Anna Seghers

November 19, 1900, Mainz – June 1, 1983, Berlin

“When you're young and healthy you can recover quickly from a defeat. But betrayal is different—it paralyzes you.” Anna Seghers, Transit
 
Born Netty Reiling in Mainz, Germany, into an upper-middle-class Jewish family. She was a sickly and introverted child by her own account, but became an intellectually curious student, eventually earning a doctorate in art history at the University of Heidelberg in 1924. Her first story, written under the name Antje Seghers, was published in the same year.

Her committed socialist-communist, anti-fascist standpoint has its roots in her years spent studying history of art, sinology and history in Heidelberg, where she left behind bourgeois roots and became committed to proletarian ideals, in a meeting of minds with many Eastern European intellectuals and Marxist thinkers, amongst them the Hungarian economist, László Radványi, whom Seghers married in 1925. He would be her life-long partner, and closest advisor.

By 1929 Seghers had joined the Communist Party, given birth to her first child, and received the Kleist Prize for her first novel, The Revolt of the Fisherman. Having settled in France in 1933, Seghers was forced to flee again after the 1940 Nazi invasion. With the aid of Varian Fry, Seghers, her husband, and two children sailed from Marseille to Mexico on a ship that included among its passengers Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

After the war she moved to East Berlin, where she became an emblematic figure of East German letters, actively championing the work of younger writers from her position as president of the Writers Union and publishing at a steady pace. Among Seghers’s internationally regarded works are The Seventh Cross (1939; adapted for film in 1944 by MGM), one of the only World War II–era depictions of Nazi concentration camps; the novella Excursion of the Dead Girls (1945); The Dead Stay Young (1949); and the story collection Benito’s Blue (1973).

In 1951 she received the first Nationalpreis der DDR and the "Ehrendoktorwürde der Universität Jena" in 1959. In 1981, she became "Ehrenbürgerin" of her native town Mainz. In 1978 she was finally granted release from her duties as president of the GDR writers’ union and became its honorary president. By now in declining physical health, her husband also died in this year. Anna Seghers died on 1 June 1983 in Berlin, where she is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery.

Her writing is simple and clear but contains poetic moments reminiscent of the powerful illuminations in Rembrandt’s paintings which Seghers studied as an art student. Her intense interest and preoccupation with the individual and their struggle to find their place in society resonates deeply on a human level today. Her protagonists are always only ever ordinary, even down-trodden people.