in her remembrance:

"Do you remember the fabulous full-moon night in Südende," she writes, "when I was walking you home, and to us the gables of the houses, with their sharp black outlines against the background of a tender blue sky, seemed like the castles of knights of yore, do you remember?"

Visit the New York Observer to read the article in full. 

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg will be launched in New York on March 14th with special readings from The Letters by Deborah Eisenberg.

(The image included in this post is part of a letter from Rosa Luxemburg to Luise Kautsky—"Lulu"—and is taken from the plate section in The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg)

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