Grete Berges: A forgotten cultural mediator between Germany and Sweden
Return from exile: Obstacles and difficulties
Gretchen Berges was born in 1895 in Hamburg, where she grew up in the Eppendorf neighborhood. Her neighborhood was to become the setting for her first children's and young people's book, “Liselott diktiert den Frieden” [Liselott Dictates Peace]. Until its publication in 1932, she worked first as a foreign language correspondent, then in a publishing house and finally as a journalist. From 1928 she worked for the Nordische Rundfunk Aktiengesellschaft in Hamburg, Norag for short. When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, the broadcasting company was renamed Reichssender Hamburg and was taken over by National Socialists as early as April of the same year. As a result, Berges lost her employment due to her Jewish origins. Losing her livelihood thwarted Berges' plans to write a sequel to her novel and continue to work as a journalist. After unsuccessful efforts to obtain a visa for the USA, Berges fled to Copenhagen in 1936. With the help of the Swedish writer and Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, Berges finally received a residence permit for Sweden in 1937. In Stockholm, where she lived until her death, she set up a literary agency – a job she herself called an “emigration profession.” Letter by Grete Berges to the Hamburg Office for Compensation [Amt für Wiedergutmachung], March 9, 1956, in: Behörde für Soziales, Familie, Gesundheit und Verbraucherschutz Hamburg, Akte zu Grete Berges, cited after: Wilfried Weinke, „Der Weg zurück ist mir unmöglich.“ Die Kinderbuchautorin, Übersetzerin und Literaturagentin Grete Berges, in: Zeitschrift des Vereins für Hamburgische Geschichte 95 (2009), p. 81. She tried to promote other exiled writers, such as Hildegard Johanna Kaesar, Pipaluk Freuchen and Gertrud Isolani. She also worked as a translator of Swedish authors for the Swiss and German book market. At the same time, she gave talks on Swedish radio about German cultural history and reported on cultural life in Sweden in the German-Jewish exile magazine Aufbau, based in New York. Despite her work as a cultural mediator between Sweden and Germany, she must today be counted among the “forgotten writers,” Weinke, „Der Weg zurück ist mir unmöglich.“, p. 70. as Wilfried Weinke puts it in one of the few articles written on Grete Berges. The stations of Berges’ life, which are traced here, reveal much about the contemporary historical circumstances surrounding her: Regardless of her importance for Hamburg's cultural and literary landscape, she was gradually stripped of her affiliation with her native city in the course of Nazi policies. Influential cultural institutions such as the NDR did not protect their employees of Jewish background, but committed themselves to National Socialist ideology at a very early stage.
About 500,000 people were forced to leave Germany between 1933 and 1945. The majority of this group, 85-95 percent, were those exiles who were persecuted as Jews by Nazi policies. Exact figures are difficult to reconstruct, but it is assumed that only about 30,000 people, or four to five percent of all expelled persons, returned to Germany. There were various reasons for these rare cases of remigration. In her article, Grete Berges describes them schematically as “ghosts of the past” whose impossible banishment prevented her from living in Hamburg again. In her correspondence with Walter A. Berendsohn, she gave more concrete reasons for her inability to return home. In January 1944, Berges wrote to the founder of German exile literature research, who had also been expelled from Hamburg and was staying in Sweden, about the question of return: “I want to wait and see how the German people relate to us, whether we really have a say in anything again at all. I would rather not push myself to do so until then. In 1933 I witnessed the Nazi takeover in the midst of the intellectuals, in the central arena, on the radio, with such sharpness, dear Professor, I cannot simply pick up where I left off. As Nelly Sachs, the fine poet, puts it so beautifully, after all, there are graves between us!” Letter by Grete Berges to Walter A. Berendsohn, January 28, 1944, in: Deutsches Exilarchiv 1933–1945 in Frankfurt am Main, Eb 54b/7. In this letter, Berges also already anticipated the German cultural industry's attitude of rejection toward returning exiles. Instead of granting the exiles an essential role in the reconstruction of democratic conditions in war-torn Germany, they were marginalized once again in most cases. In addition, there was institutionalized and bureaucratic resistance to those willing to return. The tough and reluctant reparations procedures, which in tone and manner were often reminiscent of the National Socialist bureaucracy, were contrasted by a simplified procedure for former German soldiers returning from the war. This renewed discrimination against formerly exiled persons also affected Berges, who had been trying for more than ten years to obtain financial compensation. In a letter to the Hamburg Office of Compensation in April 1956, she asked: “Why do we have to prove so much? Is it not enough that we Jews are deprived of our position by Hitler? After all, SS generals convicted of war crimes are, according to the law, awarded a pension without further ado […]. You must understand that after the unnamed mental suffering, the material a. other difficulties, especially at a time when many Germans lived very well in the Third Reich a. did not give a damn about us […] one becomes inwardly bitter when one has to ask and beg for some help in one’s old age […].” Letter by Grete Berges to the Hamburg Office for Compensation [Amt für Wiedergutmachung], April 21, 1956, in: Behörde für Soziales, Familie, Gesundheit und Verbraucherschutz Hamburg, file on Grete Berges, quoted after Weinke, „Der Weg zurück ist mir unmöglich.“, p. 89. A short time later, in January 1957, Grete Berges died in Sweden, the country that had granted her exile.
The abovementioned reasons kept Grete Berges from paying even a single visit to her birthplace for more than eight years after the causes of her escape had ceased to exist. Even in her description of her first return to Hamburg intended for the Hamburg public, which the article in the Hamburger Abendblatt documents, she expressed a clear uneasiness about her return. She felt uneasy at the sight of everything she once knew. She described how she was overwhelmed by memories of her former life at the moment of her return. Although omitted in the article, these memories are certainly not limited to the time of her carefree childhood and youth, but also include persecution, fear and flight. The experience of exile and the crimes of the National Socialists, the consequences of which, as Berges describes had partly left their mark on the cityscape, were still all too present. Despite the joy of seeing her city once again, which was also present, and which she describes as a feeling of “familiarity and recognizing,” this fundamental rupture could not be bridged and consequently Berges could not overcome the experience of exile: “Do I want to live in my hometown again? Returning is impossible for me. […] The ghosts of the past cannot be banished entirely.” For her, it was “no longer the same Hamburg,” but rather a feeling of alienation from the city of her “origin,” which now seemed “ghostlike” to her. The article concludes with Grete Berges’ optimistic promise to visit Hamburg again – a promise she would not keep. Four years after this first return, which lasted only a few days, the writer, translator, and cultural mediator died without having seen her native city again.
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Jasmin Centner (born 1988), M.A., is member of the Walter A. Berendsohn Research Center for German Exile Literature. In her doctoral thesis, submitted in January 2020, she worked on narratives of return in the context of violence and displacement. In 2019 she was a visiting researcher at NYU and Yale University. Her research interests include exile literature, German-Jewish literature as well as camp literature. Recent publications: Der Völkermord an den Sinti und Roma bei Johannes Bobrowski und Erich Hackl, in: KulturPoetik 19 (2019) 2, pp. 276–301; Rückkehr aus dem Exil als Paradigma transnationaler Literatur (together with Doerte Bischoff), in: Handbuch Literatur & Transnationalität. Berlin 2019, pp. 416–428; Odysseus als mythische Identifikationsfigur in Primo Levis „Atempause“, in: helden. heroes. héros 5 (2017) 1, pp. 59–69.
Jasmin Centner, The Aftermath of Exile. Children’s Book Author Grete Berges Returns to Hamburg (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, December 22, 2020. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-264.en.v1> [April 01, 2023].