Margot Benary-Isbert
From the International Portrait Gallery

Margot Benary-Isbert

1889 - 1979

Margot Isbert was born in Saarbrücken in 1889 in what was then the Rhine province of the Kingdom of Prussia. Her childhood years were spent in Frankfurt am Main. At just seven years old, she suffered the loss of her beloved mother. A stepmother entered the scene shortly thereafter, promptly packing Margot off to a convent boarding school. The wild tales Margot would tell to her classmates often landed the little girl with an overactive imagination in trouble for lying, until a teacher encouraged her to apply her creative talents to the written word instead, and a little authoress was born. Her first work came to publication when she was just nineteen.

After convent school, she attended the College St. Carolus and, for a brief time, the University of Frankfurt. In 1910, she took a job as a secretary at the Museum of Ethnology in Frankfurt, now called the Museum of World Cultures, to better accommodate her interest in anthropology. She worked there until her marriage in 1917 to Dr. Wilhelm Benary, a psychologist. They welcomed their only child, daughter Eva, in 1921.

The Benary family settled on a farm in Erfurt where her husband's family had owned a seed producing company for over a century. Writing, gardening, and breeding her beloved Great Danes filled Margot's days until the rise of the Nazi party and the chaos of World War II brought an abrupt end to their family tranquillity. Her attentions quickly turned to subsistence farming and raising livestock for meat. As she refused to write for the Nazi regime, her own manuscripts were rejected for publication.

When the Allied Forces defeated the Nazi army, the area of Germany where the Benary farm was located was slated to be turned over to the Russians as part of the Soviet Zone of Occupation. Margot is quoted as saying 'one dictatorship was enough.' She and her family fled before the encroaching Russian troops to the farm of a family friend in a small town near the University of Göttingen. The Benary family shared a small single family house with two other families. Facing the uncertainties and depravations of the post-war economic collapse, Margot, at least, was once more free to pursue her writing, this time by flickering candlelight, electricity having become more of a luxury than a staple. It was here she penned her first book for young people, published in 1948 in German as Die Archie Noah (The Ark).

The old adage that has held true for so many successful writers, not always in terms of achieving record sales or popularity, but real success, the author's ability to reach the heart of their reader, held true for Margot, 'write what you know.'

Her stories closely parallel her own experiences and those of her extended family; the resilience of spirit that is required to start over from nothing, not once, not twice, but again and again, to choose to think outside of oneself when starvation and homelessness are constant companions, to risk everything for strangers. The emotions, the trials, the triumphs, all are drawn from her own memories, even when re-crafted and recast as fiction. The intimacy with her subject, which on the surface seems to be post-war Germany, but is actually the human heart, is what lends truth to her writing. Her books resonate because they are at once very specific, and entirely universal.

In 1952 Dr. and Mrs. Benary immigrated to America, making their home in Chicago, where their daughter and her husband had already settled. Her early books were soon republished in English. The Benarys relocated to Santa Barbara, California in 1955. Wilhelm especially had long dreamt of getting to relax at last and enjoy the peaceful, quiet life that had been denied them. Instead, Wilhelm died suddenly just three months after their move. Retreating into her work, Margot returned to her writing with renewed passion. In doing so, she found the courage to start her life over once more, this time on her own. She would go on to write over a dozen books in all, many award winning. 1957 marked the year Margot became a United States citizen. She continued to write until late in life, allowing us to follow her and her writing as they mature together. Her later books, which confront the bittersweet realities of ageing, provide a poignant window into the struggle to come to terms with the inevitability of decline and death, of loss and alone-ness, that are inescapable stepping stones of the human experience. Margot herself died in 1979 at nearly 90 years old.

— Written by Johanna Bittle

Other Titles

We chose to only include titles that were translated into English. Margot Benary-Isbert also wrote other titles that are only available in her native German language.