What Alice discovered;Children's books;Arts;Interview;Gudrun Pausewang

29th January 1999 at 00:00
THE FINAL JOURNEY. By Gudrun Pausewang. Translated by Patricia Crampton. Puffin pound;4.99.

The Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation was awarded earlier this week. Below, Yojana Sharma talks to winning author Gudrun Pausewang, and, right, Geraldine Brennan speaks to the book's translator, Patricia Crampton

Gudrun Pausewang grew up in Nazi Germany but waited until 1992 before publishing The Final Journey, her account of 12-year-old Alice's experiences in an Auschwitz-bound cattle wagon. "As a non-Jew, I did not think I was entitled to write about the Holocaust."

Pausewang, a retired teacher of German and Spanish in state secondary schools, made a name for herself in German youth literature with Fall-out, a harrowing novel about a nuclear accident on the scale of the Chernobyl disaster. Both novels deal with society's blindness to terrible events.

Pausewang, now 70, is one of the few Germans of her generation who freely admits that she was brought up believing in the Nazi ideology. "Both my parents believed in Nazism and there was a lot of propaganda around. I was 17 when the war ended and I suffered an internal crisis, slowly realising how the system had utilised our youth and beliefs."

When The Final Journey opens, Alice has spent two years in hiding in a basement, protected by her middle-class parents from knowledge of the treatment being meted out to Jews. Even when her parents disappear, her grandparents keep up a facade of normality to the extent of forging letters from her mother and father.

Alice discovers the truth in the course of the 26 hours she spends in the cattle wagon with her grandfather and 50 others, seeing her fellow passengers fight for food and water and deal with a growing pile of excrement.

It is a vivid book, based on painstaking research in German railway archives. Many critics in Germany, including teen-agers, consider it sickening, even brutal, although there is no direct violence. But it has been approved for use on the history curriculum, and Pausewang makes no apologies: "We cannot protect children from grim themes," she insists. "Children learn all the horrors of the world from the media. They watch a child dying of starvation in Africa on TV, and when mum calls from the kitchen 'Dinner's ready', they are expected to go and eat as normal."

She believes 13 should be the minimum age for reading The Final Journey, not because it is too frightening for younger readers, as some librarians in Germany maintain, but because the power of the book lies in the reader knowing more than Alice and her fellow travellers about what is in store. "Those inside the wagon still harbour some hope," says Pausewang.

"I am not trying to shock," she insists. "I deal with burning themes and try to show that there is a better way."

* 'Hello? Is Anybody There?' (Orion pound;3.99) by Jostein Gaarder, translated from Norwegian by James Anderson and illustrated in the UK edition by Sally Gardner, was highly commen-ded by the Marsh Award judges. Also on the shortlist were 'No Roof in Bosnia' by Els de Groen (Spindlewood pound;10.95), translated from Dutch by Patricia Crampton, and 'Abby' by Wolfram HAnel and illustrated by Alan Marks (North-South distributed by Ragged Bears pound;7.99), translated from German by Rosemary Lanning

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