Stefanie Zweig, the author of Nowhere in Africa, a best-selling autobiographical novel about the life of a Jewish family in Kenya after their escape from Nazi Germany and the inspiration for an Oscar-winning film, died on Friday in Frankfurt. She was 81.
Her publisher in the United States, the University of Wisconsin Press, confirmed her death.
Nowhere in Africa, published in 1995, hewed closely to the story of her parents’ escape from Frankfurt with their 6-year-old daughter in 1938, and the family’s adjustment to life as farmers in British colonial Africa. The parents endured grinding work and bouts of depression. Stefanie, who had been withdrawn, blossomed into a venturesome, Swahili-speaking teenager.
The novel, the first of a dozen by Ms. Zweig, sold about 5 million copies. A German film adaptation with the same title, directed by Caroline Link, won the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2003. Ms. Zweig and Ms. Link wrote the screenplay.
In a sequel novel, Somewhere in Germany, published in 1996, Ms. Zweig described the reverse adjustment the family had to make when, in 1947, her father, a lawyer, was appointed a judge in Frankfurt. As her father explained it to her at the time, she wrote, his credentials as a German lawyer with no Nazi affiliations made him one of the few people qualified for such a position after World War II.
In fact, she wrote, he missed “the sounds and memories of home,” which everyone except her oddly naïve father seemed to know were beyond recovery.
Returning to bombed-out Frankfurt in 1947, the family joined a hungry, traumatized population in rebuilding the country. Scores of their German relatives were missing. None had been heard from since the start of the war in 1939, except a grandmother, who got a letter out in 1941 with the help of the Red Cross.
“They were only allowed to write 20 words,” Ms. Zweig told an interviewer in 2003. “My grandmother wrote — ‘We are very excited. We are going to Poland tomorrow.’ ” Reading that, she continued, “my father said Poland meant Auschwitz.”
But her father cautioned her against indiscriminate hatred, she wrote in an essay in The Guardian in 2003. As a child she was not allowed to hate all Germans, she said, “only the Nazis.”
For a year after returning to Frankfurt, the family lived in one room at the city’s former Jewish hospital. She wrote, “We spent our days hunting for food and our evenings wondering why nearly every German we talked to told us that they had always hated Hitler and had felt pity for the persecuted Jews.”
Stefanie Zweig was born on Sept. 19, 1932, in Leobschütz, a German-speaking town in disputed territory belonging to Germany at the time and to Poland since the end of the war. Her family moved to Frankfurt when she was a toddler. After a decade of speaking English (and some Swahili) in Kenya, she had to relearn German on returning to Frankfurt at 15, she wrote.
Ms. Zweig was for many years the arts editor and film reviewer for a Frankfurt newspaper, Abendpost Nachtausgabe. She wrote children’s books in her spare time and began writing novels only after the newspaper closed in 1988. She lived for many years with a companion, Wolfgang Hafele, who died in 2013. She had no known survivors.
Ms. Zweig wrote Nowhere in Africa in German, as she did all her books, but admitted to remaining unsure throughout her life whether English or German was her true native language.
“I count in English, adore Alice in Wonderland, am best friends with Winnie-the-Pooh,” she wrote in her Guardian essay, “and I am still hunting for the humor in German jokes.”A version of this article appears in print on May 1, 2014, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: “Stefanie Zweig, 81, Author Who Fled Nazis to Kenya.”