BORN IN 1889 in Saarbrucken, Germany, Margot Benary-Isbert lost her beloved mother at seven years of age. The stepmother she acquired soon after, insisted that the children should be sent away. At the convent little Margot retreated into a fantasy world, making up stories and telling them as if they were true. She was punished for being a liar, but a sympathetic nun took her aside and said, “If you write these tales down they will be called fiction and nobody will call you a liar any more.” That was the birth of Margot Isbert the author.
Having published her first short story at age 19, Margot enrolled at the University of Frankfort. While working at the Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology, she met her husband-to-be, Wilhelm Benary. The young couple eventually moved with their daughter to the Benary farm in Erfurt, located in what would later be East Germany. For many years Margot lived here, writing and—among other things—raising Great Danes, but finding no publisher for her full-length manuscripts, since she refused to write for the Nazi regime.
A new day arrived in 1945. The war had just ended. A publisher suggested she should write for teenagers. By that time she had fled Erfurt before the Russian army’s advance. After a time on a friend’s farm, she and her husband and daughter found space in two rooms of a house in a city near Gottingen and Kassel. Electricity, like other necessities, was strictly rationed, so she often wrote by candlelight. In this way she completed The Ark, her first post-war story. The Ark, a book written for young people, is about a family of refugees from the East of Germany who slowly grow new roots in a West German town. This experience paralleled Margot Isbert’s own. Her second book, a sequel called Rowan Farm, also had much success. During the next few years she wrote many more books for youth, including Under a Changing Moon, a book whose inspiration came from her father’s childhood near the Rhine in the middle of the 19th century.
In 1952 Margot and her husband immigrated to the United States, to Chicago, where their daughter had been living for several years. Margot’s books were soon published in English. Margot would write her books in German first and then have them translated. She carefully checked the translations for faithfulness to her original style and intentions, and eventually did her own translations. Awards and honors came her way.
In the spring of 1955 the Benarys moved to Santa Barbara, California, where Wilhelm had dreamed of living for a long time. He died three months after the move. Again Margot returned to her fantasy world and let the stories flow from her imagination onto paper. She turned to writing for older adults, starting with the book, The Grandmother and Her First Grandchild. This story humorously relates Margot’s visit to her daughter and 8-month-old baby in Chicago. Three more books followed, all from the viewpoint of growing old and relating to the younger generation.
In the last five years of her life Margot’s mind deteriorated. She was taken care of in a retirement home in Valle Verde where her daughter visited her often and she was treated with loving kindness. She died in 1979, almost 90 years of age.
Adapted from a biographical sketch by Margot Benary-Isbert’s daughter, Eva Hearst.