Eva Figes, 1932–2012

The feminist author who escaped Nazi Germany

The publication of Patriarchal Attitudes in 1970 made Eva Figes an icon of the new feminism, but its author was far from sisterly to her fellow writers. She admitted never having read Germaine Greer’s iconic feminist treatise The Female Eunuch. “It came out after my book and everyone said, ‘Don’t bother,’ so I didn’t,” she said in 1993. “I think Germaine is mad and a lot of what she says is romantic hot air.”

Figes was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, said The New York Times. Her world changed in 1938 when her father was arrested during the Kristallnacht raids and imprisoned in Dachau. Her mother managed to secure his release, and the family fled to London, leaving her grandparents and the family’s servants behind. Only when Figes went to the movies and saw newsreel footage about the concentration camps did she realize what had happened to them. “She never recovered from the shock of those lonely moments in the dark.”

Figes proved a talented student, said The Times (U.K.), and worked in publishing after graduation. She wrote three well-received novels and then published Patriarchal Attitudes, “tapping into the women’s liberation zeitgeist” and transforming herself into a mouthpiece for an emerging feminist movement. The book was an indictment of women’s role in society, and in particular how marriage kept them down. “Until marriage is either abolished completely or has become a hollow sham,” she wrote, “I am afraid that women are going to make far too little effort to improve their own position.”

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Figes’s own marriage had ended in 1962, said The Guardian (U.K.), and she mostly lived alone for the rest of her life, though a short affair with the German author Günter Grass “turned into a lasting friendship.” Instead, she threw herself into her writing, publishing a series of experimental novels that won her both praise and criticism. Her memoir Journey to Nowhere gained notoriety in 2008 for its “strident, unbalanced” invective against the state of Israel; she branded German Jews “Hitler Zionists” and professed doubts about the country’s right to exist.

“My mother was an isolated and intellectual person,” said her son, Orlando. “She was so driven by writing, it was quite limiting.”

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