Somewhere in the emerald sea
A god set out, and with a smile
Applied a brush, and randomly
Dabbed a gleaming spot: the isle
In a splendid mood that day,
He handed the rock to a nation
And murmuring, had this to say:
Love life and all creation!
James Krüss was profoundly attached to his home of Heligoland. All the creativity of this successful children’s author is rooted on the island, and many of his stories are set here. His work is extensive, and we’ll be coming across more of it later.
His mother, Margaretha Krüss, was the daughter of a Heligoland lobsterman, and his father, Ludwig Krüss, was an electrician. James was born on the 31st of May 1926 on Heligoland. He was the eldest of four children and unusually talkative even as a small child. His younger sister Ernie described him as a great storyteller, who was never able to keep his mouth shut.
At home, the family spoke Halunder – the language of the island. And that was the language in which James wrote little rhyming verses at the age of just five. Poetry was his preferred literary genre, and Krüss would remain faithful to it throughout his life.
At primary school, he continued in his budding career as a writer. At barely ten years of age, Krüss set up a school newspaper called Die Kneifzange – The Pincers. The title was a satirical side-swipe at one of the teachers, who used to punish the children by pinching their ears. The paper went on sale at five Pfennigs a copy.
On Heligoland, James Krüss experienced a peaceful, and above all, unfettered childhood. Only the island itself set any limits. At play on the beach, the mudflats and up on the plateau, he discovered the freedom and love of animals and nature that run through all his work.
The Second World War brought this untrammelled existence to an abrupt end. The entire population of Heligoland was forced to leave the island, including James, who was sixteen by then. After the war, he completed his studies to become a primary school teacher in North Germany. But writing was still his true calling.
He set up a monthly magazine called Helgoland, which gave a voice to the exiled men and women of the island. He wrote novels, composed poems for the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and worked as an author of radio plays. In Munich, he met the famous writer Erich Kästner. It was an important connection. Kästner encouraged Krüss in his decision to become a children’s author.
From then on, the young author wrote children’s books, rhymed and spun yarns at record speed. By the time he was in his thirties, he was able to look back on a remarkable career.
Published in 1956, The Lighthouse on Lobster Cliffs was his first children’s book. It was immediately nominated for the Deutscher Jugendbuchpreis – the German Youth Book Award. His second novel, My Great-Grandfather and I, actually won that prestigious award.
Krüss adored working with and for children. In the 1960s, he successfully branched out into television with the programmes ABC and Fantasy and James' Tierleben - James' Animal World.
In his private life, he found happiness on the island Gran Canaria, where he bought a house in 1965. Some claim his move to the Canaries was an escape. Krüss was gay, and, given the atmosphere of prejudice in the 1960s, many people were uncomfortable about his television work with children.
With more than 100 children’s books, Krüss is famous the world over. His works have been translated into a wide range of languages. He was always happy to come back to Heligoland and did so regularly, but only ever as a visitor.
Krüss died on Gran Canaria in 1997 at the age of 71. His ashes were brought back to Heligoland, though the burial at sea didn’t work out quite the way it was planned. Perhaps Krüss wanted to enjoy the view of his island one more time – but in any case, the urn refused to sink until a hole had been drilled into it. One wonders what kind of a yarn Krüss would have spun about that!
All depictions: © Nordseemuseum Museum Helgoland