Introducing Sweden’s Stellar Jewish Feminist Writer

“When I was a young girl I slept for six months with my feet on my pillow like Pippi Longstocking, I made my mother read her books to me every night until her voice became hoarse,” recalls Rose Lagercrantz (pictured), a Swedish author best known for her novels for young readers. Lilith caught up with her recently at a friend’s bar mitzvah in Nice.

Lagercrantz, whose fiction is excerpted in the anthology Contemporary Jewish Writing in Sweden, says her identification with the Jewish community came belatedly. “The Swedes were better than the Swedish Jews at welcoming Holocaust survivors [like my parents] to Sweden,” she laments.

Lagercrantz’s father was born in Germany and found his way to safety in Sweden.Twenty years older than the Transylvanian woman he married, he had made up his mind even before meeting her that he was going to marry a concentration camp survivor. Lagercrantz says she probably became a writer because her mother was constantly saying to her, “don’t tell — don’t speak about this.” Though for many years her parents did not talk about their Holocaust experiences, she felt as though she “always knew everything.” Her first novel, Tulia’s Summer, was about a girl who wanted her parents to get a divorce. “It has the ‘unhappy’ ending of her parents staying together,” she notes dryly.

Not long before he died at 98, Lagercrantz’s father recorded his story in 27 tapes. Lagercrantz’s novel The Girl Who Didn’t Want to Kiss is based on her father’s love for a young woman who gave him the false passport and forged letter of employment that saved his life, while she herself perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Beginning many novels is a declaration that any resemblance to real people is entirely unintentional. “In my case,” Lagercrantz declares, “it should be just the opposite. If anything here is not true to the facts, it’s by mistake.” One of Lagercrantz’s novels for adults, Adeline, is based on the life of her cousin whom others thought a difficult and even monstrous person but whom she loved. “She would explain things to me, and I am always seduced by explanation.” Why does she write for young readers? She says it is to give herself the happy childhood she never had; hence her love for Pippi Longstocking. (In 1980 Lagercrantz won an award that was handed to her by Astrid Lindgren herself; she is also the winnner of the August (Strindberg) Prize.)

In addition to books, Lagercrantz has written radio plays featuring monologues by women. In one, “In Praise of the Impossible,” Snow White enjoys telling people how, after a life with seven little men… “Who wants to hear a story about life with one little man after the other? Only number eight, when she is already sick with despair, almost dead, shakes her to life with the right questions and gets her on her feet again.” Lagercrantz has Little Red Riding Hood as a peace activist, Cinderella’s step-sisters protesting the tyranny of a fashion fetish for small feet, and Sleeping Beauty claiming that being with a man, any man, causes women to seem to go through life as if they are asleep.

Lagercrantz’s novel The Ophelia Etudes makes the case that Ophelia is not crazy and did not commit suicide. Since its publication, every Swedish production of Hamlet adds a stage direction where Ophelia clutches her pregnant belly onstage. This has not caught on overseas, however, perhaps because the book has not been translated from Swedish. “When you are a Swedish writer,” Lagercrantz says, “you are closed in a jail of language.”