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Interview with Stefanie Zweig

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-04-10

Stefanie Zweig

From Germany to Africa: author Stefanie Zweig

This year's winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Nowhere In Africa, follows the fortunes of a family who escapes Nazi Germany to begin a new life in the safety of Kenya. The film, which has just opened in the UK, is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by German journalist and writer Stefanie Zweig, who was just five years old when she went to Africa, returning to Germany after the end of World War II. What was it like seeing your life story on screen? Well, you know, I knew from the very beginning that the film is based on a book - I wasn't prepared to see my own life story and it isn't exactly my life story because the film does change a few things, and the actress playing my mother is such a diometric contrast to my mother that I wouldn't have the idea of it being my life story, but I was touched by very many parts of the film, and when I saw the African cook and when he spoke Swahili, I did have the feeling that is a part of my life. What inspired you to write this book after a long career as a journalist and a children's author? When I was a journalist I didn't have time to write the book, I only had time to write children's books, and I didn't have the courage trying to write adult literature. And then one day when my paper was closed down and I was suddenly free I thought 'well, I'd like to try it now', and that's what made me write it so late in life. I worked on a tabloid paper in Frankfurt, I was Arts Editor, and as Arts Editor I also had to do very many film reviews, so I knew that the film and the book weren't going to be the same. What was it like returning to Germany after the war? That was hard for me, I liked it in Kenya and I didn't feel German after all that time, I only spoke German to my parents in the school holidays (Stefanie attended a boarding school in Kenya), so that was every three months of my life, and throughout the years I'd forgotten a lot of German. I didn't question my father's decision, I loved my father very much, and if he had said we had to live at the North Pole I would have said OK, but coming back to Germany was a terrible shock for us all, the town was a shambles, and the famine was great, we went to bed hungry, we woke up hungry, and everything else was very strange to me, I had been to English schools, not German schools, and I didn't know what the people of my age even talked about. I'd always been very interested in literature and all of a sudden I'd come to a country where their literature wasn't the same as mine. It took me a long time to get settled. Did the war make you more aware of your Jewish identity? It made me earlier aware of Judaism, because when I was about eight years old I knew what concentration camps were, and that my grandparents, my father's father and my mother's mother, and my two aunts hadn't been able to get out of Germany, and I knew what that meant when I was eight. And then in 1941 we got one letter from the Red Cross where my grandmother wrote - they were allowed to write 20 words - 'we are very excited, we are going to Poland tomorrow', and my father said Poland meant Auschwitz. It was 1941 at the time and already I knew what that meant. How Jewish was your upbringing? We were not Orthodox, but we have always been traditional Jews, and that was what the film's director Caroline Link didn't understand, and I was trying to explain it to her but she didn't know what I was talking about. I have always been somebody who honours my parents by keeping the holidays, for example. Let's say in a sentence I wouldn't have done this journey if it had been on Rosh Hashanah!