The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World

Other Press  2014

 

The name Stefan Zweig may not be familiar to many people, but in the 1930s he was the most widely translated living author in the world. Zweig, an assimilated Jew who took pride in his atheism, was forced, along with many Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals, to leave Vienna after Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, which was followed by the brutal treatment of its Jewish population. As a famous author in exile, Zweig was lionized as he journeyed to London, New York City, Ossining in upstate New York, and finally to Brazil, where in 1942 inhe and his second wife committed suicide the city of Petropolis .

George Prochnik’s brilliant biography details the trials and tribulations of his subject, thus conveying the struggle that exiles like Zweig faced as refugees in countries whose language, customs, and traditions were foreign to them. But there is much more to this biography: Prochnik tells us a great deal about Zweig’s response to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and, although a friend of Theodore Herzl, his rejection of Zionism.

Zweig lamented his exile from Vienna and bitterly contended that the most tragic aspect of the Nazi oppression of the Jews was their failure to understand why they were targeted for persecution. At least, he noted, their ancestors in medieval times knew why they suffered: for “their faith and laws.” But , Zweig argued, twentieth century Jews were no longer a community, that they had discarded the law and their sense of peoplehood, and only exile held them together, “like dirt in the street.” Meditating on his forced departure from his beloved Vienna, Zweig asked, “Why I? Why you? How do you and I who do not know each other, who speak different languages, whose thinking takes different forms and who have nothing in common happen to be here together?” As Prochnik notes, Zweig approached the injustice of anti-Semitism by decrying the total absence of common ground among Jews themselves. Zweig, forced to identify with people who bore no relation to him, had come to see this condition as the defining experience of exile.

Although Zweig studied Zionism almost literally at Herzl’s feet, he ultimately came to the opposite conclusion of that which his friend wished to disseminate. Prochnik cites a letter which Zweig wrote to Martin Buber in 1917, in which he asserted that he had “never wanted Jews to become a nation again and thus lower itself to taking part with others in the rivalry of nations. I love the diaspora and affirm it as the meaning of Jewish idealism, as Jewry’s cosmopolitan human mission.” With the advent of Nazi Germany and its barbaric response to civilized humanity, Zweig feared that the objective of Zionism would result in the dangerous reality of a Jewish state like all the others with “cannons, flags, and medals.” In response to the spread of fascism and the Nazi objective to rid Europe of its Jews, Zweig held fast and argued that the Jews’ “sacred mission” was not to create still another state but to serve as ”the gadfly which plagues the mangy beast of nationalism,” and to work for the “dissolution of nationalist tendencies.... These Jews without a country are the best assistants of the good Europeans of the future.”

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