Overlooked No More: Else Ury's stories survived World War II, she did not

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

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

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.

It was the girls who shed light on her fate. They checked the name and address on the suitcase against deportation lists and discovered that Ury had died at Auschwitz on Jan. 13, 1943. She was 65.

The girls wrote a school report on what they had found, and their teacher told a Berlin newspaper about it. The paper soon published an article, and the story — of how one of Germany’s most popular children’s book authors had been was killed in the Holocaust — became national news.

Ury’s most popular series recounts the life and adventures of Annemarie Braun, known by her nickname, “Nesthäkchen,” or the baby of the family. Amid a comfortable life, the heroine challenges the conservative order of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II and, over her father’s objections, pursues an education during the time of the Weimar Republic, between the world wars.

As World War II raged around them, German children clung to their “Nesthäkchen” books, packing them among the few items they could carry in their luggage when their families were forced to flee. As those children grew to be mothers and grandmothers, they passed the books on to younger generations.

“Girls could identify with ‘Nesthäkchen,’” said Marianne Brentzel, who published a biography of Ury in German, “Nesthäkchen Arrives in the Concentration Camp,” in 1992. It was expanded and republished in 2007.

“Annemarie Braun was courageous and a tiny bit too sassy,” Brentzel added in a phone interview. “Most girls never dreamed that someone could be like that and get away with it. That is why she was so beloved.”

Hannelore Kempin, a retired schoolteacher from Berlin who was born three years after the end of World War II, inherited the prewar volumes her mother had hoarded during the bombings of Germany and in the chaotic years afterward.

“She had kept them safe throughout the war and gave them to me when I was a girl,” Kempin said in an interview at a cafe in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district, blocks from the apartment where Ury had spent her most productive years.

Johana Else Ury was born on Nov. 1, 1877, one of four siblings of Emil and Franziska (Schlesinger) Ury, and grew up in a comfortable middle-class home in Berlin. Her father was a tobacco factory owner; her mother ran the household, cultivating in her children a love of literature and the arts in her children. Although she grew rich from her books’ proceeds, Ury, before she was deported, lived her whole life with her family, caring for her ailing mother until the mother’s death.

She attended Berlin’s first public secondary school for girls through the 10th grade, an experience that would influence her writing. While the young adult novels of her time told stories of girls growing up and preparing for marriage, Ury’s characters went to school and dreamed of becoming doctors or teachers.

“Girls in Else Ury’s books were allowed to do the same things as their brothers,” Kempin said. “That was unheard-of at the time.”

In addition to being bestsellers in German, Ury’s books were translated into French, Dutch and Norwegian during her lifetime. But they stories remained virtually unknown to English-speaking readers.

Steven Lehrer, an amateur historian and author who grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by exiled German and Austrian intellectuals, many of them Jews, discovered her books on a trip to Berlin in the 1990s and later began translating the “Nesthäkchen” series into English. He was taken by the books’ sometimes sly humor and subtle plays on language, he said, and what he called “a strain of cruelty that runs through them.”

In a telephone interview, he cited an example in which Annemarie confuses the German word “Rinderschlachthof,” for a slaughterhouse for cattle, for “Kinderschlachthof,” a word that does not exist but that would come to mean a slaughterhouse for children.

The “Nesthäkchen” books were republished in West Germany beginning in the 1950s but edited to remove any strains of German patriotism. Volume 4, “Nesthäkchen and the World War,” about patriotic efforts on the home front during World War I, was banned outright.

That volume, and her last work, “Youth to the Front,” written in 1933 and featuring Hitler, opened Ury to criticism among her peers.

The German literary critic Alfred Kerr disparaged her as a “pig” for trying to appease the Nazis, Kerr’s daughter, the children’s book author Judith Kerr, said in an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel in 2007.

It “didn’t do her any good,” said Kerr, adding that she, too, had loved the “Nesthäkchen” books as a child before her own family fled Berlin for Britain in the 1930s. Kerr died in May.

The Nazis, unlike many of her readers, knew that Ury was Jewish, and in 1935 they barred her from the country’s literary association and banned her books. They later forced her to leave her family’s home and give up her summer residence. Before she was deported to Auschwitz, her German citizenship was revoked. [German law was only amended in 2021 to allow descendants of Nazi victims qualify for German citizenship.]

By the 1990s, the circumstances of Ury’s death still remained largely unknown to the public. But the reports of the students’ sleuthing at Auschwitz inspired historians to tell her story. The House of the Wannsee Conference — the site of high-level Nazi talks on the extermination of the Jews and now a memorial site — included the suitcase in a 1997 exhibition on Ury’s life and death. A pedestrian passage in Berlin was named for her, and memorial plaques were mounted at buildings where she had lived.

Logan Ury, a great-grandniece of the author, said she was grateful for the discovery of Ury’s fate; she said it had led her to a better understanding of the importance of Ury and her work, which even in the family had remained largely unknown.

“The characters she created defined German life at a certain time and meant so much to people,” she said by phone from her home in San Francisco, “and for that she should be remembered.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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