Written between 1941-42 while in Exile. First published in English, Spanish, and French in 1944; German original first published in the Berliner Zeitung in 1947. 

Newest English translation: Transit, translated by Margo Bettauer Dembo, New York: New York Review of Books, 2013. (Introduction by Peter Conrad, Afterword by Heinrich Böll)

Book review by UC undergraduate Victoria Brinkerhoff

Transit, a novel written by Anna Seghers, describes the encounters and emotional turmoil of an anonymous twenty-seven-year-old German refugee in the early 1940s. The novel is written from the refugee’s perspective; in his narration, he documents his new experiences in the unoccupied city of Marseille, France after he flees from Paris in search of a life away from the oppressive German regime. While in Marseille, the narrator becomes increasingly aware of the importance of refugees’ wait for transit papers during a time in which Germany’s occupation was greatly feared, and migration processes proved complicated and bureaucratic, yet the only way to escape Germany’s rule. A victim of Nazi persecution and forced migration herself, Seghers completed the novel in Mexico in 1942, and it was published in Germany in 1951. The novel was recently translated into English in 2014. Situated within a context of rich, rapidly changing history and politics, Transit reflects two key debates surrounding multiculturalism in Germany through its use of language: the conflicts of individual migrant identity and the concept of group membership.

Regarding the historical context of the novel, it takes place during the onset of World War II. The anonymous refugee has been an inmate of both a German concentration camp (for not complying with the Nazis) and a French labor camp (because he was German). He escaped from the German concentration camp in 1937, and later the French labor camp. He chose Marseille as his place of refuge, as it was the only functioning port in the unoccupied zone of Europe. The port offered a location where refugees could board ships, granted they had the necessary transit papers, to migrate to other safe countries like Mexico or Cuba. Seghers’ own experiences heavily influenced the events and locations she includes in the novel. As a Jew, she was forced to flee France after the 1940 Nazi invasion, and Seghers and her family sailed from Marseille to Mexico with other artists and intellectuals. Through including locations and events specific to her own life, the novel reflects her own interactions with complex historical happenings, and being a German forced into transit.

Transit reflects several larger issues within German multiculturalism, two of which are migrant identity conflicts and the desire for group membership. Firstly, through Seghers exclusion and inclusion of certain names, Transit reflects an identity conflict of the narrator.

Seghers chooses to leave the narrator anonymous, literally leaving him without a true identity, or name, that readers can refer to him by. The narrator then assumes the identity of a refugee named Seidler with forged documents, and then refers to himself as an author who had committed suicide, Weidel. After fleeing from his home country where his identity is decided, he must reevaluate who he is, and who he wants to be. He proceeds to take on new identities in a new country where he will indefinitely stay, which is made possible through Seghers’ inclusion of various names and characters, and her choice to exclude his true name in the first place, leaving him without allegiance to a formal identity. The narrator also experiences the desire to be a part of the new “group” in which he lives, which Seghers makes clear in her descriptions of him craving attention. For example, he “envies those hand-in-hand,” and is also jealous of the doctor who had close relationships with his patients. The narrator wants to feel as though he was a member of the new society through feeling welcoming affection and acceptance, like those around him did. Guest workers from Turkey or Italy, for example, experienced the same issues as the narrator, regarding migrant identity and the desire for group inclusion in Germany later in the 20th century. Coming to work temporarily in Germany, some stayed longer than others, causing them adopt “German” societal traditions, prompting identity issues. They were forced to ask themselves: are we “German” if we have adopted the same customs as their society? Why are we not fully accepted in German society and where do we belong?

In the historical context of World War II and her personal experiences, Seghers’ dramatic novel describes the conflicts of individual migrant identity and the concept of group membership through the use of names and descriptions in Transit. The issues foreshadow the same concerns later dealt with by guest workers in Germany.


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