Walter Kempowski was born in Rostock, Germany, in 1929. He was forced to leave school and worked as an anti-aircraft auxiliary with the Hitler Youth. After the war, when he was an apprentice to a printer he ended up in in prison of US army in Wiesbaden. In 1948, on a visit to Rostock he was arrested on suspicion of espionage and received a 25 prison sentence in Bautzen but was granted an amnesty after eight years. It was during this time that Kempowski began writing: a diary-like prose in which he processed his experiences in prison.
In 1956 Kempowski left for the West where he eventually worked as a teacher in North Germany. His literary debut was ‘Im Block. Ein Haftbericht’, published in 1969, which recalls the years in prison in a single cell. However, his prose is not accusatory and written with cool detachment as a collage of remembrances. Interspersed with proverbs and colloquialisms, short narrative sections create a perspective which without any specific plot open one’s view from the small scale to the larger scale, from the subjective personal time to objective history. While in solitary detention in Bautzen, remembering was a survival strategy: He later re-worked the act of remembering into the basis for his writing and recreated the lost world of the past, very precisely, piece by piece, layer by layer: “The only time that really exists is time which has passed”. For Kempowski, being a writer means being a chronicler. On this basis he has produced a large literary oeuvre: novels, short stories, radio plays and non-fiction books. ‘Tadelloser & Wolff’, the author’s second publication, helped him achieve his literary breakthrough in 1971 when he was awarded the ‘Förderpreis des Lessingpreises der Stadt Hamburg’. The story chronicles the life of a family, its theme is the confrontation of private experience within the family with political events during the ‘Third Reich’.
Between 1980 and 1991 Kempowski was a lecturer in ‘Creative Writing’ at the University of Oldenburg. It was here that he founded the ‘Archive for Contemporary Literature’, in which he systematically collected documents from numerous private and public sources, above all material about the World War II. The emerging kaleidoscopic image of that period provided Kempowski with the material for his comprehensive work: ‘Das Echolot. Ein kollektives Tagebuch’ (1993). As a collage of tens of thousands of documents ‘Das Echolot’ develops the literary form of story telling through memories in a diary. After the years 1943 and 1945, the third part, which was published in 2002, focuses on the year of the attack on the Soviet Union: “Das Echolot. Barbarossa 1941”. The volume “Abgesang ’45” (2005) completed the huge collage, consisting of letters, memoirs, notes and pictures which form a detailed reconstruction of the everyday life and the historical events of that time.
Kempowski has been awarded, among numerous other prizes, the ‘Konrad Adenauer Prize’ in 1994 and the ‘Uwe-Johnson-Preis’ in 1995. He was awarded the ‘Heimito-von-Doderer-Literaturpreis’ in 2000 and the ‘Internationaler Buchpreis Corine’ in 2005. In 2002, he received an honourary doctorate from the University of Rostock where he was teaching History of Literature and Culture since 2004. Walter Kempowski died in Nartum, near Bremen, in 2007.
© international literature festival berlin