Tomi Ungerer is a household name in the German-speaking world – at least in that portion of it which raises 1.6 children. He has published 120 books, many of them for children; in 1997 he won the Hans Christian Andersen Prize. He was born into a famous family of clockmakers in 1931, and raised in a suburb of Colmar, one of those idyllic medieval towns on the Rhine that seem lost to time.
Like any child growing up in Alsace between the wars, Ungerer couldn’t avoid the influence of Hansi, a local artist and French propagandist during the period of Prussian rule which followed the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, a time when most Alsatians were largely indifferent to Kulturpolitik. Ungerer’s work most resembles Hansi’s in his illustrations to Das grosse Liederbuch (1975), a collection of German folksongs and nursery rhymes. Hansi was a super-patriot – ‘la France quand même’ – whose pictorial History of Alsace Told for Young Children shows a succession of bespectacled Teutons bumbling through Alsatian villages while freshly rinsed children with black bows and tricolour rosettes in their hair laugh at them behind their backs. But there is an older, more harrowing influence evident in Ungerer’s work. When he studied at the Lycée Bartholdi in Colmar, Ungerer used to shelter from the rain in the cloister, which houses Grünewald’s famous Isenheim Altar. There are two scenes in the altarpiece to trouble even the most secular of imaginations: the angular, violent crucifixion, and the garish temptations which quite outshine St Anthony.
At the age of 25 Ungerer set sail for New York with $60 in his pocket; he is now rich and famous and lives in Ireland, where his own children went to school. In the 1980s Jack Lang employed him as a kind of cultural ambassador, and he frequently pops up as a wise fool on the local television station Arte, which broadcasts from Strasbourg in French and German. He visits Strasbourg regularly, and recently convinced the city to finance the conversion of an old cinema into what will open next year as the European Centre of Yiddish Cultures. Although his style as a caricaturist and graphic designer has been influenced over the years by Americans like Thurber and Steinberg, his formative influences were Old World: the drawings often resemble a pandemonium out of Wilhelm Busch (the notes flying off the score in Busch’s 1865 image of a pianist dementedly attacking a ‘finale furioso’ appear to land in Ungerer’s children’s book Tremolo), solemnised with a touch of Doré’s fabulism and Grosz’s social bite.
The slogan ‘Expect the Unexpected’ is Ungerer’s and dates back to the 1960s, when he earned a living from the advertising agencies on Madison Avenue and shared an apartment with Philip Roth. In 1964 he designed the poster for Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. His pacifism and his posters against the war in Vietnam brought him to the attention of the FBI; he was blacklisted until 1993. He campaigned, too, on behalf of the civil rights movement: his striking ‘Black Power – White Power’ poster of 1967, which relies for its shock effect on two symmetrical figures – one white, the other black – each gnawing the other’s leg, recycles work he did twenty years earlier as an apprentice cartoonist in Alsace.
The mordant comment on racial conflict came from Ungerer’s first-hand experience of conflict in Europe: he has exported Alsace’s problems to the world without anyone noticing. Or rather, the world has politicised itself along Europe’s old fracture line. Ungerer was nine in the first year of the Aktion Elsass, when the Nazis overran the concrete elephants of the Maginot Line and set about erasing all traces of French influence and language from the daily life of the Alsatians. German had to be learned in three months. Posters announcing ‘Hinaus mit dem welschen Plunder’ were plastered all over Strasbourg: ‘out with the Gallic trash.’ (‘Welsch’ is an old German pejorative for anything foreign and from the west, especially French words and mores.) Four years later, when the French reclaimed Alsace, it was tit for tat: Alsatians were sales Boches. The fact that some of them had been involved in Wehrmacht atrocities in France didn’t help either.
Having been dragged before the local Gestapo for speaking French with his mother, Ungerer was now told by his teachers that before presuming to interest himself in French literature he’d have to lose his accent. For the French (‘of the Interior’, as the Alsatians say), the Alsatian dialect was a ‘mauvaise langue’. In fact, the Alsatian version of what was formerly known as Middle High German – Alemannic is its proper linguistic tag – is one of the most compelling things about this part of Europe. To hear Alsatian is to be confronted with a visceral survivor from old Europe: not a language but a tongue. Talk naturally, say the Alsatians: ‘Red wie d’r de Schnawel gewachse isch!’ Literally: ‘Speak the way your beak has grown on you.’ But years of assault on their linguistic identity and complex feelings of guilt and inferiority have meant that Alsatians are quick to close ranks.
Ungerer is an exception. He goes in search of controversy and criticism. Last year I saw him being interviewed by German television on the opening night of his latest exhibition, Labotomica. The venue was the Erotic Art Museum in Hamburg. Across the walls snaked a series of collages from pornographic magazines, images cut up and reassembled to create grotesque parodies of body parts. ‘It’s just the same technique as butchering a pig,’ he remarked.
Ungerer regularly published erotic books in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. Fornicon, a collection of line drawings which invents ingenious uses for sexual gadgets, overdrew his PC account a few years ago in the United States, where publishers now refuse to bring out his books for children: he was told at a convention that anyone who had dreamed up a collection like Fornicon had no right to be doing books for children. So what is Fornicon – a satire on the industrialisation of sex? Perhaps, but Ungerer takes an odd relish in the inventiveness of his dominatrices and their Saturnalian pleasure machines. His occasionally cruel images have a childish aspect to them, a curiosity about vinyl and ritual. But the nervousness that they elicit is easy to understand.
Die Gedanken sind frei (1993) is not a children’s book so much as a child’s book – a compilation of old cuttings and recollections about the war years, whose title recalls the conviction of a famous prison song that, even if the body is fettered, thoughts are at liberty to stray. It was not sung during the Nazi period. The book is itself a rewrite of the original French version, A la guerre comme à la guerre (1991); the English version appeared three years ago under the title Tomi: A Childhood under the Nazis. The three books are not identical. After the publication of the French and German versions, Ungerer received a great deal of material from people who, like himself, had hoarded everything from the war years, and as a result the English version, written in a lightly accented Irish-American patter, contains a substantial amount of new pictorial material. It offers, for example, an extra fifty carefully posed postcard views of Hitler himself, in casual mode. ‘My mother kept everything, and so did I,’ he writes. The book is crammed full of all kinds of drawings, photos, official documents and posters attesting to what it was like to be nine years old as the Nazis marched into Colmar.
The early part of the book is dominated by Ungerer’s mother, Alice (his father died when Tomi was three), a willowy, good-looking woman possessed of what the Alsatians call gratl, a sense of her own worth. Protestant and bourgeois, she nevertheless observed the Catholic saint-days. A consummate actor, she used her attractiveness to get what she wanted – ‘but nobody could touch her’. She had grown up in Wilhelmine Alsace, and although she loved German literature, she was ‘practically allergic to the Germans’. ‘Sunshine’, she called her son, ‘little tiger’, ‘darling sparrow’, ‘little goldbug’, Meschtgräzerle (‘bantam on the midden’!) and ‘worst of all’ Schisserle (‘baby-shat-his-nappy’). Hearing any of these endearments was enough to propel him under the table, just like the kitten in his children’s story, No Kiss for Mother.
At the end of 1939, in the drôle de guerre, Strasbourg was a deserted city and a third of Colmar’s population had departed. Strasbourg University decamped to Clermont-Ferrand; many Alsatians chose to evacuate to the Dordogne. The ‘gallinaceous’ French Army believed in the invincibility of the Maginot Line. Eventually, in June 1940, the Germans crossed the Rhine on rafts. The Jews, uniquely in the Third Reich, were deported to France in convoys rather than put into ghettos: later the Vichy French would hunt many of them down and hand them back to the Nazis. A German officer presented himself politely to lodge with the Ungerers and remarked to Alice on the chestnut trees in the driveway: ‘Aren’t they beautiful at this time of year? One thing I promise you: the day will come when you will see a Jew hanging from every branch.’ Then he pulled out a piece of paper. ‘This is a wonderful recipe for carrot cake. My wife gave it to me – it is yours.’
Teachers were sent to Germany for retraining; children had to speak German, or Alsatian as a default. The radio became a Volksender. New tones entered the air. ‘Don’t think, the Führer will think for you.’ Tomi, whose name was registered on his birth certificate as Jean, officially became Johann. His first school assignment was to draw a Jew. ‘Mama, what is a Jew?’ he had to ask at home. What he drew certainly matches the stereotype. The Germanisation went to absurd lengths. It wasn’t just the changing of street names and the scrapping of the old French monuments which had survived the more tolerant years under the Kaiser: wedding rings had to be worn on the right not the left hand and ‘froid’ and ‘chaud’ markings were prised off taps. Stiff fines – and worse – could be imposed for saying ‘bonjour’ and ‘merci’. Alsatians had to get used to saying ‘Heil Hitler!’ which – as old Alsatians will still tell you today – was domesticated by mumbling ‘Ein Liter’.
Ungerer makes no claims that life under a totalitarian regime was particularly difficult for him. His mother saw to that. He is affectingly honest about the attractiveness of war when you’re nine years old, and there’s not much difference between a Jolly Roger and the death’s-head on an SS badge. His mother used good sense and cunning to keep him out of the Hitler Youth meetings on Sundays – to his regret at the time, since he coveted the dagger which came with the uniform. On the opening page of his first school copybook he had to draw a heroic banner and laurel leaves to the glory of ‘our Führer’: it has been marked in red by his teacher ‘zu klein’. That things might not be big enough was a Nazi obsession. A later page from his stamp collection shows that as the Thousand Year Reich started shrinking, around 1943, it became the Gross Deutsches Reich. When Alsace was officially ceded by the Vichy Government to Germany it became part of a single province called Oberrhein, which included Baden, on the opposite bank of the Rhine. One hundred and thirty thousand young Alsatians were drafted into the German Army; a quarter of them perished in the Soviet campaign. It took all Alice’s ingenuity to prevent her elder son Bernard being called up. She was a German mother now, and the Führer had a special affection for the wombs of the nation. So she argued with the local recruiting officer that, as the best student in his class, he was too brainy to go to the Front. He agreed, and Bernard was spared the grey-green uniform until the end of 1944.
By the autumn of that year Colmar was the last German bridgehead west of the Rhine. American fighters regularly strafed the area. Tombstones were manhandled from the Jewish cemetery to serve as street barricades. Ungerer was nearly 14 and next in line to be drafted into the Wehrwolf, one of the schoolboy brigades, which, rumour had it, would be sent out in a last-ditch attempt to defend the Fatherland. The winter of 1944 was fierce and the family had to decamp to their coal cellar, putting snow in buckets to get water. Their stately, fat neighbour had his head blown off by a shell: he was the first dead person Tomi had seen. Their ordeal came to an end in the first days of February 1945, but 14,000 Germans had died defending the city before it was taken. Ungerer watched some of the exhausted survivors being mishandled, French soldiers clubbing them with rifle butts. ‘This disturbing vision cancelled out whatever hope and innocence I had left.’ The Americans remained aloof, chewing gum and not much caring whether they were in France or Germany. ‘To them we were part of a “zoo of savages”.’
When he went back to school, it was 1940 in reverse. Everything German had vanished. It was now forbidden to speak Alsatian. The Führer’s portrait had yielded to a poster: ‘C’est chic de parler français.’ A whole way of life had to be reconstructed in the postwar atmosphere of suspicion and recrimination, while the stay-at-homes and the ‘malgré-nous’ (f0rced to fight for the Germans on the dreaded Russian Front) mingled with the evacuees and those deported in 1940. Many of Alsace’s Jews – Francophiles because of the Revolution that emancipated them – never came back, one way or the other, like the poet Claude Vigée, who has talked bitterly and movingly about his father’s inability to ‘understand how the “noble” French Government could deliver simple, loyal Alsace Jews … to the Nazis’. The Jewish community in Strasbourg is now the largest in France outside Paris; but the empty, ruined synagogues in small towns and villages throughout the region attest to the fact that human geography has changed irrevocably: there are few Jews living in the countryside. Having survived the war, all young Tomi – Jean again – had to do was survive the process of becoming French: school discipline was severe and some of the teachers were sadistic – ‘I must obey at all times,’ copied out twenty times (with spelling mistakes) is reproduced on the flypaper of the French version. But it taught him to fuel his talent with his anger, and he remarks that the comment on one of his school reports – ‘perverse and subversive’ – indicates precisely the qualities needed to survive twisted times.
Not just those qualities, I imagine, but a heavy dose of irony, too. The caption to one of his illustrations tells an anecdote about a can of bouillon. An elderly Alsatian woman on a visit to Germany died during an air-raid. Her body was cremated and, with aluminium being in short supply, her ashes were sent back to Alsace in a used tin labelled ‘stock powder’. The accompanying official notification of her death arrived weeks later, by which time the family had spooned the old lady’s mortal remains into a ‘hearty consommé’. ‘This is a true story,’ Ungerer asserts, and I see no reason to disbelieve him. Nor to doubt him when he says that in the summer of 1942 he went on vacation to a farmhouse in the Vosges run by some friends who were splendid cooks. Their pig was called Hermann Goering. On returning home, Ungerer wrote a card thanking them for their hospitality. ‘I cannot wait to visit you again once you have slaughtered Hermann Goering, and to enjoy a good hunk of the Field Marshal’s ham.’ Luckily, the card was not intercepted by the censors.
Almost on the same page, he admits rather unnecessarily to taking a certain pleasure in affronting the right-minded. It comes, he says, from the realisation that the Nazi marching songs of his boyhood are in his head, and there to stay. Not only that, but they have a driving force, and even today, when he feels ‘down and discouraged’ he sings one to restore his spirits. This of course would be anathema to any contemporary German, though Bismarck did say something very similar about Max Schneckenburger’s war paean ‘The Watch on the Rhine’ – that the song had been worth three extra divisions to the Prussian Army. Ungerer’s may well be a story on stilts. But it is one he thinks revealing of what it means to be an Alsatian. When he joined the French Army to do national service, he was put in charge of training his unit. Then he made a discovery:
The French marching songs will not carry you as far as the German ones. So I brought Nazi songs to my regiment, the marching improved, and I still laugh about it. It may seem tasteless, even macabre, but for us Alsatians it is our privilege to ridicule the means of persecution and oppression, thereby exorcising them as well. And our humour, even if black, is not obscured by guilt.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.