Now it can be told…
Piers Plowright talks to Ellen Farquharson, who has translated the life story of her remarkable mother, Erna Tornseifer
10 March, 2017 — By Piers Plowright
One cold November Saturday night in 1962 three people sat down to dinner in a Soho restaurant: a man and woman in their 50s and their 25-year-old daughter. The food was good, the wine flowed, there was a lot of laughter, everyone seemed relaxed. It was in fact the last meeting between German refugee Erna Tornseifer and her second husband Egon, whom she’d just agreed to divorce, daughter Ellen looking on.
It was another chapter in Erna’s dramatic life, beginning, as a young Communist, with a flight from Nazi Germany in 1933 and a journey to Russia via Prague. This was followed by the collapse of her belief in the Soviet Union, a journey out again via Sweden to the safety of England as the Second World War broke out, internment in the Isle of Man and a somewhat bumpy ride after the war, struggling to find work and sometimes meeting – a story not often told – bursts of anti-German feeling.
Then there was the badly paid work and shabby flats in north London, separation from Egon and the struggle to bring up two daughters, a move to Devon, work in care homes and hotels, a brief return to Berlin, and then England again.
She ended her life in Mallorca, happily swimming in the sea and catching the sun that hadn’t often shone on her, dying in 2005 aged 94.
The German title of her autobiography, Revealing the Lie, is rather angrier. It translates as “The Big Lie – the Disappointment and/or Demystification of a Communist Idealist”.
It’s a story told in small and telling detail of one woman’s gradual disillusion with the slogans of Left and Right, as she struggles through experiences that would have capsized most of us.
Her younger daughter, Ellen, who made the English translation, describes her as a woman of great character and strong emotions, often difficult and prickly, not easy to live with, and always wanting to excel.
Even in old age in Mallorca, says Ellen, she didn’t just swim, she had to swim “like an Olympic swimmer”.
Ellen has spent most of her life in and around Hampstead. She, along with her older half-sister, Erica, went to Camden School for Girls, and later she taught languages at Quintin Kynaston, while married to the poet and teacher Jan Farquharson who died in 2002.
There’s no doubt about the affection she felt – and feels – for her mother, the perfectionist, the optimist, the Anglophile who always wanted to be seen as “a good German’, and the woman who could be quick to take offence.
Courage there certainly was, an indomitable spirit, and a resilience which Ellen feels she’s inherited.
So it’s been a labour of love for the daughter to translate her mother’s life story, something Erna very much wanted done, so that it could be known in the country that took her in as a refugee and young mother and where she spent 35 years of her life. Well, now it can be.
• Ellen Farquharson will be reading from Revealing the Lie alongside readings from John Steinberg’s new book Blue Skies Over Berlin at 7.30pm on Thursday, March 16, in Belsize Community Library, Antrim Grove, NW3 4XN. Details: 020 7078 7483.
• Revealing the Lie. Translated by Ellen Farquharson, Haag+Herchen, £16.99 from Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town.