The Wondrous Horrors of German Bedtime Stories

My Oma (German for Grandmother) died a month ago. She lived to the ripe age of 96 and passed away peacefully in her own home. As the family went through her belongings, we all had the opportunity to express what we wanted from her home. For me, there was only one thing I truly desired:  Die schönsten Bildergeschichten by Wilhelm Busch. 

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The rough english translation for this title is “The Most Beautiful Picture-Stories.” And inside these worn pages are delicate drawings, brimming with expression, depicting the most terrible, but ultimately humorous, tales.

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Of these stories is perhaps one of the innately German: Max und Moritz – the two most mischievous boys in literature.

I don’t speak German fluently but laughter is a global language. While the words don’t translate, the drawings portray the antics of these two der Lausbub (naughty boys) beautifully. Ultimately though, the pages hold a vivid memory of my Oma, doubled-over in laughter, reading and explaining the comics to me, while joyous tears of folly well in her eyes. I can almost hear her laugh – which was wholly singular to her – ringing in my mind’s eye. She was famous for her nearly silent fits of laughter . When something truly tickled her, you would hear only raspy breathes that accompanied an open mouthed expression of hilarity.

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It is theorized that Wilhelm Busch never intended Max und Moritz for children. However, the stories became very popular with that demographic – despite the black humour the comics explore. They are not your typical, morally superior, bedtime stories. But they are highly entertaining and unfailingly silly.

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Will reading Max und Moritz teach your children about some universal truth? No, definitely not. But perhaps they will instil a beautiful memory they carry with them through a lifetime. Sometimes that is what books – and other content – should be: a platform for fun, community and folly. Sure, we could get into the cultural significance of Max und Mortiz, speculate about Busch’s intentions and commentary on society, or we could read, enjoy and perhaps bust a gut. Does this not also serve a purpose?

So, I write this little review in memory of Oma – the woman who introduced me to these characters…and who had no trouble letting go of her adult sincerity for the childish whims of an old comic.

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