I have two small daughters, and I can be a bit sappy about that, so I couldn’t resist a post about Das Mädchen und der Zwergkönig, a fairy tale written by a German prisoner of war for his daughter Helga in 1945/46. I was cleaning out one of those dusty corners of my bedroom and found the little green book tucked away and forgotten. But its sentiment — the love the author had for a daughter he’d never seen — shouldn’t be.
Once there was a little girl who lived many years alone with her mother because her father was away at war.
That’s the first line of the book, under the chapter title: How Little Helga Freed her Papa.
The story starts with a problem children all over postwar Europe knew: Helga’s family had no more food. So she sets off into the forest to pick berries. But they weren’t hers to pick; the Dwarf King shows up angry at her theft. To make good, she picks the sweetest ones high in the bushes for him. After the dwarf stuffs himself, he’s in a better mood and gives the girl a wish. She asks if her Papa is still alive. Yes, said the dwarf, and he proceeds to give her hints how she can cross the big forest to the castle where her Papa and other soldiers were held captive.
That these were German soldiers and this was WW2 was beside the point. For the purposes of the fairy tale, there was no politics. Just a girl looking for her father. Clemens Köster wrote and illustrated the story while a prisoner of war in France. There’s not much information about what exactly he did in Reims, but it’s clear someone helped him get the paper, ink, watercolors and brushes that he used to write the book and paint pictures of Helga, the Dwarf King and his helpers, and other characters. Somehow, I’m not all that surprised a POW of all people managed to find those supplies, even in a postwar France slowly recovering from German occupation.
In 1946 Köster carried the book with him when he returned to Germany. He found his 4-year-old daughter in the hospital with scarlet fever. Later she described bits of the scene in interviews. She had never seen him before, but his picture sat next to her bed. When he came in, she immediately called out, “Papi!” And he presented her the book as his gift.
Years later when Helga was diagnosed with cancer, she remembered the little book that she had loved as a child and read to her three children. The Bayerischen Krebsgesellschaft published it in 2006 and all proceeds went to cancer research.
Tammy Luth said:
Fascinating! I look forward to finding this book and reading it. It’s amazing to me to find the bits of beauty that came from horrifying circumstances. The human spirit! To think that some people are capable of perpetuating so much cruelty and madness, and some are able to find spaces in their hearts and minds to pour love into, well, it’s impossible for me to wrap my head around.
Exactly my sentiment too, Tammy. I love learning about people who manage to stay human despite all the madness.