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  • The Founder:Jella Lepman
  • Valerie Coghlan, Bookbird editor 2005-2009

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It is not improbable that if Jella Lepman had not conceived the idea for an organization to foster international understanding through children's books, someone else would have thought of it. It is, however, less probable that any other one individual would have envisioned all of the other associated organizations and activities brought to fruition by Lepman in the years immediately following World War Two. It was not her intention to return to Germany following the War to help with the work of restoring that war-devastated country; in fact, she took some persuading to do so. But within ten years of her arrival, the International Youth Library, the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), Bookbird, and other resulting activities were all up-and-running and have grown in strength and impact ever since.

Jella Lepman was born into a Jewish family in Stuttgart on May 15, 1891. Her father was a wealthy and influential businessman in the city, and Jella and her two sisters had a comfortable childhood. She was educated in Germany and Switzerland, and from a young age enjoyed writing stories. She married young and had a son and a daughter. Her German/American husband, Gustav Horace Lepman, had been an officer in the German army during World War One. He was much older than his wife, and he died in 1922. Newly widowed, Jella Lepman resumed her interest in writing and journalism. She became the first woman editor of the liberal Stuttgart newspaper, Neues Tagblatt, and in the 1920s, wrote two publications for children: Der verschlafene Sonntag (1927) and a play, Der singende Pfennig (1929). She was closely involved with the German Democratic Party and stood (unsuccessfully) as a candidate for election to the Reichstag in 1929.

Aware of the likely consequences for her and her children if they stayed in Germany following the inexorable rise of Nazism, Lepman left for England in 1936, where again she worked in journalism. When working for the United States Embassy in London on a magazine for women throughout Europe, Frau und Welt, she was asked to take up a post in the American zone in post-war Germany as an advisor on the cultural and educational needs of women and children. Her own [End Page 70]

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[End Page 71] children were then adult, and she was free to go, but remembering the country she had left behind, Lepman hesitated. When she thought of the children whose lives were devastated by a war not of their making, she decided she should do what she could. When she reached Germany, this decision was reinforced by the plight of children—many of them orphaned by the war, scrabbling for food and shelter in the wreckage of German cities.

Lepman was billeted in the American Headquarters in Bad Homburg. Her rank of major in the United States Army obliged her to wear an army uniform, and subsequently, she found the status this gave her, especially as a woman, very useful in getting what she wanted for her mission to improve the life of children deprived of books. Despite counter arguments about the need to provide food and shelter before considering literature, Lepman fought for books, as well as more basic necessities. She also argued down German publishers who wanted to publish translations of British and American classics, such as Robinson Crusoe, in an effort to show their solidarity with the occupying powers.

Instead, she argued for making more recent children's books from other countries available to German children. This, she posited, would best be done through a traveling exhibition. Inevitably, questions of finance were raised, and unable to wait for the unlikely possibility of funds from Washington, Lepman spent her evenings writing to publishers and others throughout Europe, explaining her project and asking for donations of books.

The first country to respond was France. Other letters of support arrived, too, and of the twenty countries approached, nineteen initially answered in the affirmative. On receiving a second letter from Lepman, pointing out that informing German children through...


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pp. 70-74
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