Wednesday 23 January 2013


Among the few things I have that stem from my mother's girlhood is a collection of five books for children and young girls dating from the twenties and thirties; in gothic script, with illustrations that I used to enjoy looking at before I actually read the books, because most of them were so glamorous (but more of that later). These are the 'Nesthäkchen' books, a concept rather difficult to translate. The 'Nesthäkchen' in a family is the littlest chick in the nest, the one who holds on when all the rest have left. 'Benjamina' is the closest equivalent, I suppose.

These books are set in the period just before World War 1, during the war, and in the Twenties. The last was published in 1925, the year my mother was born. The first one I read, when I was about ten, told the story of the heroine, Annemarie, when she gets scarlet fever and has to spend a year in a convalescent home to recover. My mother got that book in 1933. I wanted to know what happened next, so I read the one set in the First World War, somewhat upset by the anti-English feeling, but continued to the later stories. A couple of the intervening books were missing, and my grandfather sent me modern editions of them; published in the '60s, the illustrations showed the characters wearing '50s clothing.
The older books I have were almost all illustrated by Robert Sedlacek, a Viennese professor of applied art, and a successful advertising artist. He created graphics for Persil and for Eau de Cologne advertisements. Sometimes the advertising lineage shows; as in the scene where Annemarie's cousin proposes to her best friend while she's feeding the pigs on his farm . Though the text states that she always wore casual clothes on the farm, the clothes she and Peter wear in this picture are hilariously inappropriate (or maybe the picture is only meant to illustrate her state of mind?). There are a few more like this (girl wears high-heeled shoes to go climbing in the Bavarian Alps, for example).

On the other hand, the one of the girls in the rain was one of my childhood favourites, from 'Nesthäkchen in the World War.' But aren't the young girls (aged 13) killingly elegant?

Annemarie is a cheerful, sometimes scatter-brained, lively and loving girl from the educated and better-off layer of German society (her father is a doctor and the family have a cook and a maidservant, as well as a nanny for her), who has adventures, gets into trouble - but never terribly bad trouble - and speaks her mind. The stories are told in the voice of an appreciative, understanding aunt, and if they don't have the quality of 'Emil and the Detectives' they are deeply satisfying, page-turning story-telling. In addition, the one that tells about Annemarie's teen years contains stories of strikes, coal shortages, and many of the stresses of the Weimar Republic, so to a history-obsessed teenager it was deeply interesting, though it's not till recently, when I got hold of a pre-war copy via the Internet, that I noticed some of the things that had been edited out, like the mention of the concierge of Annemarie's apartment block being a Spartacist. I knew Annemarie's farmer cousins had been relocated, in newer editions, to Bavaria, because in the World War she went to stay with them in Upper Silesia. Why this was so, I don't know, given that the novel was set in the '20s.

Annemarie's life continues through a timescale that is curiously elastic; in the later books, when Annemarie is already a grandmother, (which by my reckoning) would have been the '60s, the dreadful inflation period is mentioned as in the early lifetime of her granddaughter. The World War (the First) is always just a few years back, and Hitler never comes. They always painted for me a picture of Germany as it might have been if it had not been for the catastrophe of Nazism, a normal country just like any other. No war, no bombing. The author is very German, but not (except in 'Nesthäkchen in the World War') in any way jingoistic, just proud of German culture and civilisation.
I have to say that I drew on Annemarie's family and her surroundings when I wrote 'Saving Rafael': curiously, when I recently re-read all the books, I realised that her family even lived in Knesebeckstrasse, which is where I have always thought Jenny and Rafael's family lived. I've stayed in hotels in these old apartment houses in Charlottenburg, and can imagine them in their old incarnation as dwellings. Hanna the cook in Annemarie's family isn't quite dissimilar from Kattrin the maid in Jenny's family - though Jenny's family weren't so prosperous, and I did take care to give Kattrin a different personality.

Anyway, shortly before she died, my mother told me that she thought Else Ury, the author, was Jewish. 'There was something..' she said and then stopped. And a few years after that, I was in a Berlin bookshop and saw a book that was called: 'Nesthäkchen goes to concentration camp.'

It was like reading 'Winnie the Pooh goes to concentration camp.' I felt as if I'd been thwacked in the face. I picked it up and discovered that yes, Else Ury was Jewish, and she was deported and immediately murdered in Auschwitz in January 1943. She was an old lady, and would have been regarded as useless. But I do wonder whether one of the women who forced her to undress and pushed her into the gas chamber had read and adored her books when she was a child. She must have lost her pride in German civilisation a good while before that.

For she was hugely successful in Germany. Her books sold in the hundreds of thousands; 'Nesthäkchen in the Convalescent Home', which my mother got in 1933, has on the title page '229-233 thousand.'

In fact, Ury's books (there were several other series as well as one-offs) have sold almost seven million copies over the years. My mother told me that she always got a Nesthäkchen book for Christmas; since she had five, that means that she got one every year at least till 1937, and if you feed in the three missing ones, that would take you up to the first year of the war. I certainly have the penultimate one in the collection. But Ury, as a Jew, was forbidden to write, and I do wonder if my grandparents bought the books in advance in 1936 when this edict went out and the Gestapo pruned 'bad books' out of the shops.

I wasn't, of course, the only person to be deeply shocked to discover that she was murdered. My response was typical, it seems. But the book (which I bought) wasn't actually a very good one, or based on any very close reading of Ury's work. Marianne Brentzel, who wrote it, claims that Annemarie becomes a contented housewife, something which no-one who reads the books can believe. A much better book 'Wiedersehen mit Nesthäkchen,' (Reunion with Nesthäkchen' was published by the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf museum in 2007, to accompany an exhibition. Scholarly, but approachable, it is deeply interesting, though unfortunately only available in German.

Its various authors make it clear, from an extensive reading of Ury's published work that she - who never herself married - was well aware of married women's aspirations to work and be independent of their husbands. Several of Annemarie's friends go into marriages where they work alongside their husbands - one is a pharmacist - and Annemarie herself may give up her medical studies to marry, but she works as her husband's assistant, helping him with x-rays and tests and many technical procedures that in those days doctors did in their own premises. All the same, in 'Nesthäkchen and her babies' she bursts out to her best friend: 'You can't believe how hard it is to have to come to one's husband for every bit of money you need to spend.. Women nowadays have a certain independence of spirit, and we want an economic self-sufficiency that our mothers and grandmothers never knew.' (my translation). However much Annemarie adores her children and loves being married, this frustration remains with her.

Ury was also well aware of the crass gulf between well-off and poor in Weimar Germany. However tough it is for Annemarie and her family, she knows about the misery of those who, though hard-working, were trapped in really desperate poverty. Annemarie's daughter and two of her granddaughters become social workers, and the younger of these even postpones her wedding till she's qualified, and will definitely work after her marriage. In fact, there's a book by Ury that I have only read about because they're so rare, in which a businessman's daughter upsets her family (destroying their Sunday afternoon peace) by protesting about the conditions her father's workers endure, and demanding that he does something about it.

My own mother, as a young bride in England after the war, determinedly got herself a job (much to my father's dismay at first) and worked for almost her whole life as a teacher, studying at night to get the degree and Masters that she wanted. Perhaps Ury's stories encouraged her. Re-reading the books, I feel that my mother learned from the humane attitudes towards children and young people that permeate Ury's work - and frequently put them into practice (no parent is perfect!). My mother certainly didn't learn them from my grandfather, who was a harsh-tongued, disciplinarian parent (and grandparent), whereas my grandmother was so psychologically fragile that my mother spent most of her childhood as a carer. She must have envied Annemarie her secure family, and determined that when she was a parent, she would be like the people in the books. So I think I have cause to be deeply grateful to Else Ury.

Nowadays, an alleyway just beside Savignyplatz station in Berlin (close to her childhood home) is named after her, and there is a growing interest in her work.
Plaque marking one of the houses Ury lived in, in Berlin.
Wikimedia Commons.

Else-Ury Bogen, Charlottenburg

Berlin. Photo; David Wilson

Nothing can change the bitter tragedy of her death; but future generations, as well as the thousands of German girls who adored her books during her lifetime, continued to love her work. Like so many other of Germany's Jews, she was a vital part of German culture, and not the worst efforts of the Nazis could root that out.

(Jacket images and illustrations come from my own collection of books.)


Ms. said...

Very moved by this, but sad. I had never heard of her, but now that I have I'll look for her here books in the USA, and pass them to young girls who might enjoy them.

Leslie Wilson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leslie Wilson said...

Alas, the only one translated is the 'World War' one. Which is why I thought I'd tell some people about her who wouldn't otherwise have access to her work. If you do get the World War one, just be aware that the editor's view of Ury has been criticised by more recent scholars. I haven't read the translation myself, so can't express an opinion.

Imogen said...

Thank you for this, a lovely appreciation and very moving.

Katherine Langrish said...

How appalling the end of her story is. Thankyou for telling us.

Susan Price said...

Fascinating and shocking, Leslie. A great article. Thank you.

Alex said...

It still stuns me when I think of Else Ury's fate at the hands of the Nazis - she was so beloved by her readers and even after her books were banned, girls read them on the sly or asked for them as a gift.

adele said...

Wonderful post, Leslie! Thank you...had never heard of this writer before.

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting - I'd never heard of her either. Thanks, Leslie.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Many thanks for introducing us to this writer and let us know when a good biography comes out in English. I would love to read it. Seven million copies - wow!!

Mark Burgess said...

Absolutely fascinating, thank you Leslie.

Laura said...

You've just given me the real motivation I need to relearn and practice my German and engage in a bit of the culture I've missed out on. Thank you.

Leslie Wilson said...

BooKa Uhu, if you can read Gothic script, I recommend getting hold of one of the older versions via something like Abebooks, If not, I would recommend the '60s versions, as apparently the modern ones are heavily edited. I don't think the vocabulary is particularly difficult.

Unknown said...

Thanks - a fascinating insight into an author I'd never heard of. She would make a great subject for an English-language biography: doing anything for the next five years, Leslie?

Laura said...

@Leslie - Handily, I can read gothic script (or at least, I enjoy puzzling round some of the letters). I'll certanly look it up on AbeBooks, thank you! Also, thanks for the hint about the edited ones too :)

Mark Borowsky, M.D. said...

Else Ury is a cousin by marriage. We saw her suitcase, which had been retrieved from Auschwitz, at the House of the Wannsee Conference, in the Berlin suburbs. On the way out, we were asked by one of the docents, our opinion of the museum. When we mentioned the familial relationship, we were then invited to meet with the director of the museum, Dr.Norbert Kampe. All very respectful and dignified.