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Dr Greta Sykes – Anna Seghers, Her Life and Work

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Poet, writer and artist Greta Sykes has published her work in many anthologies. She is a member of London Voices Poetry Group and also produces art work for them. Her new volume of poetry called ‘The Shipping News and Other Poems’ came out in August 2016. The German translation of her book ‘Under charred skies’ has now been published in Germany under the title ‘Unter verbranntem Himmel’ by Eulenspiegel Verlag. She is the chair of the Socialist History Society and has organised joint poetry events for them at the Poetry Café. She is a trained child psychologist and has taught at the Institute of Education, London University, where she is now an associate researcher. Her particular focus is now on women’s emancipation and antiquity. Twitter: @g4gaia.      German Wikipedia: Greta Sykes.

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Anna Seghers

Anna Seghers


 Anna Seghers’ life spans most of the 20th century, ending a mere six years before the so-called velvet revolution in 1989 wiped out the community of socialist countries that had dominated politics both East and West since the end of WW2. She lived through both world wars, experienced exile with thousands of others fleeing the Nazis and managed to get a place on a freightliner with herself and her family to Mexico. When she returned to her native Germany after the war, she found a country not just devastated physically but also morally with a population in a state of exhaustion, confusion and fear of the future. She had difficulties settling in Berlin with both her children still living in France and her husband working in Mexico, she experienced the shock of the division of Germany, when the Marshall Plan was started in the West in 1948. She braved all the conflicts, losses and difficulties, as the two German states embarked on their polarized roles in the Cold War. She remained in the GDR heading the writers’ organisation and engaging herself in defending world peace, as perceived from a GDR perspective. She stayed loyal to that country and government until her death. Her funeral was a major state occasion in GDR politics. It was also attended by the mayor of the town of Mainz, her home town, and the president of the Johann Gutenberg University of Mainz. Seghers’ novels and short stories as well as essays and a wealth of letters she wrote to friends and comrades paint a rich picture of a deeply creative mind and a compassionate and passionate loving person who lived her life for peace and socialism.

Seghers’ life

Together with Christa Wolf Anna Seghers was one of the foremost communist writers in Germany. She was born on the 19th November 1900 into a Jewish family. She studied art history and Chinese studies and did her doctorate on ‘Jews and Jewishness in Rembrandts paintings in Heidelberg in 1920. Her first publication ‘The dead on the island of Djal’ was published under the pen name Antje Seghers in the ‘Frankfurter Zeitung und Handelsblatt in instalments. She married Rodi (Laszlo Radvanyi), a Jewish Hungarian communist, in 1925 and moved to Berlin. In Berlin Rodi was in charge of the Marxist workers school (Marxistische Arbeiterschule, or MASCH). Her children, Peter and Ruth were born respectively in 1926 and 1928. At the time she was writing her next story ‘Grabetsch’ which also appeared in instalments in the same newspaper.

When her book ‘The uprising of the fishermen of Santa Barbara’ was published in 1928 she was given the Kleist Prize for literature for Grabetsch and her first novel. That same year she joined the KPD, German Communist party, and the Group of proletarian revolutionary writers (Bund Proletarisch-Revolutionaerer Schriftsteller). In 1933 she fled via Switzerland to France. She became a member of the publishing team of ‘Neue deutsche Blaetter’ which was published from 1933 to 1935 in Prague. She continued publishing stories and participated in the International Writers Conference in Paris in June 1935 and in Valencia and Madrid in 1937. In 1939 she completed the writing of her most famous novel ‘The seventh Cross’. Her husband was arrested and imprisoned in France. She fled through France to Marseille where she managed to leave Europe in the freighter ‘Paul Lemerle’ for New York. She travelled via Cuba to Mexico City. There she founded the Heinrich Heine Club and worked for the paper ‘Freies Deutschland.’ At the end of the war she returned to Europe via Sweden and Paris where her children Peter and Ruth lived. Getting the correct visa was an on-going problem for her. While living in Sweden with a German communist family called Friedlaender she was eventually offered a visa to come and live in the Soviet zone of Berlin, granted via the Karlshorst official immigration. Due to having married a Hungarian, she was actually Hungarian, yet by the time she came to Berlin she had adopted the Mexican citizenship. It all didn’t make her entry easier.

Paris remained her second home. She had many friends there, and through her children met many young French people who enjoyed political discussions as much as she did. She knew Ferdinand Delmas who had translated The Seventh Cross and the journalist and author Vladimir Poczner, as well as Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet. She found that Paris showed more generosity and thoughtfulness than Berlin. Between 1947 to 49 she spent much time in Paris, choosing themes for her writing that were focused on France or Paris, such as a Paris piece ‘Quartier Latin’. For the World Peace conference in 1949 she wrote a number of stories, such as ‘The Dove; (Picasso) and ’The March’.

She received the Buechner Prize in Berlin in 1947. In 1949 she participated in the World Peace conference in Paris and became a member of the World Peace Council. She still had a Mexican passport which, though, caused concerns in the GDR, as they needed her to become a German citizen. She intended to keep her foreign passport, because it allowed her to visit her children in Paris and travel abroad easily. In May 1950 she was granted dual citizenship, a right that Bertolt Brecht also achieved. Rodi, her husband was also granted citizenship in the GDR as well as offered work. He began a professorship teaching American Imperialism at Humboldt University upon his return.

In 1951 Seghers received the ‘Nationalpreis’ (national prize) of the GDR and the Stalin Prize. She was elected chair of the GDR writers organisation and in 1959 she received an Honorary Doctorate from the university of Jena. She travelled much throughout her life and the journeys included many visits to the Soviet Union, Brazil, France, China and West Germany. She was elected an Honorary citizen of her home town Mainz, although by that time she was not well enough anymore to visit Mainz. She had suffered a severe accident while living in Mexico and had balance problems from time to time since then. She was a warm and caring mother to her children, and they managed to meet up regularly in one or another place, depending on where she lived at the time. In 1978 Rodi, Seghers’ husband died unexpectedly during an operation to insert a heart pacemaker. His death was a severe blow to her. Although she continued writing and making plans little was finished after this event. Her health deteriorated, her eye sight became poor. She stayed mostly in her flat in the Adlershof with the help of carers. Her family supported her with kindness and caring visits. She moved to a care home in 1982 and died in June 1983.

Seghers’ Work

Romero (2001) in her biography of Seghers describes her wish to write German cultural history in her stories, in which she often combines reality with a dream-like aspect to it. She found fairy stories, myths and dreams to be an important aspect of bringing a story close to its readers. Romero quotes Walter Benjamin commenting that Seghers seems to wait for her readers. She does not just tell a story; she wants readers to listen to her. She hesitates and waits with her own voice clearly present. Bertolt Brecht, quoted by Romero, felt that Seghers when listening to a person tended to have something in the back of her mind, some voice that was already writing a new story. Christa Wolf described her as a magician who created magic by weaving together a reality that she knows or doesn’t know, but maintaining it like a beautiful dream. Her main novels ‘The seventh cross’, ‘Transit’ and ‘The dead stay young’ have been translated into English. Most of her work consists of short stories. She composed many letters throughout her life. The biography about her by Christine Zehl Romero is mainly based on these.

Exiled writers

Seghers was one of thousands of writers who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and after. They fled to the Netherlands, then to France and from there, when the Nazis occupied France, to the south in order to escape on boats to America. Marseille became the centre of German refugees, particularly in the years 1941 to 1944. An exhibition to mark the catastrophic situation that existed for the exiles in 1944, called ‘ICI-MEME’, was held in Marseille from September 2013 onwards. Already by 1933 55,000 people, mainly communists, Jews, trade unionist and social democrats had left Germany. Jean-Michel Palmier (Weimar in Exile, 2006) describes the forced exodus as ‘Assassination of a culture’. Not only is it a story of catastrophic proportions, it is also one that has consistently been denied and silenced. When Palmier wrote his book (1987) he reminds readers that hardly anything had been published in Germany about it, or elsewhere for that matter. It was not just the onset of the Cold War and the defamation of communists all over Europe that began to take shape and continued in the US with the Un-American Activities Committee that mitigated against a resolution of the problem of the home comers. Uneasy and problematic feelings between those who had stayed in Germany and those who had left marred the relationship between the two groups and made any real comprehension and reconciliation between them almost impossible. Reasons for those difficulties are raised in Palmier’s book. Illustrious poets and writers, such as Carl Ossietsky and Erich Muehsam died in concentration camps, while others Toller or Stefan Zweig committed suicide. Meanwhile many who had stayed in Germany tended to be regarded as accommodating themselves with the Nazis.

In order to comprehend Seghers life story it is necessary to be aware of the context in which she was forced to leave Germany, be chased through France and finally end up on a freighter for Mexico. In her novel ‘Transit’ she describes the desperation of people who wait for their visa abroad, or queue up for other things, like tins of sardines:

‘I arrived so early and yet there were already other women in front of the locked door, wrapped in scarves and hats because it was windy and cold. A bit of sun looked just over the roofs, but between the tall houses of the street lay heavy and ancient shadows. The women were too tired and stiff to complain. They thought of nothing but their purchase of sardines. Like animals who eye a hole in the ground in which something edible resides they lurked not to miss the smallest opening of the door. Their energy was devoted entirely to capture tins of sardines. Why they had to get up so early to wait for something that normally was ubiquitous in this region, and where such plentifulness had disappeared to, thinking such thoughts was far too tiresome for them.’

In November 1941 Anna is still in France near Marseille waiting for the right visa for her family. Food is a problem, although the children are attending a local school. It’s a kind of cat and mouse game where you need a visa for one country and a different one from another country, and both of them need to fit together within a narrow window of time. This is all very well described in her novel ‘Transit’. While waiting for the correct collection of visa Seghers learnt that Walter Benjamin committed suicide, after he had tried to escape to Spain but was not allowed to enter the country. He walked back to his hotel in France and was found dead in his bed in the morning. He poisoned himself. At the end of November, she writes to Weiskopf that they are still waiting for visa for all the family. She travels to Marseilles again and again. She even writes to the Vichy government. ‘We were sent a kilo of sugar and a parcel of figs. It pleased the children. I cannot describe our life here. Dante, Dostoevsky, Kafka are nothing in comparison. This here is serious, but strangely, you get used to it. The children go to school. I cook a strange soup. We think of Benjamin. What did he think he could achieve by walking into Spain?

After over a year of chasing one embassy after another to get the correct visa in the correct order of need she managed to get a place on a freighter for herself, her husband and her two children to take her over the Atlantic. From New York she had to travel onwards to reach Mexico, where she had managed to get permission to residency. She writes in her letters that she immediately took to Mexico, the climate and the people. She enjoyed living there and obtained Mexican citizenship, restarting her writing life with difficulties. She constantly had problems with money, because she had no income and depended on the assistance from friends. Mexico, however, became an inspiration for her. A number of her works are positioned in and around Mexico, such as ‘The outing of the dead girls’, ‘The real blue’ and ‘Wedding in Haiti’.

Anna was a prolific letter writer and was fluid in different languages, German, French, Spanish. In the early years of exile her letters were written out of dire need for money, support in terms of her manuscripts and needing places to stay, a job to earn a living, food and friendship. After the war when she returned to Berlin her letters tended to reflect her role in the GDR, her travels and her friendships. She writes to a friend, ‘You cannot imagine what we have been through. We had to return to Paris. There they looked for me and we had to change our abode a dozen times. Living in the unoccupied zone is also indescribable. It is a bit like cities in the Middle Ages where you get thrown into a private prison because you have not got enough money.  Every week there was a new threat, often they threatened that they were looking for me. We did not wait for the boat to Lisbon. We used the first opportunity. It was very primitive but it did not matter to us. In Martinique we were placed in a very dirty campsite with little food available. We were forced to pay 3 dollars per day. We had not used the 500 dollars from the League of Writers yet. Because we travelled on a freighter with the children, much more primitive than 3rd class travel. The money had not arrived by the time we left and I had to borrow money. Now we are in debt and have to pay it back. I am very sad that a year on none of my chapters have been published in the US so that I have not been able to earn my own living. I have often felt this year as if I was dead and living outside the world. It is vital for me to write, and that is why I must speak with you. Have you posted a copy of The Seventh Cross to Hans? If you read my letter carefully you will find that I am often tired and unhappy without losing hope. I am writing quite openly to you. Now about my travels. There is no direct boat to Mexico, its either via New York or via Cuba. Now do your best to send me the 600 dollars so that we can take the next boat.’

But in 1944 her urge was to go back home. She was expecting to restart her literary career in the land of her mother tongue. She was bitterly disappointed, however, when in 1948 the West German currency was created which split the country into two. She was, after all from West Germany, Mainz near the Rhein, but in future she was going to be a citizen of East Germany, her political home. With her Mexican passport, her children in France and her divided home country she lived her life as a permanent exile, travelling a lot and feeling divided loyalties. Yet she was able to unify her different emotions through an intense work schedule. She wrote short stories, she wrote speeches, she travelled to conferences, especially to work for world peace. She enjoyed the company of her many friends, especially in the Soviet Union and in France and became a very influential person in the GDR.

1948 was a dramatic year in German history and consequently also for Seghers, as the East-West confrontation came to the boil. The Marshall Plan offered West Germany financial assistance to rebuild the country, but not East Germany, and the D Mark was introduced, basically leading to the two nation state. After her visit to Paris, she travelled for the first of many times to the Soviet Union, followed by her attendance at the ‘World conference of writers for the defence of peace’. It took place in Wroclaw, Poland. German was not one of the conference languages. Nevertheless, Seghers delivered her speech in German and was warmly welcomed as ‘Niemci dobrej woli’ (Germans of good will). Seghers met up with many friends from other parts of the world, such as Ilya Ehrenburg, George Lukacs and Justynia Sierp, her Polish friend. She got to know the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado who, together with Ehrenburg and Pablo Neruda became her close and lifelong friends, her ‘three bears’, how she called them. In March the last meeting of the Allied control group took place, followed by the introduction of the Marshall Plan in the West. International train journeys with Berlin were terminated on the 23rd June. The introduction of the West German currency on the 18th June led to a closure of all transport between the Soviet occupied zone (SBZ) and the West German occupied zones.

During the fifties, after the division of Germany into two states Seghers had to come to terms with the sadness and alienation this caused her. She rooted herself into the newly developing GDR with all the hope and aspiration for world peace and a socialist future that she could muster. She had lost a home and become exiled, and she wished to go back home. This was not to be after the start of the Cold War. She decided to live in the GDR with its strong fraternal links to the Soviet Union and the surrounding socialist countries. They were seen by many people in Europe East and West to be able to present the future path of humanity. She also harboured great hopes in Mao’s victory in China. She worked tirelessly and passionately to further peaceful cooperation between East and West and to develop a new language among young writers to speak about the issues pertinent to building socialism. Most of her letters in the following years reflect these interests and her deep sense of friendship with her many contacts.

After being forced to flee Germany during World War II due to her anti-fascist stances, author Anna Seghers returned in 1947, eventually moving to East Berlin.

After being forced to flee Germany during World War II due to her anti-fascist stances, author Anna Seghers returned in 1947, eventually moving to East Berlin.


Anna remained faithful to her communist beliefs throughout her life. She saw them best fulfilled by staying loyal to the Socialist Unity Party (SED) of the GDR. This was not an easy option to take, especially given both the temptations as well as the animosity coming from the West German media, publishers and writers. Had she given in to the pressure she could have had a glorious and feted life in the West, as has been illustrated by the many who did, such as the singer and writer Wolf Biermann. Romero (2001) comments ‘Seghers had expected cooperation and togetherness after her exile and a joint eradication of fascism and its memory of the victims and their enemies.’ Further she commented ‘In her disappointment about the political and cultural developments in her home country Seghers held on to her youthful ideals and ideas of striving for world peace under the leadership of the Soviet Union and the communist international movement.’ Romero states that Seghers ‘accepted (belonging to the cultural tradition of the GDR) out of a fatal sense of duty, arising out of her Jewish-German bourgeois background.’ Such a conclusion assumes a passive attitude to the developments in the GDR, which was not Seghers way of working or living. Furthermore, at all stages of her life she had taken the initiative to become herself and to be herself, for instance by rejecting her parents’ bourgeois life. Seghers had witnessed her fair share of corruption, betrayals and how people can be bought easily through the seductions of consumerism and the glittering colours of the West. She learnt to acquire a long-term view of reaching socialism. That meant that you worked patiently with the situation you inherit and the given context. Her loyalty was therefore her strength and a defeat of the lure of the West.



Palmier, J-M, (2006) Weimar In Exile. Verso. London.
Romero, C. Z. (2009) Anna Seghers Briefe 1924-1952,
1953 – 1983. Aufbau Verlag. Berlin.

© Dr Greta Sykes