“Not only can what others are suffering be a consolation while we are suffering, but even knowing what others suffered long ago can be consoling.”― Anna Seghers, The Seventh Cross
Anna Seghers was born Anna Reiling on November 19, 1900, in Mainz, Germany. Her family was Jewish, and her father owned an Art and Antiquities firm. Her mother was from a family of renowned jewelers. Seghers later renounced her religion, but her upbringing and ties to the Jewish community heavily influenced her work.
In 1920 she was one of the few female students enrolled at Heidelberg University, where she studied history, philosophy, sociology, and art history. She completed her doctoral dissertation in 1924 on “Jews and Judaism in the Works of Rembrandt.”
In 1925 she married László Radványi, also known as Johann Lorenz Schmidt, a Hungarian Communist, acquiring Hungarian citizenship. They had two children, Pierre (b. 1926) and Ruth (b. 1928). In 1928 she joined the Communist Party of Germany, an underground resistance movement against the Nazis, and her 1932 novel Die Gefährten was a warning against the rise of the Nazis. The novel led to her arrest by the Gestapo. She was considered the most influential anti-fascist female author in Germany. In 1933 University students in Germany pillaged libraries for ‘un-German’ works – among the books burned were Seghers’s Aufstand der Fischer von St. Barbara (The Uprising of the Fisherman of Santa Barbara), a story that had been awarded the prestigious Kleist Prize in 1928. Attendees at the awards ceremony were shocked when the recipient who claimed the prize was a woman (she first published under the pen name simply Seghers, taken from a Dutch artist, and people assumed she was a man).
Seghers’s first novel, The Wayfarers (1932), and her second, A Price on His Head (1933), both had political themes.
By 1934 she had emigrated to Paris, and while there wrote her best-known novel The Seventh Cross. The book describes the escape of seven prisoners from a Concentration Camp. It was translated into English and published in the US in 1942, one of the first depictions of the Nazi Concentration Camps during WWII. In 1944 it was made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy.
In 1940 her husband was arrested as an ‘enemy alien’ and put in the notorious Le Vernet concentration camp. Seghers and her children had a difficult journey fleeing France as German troops invaded. Traveling across dangerous unoccupied zones, hiding while securing documents, and finally getting passage on a refugee ship detained in multiple ports, including Martinique, Santo Domingo, and Ellis Island, before eventually settling in Mexico City in 1941. In 1942 she learned her mother had been killed in a Concentration Camp.
In 1943 she was hit by a vehicle in Mexico City and suffered a skull fracture resulting in a coma and later amnesia. During her recovery, she wrote her best-known short story, The Outing of the Dead Girls (1946), a semi-autobiographical tale that follows classmates’ on a boat trip on the Rhine, then their corresponding lives through WWI and WII.
After the War, in 1947, Seghers returned to Germany, settling in East Berlin until her death on June 1, 1983. In 1952, she was elected president of the East German Writers’ Union, which she held for twenty-five years. There she had a major influence on the next generation of writers and served as an inspiration to many other women.
Seghers produced eleven novels, more than sixty stories and novellas, and a similar number of essays. Other notable works include Sagen von Artemis (1938), The Ship of the Argonauts (1953), and Transit, which depicts a refugee’s escape across occupied France, and was made into a film in 2018. She also wrote multiple novels depicting slave rebellions and the struggles of Indigenous populations in the Caribbean, including The Light on the Gallows, Three Women from Haiti (1980).
Lesson from Seghers:
Seghers wrote anti-Nazi books under the regime of the 3rd Reich and was literally arrested by the Gestapo for it. That didn’t stop her. Through her writing, she gave voice to those struggling under oppression. And her words freed people on many levels, both physically and spiritually. You never know what impact the words you are compelled to write will have. You just have to be brave enough to write them.