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.