Introduction “The Reed”
Anna Seghers, East Germany, 1965
Anna Seghers (1900-1983), a pseudonym for Netty Reiling, was born in Mainz and grew up in a middle-class Jewish family. Her earliest literary influences include the classical German literature of the 18th and 19th century, a tradition which defines her own narrative style. Between 1920 and 1924, Seghers studied art history and philology at the universities of Heidelberg and Cologne, and in 1925 she became one of the first women in Germany to receive her Ph.D. Although 1925 also saw the publication of her first story, Anna Seghers did not receive wide recognition until 1928 when her first novel, The Uprising of the Fishermen of St. Barbara, received the prestigious Kleist Prize, an annual award that is given anonymously for the best work of a new author. While the jury members were correct in predicting the future success of the new author, they were totally incorrect in their assumptions about the gender of this new literary figure. All references to the stark and powerful style of the young male author proved to be somewhat embarrassing for the members of the jury.
The year 1928 was an auspicious one for Anna Seghers in yet another sense, it was also the year in which she joined the German Communist Party. Her joining the Party may have been motivated by factors ranging from a basic humanistic hope for social change to the politically charged climate of Germany in the 20s, including the influence of her husband Laszlo Radvanyi, a Hungarian political emigre whom she met and married in 1926. She remained a loyal, if often critical member of the German Communist Party throughout her life.
After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933 and after spending years of exile in France and Mexico, Anna Seghers returned to her native land in 1947 where she quickly became the matriarch of East German literature. Not only did she serve as an international representative of her Party and her country, she also became a supporter and role model for a whole new generation of East German authors in the sixties and seventies, especially Christa Wolf.
“The Reed” was taken from a collection of short stories that was published in 1965. In it the reader follows the evolution of the main character, Marta Emrich, through the dangers of the war years to the difficulties of the fledgling East Germany. How does the larger stage of historical events intersect with the lives of the characters? To what extent does the main character represent typically middle-class values and does she change in the course of the story? Why would Anna Seghers portray a woman like Marta rather than a political activist such as herself? As readers of the 1990s, what reaction do you have to Anna Seghers’ portrayal of the female character?
Anna Seghers, “The Reed,” trans. Benito’s Blue and Nine Other Stories, (East Berlin: Seven Seas Books,) ), 144-157.
Anna Seghers Jewish, Communist Party member
1900 Netty Reiling (Anna Seghers) born in Mainz
1925 Dissertation on The Jew and Judaism in the Work of Rembrandt; one of the first women to receive her Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg; publication of her
• first story
1926 married Laszlo Radvanyi, a Hungarian political emigre
1928 first novel, The Uprising of the Fishermen of St. Barbara (Aufstand der Fischer von St. Barbara ); Kleist Prize; joined the German Communist Party;)) -prize first novel
1933 arrested, by the Gestapo; flight to Paris
1940 flight from Paris to Marseille; then in 1941 to Mexico
1947 return to Berlin
1952-1977 President of the East German Writers’ Union
1983 -died in East Berlin — Matriarch of East German lit.
1942 Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross) published in English; Film version in 1944; published in German in 1947
1943 “Ausflug der toten Madchen” (“Excursion of the Dead Girls”)
1965 Kraft der Schwachen (The Power of the Weak) a collection of stories, including “Agathe Schweigert” and “The Reed”
Long before the war the Emrich family had had a little house and garden on a lake near Berlin.
They grew mainly vegetables. There was a narrow strip of lawn between the lake shore and their solid, one-storey house–the only bit of land not cultivated. The shore was flat, sloping very gradually, and the reeds grew thick, as they did almost all round the lake. From the landing stage there was a gravel path up to the glass verandah which had been built on to the house in more prosperous days. The sitting room and the kitchen opened off the small paved front and the cellar was reached through a trap door in the kitchen floor. The cellar door facing the lake was not used any more, for it was blocked up by all kinds of stores, and things were piled so high that hardly any light came through the cellar window.
The Emrichs had also owned a small public house in a nearby village, and the smithy opposite. They had shod horses and mended ploughs and farm implements there.
Father Emrich had been kicked by a horse and died shortly before the war. They say misfortunes never come singly. Perhaps he had been a little less careful than usual, upset by the unexpected death of his wife shortly before.
The two sons were conscripted and the war prolonged their military service indefinitely. One of them experienced the invasion of Poland, the other the landing in Narvik.
Distant relatives had in the meantime bought the public house and the smithy. Marta Emrich, the only daughter, looked after the little property on the lake.SShe took pride in doing almost everything herself and only occasionally got some help from a day labourer, for instance with painting the house, so that it should look decent if one of her brothers came home on leave. She not only did most of the vegetable gardening herself; she also papered the rooms and tarred the boat, which was generally tied up to the landing stage, unused. Seen from the lake, the white house with its rambler roses looked friendly and inviting.
Marta toiled from dawn till dusk, not only because she wanted to save up and have no debts, for her brothers had already lost their income from the public house and the smithy, not only because she thought that was what she was there for, but also because she wanted to forget how lonely she was.
Her second cousin, a farmer’s son from the neighbouring village whom people had thought of as her fiancé, was one of the few to be killed on the Maginot Line. Through him it might have been possible to get the public house and the smithy back into the possession of the Emrich family. They had not been properly engaged, but when she received the news that he had “Fallen in battle” Marta felt deserted and almost without hope. She had never been talkative, but now she retired into herself completely.
She was in good health and accustomed to relying on herself in any situation. She was twenty-six in the third year of the war, big- boned and with a broad, flat face. She had some contact with what was going on in the world through her brothers’ letters and through various meetings in the village. Like her neighbours, she put out a flag after every victory.
Her younger brother fell on the eastern front. Although he had been her favourite and was more good-natured than the older brother, she did not feel his death so much as that of her fiancé. She felt more as if his leave had been stopped indefinitely.
One rainy evening in the late summer of 1943 she was sorting potatoes and beets in the cellar and getting fodder ready for the next day.
She suddenly heard a slight, unaccustomed rustling in the reeds and then in the hedge. It seemed to her as if a shadow flitted by. The thought flashed into her mind that a person might think the house unoccupied, for there was no light burning, apart from the little oil lamp in the cellar. She called out, “Who’s there?”
There was no answer, so she climbed up through the trap door into the kitchen again, went through the little sitting room to the verandah and outside.
A strange young man stood on the little strip of ground between the lake and the house; as far as she could make out he was not badly dressed. She could not see his face clearly in the dusk. He asked quickly, “Does a Frau Schneider live here?” Marta answered, “Nobody of that name here, nor in the village either.” She looked more closely at the young man, then she asked, “How did you get here?” He answered, “By boat.” “How?” asked Marta peering through the gloom, for at the landing stage she saw that there was only one boat there. The stranger said, “Oh, I left the boat farther along the bank, I thought she might be living in the last village but one–Frau Schneider–and then I began asking my way.”
A motor cycle clattered along the road. He seized Marta’s hand, and said, “Don’t give me away if anyone comes asking for me.”
Marta snatched her hand away, “So that’s it, you’ve been up to something.”
The motor cycle did not stop. The stranger took her hand again and said in a soft, urgent voice, “I’ve done nothing wrong. Just the opposite.”
They heard the rattle of a motor-boat on the lake. The man asked, “Do I look like someone bad?”
She tried again to see his face, as if a face had ever guaranteed a person’s honesty. She knew that, for she had lived alone long enough and had had to do with all sorts of people. But she thought she had never had anything to do with a face of this kind.
The motor-boat had passed by. “Why are they looking for you if you haven’t been up to anything?”
He went on quickly, in the same urgent tone, “They handed round something against the war where I work. And today they had it in for me.” “Well, but listen,” said Marta, “if there’s something in it you really ought to be locked up.”
The stranger went on talking, taking no notice of what she said. His voice was pleading and threatening at the same time. Maybe she hadn’t lost anyone in the war or waited for the news- “Fallen in battle.” They were now cowering side by side against the house wall. Marta said he ought certainly to be shut up for talking like that–if not in prison then in a madhouse. He asked whether they ought to wait till all the men had been killed. Well, he hadn’t waited–not him! And now they were after him. He asked, “Haven’t you any heart? Let me get behind the hedge. You don’t need to know anything about it.”
And when she hesitated a moment, he added, “Go on into the house! You haven’t seen me at all. You don’t know anything about me. Go on in, do!”
Marta turned away and went back into the house as if they had not spoken a word to each other and went on with her work.
That’s how it began. She got up a little earlier than usual to see whether he was still sitting behind the hedge. She rather hoped that he had made himself scarce. She would even have been prepared that first morning to persuade herself that nobody had ever been there. But there he was, crouched down in the same place. She went into the house without a word and came back with a hot drink. She watched him gulping it down and then choking on it and biting his hand to keep back the sound of coughing. He looked at her, and it was light enough to see his face clearly. He said nothing, but his lips moved a little and he looked her firmly in the eye. She said nothing,
went back into the house as if there were no one crouching there, and got on with her work as usual.
That summer she had a boy working for her on day wages. He came from the village. He had had infantile paralysis and limped. The boy told Marta that the police were looking for a pickpocket. They had warned all the villages round the lake about him. In the afternoon, when the early mist was rising, Marta signed to the young man to follow her through the cellar trap door. She already had her store of wood and coal piled up there for the winter, and now she cleared a tiny space. She said nothing, as if what she did or did not do would only be real if she talked about it.
The little day labourer was disappointed when August came to an end and Marta did not engage him for the month of September. But nobody was surprised, for it was well known that Marta Emrich could do just about everything herself and even took pride in doing so.
The fugitive–whose name was Kurt Steiner–did all the little jobs that made no noise, peeling and cutting and even some repairs, in his hide-out in the wood pile. Marta sometimes left the trap door to the cellar open and turned on the radio. After a while she plucked up courage to go down and listen to what he had to tell her. He thought of many examples to help her to understand–things that had happened in the world and to him. These things sounded like fairy tales or sagas to Marta, who had no experience outside her own existence. At first his urgent voice numbed her, but then she began to take notice of the meaning of what he said, contradicting him, asking questions and thinking about it all.
One night, when everything round about was frozen in winter sleep, in ice and snow, she brought him up into the house. By the light of a torch, he looked for a long moment at the room she was so proud of. Her bed looked fresh and good.
Trembling, pressed close against him, she watched a night air attack on Berlin through the slats of the blind.
Marta Emrich gradually grew familiar with the ideas of her companion Kurt Steiner. She was now convinced that he had acted rightly and properly. She would have done the same, knowingly and willingly.
But she felt a little guilty at the sense of relief she had when she heard that her elder brother Karl had been taken prisoner on the eastern front. For she would not have known how to hide Kurt Steiner if her brother had come home on leave. Karl was very rough and hard, even spiteful. He was the sort who would gladly have seized a fugitive by the throat.
A new and terrible danger came in the spring. A peasant woman told her over the fence that the villages round the lake were being searched for deserters. They weren’t missing a cellar, a garden or bush, the woman said half fearfully, half vengefully.
Kurt Steiner turned pale when Marta told him. He groaned, and said, his eyes empty, “It’s all been no good. It’s all up with me now. I’ve got to get away or they’ll catch you, too.”
Marta suddenly remembered a story her younger brother, her favourite, had read in a picture book and told them. Somewhere in this story–she couldn’t remember where it had taken place- someone had saved himself–and she couldn’t remember from what or why–by submerging himself under water and breathing through a reed stalk all the time they were searching for him. Kurt Steiner said that was only a tale, you couldn’t possibly do it in real life. Marta urged, “Oh, but it might work. Try it, anyway.” He protested, “No, I can’t possibly. No, no it wouldn’t work.” “But you must! You must!” said Marta.
And she insisted that he try it out, at once, before they came searching for him. There wasn’t anything else to do, so it must be possible. And she forced him to go into the water. She cut off a suitable reed. It was barely afternoon when things got serious. The next house was surrounded and searched, without result; and then it was her turn; they even went down into the cellar from the kitchen. Marta was terribly frightened when they found the space in the middle of the wood pile. They might find a trace, some hairs or even a shadow. But they only pushed things round, angrily and stubbornly.
“Who are you looking for?” Marta asked with a touch of irony in spite of her fear. “My younger brother is dead and the other brother is a prisoner of war.”–“Hold your tongue,” said the military police, “a woman doesn’t only have brothers.” Marta was frightened to death, then she thought, can he hold out? Will he get enough air?
After they had searched in vain they moved on to the next house, cursing loudly. Kurt Steiner finally crept back into his hole in the cellar, which now seemed quite like home to him. But they always had to be on the lookout for another raid. He was very nearly desperate. He would rather be dead than live like this, he said. He wouldn’t be able to stand another raid, breathing through a reed.
Marta argued hotly with him, reminding him that the end was in sight and that he was in this terrible situation just because he wanted the war to end. He simply must hold out till then.–Soon after that they heard that the villages were to be combed through again; the search began at night.
She begged Kurt Steiner to try it once more. What hadn’t he done already so that there should at last be peace, and now he wanted to give up at the last minute! So he went through it all once more and again he managed to breathe through the reed stalk while they made their search.
Berlin was captured a few weeks later. The war was over. The two wept and laughed and ate a feast together and drank wine, and lay like an ordinary married couple in the cool, white bed; no noise of motors disturbed them.
The whole area was so flooded with refugees and the houses so over-filled that nobody wondered about Kurt Steiner, one of the many strangers who had appeared. Now that she had nothing to worry about and all the danger was past, Marta stood guard over her vegetable plots and sternly kept soldiers and refugee children out of them.
Kurt Steiner watched with a smile as she tried to keep her property in order in all the confusion. He saw her again now as she had always looked, big-boned, with a flat, broad face.
After a week he said he would have to go into the city to see his friends again.
She plunged into her work; the time of waiting was easier that way, for he stayed away a long time. At last, unexpectedly, she heard his voice. He had come with several other people in a Russian army car. Some of them were friends whom he had found again. And there were also two officers, one of whom spoke quite good German. He questioned Marta closely. Kurt Steiner had clearly told them all about his flight and about his hide-out, and when the officer repeatedly asked her whether that was really what had happened, she answered briefly, “Yes, that’s how it was.” The officers looked at her in surprise and their eyes were friendly. Then Kurt Steiner showed them his hide-out in the cellar and the place on the shore of the lake where he had hidden amongst the reeds while the searching went on. He made no secret of the help Marta had given him. She had not only saved his life, he said, but also kept up his courage.
Marta listened to all this in silence. His voice sounded strange to her. As she started to get them something to eat, for she had hoarded a little, Kurt Steiner exclaimed, “What are you thinking of? Why, we’ve brought you a food parcel. We’ve all got to get back now.”
“You, too?” Marta asked. “Yes, I’ve got work now in Berlin. A good job in the new administration,” said Kurt Steiner, smoothing her hair as’ if she were a little girl.�”You’ll hear from me again soon,” he called out as they drove away. Her heart had felt lighter in the past when the sound of motors died away; now it was heavier.
She had always, even as a little girl, kept her thoughts to herself. She did not have the gift of expressing herself, and the people she had about her to look after the garden and the house were used to her taciturnity, so that no one noticed that she spoke less than ever.
One day Kurt Steiner came to see how she was getting on. He offered her all kinds of help. Marta answered as she answered everyone, “I can manage by myself.” When he told her again how grateful he was, she merely said, “That’s all right, Kurt,” and stiffened when he tried to draw her to him to say good-bye.
Her brother Karl came home from prisoner-of-war camp. He was rougher and more abrupt than ever. He had not a single good word for his sister, and was annoyed at every little change she had made in the vegetable garden. He found the house in good repair, but his sister received no praise for this.�Still, he thought it good enough to start a family with a neighbouring farmer’s daughter. Marta had to give up her room and make do with the attic. The young married couple exploited her. Her brother seemed determined to change everything she had done while he was away. And he did, too, because he was angry about the government quota and wanted to prove that it was quite impossible to produce enough so as to be able to sell the surplus on the free market.
Marta sometimes thought over quietly what Kurt Steiner had told her, although she had not seen him for a long time. He had said that people like that always want more land, other people’s land, they, need war.
One Sunday, as she sat alone on the little bench her brother had put by the lake side for his wife–the pair were away visiting her parents in the village–a motor-boat drew in at the landing stage. Kurt Steiner jumped out and helped a girl out after him. Marta saw at once that she was just about what Kurt would have wanted his wife to look like. He greeted Marta gaily and told her he had wanted to retrace his whole flight and describe it to his fiancee.�”And here’s Marta on the spot,” he concluded. This time he let Marta make coffee for them, for he had brought some real coffee with him. They sat together for an hour. “What you and I went through together,” he said, taking her hand, “simply can’t ever be forgotten.” “No, certainly not,” said Marta. “If you ever want help come to us,” said Kurt, and wrote down his Berlin address for her.
When her brother and his wife returned they were angry because she had had guests. They sniffed the smell of coffee. Her sister-in-law grumbled because Marta had used the coffee service she had brought with her dowry. Then they were curious to hear
what sort of people could have come to see Marta. “People I knew during the war,” Marta replied.
In the meantime, something called the Peasants’ Mutual Aid had been set up in the village. Her brother grumbled, “Huh! they won’t get me to join that.” Marta said, “Of course not! Not a man like you.” She cycled into the village in the evening. They sometimes held meetings in the public house belonging to her cousins. She listened to what was said, shaking her head from time to time when she didn’t approve.
Her brother said, “If you spend your time there you may as well go and live somewhere else.”
“You can’t turn me out,” said Marla. “Father left it to us children. But you can buy me out if you like.”
But Karl did not want to do that. He was angry and amazed at the tone his sister took.�
After that, Marta was sometimes treated well, sometimes badly, sometimes in a false friendly way, sometimes as a Cinderella. Although she felt uncomfortable every time she went home, she was always relieved when she could cycle off to her peasants’ meeting. But that did not fill her heart. Her life was bitter.
She longed to see Kurt Steiner again. She could not bear to wait until he came of his own will. She longed to see his face, which seemed to her different from all the other faces she knew, his steadfast brown eyes and shock of brown hair. She had so many questions and she felt that he could answer them all. He was married now, and probably had a child. He might be annoyed if she turned up without warning. But he had been to see her with his fiancee and had given her his address in Berlin.
Since her brother was not much good at official or written things, and Marta was used to attending to all these matters, her chance came. She offered to go to the Farmers’ Bank in Berlin without letting her brother see how much she wanted to go. And this suited her brother perfectly.
She knew all about the trains and got there punctually. From the bank she went to Weissensee, to the house where Kurt Steiner lived. Shall I? Or shan’t I? she thought as she climbed the stairs.
But there was a strange name on the door of the apartment. She looked at all the. other doors. Finally she asked a woman who was just coming back from shopping where Kurt Steiner lived. The woman said, “He’s been gone a long time.” “Where to?” She shrugged her shoulders. Marta looked at her pleadingly, and the woman flung out her arms in a broad gesture, smilingly ironically.
Marta went back to the bus stop. She was tired and miserable. She thought, he could have written and told me. Her shoulders drooped as if she were carrying a heavy load, and the corners of her mouth turned down. The nearer her bus got to the village the more familiar faces she saw. She pulled herself together because she felt people were staring at her. She heard one of them say to another, “She was in the house alone, too.” You’d have treated Kurt Steiner differently, she thought. You’d have dragged him off to the Gestapo. Then sadly, he’s gone away forever.
She got off at the last bus stop and went into the house. If she didn’t keep her teeth clenched, she simply wouldn’t be able to bear it. She showed her brother the papers from the bank and since he didn’t understand any of them he could think of nothing to scold her about. “Why are you so late?” was all he could find to say.
She suddenly began to feel some kind of satisfaction. She had something of her very own, something she wouldn’t tell anyone about. What belonged to her and her alone was nothing tangible but an experience. She had a right to be proud of it. She straightened up.
There was a patch of waste land next to the vegetable garden. The former owners had either been killed in the war or had fled. The village handed over this land to a re-settler called Klein. Eberhard Klein had lost his wife in the retreat. He looked after his only son himself. He was a gloomy man, not able to help himself properly. He had been a gardener, but had always had good land to work on and he could not get used to the poor soil on the lake shore. Neither could he get used to the people, who were as bleak as the land they lived on.
Karl Emrich had had his eye on the piece of land which Eberhard Klein now farmed, so he cold-shouldered Klein. If Klein asked him something he answered shortly, or even gave him a wrong answer. Klein thought at first that Marta was no different. People had told him she was rough and bad-tempered. But once she gave him a piece of friendly advice over the fence about how to trim the tomato plants. She made sensible remarks at the peasants’ meetings, although she was so shy. Eberhard Klein was surprised. He said to himself, that’s just what I think. He began to notice how calm and kind her eyes were.
Soon she became his wife and was a good mother to his son. They lived quietly, of one mind where the outside world, their work and small family were concerned.
Once Marta received a card from Kurt Steiner in Dusseldorf. He wrote that he would never forget her. Eberhard Klein asked about the man who had sent her the card. She said, “We sometimes helped
each other in the hard times during the war,” and added, “he once brought me real coffee.” Klein did not inquire further, and Marta said no more.
If anyone asked about Marta, which seldom happened, people said she was Emrich’s sister. Now she was married to Eberhard Klein, and people who liked the Kleins might perhaps add that she was all right.
What else could they say, since they knew nothing else?
Translated by Joan Becker