Else Ury perished, but her young readers clung to her books

October 19, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, journalism, writers, writing.

There’s something about a book that doesn’t die — even in a regime as authoritarian as Nazi Germany.

In the 1920s, one of the most popular authors in the Weimar Republic of Germany was Else Ury, who wrote a series of children’s books known as the Nesthäkchen series. These ten books featured a fiesty, blond-headed girl Annemarie Braun who always seemed to be challenging the norms that society had set for a middle-class girl of her time.

As such, the books became wildly popular and made Ury a rich woman. Ury had already had great success as an author. She published many books that made her a literary superstar in Germany.

But Ury had a problem. She was Jewish, and being a literary star did not offer her any protection from the Nazis. She was prevented from publishing and stripped of all privileges. Eventually, in 1943, she was deported to Auschwitz in Poland and died soon thereafter.

The German children who were Ury’s biggest fans did not know — or care — that she was Jewish and an “enemy of the state.” They loved her books, and as the war grew worse for the German people, these children cherished and protected their books. Even through bombings and other disruptions, children clung to their books.

After the war when those children had grown up, they never forgot those books or their author. They told their children about the books, and eventually Ury’s works were revived. Here’s how the New York Times begins its recently-published obituary of Ury:

What stood out was the thick, white “U” of her last name, which had been carefully painted on a brown leather suitcase that was loaded, along with the belongings of 1,190 other Jews, onto a train in January 1943. The destination was Auschwitz.

The suitcase survived the Holocaust. Its owner, Else Ury, did not.

Decades later a group of high school girls, visiting the concentration camp’s memorial site on a class trip from Berlin, noticed the suitcase among others in an exhibit and recognized the name immediately: Else Ury was the author of “Nesthäkchen,” a series of books about a blue-eyed blond girl from a middle-class German family.

Ury wrote more than 30 books for children, in addition to short stories and travelogues for a Berlin newspaper. Her books sold millions of copies from 1918 to 1933. Then, with the Nazis in power, she was barred as a Jew from publishing her work, even though her last book featured Adolf Hitler as a hero.

The “Nesthäkchen” series was reprinted after World War II and became the basis of a television show that attracted 13 million viewers, including the girls who had noticed the suitcase. But neither her publisher nor the TV series mentioned what had happened to Ury during the war. Source: Overlooked No More: Else Ury’s Stories Survived World War II. She Did Not. – The New York Times

The obituary tells the sometimes convoluted story of how Ury’s work and memory were revived. Her life ended tragically. But her writing survived and continues to touch readers.

Illustration: An illustration from one of the books of the Nesthäkchen series.

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