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Coming to terms

August 11, 2010

Writer Mirjam Pressler believes books can help people come to terms with their circumstances - even if they can't change the world. Her works focus on struggling figures who may help readers see their lives differently.

Part of the cover of Malka Mai is shown, with a young girl peering forward as clouds loom in the background
Pressler's "Malka Mai" is based the memories of a Holocaust survivor

Author Mirjam Pressler is a sharp observer who writes in a simple, precise style about characters who don't have it easy in life.

Her celebrated debut novel "Bitter Chocolate" (1980) centered on a 15-year-old with an eating disorder. The book was recognized with the Oldenburg Prize for Children and Youth, which proved to be just the first of many honors for the industrious author.

Pressler has written more than 40 books in the last 30 years, and she has also translated more than 300 from Hebrew, English and Dutch into German - including a critical edition of the Diary of Anne Frank. Pressler's own works have also been translated many times, including the 2001 all-ages title "Malka Mai" that was translated into 14 languages.

The end of a childhood

It's September, 1943, and Malka still has her own bed, her own clothes in the closet, new sandals, beautiful blond braids and enough to eat; she even has her big sister Minna and her mother, Dr. Mai.

A valley is photographed through the trees in the Carpathian Mountains
Malka's mother must decide to leave her with farmers in the Carpathian MountainsImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Less than half of a year later, Malka has learned "to hear nothing, see nothing, and to hole up inside herself." She has lost her home and the confidence that her mother would always be there. She has been starved, completely shaved and can scarcely remember being the child of seven years old that she was just a few months ago.

In early fall 1943, Germans began deporting citizens in Lawoczne, a small town on the German-Polish border. Doctor Hanna Mai and her two daughters, Minna and Malka, were forced to flee suddenly by foot across the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary.

Along the way, seven-year-old Malka becomes sick and catches a high fever. Her mother makes the agonizing decision to leave her with a family of farmers. They assure her that they will bring Malka to her once she recovers - after all, no one expects a child to stand out.

But things don't turn out as planned. Malka is betrayed, sent to a prison and then into the ghetto. A nightmare begins at the fringes of a collapsing civilization. In the end, though, Malka survives and is even able to find her way back to her mother - although she has become practically a different person in the meantime.

Experienced history

Mirjam Pressler is awarded a prize at a ceremony
Mirjam Pressler won the German Book Prize in 2004 for her worksImage: AP

Today, Malka Mai lives in Tel Aviv. She had recounted to Mirjam Pressler the parts of her story that she is able to remember. Having shared some of Mai's experiences, Pressler was able to fill in the gaps knowingly and sensitively. Pressler is also Jewish, just slightly younger than Mai, and was raised by foster parents and in a boarding school.

Her narration treats more than just a child who must cast off her memories to survive; the story also portrays a mother who nearly falls apart due to self-doubt and blame.

Mirjam Pressler once said she doesn't buy into the notion that books can change the world. But, she said, the right book can move some people deeply.

That may happen, for instance, when a book shows how someone can remain open to things getting better, or when a child learns through reading that he isn't responsible for circumstances he can't control.

"Malka Mai" is just that kind of book.

Author: Silke Bartlick (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen