Jakob der Lügner, 1969 (Jacob the Liar, 1975)
Irreführung der Behörden, 1973
Der Boxer, 1976 (The Boxer, 2002)
Schlaflose Tage, 1978 (Sleepless Days, 1979)
Aller Welt Freund, 1982
Bronsteins Kinder, 1986 (Bronstein’s Children, 1988)
Amanda Herzlos, 1992
Nach der ersten Zukunft, 1980
Five Stories, 1993
Warnung von dem Schriftsteller: Drei Vorlesungen in Frankfurt, 1990
Wir sind auch nur ein Volk: Drehbuch der Folgen, 1994-1995
Jurek Becker (BEHK-ur) belonged to the generation of writers who grew up in the early decades of the former East Germany, and while he lived there he became increasingly critical of its system. After the Germans occupied Poland in 1939, Becker and his family were imprisoned with other Jews in the Lodz ghetto. Later Becker was transported to the concentration camps of Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen. Only three members of his large extended family survived the ghetto and the camps. In addition to Becker and his father, one aunt managed to escape when the Germans advanced into Poland. Becker wrote that he had few memories of these years, in part, he presumed, because he wanted to repress them but also because life in a camp, especially for a child who did not fully understand what was happening, was a gray and desolate period. It was a time of existing, not living, and most actions were determined by the struggle to survive.
In the summer of 1945, after his liberation from the camp, Becker was reunited with his father in the Soviet zone of Berlin, where the family had settled. Until that time Becker had spoken Yiddish and Polish, but as of the age of eight he also spoke German. Becker attended schools in East Berlin and passed his Abitur (qualifying examination for university) in 1955. He served two years in the East German army and then studied philosophy at Humboldt University in East Berlin between 1957 and 1960. After 1960 Becker devoted himself to his writing and began making a name for himself as a writer of cabaret texts and film and television scripts.
Becker’s first novel, Jacob the Liar, was widely acclaimed and quickly translated into other languages. The work was originally written as a film script. When plans for the film failed, Becker reworked it into a novel. Becker received two prestigious prizes for the novel, the Heinrich Mann Prize of East Germany and the Charles Veillon Prize of Switzerland. (Jacob the Liar was eventually made into a film in East Germany.) For his second novel, Irreführung der Behörden (misguiding the authorities), he was awarded the literary prize of the West German state of Bremen. These first two novels, as well as the third, The Boxer, were published in both East and West Germany.
In 1976 Becker came into conflict with the East German government. He was one of the original twelve prominent East German writers who signed a petition protesting the expulsion of the East German poet Wolf Biermann. In protest Becker also resigned from the Writers’ Union and was expelled from the Socialist Unity Party (the Communist Party of East Germany) on November 26, 1976. When Becker was invited to teach for a year at Oberlin College in the United States, he applied for an exit visa and was in 1977 granted a passport. After his stay in the United States, Becker settled in West Germany, where his later works–the novel Sleepless Days, the story collection Nach der ersten Zukunft (after the first future), and the novels Aller Welt Freund (friend of all the world) and Bronstein’s Children–were published.
Social concerns are an important aspect of Becker’s writing. Although he distanced himself from his Jewish heritage, he dealt with the Nazi era in three of his novels. In Jacob the Liar Becker recreated the daily life of those imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto, showing their courage and hope, which are strengthened by Jacob’s lies about the approaching rescuers, as well as their terror and despair. In The Boxer and Bronstein’s Children Becker turned to the problems faced by Jewish survivors of the camps and their children. In other works Becker presents a critical picture of life in East Germany. In Irreführung der Behörden he attacks socialist realism, the official aesthetic doctrine, and in Sleepless Days he shows how a teacher prefers to become a worker rather than conform to the Communist Party’s demands. In Aller Welt Freund Becker addresses such problems as world hunger, pollution, and the threat of war.
Jurek Becker early on established himself as an important German-language writer. He was a socially committed writer, and he wrote in a clear and concise style that included humor and vivid character portrayals.