Elly Kuphal, “a poet from Hamburg”

This photo came to me from German ebay as part of a random lot of photos. I was immediately mesmerized by the beauty and tenderness of the sitter. And then I discovered the poem written on the reverse. With a little help from a Facebook group, I could make out the poem and the name of the author: Elly Kuphal, “a poet from Hamburg”.  

I had never heard that name or come across any of her poems. A google search didn’t reveal anything on the poem or the poet either. Perhaps she was not known to the public for her craft, but her friends and family knew and appreciated her poems.  

Elly Marie Josepha Brzóska was born today a 148 years ago, on February 5, 1874, in Hamburg, to parents Josef Brzóska and Mathilde Auguste Louise née Kuphal. Elly’s father was a plumber and a mechanic by profession. Elly had (at least) 6 younger brothers: Franz Joseph (born in 1876), Friedrich Wilhelm (born in 1877), Alexander Gottfried (born in 1878), Heinrich Ludwig (born in 1879), Emil Max August (born and died in 1881) and Siegfried (born in 1883).

When Elly was 24 years old, she married postal inspector Max Friedrich Julius Kuphal on November 7, 1896. And perhaps you noticed too that the surname of Elly’s husband and the maiden name of Elly’s mother were identical: Kuphal. Max Friedrich Kuphal had been born on January 4, 1871, to parents Carl Kuphal and Bertha née Gildemeister.

Elly and Max Kuphal had four children:  

  1. Friedrich Carl Alexander Johannes Kuphal, born on August 3, 1897. He married Else Bertha Erika née Hagewald on June 6, 1925 in Hamburg.   
  2. Elfriede Auguste Bertha Alma Kuphal, born on August 21, 1898. Unfortunately, little Elfriede died at just 2 months old. 
  3. Elisabeth Bertha Carola Kuphal, born on September 24, 1899. She married a postal worker Johannes Adolf Carl Walter Freund on June 18, 1927, in Hamburg. Her father and father-in-law were both postal inspectors too, so perhaps this is how Elfriede was introduced to her future husband Johannes. I don’t know if the couple had any children.   
  4. Anna Kuphal, born on September 11, 1907. Anna married engineer Valentin Hartmann on November 28, 1931, in Hamburg. Their son Alexander Peter Albert Hartmann was born April 14, 1932.  

Elly’s family was hit by one tragedy after another… In 1898 Elly lost her daughter Elfriede of just 2 months old. Elly’s son Friedrich Carl was admitted to a mental institution due to schizophrenia sometime after 1925. He died there in April 1943 as a result of tuberculosis. I cannot even begin to imagine what mother Elly was going through, knowing today what the NS-regime did with the mentally challenged and psychiatrically ill…  

I don’t know exactly when Elly’s husband Max Kuphal died, but by 1943 she was widowed. In 1940, Elly’s daughter Elisabeth’s husband Johannes Freund passed away in 1940 from kidney tuberculosis.  

And as if that was not enough sorrow for one family to carry, this family story has an absolute tragic ending… Mother Elly, her widowed daughter Elisabeth Bertha Freund, her other daughter Anna Hartmann and her 11-year-old son Alexander, all died during the air raids on Hamburg in the night of July 28, 1943. The series of RAF anf USAAF air raids on Hamburg is known in history as the “operation Gommorah”, a symbolic name for the firestorms in the last week of July 1943 which destroyed most of Hamburg buildings and killed around 40,000 persons while wounding more than 180,000. It was mostly women and children who suffocated in the shelters under the ruins of their once homes. The bombs dropped from the skies hit directly on the house of Elly’s family in O’Swaldstr. 36. Every single one of them dead in an instant…  

I truly hope that through all the sorrow and hard times, poetry could be Elly’s comfort and companion. I will leave you here with the lines from her poem (see in English below). May she forever rest in peace. 

Verbiet dem Veilchen seine Düfte  

dem Vögelein daß froh es singe  

dem Sonnenschein daß wenn es dringe

zu uns durch Aether und durch Lüfte  

Umsonst da läßt sich nichts bezwingen  

wo göttlich wirkt des Menschen Wille  

Gebiets du auch dem Sänger Stille  

in seiner Seel wirds dennoch klingen”  


(my attempt to translate the original into English so that you get an idea)

“Forbid a violet its fragrance,

or a little bird its happy song,

forbid sunshine to reach us 

through ether and air

One won’t succeed in suppressing,

even with the human will of divine impact

order a singer to be silent,

but in his soul it still will ring.” 

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