Asy­lum: A Sur­vivor’s Flight from Nazi-Occu­pied Vien­na Through Wartime France

Moriz Schey­er, trans­lat­ed and with an epi­logue by P.N. Singer

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

Asy­lum is a mem­oir that was sur­round­ed by con­flict before it was ever bound into pages and sent out to the public.

Moriz Schey­er was a promi­nent jour­nal­ist in Vien­na until he was forced to flee after the Anschluss in 1938. While hid­den by the Resis­tance in a French con­vent after his release from a con­cen­tra­tion camp, he secret­ly wrote down the details of his strug­gle to stay alive. He fin­ished the man­u­script in 1945, but died of a heart con­di­tion four years lat­er, hav­ing failed to find a pub­lish­er in the interim.

After Scheyer’s death, his step­son found the man­u­script and destroyed it, think­ing it too anti-Ger­man.” Lit­tle did he know his stepfather’s words would sur­face again. Years lat­er, in 2005, Scheyer’s step-grand­son, P. N. Singer, found a dusty car­bon copy of the man­u­script buried in a suit­case in his grandmother’s Lon­don attic. He trans­lat­ed it him­self and shopped it out suc­cess­ful­ly to publishers.

The result is this raw but reward­ing vol­ume, which details the events and expe­ri­ence of per­se­cu­tion in care­ful, mea­sured prose and tells the read­er pre­cise­ly what it feels like to be a Jew under the swasti­ka.” The book is both tense and mov­ing, part­ly because the sto­ry is so com­pelling, and part­ly because the writ­ing is so riv­et­ing. Schey­er is ratio­nal and high­ly lit­er­ate, and the read­er fol­lows his progress in hor­ror as he is hunt­ed and humil­i­at­ed while the ordi­nary peo­ple around him live their dai­ly lives.

When Schey­er real­ized he would have to leave Vien­na, hav­ing lost his job and near­ly all of his pos­ses­sions to the Nazis, he chose to flee to France because he loved the coun­try — hav­ing lived there and writ­ten about its cul­ture in the 1920s — and because he trust­ed the peo­ple. Yet he and his wife found that their mis­er­able exis­tence returned once Hitler invad­ed the coun­try. They sur­vived in hid­ing for three years, with lit­tle help from the French peo­ple, only to be over­whelmed by a sense of out­rage and betray­al once again when Schey­er was round­ed up along with 5,000 oth­er Jews and sent to the Beaune-la-Rolande intern­ment camp in May 1941.

Schey­er spent three years there until — beat­en, humil­i­at­ed, and starved — he was sud­den­ly and unex­pect­ed released. Still hound­ed by the Nazis, how­ev­er, he was final­ly able to find shel­ter through a con­tact in the French Resis­tance. A hid­ing place for him, his wife, and their devot­ed non-Jew­ish house­keep­er was found in a con­vent in the Dor­dogne that served as an asy­lum for men­tal­ly ill women.

P. N. Singer, the author’s Eng­lish step-grand­son and trans­la­tor of the book, is known for his exper­tise in trans­lat­ing ancient Greek and Latin texts as well as those in Ger­man and Ital­ian, and the work he did on Scheyer’s book is faith­ful to the orig­i­nal. Unlike his father, Singer found sig­nif­i­cant mer­it in the work, and this shows in the respect­ful and del­i­cate treat­ment he gives the mate­r­i­al. Orig­i­nal­ly enti­tled A Sur­vivor by Schey­er, the book was renamed Asy­lum by Singer, who felt it told the sto­ry of a man who, although he was con­sid­ered an ene­my of the state, man­aged time and again to find with­in him­self both the will and the means to survive.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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