When I was a child in Germany in the 1930s, Else Ury was the most popular author of children’s books, credited with close to forty publications. Her most popular series of books was Nesthaekchen, or Fledgling, a detailed ten-volume chronicle. The books were best-sellers, eagerly read by children growing up in the turbulent days of Hitler’s rise to power.
My girlfriends and I, Jewish and non-Jewish, passed the volumes among us, making sure that we had not omitted a single one. While the first volume dealt with Nesthaekchen’s life in the nursery with her dolls and toys, succeeding books took the reader through her first school year, her stay in a children’s home, her teens, marriage, motherhood and finally grand motherhood.
The narrative was uncomplicated, the adventures innocent yet appealing. What drew us to the stories? Most of us could hardly identify with the little girl with blond curls and blue eyes who lived in an affluent home. We felt that our world was no longer secure. Life had changed for the girls in Hitler’s Germany We were aware of the marching brown shirts and the growing anti-Semitism. Gentile girls were coerced into wearing the uniform of the Hitler Youth and were taught loyalty to the swastika above obedience to family.
Our lives were a far cry from the life described by Else Ury. Her books were non-political and non-denominational. Few people knew that she was Jewish.
In May of 1933, when the Nazis were ordered to burn all books by Jewish authors, hers were surely among them. Unlike other writers, such as Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Stefan Zweig and Berthold Brecht, she did not flee Germany She remained in Berlin until January 12,1943, when she was deported to Auschwitz with one of the last groups of Jews to leave the city She was sixty-six years old. The Gedenkbuch—an extensive listing of all West German Jews who perished in the Holocaust—lists her simply as verschollen, disappeared.
Recently, an interest in Else Ury has surfaced in Germany her works are being reissued by Hoch Verlag and Stuttgart, and the Heimatmuseum—a local museum in the area where she lived in Berlin—has devoted an exhibit to her.
An article in a Berlin newspaper. Das Tageblatt, provides more news. Students from a high school in the suburbs of Berlin, decided— after seeing “Schindler’s List”—to visit Auschwitz. There they obtained a list of Berlin residents who perished in the gas chambers. A group of girls made it their goal to inform the next-of-kin of the death dates of their family members, and Else Ury’s name struck a chord with the students. They found out that the author had died on the day of her arrival at the death camp, and to their surprise, they discovered her suitcase among the confiscated properties of the victims. It was marked with her name and the compulsory addition of “Sara.”
It pleases me that Else Ury is coming into her own again after close to sixty years. I only regret that the German publisher failed to note on the cover that the author was killed at Auschwitz because she was Jewish. Even as growing girls continue to enjoy the books by Louisa May Alcott and Johanna Spyri, we dare not forget the times still in the memory of those alive, when an author and her books were consigned to the flames.
Anne L. Fox was born in Berlin and lives in Merion, Pennsylvania. Her most recent book, My Heart in a Suitcase (Valentine Mitchell, 1996), is a memoir of her life in England during the war.