Obituary: Anja Amsel, translator and community worker

Anja Amsel, translator and community worker. Born: 31 July 1930. Died: 30 May 2020, aged 89.

Anja Amsel

Anja Amsel, née Burgner, was born in Berlin to Jewish parents. Her mother, a colourful character known as Dodo, was a celebrated fashion illustrator in that city but when the Weimar Republic came to an end, so too did her career.

With her parents separated, Anja and her brother, Tom, fled Germany to join their mother in London. Anja used to talk about having to go to their neighbour’s house to hear the news on the radio as during the war they were still German nationals and as such were not allowed their own wireless.

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Anja soon assimilated to British life and, with a BA Hons in French under her belt, she worked as a lecturer in France and as a technical translator and teacher back in London, where she met her husband, Donald.

She was an accomplished linguist, fluent in French, Spanish and her mother tongue, German, as well as English. In the Fifties she had her two daughters, Clare and Nicola, and continued working in translation and journalism for local newspapers.

Although her marriage did not stand the test of time, she was always very drawn to the company of intelligent men and after various other jobs in communications, information services and housing, it was that which prompted her move to Edinburgh in 1979.

Here she was offered the position as Director and Secretary of the Scottish Council YWCA Housing Association. In that role and with her typical flair, she modernised the organisation and oversaw considerable expansion to providing housing for males, single parents and a variety those with special needs.

Further roles cemented her career in the housing sector, including Council Member of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, Chair of the Edinburgh Forum of Housing Associations and Chair of the Housing Co-operatives Review Committee. During this period she chaired many committees and associations and working parties, including the Joint Liaison Committee (Health Board and Region).

Outside her professional life, Anja found time to be a member of the Independent Appeals Tribunal, Chair of the Edinburgh Old Town Association, board member of the Old Town Renewal Trust, trustee of The Old Town Charitable Trust, Chair of The South Side and Old Town Crime Prevention Panel, Council Member of the Cockburn Association, a member of two Scottish Office Committees, member of the Management Committee of two Housing Associations and committee member of the Old Town and South Side Community Development Project.

In 1985 she formed the Chessels Court Area Association, in the place she lived for 35 years. In 1994 she received The William Y Darling Award for Lothian Citizen of the Year.

Throughout her life, Anja was passionate about the importance of education. Indeed, she was the author of 12 Plays in Everyday English, which was written for primary school children.

The cover blurb says: “Children like excitement and fun, they find adventures. And if there is no adventure they make one happen.” The notion sums up Anja’s attitude to life neatly.

Anja was a vital person, always engaged and well-informed about things, be it politics, current affairs, Wimbledon, the latest film or opera, which she would have been one of the first to see. But it was in her personal relationships that she excelled. When anyone met her one of the first things she would say was “how can I help you?”.

Whether it was trying to help you promote your business, or give you careers advice, she would always know someone or have a contact somewhere who might benefit you.

Always the first to invite a new neighbour in for a cup of coffee or glass of wine, she was generous with knowledge and experience and might draw on her own relationships to help you with some personal advice.

Her love of gardening was evident in the knowledge she shared with others and many a pleasant lunch was spent in her beautiful courtyard garden. Anja used to hold a general election results party and if you had the stamina you could be one of the first to welcome in the next prime minister.

After one such occasion, well into her seventies, she told me that the party had gone quite late and she had said goodnight to the last guests at 6am: “So I just tidied up the house and went straight to the gym”

In 2012 a major art exhibition was presented in Berlin and London dedicated to Anja’s mother’s life and work. Entitled Dodo, it drew together the many illustrations, paintings and drawings that had survived and brought Anja particular delight when she was guest of honour at the opening.

As the substantial catalogue for the show explained, Dodo captured extraordinarily well the spirit of the age: “Both as an observer and as a participant, Dodo revelled in the zeitgeist of Berlin in the twenties and early thirties: the period of the Weimar Republic, of Brecht and Weill, of Marlene Dietrich and The Blue Angel, of the Ballet Jooss and Christopher Isherwood’s novels.”

Anja led a full and interesting life and was still dancing with her neighbours (at a safe distance) in Chessels Court two days before she died peacefully at home.

She leaves behind her two daughters Clare and Nicola and three grandchildren, Byron, Olga and Lydia.



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