Faber republish novel smuggled out of Nazi Germany in a cakeJan Petersen’s Our Street, a million seller in its time, to reappear in publisher’s print-on-demand series
Alison Flood guardian.co.uk
history Jan Petersen A manuscript which was smuggled out of Nazi Germany in a cake is being brought back into print by Faber & Faber.
Jan Petersen’s Our Street tells the true story of left-wing resistance in the fascist Germany of the 1930s. Set on Wallstrasse, in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin during the period from just before Hitler became chancellor to the early days of Nazi government, the book – a fictionalised version of events to avoid reprisals for those still working in the underground in Germany – tells of the violence exacted on the street’s inhabitants in revenge for the killing of a stormtrooper. It opens by printing the names of 18 victims, “The Charlottenburg Death List”.
Petersen, a communist whose name was twice put on the Gestapo’s black list, finished the manuscript in 1934 and made two copies, sending one to Hamburg where it was to be taken to England by a German soldier but was eventually thrown into the sea to avoid last-minute detection. Friends tried to smuggle a second to Czechoslovakia, but months went by with no word, so Petersen decided to take the third – and final – copy to Prague himself. He baked the manuscript into two cakes and, dressed in skiing clothes to give the impression he was going on holiday, he smuggled it past the SS guards.
“Well, you know what women are, don’t you? I told my wife I was only going away for three days, but she would go and bake me two whopping big cakes,” Petersen told the customs guards. “It’ll take me a week to eat one. Just look at the size of them.” And they let him through.
An English translation of Our Street was published in 1938 by Gollancz’s Left Book Club, and Faber is now bringing it back into print through its print-on-demand Faber Finds imprint. “For me the most striking thing about the book is its courage, both in its writing and its publishing,” said editor John Seaton.
Petersen’s daughter Bienchen Ohly said the story of her father baking the book into a cake was “absolutely true”. “My father was very sporty so was convincing in the role of hiker. He was also very charming and could win anyone over to his point of view,” she said. She called the book “a very important historical document with very strong humanitarian values”.
“Despite all the tragedies and loss of life and horrors, it has a very optimistic core belief in the goodness in man,” she said. “I have always thought it a unique description from an insider’s perspective of resistance efforts in Germany. Too many people think the whole German population was in agreement with Hitler, which is not true at all. Also, so many young people today have no concept of the hardships and bravery shown by many people who were prepared to risk their own lives to prevent the rise of fascism – not just in Germany, but worldwide.”
Petersen emigrated to Switzerland, France and then England during the late 1930s and was deprived of his German citizenship, but returned to East Germany after the war where he won a number of literary prizes. He would have been “extremely pleased” that Our Street was being republished, Ohly said, and that it would be reaching “a whole new young generation who perhaps do not sometimes have the same moral values of his generation”.
“When the book was published in his lifetime it sold more than a million copies worldwide,” she said. “I think he would hope to have a wide new readership of people who would make life better for others as a result of reading his book.”