Kindererziehung or Growing up with Struwwelpeter


When Herman sits huddled under blankets on the tossing deck of the Husima Maru during his winter crossing of the Atlantic, he thinks of many things from his childhood, including the scary picture book that his father sometimes read to him.

Struwwelpeter was a popular children’s book in much of Europe in the early years of the 20th century but especially in Germany. It was loved by children for its exaggerated, fearsome stories and illustrations. Though from the beginning, some educators objected to the violence of the action, the book was appreciated by parents for the lessons it presented, and probably, for the fun of rolling the rhyming couplets off their tongues. Each of the 10 tales that make up the book, as well as the accompanying, terrifyingly funny pictures, has a strong message telling of the disastrous and sad consequences of misbehavior.

In true Germanic and Christian style, the punishment for wrongdoing is highlighted, rather than the rewards for goodness. There is the tale of the thumb sucker who has his thumbs cut off by a fantastical tailor, and the story of a girl who eats so many sweets that when she walks in the rain, she dissolves into a puddle of syrup. In another story, a fat boy is such a glutton that one day he actually bursts into two perfect halves of himself. In the graphic lesson of a boy who walks with his nose in the air, thus unable to see where he is going, the youth plunges off the end of a wharf, falls in the water, is nearly drowned, and has to be pulled out by fishermen with their hooks and nets while a school of fish laugh.









Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter) was originally written in 1845 by Heinrich Hoffman, a physician who lived in Frankfurt and treated the mentally disturbed. He created the book as a Christmas present for his three-year-old son when he could not find any worthy picture books in the stores. His friends and their children were so captivated by the illustrations and poems that they convinced Hoffman to get it published a few years later. The book was an immediate success in Germany and was soon translated into various languages, allowing it to spread across Europe.

Mark Twain, who spoke fluent German and lived for a time in Vienna, Austria, made his own translation in 1891, but due to copyright issues, Twain’s English version, called “Slovenly Peter,” was not published until 1935. This is the version that I grew up with. I loved looking at the illustrations and shuddered as I imagined the punishments pictured. Most of all, I loved sitting on my father’s lap as he read the poems in a gruff German accent he reserved for these special occasions, and sometimes even translated the words back into the (incomprehensible to me) German he remembered from his own childhood.


I think my two favorite stories were the one about the thumb sucker (I was glad I no longer sucked my finger) and the one that told of Little Pauline who played with matches (something I knew better than to do) and was burned into a pile of ashes while her kitties watched and cried.

There is one story in the collection that has always struck me as more serious than the others. In it the main character is Saint Nicholas—not the jolly Santa Claus, but a stern, saintly man in beard and long robe. I used to wonder how Germans who read this story as children could have participated in the racial hatred of Nazi Germany. In “Saint Nicholas and the Inky Boys,” an African, pictured as a black-complexioned boy in red shorts, holding an umbrella, walks down the street. Three naughty boys, Ludwig, Kaspar, and Wilhelm, begin to laugh and call him names. They taunt him by saying he is “black as ink.”


“Now tall Saint Nick lived close by,—

So tall, he almost touch’d the sky;

He had a mighty inkstand too,

In which a great goose-feather grew.”


Saint Nicholas grabbed all three of the awful boys and


“Into the ink he dips them all;

Into the inkstand, one, two, three,

Till they are black as black can be!”


As a young child growing up in 1950s California, I saw only that the three bad boys were punished for tormenting a black child. The punishment , a rough dip in ink so they come out as black silhouettes, may seem strange and unsettling for those of us who have grown accustomed to the phrase, “black is beautiful.” In my childhood innocence, I also didn’t notice the derogatory way the African boy was described, though the severity of that varies according to translation. Mark Twain, a 19th Century, Southern American, translates using the following phrases: “Pitch-black piteous Moor” and “that poor missing link” and another term so bad I will not type it. The milder English translation in the 1995 Dover Publications edition of Struwwelpeter refers to the black child as a “woolly-headed black-a-moor” and later as a “harmless black-a-moor.” Translations of rhyming poetry are notoriously difficult to do. The selection of specific words and phrases is subjective—maintaining the cadence, the rhyme, and the essence of the meaning are tantamount. Still, I cannot help but wonder if, for the German children of the early 20th century, the original words of the poem might have undermined the lesson to treat others, regardless of race, as equals.


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