As arts editor for one of Vienna’s principal newspapers, Moriz Scheyer knew many of the city’s foremost artists and was an important literary journalist. With the advent of the Nazis, he was forced from both job and home. In 1943, in hiding in France, Scheyer began drafting what was to become Asylum: A Survivor’s Flight From Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France. Tracing events from the Anschluss in Vienna, through life in Paris and unoccupied France, including a period in a French concentration camp, contact with the Resistance, and clandestine life in a convent caring for mentally disabled women, he gives an extraordinarily vivid account of the events and experience of persecution.
After Scheyer’s death in 1949, his stepson, disliking the book’s anti-German rhetoric, destroyed the manuscript. Or thought he did. Recently, a carbon copy was found in the family’s attic by P.N. Singer, Scheyer’s step-grandson, who has translated and provided an epilogue.
This book has nothing to do with “literature” as normally understood: the circumstances of its composition preclude that from the outset.
To begin with, there was everything that happened to me before November 1942, the date when I found refuge in the Franciscan Convent of Labarde. It was while I was in hiding there that two friends, Pierre Vorms and the great writer Jean Cassou—who had himself just come out of prison—finally persuaded me to undertake the project. Even then, though, our salvation from the Germans was still a long way off. The Gestapo headhunters were going to their sport more energetically—and the fate of any Jew that they tracked down was more gruesome—than ever.
There were many times when, even if by good fortune I managed some work on this book, I did not know whether I would be delivered into the clutches of the Germans the very next day. Many times when I was forced suddenly to suspend work for an indefinite period—to bundle the papers up hastily so as not to put the Sisters of the Convent in serious danger. Many times when—to put it bluntly—the end seemed to be before me. In such circumstances you do not think in terms of creating literature out of all this material, or of having a “good story.” If I did have such thoughts, indeed, I would hardly deserve to have survived the persecution.
It may be that the way in which the words, the sentences, the pages of which this book consists have been put together is the result of a certain intellectual effort. But their content, their essence, has a quite different source. And that source is a profound emotional anguish. An anguish in which the wretched sufferer is able only to keep repeating the same, stammering question: How could it all have happened?
Any answer to this question would have to address the guilty—all the guilty—and would entail an appropriate punishment. In this case, however, a true “day of reckoning” of that kind is highly unlikely: the more time passes, the less importance the world will attach to such a notion. People will have more important concerns than the responsibility for war crimes in general, and the suffering of the Jews in particular.
But that does not make it any less necessary to pose the question—and to keep posing the question “How could it all have happened?” even if all one may hope to achieve by doing so is to stir the conscience, the thoughts, the anger of just a few individuals. There is, too, an inescapable duty to bear witness, to play one’s part, however modest that may be. This book has no ambition beyond that of recording the witness of a Jewish refugee.
I have absolutely no pretension to be a historian. If I touch upon wider events, I do so only insofar as I experienced them myself. It would be wrong, too, to characterize the work as a “memoir”: my own life is only of importance to the extent that it was dragged into the stream of world events—the opposite of the case with a memoir.
Besides, memoirs aim to be as “interesting” as possible. I have made no attempt to be interesting—only to be truthful. Nor have I been principally concerned with accounts of external events—even with the description of atrocities—but rather with the attempt to express an internal condition: a state of the soul. My deepest desire has been to portray the mental misery that the German persecution created in us Jews. Even among the survivors, many—so many—have carried on, but with their souls broken: maimed for life.
I know that I will provoke the criticism in some quarters that I talk too much about Jewish refugees—as though nobody else existed, as though others had not suffered too.
It is absolutely true that others—innumerable others—were made to suffer, no less than we. And I have not failed to make mention of that I myself happen to be both a refugee and a Jew; and one who bears witness must bear witness to his own personal experiences. But there is another point, too; and that is that whatever those others were made to suffer at least had some connection—direct or indirect—with the War. Their treatment at the hands of Germany was unprecedented and absolutely without justification. But, for all that they suffered, at least it was not the case that their freedom, their existence, their lives, were forfeit—forfeit from the very outset—simply by virtue of their birth. Even Hitler did not have the audacity to question whether they were actually human beings.
Whereas Goebbels, Hitler’s official cultural spokesman, stated quite baldly in a speech immediately after the “Advent” of the Third Reich: ‘If I am asked whether the Jews are not also human beings, I can only reply: are not bugs also animals?’
What was perpetrated against the Jews, moreover, had nothing to do with the War. The project was undertaken long before the War, and would have been carried out systematically—in accordance with a clearly laid-out program of extermination—even if there had been no War. And it was perpetrated against unarmed, defenseless people, who were unable to mobilize themselves, unable to resist. Perpetrated against powerless victims who had already been deprived of their rights, despised, insulted, and humiliated in both body and soul. Perpetrated as a result of the impetuosity—as cowardly as it was crazy—of a madman, with the willing, happy participation of his “Comrades of the People.”
It was perpetrated, too, without the civilized world daring to demand that it be stopped, or at least daring to make clear its abhorrence. Only later, much later—only when it was already far too late—did we begin to get all those fine expressions of solidarity, which came in the context of general war propaganda. And, while it was being perpetrated, states which had every opportunity to do so, and could have done so without cost, failed in their duty to open their gates to the persecuted. The granting of a visa was a process invariably attended with all manner of obstacles, restrictions, provisos and caveats, before—through a grate in the wall, reluctantly, like alms to a troublesome beggar—the document was finally dispensed. Or not dispensed, as the case might be. The lowliest consular official was suddenly a god.
No: others had to undergo all kinds of trials, certainly. But our journey of spiritual misery—to speak of nothing else—was without parallel. You have to have been a refugee yourself, to have lived as a Jew under the sign of the Swastika, to know what that really meant. And whatever anyone might say with regard to that … it would still be too little.
How could it all have happened? We survivors—we who went through it—we, surely, have the right to keep asking that question. While at the same time bearing witness—in our name, and in that of the silenced six million. The martyrs: men, women, and children, whom the “Führer”—the Leader of his murderous Germany—hounded to their deaths.
If this book had the effect of making a few of those who were spared the fate of being refugees, of being Jewish, in the Hitler era, ask themselves the question, How could it all have happened?, that would be the best reparation I could receive—the greatest achievement of my life.
From Asylum by Moriz Scheyer. Copyright © 2016 by P.N. Singer (Moriz Scheyer Estate). Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.
Moriz Scheyer (1886-1949) was arts editor of one of Vienna’s main newspapers from 1924 until his expulsion in 1938. A personal friend of Stefan Zweig, in his own lifetime he published three books of travel writing, and three volumes of literary-historical essays. He died in France in 1949.
P.N. Singer, Scheyer’s step-grandson, is a writer and translator.