Tag Archives: Lisa Tetzner

Erich und Lisa, and Paul and Matt, too.

No, that’s not a new book.

Travel gods willing, I’m off to Berlin today, so thought I’d ‘fob you off’ with some Berlin books.

I’ve never been, so am writing this blind. I’ll be interested to discover how much of Erich Kästner’s city remains. Having watched all three Emil und die Detektive films, I should know. Only one was made before the war. If Emil was English, it’d be easy enough to film a boy in prewar London now. There are plenty of houses and buildings left. I hope quite a bit of Berlin is also still there.

The other old Berlin I ‘know’ is Lisa Tetzner’s, where her child characters lived in tenements in the 1930s. Surely some remain? And I have no idea how large Berlin was in those days. I’m assuming the children in no. 67 lived quite centrally.

You can find countless children’s books set in today’s London. There must be a Berlin counterpart. It’s ‘just’ that we don’t get to see those books.

The more recently written novels that come to mind are British. There was Paul Dowswell’s Ausländer ten years ago. Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen from last year. Both showing life within Germany. Both featuring WWII. There’s more to Germany and Berlin than that.

Death in Berlin, by M M Kaye, set in postwar Berlin. It’s decades since I read it, and I recall a sense of bleakness.

Ich bin ein Berliner, as JFK said. Whether or not that makes us doughnuts I will leave unsaid. I’m certainly rounded enough.


Das Schiff ohne Hafen

Aquarius. Reading about this ship, full of people who have left their homes and countries, and that turned out not to be welcome anywhere, until it was finally permitted to land in Spain. It’s an appalling situation, and one which reminded me of a book I’ve mentioned here several times. I’ve just not gone into detail, or reviewed it, because it’s not available in English, and now I suspect it never will be.

It is Lisa Tetzner’s Das Schiff ohne Hafen, or Skepp utan hamn, in Swedish. Ship with no harbour. Part of a series of books about the children of a tenement in 1930s Berlin, Mirjam and her aunt Mathilde have travelled through western Europe to join a ship that will take them to a new life in South America. They are Jewish, so know they need to leave Europe.

The Garibaldi is not a regular passenger ship, but is now full of paying, desperate people, hoping to escape. There are all sorts of passengers, from the wealthy and successful to the destitute, who have already suffered greatly. The children on board make friends with each other, as far as they can, due to class differences and personality.

Lisa Tetzner, Skepp utan hamn

The journey is eventful in various ways, but it’s not until they reach Brazil that it becomes obvious that things are not going to end well. There is illness on board, which means the ship is not given permission to land in some places. And where they do get to land, immigration officials are strict and refuse to accept many of them, sometimes because their papers aren’t ‘in order.’ Or they are ‘too old,’ or the single women ‘too single.’

The reasons given are the same we hear today for today’s unwanted. So the ship sails on, along the coast, with a few passengers allowed to enter their new home countries, but the rest have to stay and the ship gets all the way round to Peru before disaster strikes, and only a few of the children make it out alive, [conveniently] finding a desert island [where, in the next book, they try to live and survive].

Rich or poor, no one escaped this fate, and they have to make the best of things. Because this is a series of books shaped by WWII, there is much that is bad in them. But because the series ends after the war, Lisa Tetzner also lets there be much hope and friendship and belief in a new future for all. The last book is an inspiration, like a miniature United Nations.

Now, of course, we know a bit more about that as well. But when I first read it, my heart swelled with happiness and pride.

Just goes to show how the world works. If I’d written more about this series earlier, it would have been possible to still believe. I left it, hoping that someone, somewhere, would translate and publish the books. I also stupidly believed in a basic level of decency among people. Well, it exists, but the waves of hating your neighbour seem to be a necessary evil too.

Bedtime reading

I’m afraid I don’t believe it. There was a piece in the Guardian on Saturday about a father and daughter ‘reading at bedtime’ habit, which went on for years, every night until the girl was 18 and moved away. Even if you are very very keen and do keep it going until adulthood, it must be virtually impossible to do it every single night.

There are lots of things I don’t do absolutely every day of my life, however admirable those activities might be. Look away now if you are of a tender disposition. If I feel very tired indeed, coupled with feeling unwell, I have been known to skip the cleaning of teeth. Rarely, but still.

And reading to someone else involves two people. I can’t believe that illness, holidays and similar absences haven’t occurred to one or other of this father and daughter duo at some point over the years.

But maybe I’m both wrong and over-cynical. In which case it’s really nice for them. Except, I’m not sure that even I rate reading above absolutely everything else.

Me, I abandoned Son about halfway across the Atlantic. He must have been about 13 or so, and an accomplished reader. I wouldn’t have considered reading to him at all, had it not been for this wonderful and inconveniently un-translated (into English) series of books by Lisa Tetzner.

I loved them as a child, and couldn’t believe they didn’t make it over here. The Swedish translations were among the very first. And so, when they were re-issued in Sweden, the Retired Children’s Librarian bought them for me so that I could have my own. I’d only read the library books as a child.

Son was unable to read Swedish at the time, hence the reading aloud. I think we’d read about five books in the series about children in 1930s Berlin when WWII loomed and they had to set out across the Atlantic in search of new and safer lives.

But somewhere in the Atlantic the inevitable thing happened. Son and I increasingly found we were incompatible as far as bedtimes and free time was concerned. He wasn’t my sole Offspring, for one. He was often up later than me. I was often exhausted. And so those children are still midsail somewhere, still unaware of all the bad and good times lying ahead of them.

For years Son actually used to suggest we should continue where we left off, and I’d sort of agree. But we never did. And that’s a shame, because those books still count as among the best I’ve read. I still get a tingle down my spine when I think of them.

Although, it doesn’t help that not all were re-issued and my searches on Swedish online sites haven’t yielded the rest.