Rediscovering Franz Werfel: Potsdam Conference Analyzes Life of Brave Humanitarian

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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.

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His commitment to the Armenian cause was unequivocal. It was during his second trip through the Middle East in 1930, which took him and his wife through Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, that he came face to face with the issue. In Damascus he saw groups of abandoned, dirty, hungry children, whose huge dark eyes haunted him. When he asked who they were, he learned that they were the survivors of the Armenians massacred by the Turks, and that no one was caring for them. As Prof. Andreas Meier from Wuppertal recalled, Werfel could not get their images out of his mind and the idea for the book “became virulent.”

The Werfels were not the only author couple travelling in the region at that time, Meier said. There was also Armin Wegner and his wife, and he too set out to write about the Armenian Genocide. The story of how the two men approached the subject and how a literary controversy ensued was treated by several speakers in Potsdam.

Dr. Rolf Hosfeld, director of the Lepsius House, focused on the historical facts behind Werfel’s novel, identifying the real-life figures who inspired the leading protagonists in the novel: priest Dikran Andreasian (Aram Tomasian) and Moses Der-Kaloustian (Gabriel Bagradian), the former military officer who led the resistance.

In his summary of the account, Hosfeld distinguished fact from fiction: in addition to the two historical personalities, the story of the flight up the mountain was true, as were the descriptions of the three Turkish attacks, the signs calling for help, the altar the resisters built, and the fire which alerted the French ship Guichon and led to their rescue. The dramatic encounter between the German humanitarian Dr. Johannes Lepsius and Young Turk War Minister Enver Pasha also corresponds to reality, as recorded by Lepsius himself in his report.

The rest, as Prof. Martin Tamke from Gottingen detailed, was fiction. Herein lies the main difference between the approaches taken by Wegner and Werfel. When Wegner read in a newspaper in 1933 that Werfel was touring to present his new book, he was shocked and accused the author of having taken his material. Wegner, who had witnessed the Genocide as a medic in the German army, had documented the atrocities in photographs, and later also interviewed survivors, visiting them in camps, could not believe that Werfel could have written such a book without having had this first-hand knowledge. In their correspondence on the controversy, Werfel expressed his respect for Wegner’s eyewitness experience, but could not acknowledge him as a source. He also specified that he had isolated a single episode for his novel, whereas Wegner, in his diary, had been compiling material for a historical account. For Werfel, Tamke said, the aim was not to write an eyewitness report but poetry, a work of art.

In addition to researching the saga of the resistance, Werfel also drew on his extensive knowledge about the Armenian church, or, better, churches. As Prof. Hacik Gazer from Erlangen explained, Werfel was familiar with the Armenian churches and cloisters in Venice and Vienna, and the documents in the Mkhitarist archives there which provided him with valuable source material.

Through his contact with art historian Josef Strzygowsky, he learned about Armenian church architecture. Significantly, his references in the novel are not limited to the Armenian Apostolic Church, but include several figures from the Protestant churches and missionaries, thus expressing an “ecumenical” approach. Gazer also noted that Lepsius, before his encounter with Enver, had met with the Patriarch Zaven, and that the fictional figure, Juliette (Bagradian’s wife) converts from Catholicism to the Apostolic Church.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh made history, not only as a work of art, but as a political message. Prof. Rubina Peroomian, an expert on Genocide literature from Los Angeles, cited several ways it has been honored. There is the new English translation by David R. Godine which represents a complete and accurate rendition of the German original. Werfel, “a virtual Armenian saint” and a “national hero,” was honored with his wife in New York City in 1935 by the Armenian community. A plaque in Toulon plays tribute to the sailors who rescued the Armenians and carries Werfel’s name. The survivors of Musa Dagh and their descendants, though scattered through the world, have an association and members meet every year in September to celebrate their victory. Peroomian also reported on how an Armenian translation had been smuggled into Soviet Armenia in 1935, and later in the 1960s inspired dissidents and a nationalist revival. In 1988, as the political climate changed, it was republished. Now there is a memorial plaque dedicated to Werfel at the Armenian Genocide monument in Tsitsernakaberd alongside those commemorating Lepsius, Wegner and others.

But if the novel has brought Werfel recognition and praise, it has also been slandered, suppressed and officially banned. Dr. Werner Tress of Potsdam reported that, although Werfel’s earlier works had made him famous by 1933, after the Nazis took power he was persecuted, expelled from a writers’ association, and his novel publicly burned. With the aid of projections of actual documents from the Nazi era, Tress showed how one after the other, political and literary organizations issued black lists of publications considered “damaging” and “undesirable,” and therefore banned. Werfel’s name features prominently in all the documents, sometimes with several works listed by title, other times, with “complete works.” On one black list put out by the Bavarian Political Police, among the 15 books by Werfel, there is a “+” mark added to Musa Dagh. This sign meant that if that book were found in the possession of private persons, in house searches, it would be confiscated and the owners put under pressure. Publishers and distributors were ordered not to deliver the book and customs officials stopped any copies coming across the border into Germany.

Even long after the defeat of Nazi Germany and in faraway America, Werfel’s monumental work has continued to spark hefty political controversy. Most clamorous was the fight around a film version of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Planned by MGM in Hollywood in 1935, the original production never made it into movie theatres, due to insistent, heavy-handed intimidation by Turkish authorities. As Dr. Raffi Kantian from Hannover related, the Turkish government made known through diplomatic channels that it wanted to stop the project, which, if completed, would “harm” Armenians in Turkey. Other pressure consisted of threats to ban all MGM films in Turkey, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece, while rumors circulated that it was a “Jewish-Armenian plot,” etc.

The political impact of Werfel’s work is still felt today, in the form of the continuing strife around Turkish recognition of the past. In a concluding roundtable discussion addressing the issue in the context of European integration, Markus Merkel, a Social Democrat who introduced a resolution on the Armenian Genocide into the German Bundestag in 2005, called for an official exhibit to be organized in Berlin in 2015. He expressed his hope that the Armenian Diaspora would wield its influence to promote democratization in Armenia as well as in Turkey, lending support to the expanding debate in Turkish civil society around the Genocide.