By Edna McCown
‘Writers don’t act, they remember. If remembering can be seen as a kind of rehearsal for action, action that reaches back into the past, that structures the past through the act of recording or writing anew, then I have located my work in a kind of timeless present…Germany has a very intense and developed memory culture, which is strongly ritualised. It seems to me that the power of this ritualisation increases with the historical distance from Germany’s crimes.’ This quote is taken from Ursula Krechel’s response to a questionnaire on the ‘memory of collective violence in contemporary literature’, published in the French journal Mémoires en jeu (‘Memories at Stake’) in December 2017.
Poet, playwright, and author of both fiction and non-fiction, Krechel was born in Trier in 1947 and today lives in Berlin. Among her recent works are Landgericht, which won the prestigious German Book Prize in 2012, and Stark und Leise, portraits of pioneering women in the arts (2015). The author’s numerous honours include the Jeanette Schocken Prize, the German Critics’ Prize and the Joseph Breitbach Prize, all awarded in 2009 following the publication of Shanghai Fern von wo, along with the 2015 Gerty Spies Literaturpreis, awarded for outstanding literary work on socio-political themes.
The act of remembering is crucial to Krechel’s fictional work, witnessed by the loose trilogy (thus far) of novels Shanghai fern von wo (2008), Landgericht (2012) and Geisterbahn (2018; all published by Jung und Jung). Drawing on real-life and fictional characters, with the German language itself playing a major role, Krechel portrays life in Germany from the Weimar Republic through the Third Reich and post-war Germany to the present day.
‘Shanghai, Far from Where’ originated during a trip to China, when the author first became aware of Shanghai’s former German emigrant community. The book teems with details of life in the Hongkew ghetto, the International Settlement and the French Concession, where exiles from Hitler’s Germany mixed with Nazi officials. Among the novel’s many characters is bookseller Ludwig Lazarus, formerly interned in a concentration camp for his resistance activities and a historian of the ghetto. Through Lazarus, Krechel weaves historical documents into her fiction, a tendency that we see throughout her novels. Lazarus’s Hongkew roommate is Lothar Brieger, a highly respected art historian once involved with Walter Benjamin’s ex-wife Dora. Krechel uses his memories of Dora and Walter as a window onto life in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich. In Shanghai, Brieger falls in love with Franziska Tausig, who supports her traumatised husband by baking apple strudel for a Chinese restaurant. All three of these German-speaking Jews return to Germany or Austria after the war, and it is Ludwig Lazarus who takes up the fight for restitution for those forced into exile.
Landgericht (‘State Justice’) is a fictional treatment of another real-life character, a Jewish lawyer forced to leave Germany and his non-Jewish wife after the couple have sent their two children to England on the Kindertransport. The novel maps his years in Cuban exile. It features cameo appearances by Hans and Lisa Fittko, heroes of the resistance who led exiles over the Pyrenees to freedom – including Walter Benjamin. This novel has been adapted for television, and won the 2018 Grimme Preis, also known as the ‘German TV Oscar.’
It is rare in twentieth- and twenty-first-century German fiction to address the fates of the lesser known emigrants from Nazi Germany, and rarer still for these to include accounts of those who returned to Germany after the war – it is estimated that around 300 exiles returned from Shanghai, for example. ‘I’ve raised a monument to someone, one that wasn’t there before,’ the author commented in an interview on Landgericht. Ursula Krechel’s works are inhabited by these someones, encouraging a collective act of remembering.