By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
POTSDAM, Germany — Among the required reading for most Armenians is the novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel, and the author is thus known among Armenians mainly — if not exclusively — for this monumental work. But, as a conference held on March 10-12 in Potsdam, Germany documented, Werfel’s literary accomplishments include a large number of other significant works which deal with a vast array of issues. The title of the three-day conference cosponsored by the Lepsius House and the Moses Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam already gives a sense of the scope of his activity which has been the subject of extensive research: “Genocide and Literature: Franz Werfel in an Armenian-Jewish-Turkish-German Perspective. In the course of the speeches and concluding round table discussion, speakers from Germany, France, Austria and the United States shed new light on the many facets of this extraordinarily complex figure.
Peter Stephan Jungk, who has written a Werfel biography, introduced the author with an overview of his life and works, and remarked that doing research for the book took him on a journey through the first half of the 20th century. In fact, Werfel had experienced World War I first-hand and suffered persecution under the Nazi regime prior to World War II. Although he was born in 1890 in Prague to Jewish parents, as a youth Franz did not receive formal religious instruction and became in fact enamored of Christian culture. This was due to a close relationship he had with governess Barbara Simunkova, a Catholic who took him to mass and taught him prayers. His early exposure to both religious cultures was the source of a theme that was to become a leitmotif in his thoughts and works. At 12, a passionate opera goer and Verdi fan (he wrote Verdi. Novel of the Opera, 1924), Franz started composing poetry at 16 and his first volume of verse published in 1911, Der Weltfreund (Friend of the World), was a bestseller. Other works in drama and fiction followed, many crowned with success. Musa Dagh, which appeared in 1933, was acclaimed and rightly seen as a foreboding to Jews in Germany. When, in May 1933, his book was publicly burned along with others by the Nazis, Werfel’s persecution began. He had to flee Vienna after the 1938 Nazi invasion, and, after the Nazis entered Paris, he fled Zurich via France for the US, where he settled in California.
Who was Franz Werfel really? As Prof. Hans Dieter Zimmermann of Berlin put it, there were three souls in the author — a German, a Czech and a Jewish soul. A member of the celebrated Prague circle along with Max Brod, Franz Kafka and others, Werfel was a German-speaking Jew like the majority of his intellectual companions, but they were a tiny minority in Czechoslovakia. Politically they stood apart from the other German-speakers, the Sudetendland Germans in Bohemia, who were pro-Nazis. Forced by political developments to move from place to place, Werfel often asked himself where his “homeland” really was.
Werfel also had a Christian soul, to be precise, as Viennese scholar Dr. Olga Koller put it, a Catholic soul. In his works, he “lived between two religions” and “felt at home in both.” Thus, Paul Among the Jews: A Tragedy (1926) and his novel, Jeremiah: Listen to the Voice (1937), which dealt with Jewish figures, came from the same pen that wrote Barbara oder die Frommigkeit (Barbara, or Piety, 1929), Der veruntreute Himmel (Embezzled Heaven, 1939) which relates the tale of a woman seeking assurances of entering heaven, as well as The Song of Bernadette (1941), featuring the young girl and her vision at Lourdes. If Martin Buber reacted to his Christian writings with accusations of “betrayal,” his wife, Alma Mahler, pressured him to renounce Judaism.