From The New York Review of Books:
My first encounter with Anna Seghers’s novel Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross) was brief and painful. At some point in the mid-1990s—I must have been in tenth or eleventh grade—our German teacher announced that in the months to come we would be reading excerpts from an antiwar novel written in the days of the Third Reich. The announcement was greeted by the students with incredulity and protest. What? Such a big fat book! On top of that, the antiquated language and a plot that refused to get under way, quite aside from the fact that no one could keep track of all the characters.
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For almost a quarter of a century, that was my only acquaintance with Anna Seghers—until I recently looked up something in an entirely different context and got snagged on a still from a movie. It showed Spencer Tracy in a Hollywood film called The Seventh Cross. I was amazed: that unreadable old tome had been made into a movie! And with a star actor? My curiosity aroused, I read The Seventh Cross for a second time, and I devoured it in two days. After that, I understood why it was an international bestseller.
It had been a hit almost immediately after it was published in 1942—simultaneously in German by a publisher in exile in Mexico and in an English translation in the United States. Within six months, it had sold 421,000 copies in the US. To date, it has been translated into more than thirty languages. Then, in 1944, the Austria-born director Fred Zinnemann, who would make the western classic High Noon a few years later, filmed The Seventh Cross for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Besides Tracy, the cast included Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, and Helene Weigel (in her only film role during her American exile).
After the war, the novel was published to acclaim in Seghers’s native Germany. In 1947, in Darmstadt, Seghers was awarded the most important prize for German-language literature, the Georg Büchner Prize.
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Anna Seghers was born Netty Reiling, in Mainz in 1900, the only child of an upper-class Jewish family. Her father was a dealer in art and antiquities. Seghers always felt close ties to her native city. Decades later, at the age of seventy-five, she wrote in a telegram to the citizens of Mainz, “In the city where I spent my childhood, I received what Goethe called the original impression a person absorbs of a part of reality, whether it is a river, a forest, the stars, or the people.”
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Then, in 1933, as in a stage drama, came the moment of peripeteia, a sudden, total reversal. In the year Hitler came to power Seghers, doubly endangered as both a Jew and a Communist, fled with her family to Switzerland. It was the beginning of a long odyssey. She lived in Paris—separated from her husband, who had been interned in a French concentration camp—until France was occupied by the Nazis in 1940. Alone with their two children, she managed first to organize his release and then orchestrate the family’s escape by ship via New York to Mexico City, where she would stay until 1947.
It was in Mexico that she learned of her mother’s fate: murdered in 1942 in the Lublin concentration camp in Poland. The message from the Jewish congregation of Mainz was matter-of-fact: “Mrs. Hedwig Reiling arrived in Piaski near Lublin in the month of March, 1942, and died there.”
Between May of 1938 and late in the summer of 1939, with world war imminent and in precarious circumstances, Anna Seghers wrote “a little novel,” as she called it at first, or as an early working title reads, the “7 Crosses Novel.”
According to her telling, there were originally just four copies of the manuscript, all of which she mailed off in hopes of being published. The first copy was destroyed during an air raid; a friend lost another while fleeing the Nazis; the third fell into the hands of the Gestapo; only the fourth copy, addressed to her German publisher in the United States, arrived at its destination. However, she herself hadn’t kept a copy of her manuscript because the danger of its being found in her apartment by a police raid—a constant fear of hers, even in neutral Mexico—was too great.
The Boston publishing house Little, Brown accepted the novel for publication, but at first, Seghers, at that time the sole support of her family, saw no money from it. The modest author’s advance was withheld in order to pay for the translation. In 1942, the publisher F.C. Weiskopf, by then a friend, wrote her a letter with the happy news that her novel had been selected by the Book of the Month Club: “Be glad, my people, Manna has rained down from heaven.” But it wasn’t until the following year that Seghers started receiving a monthly royalty payment of $500. The breakthrough came with the Hollywood filming. Seghers was paid the fabulous sum of $75,000 in four installments, the last in 1946. This, at least, brought to an end the time of financial distress.
Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books