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  • S.O.S. New York:German-Jewish Authors of Children's Literature in American Exile
  • Elisabeth-Christine Mülsch (bio)

The history of juvenile literature by refugee authors who had to flee Nazi Germany after 1933 is an important chapter in the history of German children's literature. It represents an important counterpart to the children's literature written within the Third Reich.1 Yet, even though close to 40 exiled authors wrote juvenile literature at some point during their exile, this literature is rarely treated as a subject by literary critics.2

For one group of exiled authors, the Volksfront writers, children's literature has always been important. They recognized the educational potential of this literature and used it as a means of political education. In the exile journal Das Wort, published in Moscow, articles appeared that discussed the importance of children's literature.3 Today in East Germany these anti-fascist writers of children's literature who had emigrated during the Nazi period have been for years considered and honored as important authors (e.g., Auguste Lazare or Alex Wedding).4 Was there a comparable phenomenon for refugee writers emigrating to the U.S.?

According to Maurice Davie, about eighty percent of the exiles coming to the U. S. were Jewish (Davie 37). In Jewish culture, children's education has always had a tremendous importance as a means of disseminating doctrine to the sons and inspiring a desire for knowledge which in turn became a kind of dogma (Müsch 136-41, 277). In the twentieth century these educational ethics have mainly been understood in a secular way, especially in bourgeois circles. How did these ethics affect Jewish exile writers in the United States? What were the reasons for writing children's literature in this rather large exile community?

The authors discussed in this article are all German-speaking Jewish people who came to the United States in the thirties and 1940. Helene Scheu-Riesz, the feminist and pacifist, emigrated from Vienna in 1934, four years before Hitler's take-over of Austria. In 1936 Frederick Kohner was offered a six-month contract by Columbia films, and he accepted. The contract became his passport to Hollywood. Richard Plant and Oskar Seidlin left their Swiss exile in 1938 to come to the United States, the [End Page 87] same year Mascha Kaléko arrived. And last, but not least, the Emergency Rescue Committee, operating in Marseilles, was able to save the lives of two other persons: the writer Adrienne Thomas who was born in Lorrain and later became an Austrian, and the Austrian actress Hertha Pauli. Both women endured extreme hardships during their French exile, before they could finally leave France to come to the United States in 1940. The escape is very impressively described in Hertha Pauli's autobiography Break of Time.

Although all these writers were very grateful to their adopted country, they did not always adapt very easily to the American way of life. Mascha Kaléko, as one example, could not overcome feelings of despair, which were increased by her personal tragedy—the death of her son.5 She finally left the United States in 1966 to go to Israel. After World War II, Adrienne Thomas and Helene Scheu-Riesz returned to Austria. But Oskar Seidlin, Richard Plant, Frederick Kohner, and Hertha Pauli became American citizens and stayed in America.

These writers are best known to the American and German public for reasons other than their children's books. Richard Plant is still a noted German scholar in the U.S. The same was true of Oskar Seidlin. Adrienne Thomas was known mainly for her light novels; Frederick Kohner was known as a scriptwriter; Helene Scheu-Riesz was known for her feminist and pacifist activities. Only the actress Hertha Pauli was renowned as an author of children books. She and Frederick Kohner are the only ones among these writers who find a place in the American encyclopedia of children's book authors, Something about the Author.

Why did these scholars and artists decide to write for children? The reasons vary. Writing children's fiction was one way of entering the literary market in a foreign...


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