In a recent post on Peter Klopp’s blog, I was reminded of the book I’ve treasured since I was a small child. I still have that book which my family brought to Canada from Germany in 1953, and about 50 years ago I managed to buy a newer copy of it in Vancouver. The old one is on the right, and the new one on the left.
They are almost identical, but in the new one, these first two pages (below) do not appear.
The poem on the left is about the expectations of how children should behave:
Eat your soup.
Don’t forget to eat the bread too.
Play with your toys without making too much noise.
Take Mama’s hand when you’re out with her for a walk.
And if you do all these things, the Christkind (the being who delivers gifts at Christmas) will bring you some nice presents, and a very pretty picture book.
My mother often read this to me when I was very little, and encouraged me to say the words with her. The last line was always, “But we don’t tear it.”
It was years before I realized that the last line was not part of the poem. She had just added it as if it belonged there, and I repeated it, thinking it did.
On the second page was a picture of a child (Peter) whose hair was all “struwwelig” – officially “strubbelig” I think (messy, to say the least), and his fingernails were dirty and long. This boy never allowed his Mama to comb his hair or cut his nails, and he was a horrible boy (not what any good child would want to be). He was called Struwwelpeter (messy or slovenly Peter).
NOW things get more controversial. The stories (in rhyme) which follow are now considered harsh and brutal and not fit for children to be exposed to, and there are many adults who believe they should be banned.
But in spite of the shocking way the lessons in childhood behaviour are presented, I want to say that although the stories had my full attention at a young age, they did not give me nightmares or upset me. I grew up in a loving home and when my mother read these stories to me, she assured me that I was safe with her and that the awful things in the stories only happened to very bad people.
Meanwhile, I loved the cadence of the words and the rhymes and the often justified (at some level) endings.
Here is the story of Friederich, who was a very cruel boy. He tore the wings off flies and was mean to animals and to his sister. A dog getting a drink from the fountain looked like an easy target. Friederich sneaked up on him and hit him with his whip. The dog cried and howled, but then he’d had enough. He bit Friederich’s leg and ran off with his whip.
Now comes the part that I liked. Friederich had to go to bed. The doctor was called and Friederich had to take some medicine that was very bitter. (YES!)
Meanwhile, the dog ate Friederich’s supper of liver sausage, and he even had a drink of wine (not so sure if that was good for either dog or boy). He had brought the whip with him and kept a close eye on it.
This next story about little Pauline was very, very sad. It brought out every bit of empathy I had in my small child’s body. Thinking back, I remember this story so well because the poor little girl ended up burning up.
Much later, as an adult I thought, “If only a certain little boy I knew (in real life), had been told this story, maybe he would not have done exactly what Pauline did.” Luckily, he only burned down the family home and not himself or his family.
The beautiful thing about this story/poem is the rhyme. The repeated refrain that tells the warning from the cats, Minz and Maunz, really hits home. 70 years later, I still know who Minz and Maunz are.
Pauline had been told not to play with matches but the temptation was so great, she had to do it anyway. The cats warned her again and again, but she wouldn’t listen to them. At the end of the story, you can see how upset the cats are. If only Pauline had listened to her parents. I was impressed as a child, that all that was left of Pauline was a pair of red shoes.
Kaspar is one guy I didn’t feel sorry for. All he had to do was eat his soup. But no! He had tantrums (another no-no) and refused to eat his soup every day even though he got thinner and thinner.
I see that his Mama must have missed him and loved him a lot because even beyond the grave she was still trying to get him to eat his soup. See the bowl on his grave?
This one about Philipp who misbehaved at the table left me cold. I didn’t feel sorry for Philipp. He got what he deserved. But Philipp’s Mama, in every verse, did the same stupid thing. She put her handheld spectacles to her eye and looked around the table wordlessly. The Papa, on the other hand, did a lot of admonishing, but he also got no respect from me. He let his son ignore him. And see in the picture – look how he is holding the knife!
Well, Mama and Papa may have been ineffectual parents, but natural consequences taught them all a lesson and none of them got any supper that night.
I have to add one little anecdote. Whenever my mother made Jell-o at home, she called it Zappel-Philipp. For years I thought that’s what it was really called, but she only called it that because Philipp from the story “zappelled” (fidgeted and rocked around) just like the Jell-o did. Unless Jell-o is really called that and I don’t know it.
The last story is one that upsets a lot of people because the tailor comes with his huge shears and cuts off Conrad’s thumbs.
But hey! His Mama told him not to suck them. She told him what would happen if he did.
Okay, I’m just kidding. It is a bit brutal, but again, I did not have nightmares or even take the story seriously. You’d have to be pretty stupid to believe that this would really happen. Unfortunately there are many people who would ban the whole book for being too real and brutal and upsetting for children.
The truth is, I loved these stories. I loved the rhyme and the cadence and the funny pictures. This story has stayed in my head all the years of my life since pre-school, and I still love how it starts with,
“Conrad, sprach die Frau Mama,
Ich geh aus und du bleibst da.”
(Conrad, said his Mama,
I’m going out and you’re staying here.)
It’s such a catchy little rhyme. And then after she tells him to be good and not suck his thumbs or the tailor will come with the big shears and cut them off, he can hardly wait until the door closes. I love the word that tells how he puts his thumb in his mouth – WUPP!
And then the sound of the tailor coming in the door. BAUZ! (pronounced like BOWTS).
There are more stories in the Struwwelpeter book, but this post is already quite long so I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts.
Before you say how horrible these stories are, consider that it makes a difference how they are presented. I agree that I would not raise children using these stories as examples nowadays.
But I also feel that we don’t need a witch hunt to eradicate every book we don’t agree with, and those who consider themselves holier-than-the-rest-of-us don’t have a right to deprive everyone of the opportunity to see what went on in our history. It is not their right to erase our past – good or bad. We can learn from it either way.