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The first English translation of the most popular book by the beloved German Jewish children's author, who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1943.       

Nesthäkchen and the World War
Else Ury

Translated from the German, annotated, and introduced by Steven Lehrer

This Nesthäkchen story of a pre-adolescent girl growing up in Berlin at the outbreak of World War I presents a charming, skillful evocation of a long-vanished world.

A recent survey of German women revealed that 55% had read Else Ury's Nesthäkchen books. Even more had heard them read over the radio or had seen the television serialization. These stories show an ordinary girl growing up, and attempt to explain to children why a girl is so different from a boy, and so interesting too. At the end of the tenth volume of the series, the delighted reader comes away with the answer: Girls aren't so different. Nesthäkchen's adventures had another attraction for children. They were more factual and showed more of daily life than did other children's stories of the time. There was plenty of conflict, yet it was good natured and funny. Even the worst situations had agreeable resolutions.

But like the popular Wild West books of German author Karl May, the Nesthäkchen books have not traveled well. Else Ury tried but failed to have her own English translation published in the late 1930's. (Her English was not very good.) A Dutch translation a few years earlier was hardly more successful. Yet in Germany, the Nesthäkchen series is a perennial best seller. As of 1992, seven million copies were in print. German bookstores invariably reserve a special rack in the children's department for Ury's Nesthäkchen books.

Else Ury was born in Berlin, November 1, 1877, the third child of third generation Berlin merchant Jews. Her large, well-to-do, close-knit bourgeois family provided a loving environment. The experiences of her own happy childhood, as well as her observation of the growth of her sisters, brothers, nephews, and nieces, inspired Else Ury to later write her family and youth books.

Else UryHer grandfather, Levin Elias Ury, was director of the Synagogue in the Heidereutergasse in central Berlin. Her parents, who lived in Charlottenberg, were no more religious than most of the Christians in the neighborhood. But the Urys never hid their Jewish origins.

One older brother, Ludwig, studied law, while another, Hans, studied medicine, and Else's younger sister Käthe became a teacher. Although women's needs for education and a profession to secure independence were later a recurring theme in her books, Else Ury herself pursued no professional studies.

In 1900 Else Ury began publishing travel reports and stories in the Vossiche Zeitung, a Berlin newspaper, under a pen name. Because a father was supposed to support his unmarried daughters, if a girl still living at home earned money by writing, social convention forced her to disguise her identity.

Else's father, Emil Ury, was a tobacco products manufacturer, who produced snuff and chewing tobacco. When cigarette popularity soared around the turn of the century, snuff and chewing tobacco sales declined precipitously. Faced with economic ruin, Emil Ury tried to prevail upon Else to marry the son of a rich cigarette manufacturer, with the hope that a merger of the two family companies would follow. But Else resisted this scheme, and remained single her entire life.

In 1906 Else Ury had her first modest literary success with Educated Girls, a novel dealing with the very controversial subject of higher education for women. Indeed, regular women's university studies were first permitted in Prussia only in 1908. Although Emil Ury's business had gone bankrupt, Else was able to help support her family with book royalties.

Her breakthrough to bestseller status came with her Nesthäkchen books. Germans call a spoiled child or family pet a Nesthäkchen. Else Ury's Nesthäkchen is a Berlin doctor's daughter, Annemarie Braun, a slim, gorgeous, golden blond, quintessential German girl. The ten book series follows Annemarie from infancy (Nesthäkchen and Her Dolls) to old age and grandchildren (Nesthäkchen with White Hair). Despite Else Ury's Jewish background, she makes no references to Judaism in the Nesthäkchen books.

Nesthäkchen and the World War (1916), the fourth and most popular volume in the series, sold 300,000 copies. Else Ury wrote the fifth and sixth volumes, Nesthäkchen's Teenage Years, in 1919, and Nesthäkchen Flies From the Nest in 1923. She intended to stop there, with Nesthäkchen's marriage, but her readers simply wouldn't let her. Distraught girls inundated her Berlin publisher, Meidingers Jugendschriften Verlag, with a flood of letters pleading for more Nesthäkchen stories. Else Ury obliged her young fans with four more Nesthäkchen books.

On November 1, 1927, Else Ury's fiftieth birthday, Meidingers Jugendschriften Verlag gave her a large reception, and announced the publication of an expensively bound new edition of all ten Nesthäkchen books. The series had been an immense success, and even the head of the company, Kurt Meidinger, was on hand to praise Else Ury and her work. The Adlon Hotel, the most elegant in Berlin, catered the affair, which was attended by many reporters, and chronicled in German newspapers the next day. In the meantime, Meidingers had established a special post office box for Nesthäkchen correspondence. Readers sent both letters and pictures they had drawn for the stories. Else Ury answered all mail monthly and, from time to time, held parties for her Nesthäkchenkinder, with cake and chocolate, in the garden of her house. Many of the parties were the subject of newspaper stories.

Haus NesthäkchenDespite her literary success, Else Ury lived quietly, and didn't consider the details of her own life to be especially noteworthy. In 1926, with money from her books, she bought a vacation house in the Riesengebirge area of Krummhübel, which she named "House Nesthäkchen." Here she and her family spent many summer and winter vacations.

In Else Ury's last book, Youth to the Fore, published in 1933, the author tried to put a good face on Hitler's rise to power. The book dealt with overcoming the economic crisis and unemployment, restoring order with a firm hand, and strengthening Germany. No one is certain whether Ury was politically naive and had been seduced by Nazi propaganda, or whether her publisher, to please the regime, had obediently altered the text.

As a Jew, Else Ury was excluded from the Reich Chamber of Writers in 1935, which meant she was no longer allowed to publish. By 1936, most of her relatives had emigrated, and her brother Hans had committed suicide. She herself did not want to leave Germany, because she had to care for her 90 year old mother, Franziska, who in photographs bears a remarkable resemblance to Sigmund Freud's mother, Amalie. Else Ury traveled to London, in 1938, for a short visit to her nephew, Klaus Heymann, but ignored his pleas for her to stay in England. She returned to Berlin and remained until the Nazis deported her. Her mother died in 1940.

Until 1933, Else Ury lived in Kantstraße 30, then at Kaiserdamm 24. In 1939 she was forced to move to a "Jew house," a former Jewish old age home in Solingerstraße 10, where the Gestapo collected Jews for deportation. On January 6, 1943, she had to fill out a declaration of all her possessions, and with one valise and a few articles of clothing, report for resettlement. She was ordered to present herself at a collection point, Großer Hamburgerstraße 26, to wait for transport. On January 11, 1943, she signed a release, turning over all her property to the German Reich. German officials proceeded to sell off everything she owned.

On January 12, 1943, the 65-year-old Else Ury was taken to the railroad station at Berlin Grunewald, along with 1,190 other Berlin Jews, packed into a boxcar, and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A day later, SS doctors selected 127 men from her transport for labor. SS guards murdered Else Ury and the other Jews in the gas chamber.

After 1945, Else Ury's books were heavily edited and many contemporaneous or historical references removed. In 1983, there was a six-part television serialization of the Nesthäkchen books. Finally, half a century after her death, her millions of women readers learned the details of her dreadful fate.

A group of high school students from the Robert Blum Gymnasium in Berlin-Schöneberg discovered the exact date of Else Ury's death on a visit to Auschwitz in 1995. They also found there her battered valise, labeled with her name and Berlin address. The valise and other objects and documents relating to her life were exhibited in Berlin until 2002, when they were returned to the museum at Auschwitz. They are heartbreaking to see.

Of all the millions of murders the Nazis committed, Else Ury's stands out. Could anyone imagine the British murdering AA Milne a few years after he had written Winnie the Pooh?

Nesthäkchen and the World War

original Robert Sedlacek illustration from Nesthäkchen and the World War
Nesthäkchen and the World War is a difficult book for Germans. After World War II it was not republished with the other nine Nesthäkchen volumes. The Meidingers catalogue stated that the book was not a war story or a “hurrah tale.” But it is by no stretch of the imagination an anti-war book, either.

With the country nothing but a heap of rubble in 1945, the Germans wanted no more to do with the sentiments that had brought them to such a pass. High on the list were love for the fatherland, exaggerated respect for the military, and enthusiasm for war.

These sentiments were easy to excise from most of the Nesthäkchen books. For example, in Nesthäkchen in the Children’s Sanatorium, the volume preceding Nesthäkchen and the World War, Else Ury describes a German submarine, which Annemarie watches as it disappears underwater. "Then it was certainly a submarine, Annemarie," says a companion, "that can dive and remain submerged for hours without anyone seeing it. We discovered the submarine to be a weapon for war at sea. God grant that we will never need to use it." In the revised version of Nesthäkchen in the Children’s Sanatorium issued in 1950, the submarine is not mentioned.

But no amount of rewriting could ever remove all objectionable material from Nesthäkchen and the World War, as it is too integral to the plot. Despite its enormous prewar success, no German language publisher would touch this volume.

Else Ury never caught on in the English speaking world, most likely because when she was at the height of her popularity, either the Germans were our blood enemy, or the carnage of World War I was too recent for anyone to want to read about the mind-set of the people who initiated it. Today, though, Else Ury’s books, particularly Nesthäkchen and the World War, present a charming evocation of a long-vanished time and place. Germany, a solid democracy, has been our friend and staunch ally for more than half a century. A modern reader feels deep sympathy for the trusting, good-hearted, generous people whom a fatuous Kaiser and a pack of bungling, inept diplomats had thrust into a horrific war. Moreover, Else Ury’s love for Germany now seems quite poignant and sad, in light of what happened to her.

The depiction of Nesthäkchen’s abuse of Vera, a Polish-speaking refugee child whom the author introduces in Chapter 10 of Nesthäkchen and the World War, is quite upsetting to some German readers. Nesthäkchen mercilessly excludes the kindly, pathetic Vera from her group and turns her into a school pariah.

In fact, Else Ury has rendered Nesthäkchen as a more believable character because of her treatment of Vera. Nesthäkchen’s mean streak makes her quite human. And of course, schoolchildren similarly brutalize each other today, especially their peers who cannot conform to group pressure, witness the Columbine High School massacre. Enid Blyton, the English children’s writer with whom Else Ury is frequently compared, and who is very popular with German girls, depicts situations analogous to Vera’s.

More important, the device is indispensable for the development of the plot and leads to the shocking, ringing climax in Chapter 16, one of the most moving sections of the entire book. Else Ury also skillfully employs exposition and plot to develop scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, followed by others that are highly melodramatic. Nesthäkchen and the World War holds the reader’s attention from beginning to end. It is not surprising that it was the most popular volume in the series.

And the book conveys a timeless lesson, for children as well as adults, about the nature of war. Wars often begin with a terrific outpouring of patriotic sentiment. World War I started this way, and Else Ury's description of German war-euphoria in 1914 is chilling. But Nesthäkchen quickly comes to recognize the hardships and horrors of war, the dislocations, the pathetic refugees, the scarcity of food, the combat deaths of favorite teachers, relatives, and friends. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque describes World War I more horrifically, but he was writing from the battlefield. Ury's depiction of the war as seen from Berlin, though gentler, is as powerful as Remarque's. When Nesthäkchen and the World War ends, in mid 1916, battle had become mass slaughter. Else Ury, unlike Remarque, simply could not bear the pain of writing about it further.