Thursday, 19 December 2013

Seven Seas Books, Berlin

Yesterday lunchtime I dropped in to Housman's Bookshop which has been based at 5 Caledonian Road, King's Cross since 1958. It's a marvelous place, housing a treasure trove of radical books, journals, 'zines and ephemera, and a superb London-related writings section.

In their used-book basement I came across a copy of Jan Petersen's 'Our Street' written in 1934, and published by Seven Seas Books in 1961. It's a book that I'd come across several references to - but I'd never seen it - or knew of a paperback edition.

Several intriguing stories here. Firstly the book itself  which is based on left-wing resistance to the Nazis in an ordinary Berlin street (Wallstrasse, Charlottenburg district). Petersen, a Communist activist, was known to the Nazis, and was on one of their death-lists. So he typed-up two copies of the manuscript of 'Our Street'. One was bound for England in the hands of a German soldier he knew - but it was thrown into the sea to avoid last-minute detection. The other - and the copy that would eventually sell one million copies worldwide - was smuggled out of Germany and into Prague by Petersen himself. Amazingly, the manuscript was first split up into two sections - and then concealed into two enormous cakes that Petersen had baked! The first English translation of the book was eventually published in 1938 under Victor Gollancz's 'Left Book Club' imprint.

But what's the story of  my copy of 'Our Street' - which was published in English, in East Germany, sixteen years after the end of WW2?

Cover design by Lothar Reher

That's down to a fascinating publisher called Seven Sea Books, that was based in Glinkastrasse, Berlin. Seven Seas had been founded in 1958 by the American Gertrude Gelbin, the wife of the German author Stefan Heym.

Heym (real name Helmut Flieg), was Jewish, and an outspoken anti-Nazi who had fled Germany in 1933, and had been living in the US since 1935. He was attached to the American psychological warfare unit during the War, composing destabilizing communications to the German soldiers - but by 1952 he and Gelbin had decided to quit 'the West' in protest of the American involvement in the Korean War. Seven Seas Books initially published Heym's own writing, as well as the work of the 'Hollywood Ten' blacklisted screenwriters.

Significantly, though Seven Seas Books were all in English, and mostly printed for the export market (India, Ghana and Australia were popular destinations). Gelbin also declared that the Seven Seas publications were by 'progressive authors, neglected or censored in their own countries, and favouring work that demonstrated anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anti-war themes, but which also possessed considerable literary merit'.

Although there doesn't appear to be a great deal written about the history of Seven Seas, several online posts include incomplete listings of their output over some twenty or so years. Around 140 books in all...

Written in 1947, this classic part-biography, part-compilation of Jack London''s life and work by Philip Foner was re-printed by Seven Seas Books in 1958.
Below the publishing information inside is the typed addition (as seen at the head of this posting):
 'Printed in East Germany-Soviet occupied'
Published in 1966. Cover design by Lothar Reher

First published in 1953, this Seven Seas Books edition came out in 1966. Another cover designed by Lothar Reher.

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