Ursula Hegi (HEHG-ee), born Ursula Koch, grew up in postwar Germany, entrenched in the silence surrounding her country’s role in the Holocaust. After moving to the United States at the age of eighteen and becoming an American citizen at twenty-three, Hegi wrestled with her identity as a German-born American and her personal sense of shame in her heritage, themes she explores in much of her work. An acclaimed novelist, she has won more than thirty grants and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and five PEN syndicated fiction awards.
The silence left after World War II characterized Hegi’s childhood. During the war, her father, Heinrich Koch, fought as a soldier on the Russian front while her mother, Johanna, stayed home to take care of her grandmother. Both parents discouraged questions regarding Germany’s history. Hegi read avidly as a young girl, devouring novels by Russian, German, and Jewish writers. Anne Frank’s Het Achterhuis (1947; The Diary of a Young Girl, 1952) touched her deeply, but her mother’s disapproval of the book, an account of an adolescent Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, only contributed to Hegi’s confusion surrounding Germany’s shameful role in the war. When Hegi was thirteen, her mother died from complications during a surgery, and her father attempted to escape his sorrows with alcohol.
Five years after her mother’s death, in 1965, her father’s alcoholism worsened, and at this time Hegi immigrated to the United States. She married Ernest Hegi, a management consultant and Vietnam War veteran, in 1967. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States three years later and had two sons, Eric and Adam. Living as a German in the United States gave Hegi a new perspective, which she used to examine her national and personal identity. She felt unable to resolve the shame she felt for the atrocities committed by her fellow Germans before her birth, causing her to wish strangers would mistake her to be Norwegian or Dutch.
Hegi loved to write, even as a child. When she was fourteen she hand-wrote half a novel in a notebook. After she arrived in the United States she tried writing and submitting her work for publication, but numerous rejection letters discouraged...
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