The German-Jewish author Mirna Funk was born in 1981 in East Berlin. These days, she splits her time between Berlin and Tel Aviv. Her first novel, WINTERNÄHE (pronounced Vinter-NAY-eh) has been critically acclaimed; it won the Uwe Johnson Literary Prize for 2015.
Mirna also writes, among other things, a delightful column on Jewish life for German Vogue magazine. Her Vogue columns appear simultaneously in English translation. One of her most recent contributions — ON THE ART OF REMEMBRANCE — can be found by scrolling down at this page.
I am honored to be able to offer you this interview with Mirna Funk.
Please explain the meaning of your novel’s title WINTERNÄHE.
WINTERNÄHE is a word that doesn’t actually exist in German; it’s a neologism. I would translate it as ‘Winter Nearness.’ It describes a type of relationship — it isn’t a reference to Game of Thrones! I believe that everyone has a „Winternähe“ in his or her life. It’s a form of closeness that is cold, uncomfortable and challenging. But exactly as in winter, we need to stick together in order to keep us on top of our form. Meaning, this closeness might be uncomfortable but it is important for our own development.
The opening scene of your novel is a cathartic fictional esprit de l’escalier for an anti-Semitic insult you experienced in real life. When you were growing up in Germany and then, into your young adulthood there, was anti-Semitism a constant, or was it something you experienced intermittently and that deeply wounded?
I grew up in the former East-Germany and did not experience any anti-Semitism per se there, although in general the German Democratic Republic was an anti-Zionist state due to the closeness it had with the U.S.S.R. and its Arab alliances. When I grew older, I felt that things were changing in the German social climate. I don’t believe that we are confronted with a new wave of anti-Semitism now, rather, I think it simply was never gone, but instead, it was taboo, forbidden. There was an unspoken law not to mention Jews, Israel or any related thing. This social law lost its value after the year 2000. And people who began ignoring this unspoken law became ‘rebels’ offering some kind of resistance. To now openly say whatever negative things you think about Jews or Israel is perceived as brave and bold. And this is very dangerous. But the ‘thinking’ behind it isn’t new.
Your novel begins with an epigraph from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History. How influential is Walter Benjamin in your thinking, and how might readers relate his work to your book?
I love Walter Benjamin. During my studies in Philosophy, I came across him, and was especially impressed with his 1940 essay Theses on the Philosophy of History. I became obsessed with his thinking. He simply said what I always felt, namely, that the past is not over for anyone. I do believe in remembrance. I strongly believe in the power of it. And I believe that in order to have a future, we must acknowledge the importance of the past. We are nothing without it. We are „Gewordene“ — a noun formed from the past participle of the verb werden — which means ‘to become.’ „Gewordene“ is one of many German words that manifest the beauty of the German language, because no other language I know of can — with just one word — express a whole philosophical idea of what history means to a human being.
What would you hope for American readers to take away from your novel?
Well, firstly, this novel is unfortunately not translated into English yet, though a sample 16 page translation of the beginning can be found on my website. My novel tells the story of a German Jew growing up in East Germany. A lot of people think that there were no Jews in Germany after the Holocaust, but in fact, there were some. In East Germany, we numbered around 1,000 when the Wall came down. The story of the Jews in the GDR is extremely interesting, as it is very, very different from the Jews in West Germany. I can’t completely explain it in this interview as it would take too long, but my novel does tell this story. At the same time, it tells the story of a German-Jewish women of the third generation after the Shoah. A woman that has her own identity crisis, because her father is Jewish while her mother isn’t. She travels to Tel Aviv, only to find herself in the middle of the Gaza War of 2014, and she falls in love with an ex-IDF soldier who of course is dealing with his own life and decisions as well. The novel is multi-layered and very complex, but in general, it is about German-Jewish history, the complicated family structures and traumas the Shoah caused, and the redemption we seek.
(Ed. — Mirna Funk’s great-grandfather was the noted German-Jewish author Stephan Hermlin.)
Which critical and/or individual reader reactions to Winternähe have you found most rewarding, and which have you found most surprising?
Most rewarding are the reactions of „Fatherjews“. (Ed. — By “Fatherjews” is meant, people whose father is Jewish while their mother is non-Jewish). So, these are people born with my same dilemma, which happens also to be a key question of personal identity treated in my novel. In my case that meant, being viewed as Jewish my entire childhood by my family members, but then realizing that similarly-situated people are not Jewish enough for the rest of the community in order to be treated equally. I do, of course, know that the acceptance of Fatherjews by other Jews in the USA is much better. The German-Jewish Community is still far away from dealing with this very important topic the way they should, and so is Israel itself. 500.000 Fatherjews live in Israel. People who are Israeli citizens, and who are conscripted into the IDF but are not allowed to get married or to be buried with their family members in a Jewish cemetery. I think that this is a horrible and disgusting treatment of people who can’t change the circumstances of their births.
What are you presently working on?
I’m currently working on my new novel that will be published next year by dtv. It deals with themes of violence and transgenerationally-transmitted trauma.