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From coin findings and other treasures:
Mirjam Pressler's latest work, "Dark Gold"

by Thomas Fischer (2020)

There is a rumour about Jerome D. Salinger, the author of "The Catcher in the Rye", that dozens of unpublished novel manuscripts were still stored in a bunker on his estate. One would be grateful if this also applied to the writer and translator Mirjam Pressler, who died a year ago. But if not, "Dark Gold" is unfortunately her last book.

In 1998, during construction work in Erfurt, a treasure consisting of hundreds of coins, jewellery and valuable containers was found, among which a Jewish wedding ring with the Hebrew inscription "Masal Tov" ("Good luck") was the most valuable item. This treasure, which is now on display in the Old Synagogue in Erfurt, has inspired Mirjam Pressler to write an exciting novel that takes place on two time levels. On the one hand the story of fifteen-year-old Laura is told, who is constantly annoyed by her mother, an art historian, with stories about the Erfurt treasure. Laura is in love with her Russian classmate Alexei, which occupies her at present much more than old coins. However, this changes when she learns that Alexei is Jewish, but hides this fact for fear of bullying. Her interest in the Jewish history of Erfurt awakens, and as a talented painter she decides to create a graphic novel in which the history of the treasure and a very personal love story are combined.

This tale of the Jewish girl Rachel and her family, who has to flee from the Erfurt plague pogroms of 1349, forms the second level of the novel's plot. The father, a wealthy merchant named Kalman von Wiehe (a historically authenticated figure), hides his wealth under the cellar steps and flees with Rachel and her brother Joschua to the supposedly safe Krakow.

From now on, the fates of the two girls from 1349 and 2018 miraculously merge. For medieval Rachel also falls in love, and a treasure was once hidden in Alexei's family as well, this time from the Nazis. And even if the author does not spare her characters severe blows of fate, such as the violent death of their father by muggers, both girls find a new place in life, and there will be love in the end...

Mirjam Pressler's narrative art is particularly evident in this 'farewell work' through her ability to bring numerous characters to life in everyday language rich in dialogue. The exciting plot and its parallels over six and a half centuries are executed with virtuosity. We experience the events strictly from the perspective of the two girls telling the story in the first person, whereby an occasional unmotivated change of the narrative tempo from the present to the past is striking. This and some lengths and repetitions suggest that the author, if she had been allowed a few more months of life before her tragic death from cancer, would have made changes and tightenings here and there.

But apart from such questions of detail, one can only admire the author's ability to empathize with young people both of our time and of past eras. The portrayal of the first great love is just as popular a theme in her numerous books as the fate of orphans or half-orphans (Laura grows up fatherless, and Rahel's mother is also long dead) or the design of religious themes, as in "Nathan and His Children" about Lessing's Ring Parable. The skilful integration of factual information into the plot is also striking: for example, when a never-ending lecture by the mother about the treasure findings is interrupted by witty comments from the bored daughter, maybe well recognized by some of the readers - but who has nevertheless learned something!

This novel has what it takes to be a classic youth book dealing with anti-Semitism in the past and present. It is in the tradition of Judith Kerr's timeless "Pink Rabbit" or Hans Peter Richter's (already somewhat outdated) "It was Frederick then" - not to mention Anne Frank's diary. Mirjam Pressler's voice in contemporary children's and youth literature will be sorely missed.