Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen; The Dead Girls’ Outing
[This page by Douglas Irving]
Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen; The Dead Girls’ Outing (written 1943-44, published in 1946 in New York)
This 1944 novella has been described as ‘one of the masterpieces of German-language literature’ (Sonja Hilzinger) and, along with Transit and The Seventh Cross, belongs amongst Seghers’s greatest literary achievements.
The story begins in the searing, bewildering heat of the Mexican countryside. The first person narrator describes how she has spent months recovering from an illness (this would seem to refer to Anna Seghers’s sustaining of serious injuries after being run over in a car accident in Mexico in 1943), and is now reflecting on her exile status and wishing only one thing: to return home. As she reflects, she hears her name being called (‘Netty’, Seghers’s birth name, her childhood name), this triggering the start of a dream sequence that transports her back to her youth and specifically to a single day in pre-war Germany, by the river Rhine near Mainz, and a school outing she remembers. With great lyrical melancholy Seghers recalls the girls she was with on the outing and what became of them after the outing, up to the outbreak of World War Two. The poetic beauty of the descriptions shockingly contrasts with the cool, matter-of-fact way she documents how their lives developed. This stark juxtaposing occurs simultaneously over multiple time levels and moves the reader continually in and out of the constant background of the school excursion. Seghers demonstrates sublime authorial control as she confronts with brutal simplicity the fates of her childhood friends. Under the tight structure of the story Seghers skilfully presents the horrific, pervasive effect of Nazism on ordinary people’s lives, as she had done in The Seventh Cross, only this time we get the feeling these are people personally known to the author. From the title, the reader already knows the outcome of all the girls’ fates.
Written during exile in Mexico, this story is highly autobiographical and may well have been Seghers’s own means of achieving personal catharsis through writing at a time of confusion during her exile from Germany. Among many autobiographical elements she is coming to terms with the death of her own mother, which occurred in Germany in 1943. Writing this novella may well have been a part of the author's grieving process.
Also present is the mandate the narrator receives from her schoolteacher to write an essay about the outing. At the end of the story the storyteller affirms their intention to take up this mandate, thus encapsulating Seghers’s position as a writer in exile, required to write about the horrors occurring in her home country, and in this instance the specific personal tragedies these horrors have caused.
An interesting comparison can be made between Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen and Christa Wolf’s Nachdenken über Christa T; The Quest for Christa T. (1968). Both authors influenced each other throughout their lives, and both stories contain elements of autobiography and seeking catharsis through storytelling.
Anna Seghers, The Excursion of the Dead Girls, trans. by Elizabeth Rutschi Herrmann and Edna Huttermager Spitz, in German Women Writers of the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1978)
Anna Seghers, ‘The Excursion of the Dead Girls’, trans. by Michael Bullock, in Alexander Stephan (ed.), Early Twentieth Century German Fiction (Continuum: New York, 2003), pp. 231-254
Lowell A. Bangerter, ‘Anna Seghers and Christa Wolf’, The Germanic Review 68:3 (1993), 127-32
Anthony Grenville, ‘Anna Seghers Confronts the Holocaust: The Jewish Dimension to “Der Ausflug der Toten Mädchen”’, German Monitor: Anna Seghers in Perspective, ed. by Ian Wallace, (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998), pp. 117-33
Rita Veleda Oliveira, ‘Anna Seghers Writing and the Ritualisation of Trauma’ (online publication, 2013)
Audio Book in German
Anna Seghers, Der Ausflug der Toten Mädchen. Autorenlesung, Der Audio Verlag (2008)