Although notoriously reticent about her personal history, Anna Seghers freely admitted that her hometown of Mainz and its environs, notably the Rhine River, have left distinct traces in her work. Born Netty Reiling on November 19, 1900, the daughter of a respectable, well-to-do Jewish family (her father was an art dealer), Seghers grew up in middle-class comfort and received a solid education that enabled her in 1919 to enroll at the University of Heidelberg, where she studied art history, history, and philology. In 1924, she received her doctorate after completing her dissertation “Jude und Judentum im Werke Rembrandts” (Jew and Jewishness in the work of Rembrandt), which was published in 1981. Questions of Jewish identity or problems related to race are, however, only rarely to be encountered in her later literary work; only the story “Post ins gelobte Land” (mail to the Promised Land) deals specifically with Jewish experiences.
Seghers’s upbringing had not prepared her for a career as a socially committed writer. In Heidelberg, she met her future husband, Hungarian sociologist Lászlo Radványi, whom she married in 1925. In retrospect, Seghers attributed her developing political consciousness to the influence of Radványi and other refugees from Central and Eastern Europe. As a result of this association with political activists, Seghers became attuned to social injustices. Her first, recently rediscovered story, “Die Toten auf der Insel Djal” (the dead on the isle of Djal), is a “legend from the Dutch” in the manner of pirate and ghost stories rather than a text propounding a social message. It was for this story that she first used the pen name Antje (later, Anna) Seghers—derived from Jan Seghers, the hero of her story, rather than, as has often been claimed, from the Dutch painter and graphic artist of the Baroque period, Hercules Seghers. Seghers’s literary work achieved major recognition in 1928 when she was awarded the Kleist Prize; in the same year, she joined the Communist Party and, in 1929, the Bund Proletarisch-revolutionärer Schriftsteller, a Communist writers’ organization.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Seghers was arrested but released shortly afterward; she managed to escape to France via Switzerland. In Paris, Seghers became one of the prominent figures of the...
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