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Fostering understanding

Interview by Klaudia Prevezanos /ai
March 3, 2013

Author Mirjam Pressler, known for her work on Anne Frank's diaries, tells DW why books about difficult childhoods need to be read and why she became a translator.

Anne Frank
Image: Anne Frank Fonds Basel

DW: Congratulations on the Buber-Rosenzweig Medal which you're receiving on March 3 to honor your work for the understanding between Jews and Christians. This isn't the first award you have received, but is this award, which recognizes your literary and translation work, of a special significance to you?

Mirjam Pressler: Yes, of course it is. The understanding between Christians and Jews is a very important issue for me. It makes me very happy to receive this honor.

Why is this particular relationship still so important?

It is important for me to bring back this past world in which Jews had a big and important part in the German population. It's not only about keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust. In 2009, I published a biography about the history of Anne Frank's family. Those were well-off Frankfurt Jews, very assimilated. I read hundreds of letter from the family and it became apparent to me that there was a layer of German society that was completely lost. Even today it is a very big loss. And they were Germans. What I want is to emphasize is that they were there, that they were a part of society and that they were brutally wiped out and that society lost something very important when it happened.

Mirjam Pressler (photo: Jörg Carstensen /dpa)
Mirjam Pressler is successful both as author and translatorImage: picture-alliance/dpa

You are Jewish and married to an Israeli. How do you personally think the state of the understanding is between Jews and Christians in Germany today?

I think that things are actually looking quite good. At least for the non-pious Jews. We have a secular society in Germany, religion doesn't play a role in everyday life. I myself basically never have difficulties and the Jews that I know all get by well. Of course there always is that big shock about neo-Nazis.

One of your main works is considered being the translator and editor of the diaries of Anne Frank, who was killed by the Nazis in 1945. It's often the story of young Jews in different eras that you focus on in your books for young people. But more generally it's also about difficult childhoods and outsiders. Are you worried that you won't find any young readers for such issues?

I don't think so because I believe that young readers can tell very well when stories are about something important or about something that's not important. There are always new young readers who are interested particularly in the period of Nazi Germany. It was a time that was so important and that still has political consequences today. Also, I don't write my books thinking about what teenagers might be interested in, but I write them because I want to write them. I always assume that if a topic is interesting to me, it will also be interesting to some other people. So far that's worked. As a teenager, I myself would have liked to read books about young outsiders and their difficulties because they would have helped me. If children are in a difficult situation in their lives and can read books where the protagonist is going through something similar then it might help them. And it will help others to be more sensitive to situations of friends or classmates.

For about 20 years now you have also been translating literature from Hebrew into German and work with some of the most successful Israeli authors, like Zeruya Shalev. What brought you to translating literature from Hebrew into German?

Cover of the German edition of the Diaries of Anne Copyright: S. Fischer Verlag
The Diaries of Anne Frank continue to be read todayImage: S. Fischer Verlag

It is not actually something I wanted because it takes a lot more time to translate from Hebrew than from a European language. Hebrew has a different structure and different layers of language. It was a publisher who talked me into it. He always told me that it was my obligation and duty because I speak Hebrew. There were not and are not that many translators for the language. That's why he kept talking to me until I said 'alright, I'll translate one youth and one adult book and that's it.' I did those translations but then that was not it.

Why were there so few Hebrew translators in the 1980s? Was it mostly because of the Germany's past and the Holocaust?

Of course it was linked to the Holocaust. And to the fact it was only very late that Germany developed an interest in books and literature from Israel. Most of the autobiographical works were written when the people were already old - or at least not young anymore. In Israel, people didn't want to hear about it and neither did people in Germany. It took some time until people were ready to listen to those stories.

When or because of what did that change?

In Israel it clearly was the trial of Adolf Eichman 1961. After that, in Israel the situation for Holocaust survivors from Europe got better. People became interested in them and asked them to tell their stories. In Germany that happened at around the same period. I think the main reason was that time had passed. Because in Germany people didn't immediately have the idea to ask their parents "What did you do during the Nazi regime?" It took time to make it less personal; later it was only about the grandparent generation.

Adolf Eichmann during his trial Photo: +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The Eichmann trial ushered in a new era in Israel and GermanyImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa

What happened then – was there a renaissance of Israeli literature in Germany?

Certainly. Zeruya Shalev is one example but not the only one. There is, for instance, also Aharon Appelfeld or Schoschana Rabinovici. Her book "Thanks to my Mother" was really important, I think. It's about a woman who as a child survives a Nazi concentration camp thanks to her mother and who writes down her recollections after her own children have grown up. And when there was an interest in literature from Israel, there also were people to translate it. I've never counted, but today there are probably around 10 translators in Germany who translate works from Hebrew. There are also translators in Israel that work for German publishing companies, but most of the work is being done here.

How has literature from Israeli authors changed?

There is now literature in Israel that has nothing to do with the Holocaust. This is very interesting and those books are also being published in Germany. There is a piece of normality that has been created here.

Mirjam Pressler was born 1940 in Darmstadt, Germany, and is author and translator of children's, young people's and adult's books. One of her most important work is the translating and editing of the diaries of Anne Frank, the world-famous notes of Jewish girl who in 1945 was killed by the Nazis. For her children's and youth books she already received numerous awards.

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