(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Heinrich Hoffmann, a German neurologist and psychiatrist, couldn't find a Christmas present for his three-year-old son in 1844, he decided to purchase a notebook and write and draw some children's stories himself. The result was Struwwelpeter. Little did he know how much this little story book would change the course of storytelling. Today, 160 years after the first English translation (Slovenly Peter by Mark Twain), it is still enjoying great popularity - perhaps even greater than ever.
'Struwwelpeter' - the stories
The images of Struwwelpeter are well engrained in everyone who has seen them: Struwwelpeter himself with his wild hair and long fingernails; Paulinchen, the girl who plays with matches and burns herself to death (not having listened to her cats' warning cries); Konrad, the thumb-sucker who gets his thumbs cut by the tailor with the big scissors (not having listened to his mother's warnings); Suppen-Kaspar, who refuses to eat his soup and, consequently starves to death; Zappel-Phillip, who can't sit still at the dinner table and drags the tablecloth and food onto himself (which his parents are more concerned about than their child's well-being); and Hans-Guck-in-die-Luft, the child who is always distracted, with his head in the clouds, and consequently falls into the river (becoming the laughingstock of the local fish population), to name only a few.
The names of the characters and the stories have become part of German culture, symbolizing either German virtues like discipline, psychological phenomena like ADD and anorexia (which Hoffmann must have been aware of) or popular folklore, depending on who is interpreting them.
For Yehuda Atlas ("Struwwelpeters Abenteuer im Heiligen Land" in Struwwelpost, published by Freundeskreis des Heinrich-Hoffmann-Museums, 2004), the most basic fears are engraved in these stories: guilt and redemption, brutality, illness and death. And nevertheless, there is always something seductive and, at times, amusing about them.
This, then, is the inner contradiction of the Struwwelpeter experience: It sends shivers down your spine, and many adults still remember the nightmares they had from some of the stories. And yet, most of them look back fondly.
'Struwwelpeter' and the war
Heinrich Fassbender's film Lili Marlene describes a song that was sung on opposite sides of the front in World War II: German soldiers had it on their lips as they marched, while British and American soldiers whistled and sang the English version, a version made famous by Marlene Dietrich, who had herself defected and fought against the country that once had been her home (she never returned, except for a brief visit).
A similar story happened with Struwwelpeter. It crossed the lines during the war and entertained Nazis, British soldiers and Hebrew-reading children in Mandatory Palestine alike.
While German readers interpreted Struwwelpeter anew, in accordance with their period and social background, for the British it always represented German imperialism. As the German historian Joachim Fest points out, the English published a Struwwelpeter takeoff as early as 1915 under the title Bombenpeter.
Then, during World War II, while the Nazis celebrated Struwwelpeter as a work of good German virtues, two British artists, Robert and Phillip Spence, started working on a parody of Struwwelpeter that would both mock the Nazis and help raise money for war relief. The result was Struwwelhitler - a Nazi Story Book by Doktor Schrecklichkeit, published in 1941 in the Daily Sketch. (The first edition shows Hitler with two armbands, which was changed to one in subsequent editions.) It was "presented to the Daily Sketch War Relief Fund, which supplies wireless sets, games and woolen comforts to our fighting services, and clothing, bedding, boots and food to air raid victims."
All the stories have a Nazi angle: Struwwelpeter becomes Struwwelhitler, Paulinchen becomes Gretchen, a BDM-girl playing with cannon (instead of matches), and Goering, Goebbels and von Ribbentrop also make appearances. The most historic - and interesting - story is of Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess flying to Scotland on his own to conduct peace talks (a futile task, described as: "Now, it isn't very clear - what he's wanting over here. Only this thing is plain - Rudolf won't go back again"). In general, it can be said that the work clearly reflects the fear of a victorious Germany (a very likely possibility in 1941) as well as the fear of Stalinist Russia, as demonstrated in "the story of the Nazi boys," who are dipped into red ink.
In the same year, Struwwelpeter was translated into Hebrew for the first time. Under the title Yehoshua Haparu'a (Wild Joshua), Reuven Mass (Taltalim) published this book, whose translator was said to be anonymous (most likely a family member of the publishing house). The translator, the artist (who for the large part imitated the original Hoffmann drawings) and most of the readership were German Jews who had fled the Nazis. Nevertheless, Germany hadn't fled them, and it appears that they wanted to continue the tradition of the stories.
In the Hebrew stories, Friedrich becomes Elazar, Paulinchen is called Rahel and Hans-Guck-in-die-Luft is Dan. Remarkable also is that while Paulinchen/Rahel still burns to death, the story of the thumb-sucker who gets his fingers cut off has been taken out. A story of a hunter, who is chased by the bunny he wanted to kill, is also taken out, probably not to encourage children to play with guns and ammunition, which were easily available. Also, for cultural reasons, the soup-refuser (who still dies) does not have a cross on his grave.
While this has always been thought of as the first Struwwelpeter translation into Hebrew, bookseller and detective Itamar Levy (who has a weekly radio show tracking books for callers) mentions on the back cover of his Yehoshua Haparu'a facsimile edition (which he published in 2006, based on the 1941 Reuven Mass edition) that he once found an edition from 1940, published by a certain Joachim Goldstein, living in Tel Aviv. Goldstein (of whom there is no other reference) writes in his introduction: "Despite the fears of the day and hour... the publication of this book will serve the Hebrew child. With consideration of modern pedagogy, this publication has softened some details and omitted others, but without losing the charm and originality of the old work."
'Struwwelpeter' in Israel
After the first Hebrew translation, it took 33 years before another one was published: Uri Sela, head of an advertising agency and a children's book aficionado, published the work under the title Yiftah Hameluchlach (Dirty Yiftah) in 1974 (Levin-Epstein & Modan Publishers). The names as well as the stories were updated into the new Israeli state, where the first generation of native Hebrew-speakers had already grown up.
The development of modern Hebrew, modern names and a new Israeli confidence are reflected in the work: The soup-refuser, for example, now named Barak (which rhymes with "marak," soup) is smarter than his predecessors and agrees to eat his in the end. Missing here again is the thumb-sucker story. According to Yehuda Atlas, the translator was too traumatized by this story and decided to omit it.
Then, 10 years later, the third translation came out in Hebrew: Shu'a Haparu'a by Uriel Ofeg (Mahbarot Lesifrut Publishers, 1985). Unlike its predecessors, the thumb-sucker story is included this time - a society and youth more used to daily violence (with the Lebanon war in full blast and the first intifada just on the way) didn't seem to mind. The soup-refuser, however, is spared his lot.
It can be said, then, that each generation of Israelis had its Struwwelpeter, reflecting the state of the nation: The founding fathers were mainly concerned with a children's story in perfect Hebrew. Also, they tried to protect the children from the violence of the war. The second generation already grew up in Hebrew and reflected a new confidence, which was reflected in the change of the story line of one of the stories and the adaption of more modern names. Some of the violence was still taboo, though. Finally, the generation of the 1980s was the TV-generation: The Lebanon war and the intifada entered every living room. The violent original Struwwelpeter could not shock anyone anymore, not even children.
And so the story of the different Struwwelpeter translations is a coming-of-age-story, very much like the Struwwelpeter story itself.
According to Beate Zekorn-von Bebenburg, the director of the Struwwelpeter Museum in Frankfurt, 30 million copies of the German version have been sold in recent years, and the book has been translated into 70 German dialects and 40 different languages. Furthermore, there have been 20 adaptations for the theater, the most famous of which is the Shockheaded Peter musical of the British Tiger Lilies, which debuted in 1998 in Leeds. More recently, Struwwelpeter in English, which premiered at the Edinburgh Theater Festival in 2006, had a sold-out show and a second run.
Struwwelpeter's popularity seems to increase with the years. While maybe not the greatest story ever told, it remains one of the greatest children's story ever told.