German scholar rankles Swiss with questions over Heidi’s origins

The legend of Heidi, the storybook character cherished as a national icon in Switzerland, has been shaken in recent weeks after a German scholar questioned her Swiss origins.

German scholar rankles Swiss with questions over Heidi's origins
PhotoL DPA

Peter Büttner claimed that the popular 19th-century novel by Swiss children’s author Johanna Spyri was at least inspired by an earlier German tale.

His assertion was highlighted in a recent documentary broadcast on Swiss television, rankling the country’s Alpine foothills where the fictional blonde, ponytailed young girl is regarded as one of their own.

It has also fuelled traditional German-speaking eastern Swiss animosity towards what they regard as the “arrogance” of their big northern neighbours in Germany.

Büttner, a specialist in German culture and literature, said he came across a largely forgotten short story while conducting research in Frankfurt. Entitled “Adelaide, the Girl from the Alpine Peaks” (“Adelaide, das Mädchen vom Alpengebirge”), the tale was written by a German author named Adam von Kamp.

“I immediately noticed the same narrative structure: a little girl brought up by her grandfather, who left her homeland and grew unhappy abroad until she could go home,” he explained.

Published in the early 1880s, “Heidi” – originally in two volumes – is the story of an orphan who lives with her rural grandfather in the pristine Alpine meadows.

She becomes homesick when she is forced to join her aunt in the German city of Frankfurt, where she faces a disciplined education.

But the sequel a year later brought a happy ending as Heidi escapes urban life to return to her rural idyll and friends.

The story struck a chord in the late 19th century. While its charm crossed borders – the book has been translated into dozens of languages and millions of copies sold world-wide – its impact back home was enormous. “Heidi” swiftly became an inherent part of Swiss popular culture and lore, to the extent that the frontiers between fiction and reality are today sometimes blurred.

‘I never wanted to take Heidi from the Swiss’

“The story is popular in Switzerland because so many people find it familiar,” said Judith Stump, owner of the village shop in Maienfeld.

Perched 100 kilometres southeast of Zurich in the midst of rolling green hills with a snow-tipped rugged Alpine backdrop, Maienfeld was the novel’s setting and is commonly dubbed “Heididorf” – Heidi’s village.

The idyllic picture postcard image of Switzerland is completed by the stone and wood chalets and herds of cows out to pasture.

“I didn’t say Spyri copied” von Kamp, said Büttner, denying he had accused the 19th-century Swiss author of plagiarism. “But I’m assuming that Spyri knew the work and it helped inspire her.”

The German scholar also points to similarities in the vocabulary and the Swiss heroin’s name, Heidi, a diminutive of the German Adelaide.

“The words used were the vocabulary of the time,” retorted Andreas von Sprecher, owner of the Heidi theme village by Maienfeld.

The story also exposed a common characteristic of Swiss society a century ago, he argued.

“It was a well known feature at the time, when children from rural areas were sent to the cities,” said von Sprecher, rejecting the idea that Spyri used von Kamp’s work, while acknowledging that she could have read it.

Regine Schnidler, of the Swiss institute for youth and media, told the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung that all the evidence indicated that Heidi’s story was influenced by Spyri’s experiences and her own unhappiness in Zurich.

Adelaide’s story, meanwhile, runs to just 30 pages, while Heidi’s is a rich fable that is 10 times as thick.

“Millions of copies of ‘Heidi’ have been published,” underlined Büttner, currently working on a doctorate at University of Zurich.

He insists that he “never wanted to take Heidi away from the Swiss.”

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German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The best events and festivals in Germany this July

‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.


Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page