Franz Werfel

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Franz Werfel
Werfel photographed by Van Vechten, 1940
Franz Viktor Werfel

(1890-09-10)10 September 1890
Died26 August 1945(1945-08-26) (aged 54)
OccupationNovelist, playwright, poet
Partner(s) Alma Mahler (1929–1945; his death)
Relatives Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (sister)
Franz Werfel (signature ca 1945).gif

Franz Viktor Werfel (10 September 1890 26 August 1945) was an Austrian-Bohemian novelist, playwright, and poet whose career spanned World War I, the Interwar period, and World War II. He is primarily known as the author of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933, English tr. 1934, 2012), a novel based on events that took place during the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and The Song of Bernadette (1941), a novel about the life and visions of the French Catholic saint Bernadette Soubirous, which was made into a Hollywood film of the same name.

Austria Federal republic in Central Europe

Austria, officially the Republic of Austria, is a country in Central Europe comprising 9 federated states. Its capital, largest city and one of nine states is Vienna. Austria has an area of 83,879 km2 (32,386 sq mi), a population of nearly 9 million people and a nominal GDP of $477 billion. It is bordered by the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Hungary and Slovakia to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the west. The terrain is highly mountainous, lying within the Alps; only 32% of the country is below 500 m (1,640 ft), and its highest point is 3,798 m (12,461 ft). The majority of the population speaks local Bavarian dialects as their native language, and German in its standard form is the country's official language. Other regional languages are Hungarian, Burgenland Croatian, and Slovene.

A Bohemian is a resident of Bohemia, a region of the Czech Republic or the former Kingdom of Bohemia, a region of the former Crown of Bohemia. In English, the word "Bohemian" was used to denote the Czech people as well as the Czech language before the word "Czech" became prevalent in the early 20th century.

A novelist is an author or writer of novels, though often novelists also write in other genres of both fiction and non-fiction. Some novelists are professional novelists, thus make a living writing novels and other fiction, while others aspire to support themselves in this way or write as an avocation. Most novelists struggle to get their debut novel published, but once published they often continue to be published, although very few become literary celebrities, thus gaining prestige or a considerable income from their work.


Life and career

Born in Prague (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Werfel was the first of three children of a wealthy manufacturer of gloves and leather goods, Rudolf Werfel. His mother, Albine Kussi, was the daughter of a mill owner. His two sisters were Hanna (born 1896) and Marianne Amalie (born 1899). [1] His family was Jewish. As a child, Werfel was raised by his Czech Catholic governess, Barbara Šimůnková, who often took him to mass in Prague's main cathedral. Like the children of other progressive German-speaking Jews in Prague, Werfel was educated at a Catholic school run by the Piarists, a teaching order that allowed for a rabbi to instruct Jewish students for their Bar Mitzvahs. [1] This, along with his governess's influence, gave Werfel an early interest (and expertise) in Catholicism, which soon branched out to other faiths, including Theosophy and Islam, such that his fiction, as well as his nonfiction, provides some insight into comparative religion.

Prague Capital city in Czech Republic

Prague is the capital and largest city in the Czech Republic, the 14th largest city in the European Union and the historical capital of Bohemia. Situated in the north-west of the country on the Vltava river, the city is home to about 1.3 million people, while its metropolitan area is estimated to have a population of 2.6 million. The city has a temperate climate, with warm summers and chilly winters.

Austria-Hungary Constitutional monarchic union from 1867 to October 1918

Austria-Hungary, often referred to as the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Dual Monarchy, was a constitutional monarchy in Central and Eastern Europe from 1867 to 1918. It was formed by giving a new constitution to the Austrian Empire, which devolved powers on Austria (Cisleithania) and Hungary (Transleithania) and placed them on an equal footing. It broke apart into several states at the end of World War I.

Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (1896–1964) was the sister of Franz Werfel, wife of Herbert Fuchs-Robettin, and mistress of Alban Berg. Berg secretly and cryptically dedicated his Lyric Suite to her.

Werfel began writing at an early age and, by 1911, had published his first book of poems, Der Weltfreund, which can be translated as "the friend to the world" as well as philanthropist, humanitarian, and the like. [1] By this time, Werfel had befriended other German Jewish writers who frequented Prague's Café Arco, chief among them Max Brod and Franz Kafka, and his poetry was praised by such critics as Karl Kraus, who published Werfel's early poems in Kraus's journal, Die Fackel (The Torch). In 1912, Werfel moved to Leipzig, where he became an editor for Kurt Wolff's new publishing firm, where Werfel championed and edited Georg Trakl's first book of poetry. While he lived in Germany, Werfel's milieu grew to include Else Lasker-Schüler, Martin Buber, Rainer Maria Rilke, among other German-language writers, poets, and intellectuals in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Max Brod Author, composer, and journalist

Max Brod was a German-speaking Jewish Czech, later Israeli, author, composer, and journalist. Although he was a prolific writer in his own right, he is most famous as the friend and biographer of writer Franz Kafka. Kafka, who had named Brod as his literary executor, instructed him to burn his unpublished work upon the former's death, but he refused and had them published instead.

Franz Kafka German-speaking Bohemian Jewish novelist and short story writer

Franz Kafka was a German-speaking Bohemian Jewish novelist and short-story writer, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. His work, which fuses elements of realism and the fantastic, typically features isolated protagonists facing bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible socio-bureaucratic powers, and has been interpreted as exploring themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity. His best known works include "Die Verwandlung", Der Process, and Das Schloss. The term Kafkaesque has entered the English language to describe situations like those found in his writing.

Karl Kraus (writer) Czech playwright and publicist

Karl Kraus was an Austrian writer and journalist, known as a satirist, essayist, aphorist, playwright and poet. He directed his satire at the press, German culture, and German and Austrian politics. The Austrian author Stefan Zweig once called Kraus "the master of venomous ridicule". He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times.

With the outbreak of World War I, Werfel served in the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Russian front [2] as a telephone operator. His duties both exposed him to the vicissitudes of total war as well as provided him with enough of a haven to continue writing Expressionist poems, ambitious plays, and letters voluminously. His strange mix of humanism, confessionalism, autobiography, as well as mythology and religiosity developed further during this time. His poems and plays ranged from scenes of ancient Egypt (notably the monotheism of Akhenaton) to occult allusions (Werfel had participated in séances with his friends Brod and Kafka) and incorporate a parable from the Bahá'í Faith in the poem "Jesus and the Carrion Path". His bias for Christian subjects, as well as his antipathy for Zionism, eventually alienated many of his Jewish friends and readers, including early champions such as Karl Kraus. Others, however, stood by him, including, Martin Buber, who published a sequence of poems from Werfel's wartime manuscript, Der Gerichtstag (Judgment Day, published in 1919) in his monthly journal, Der Jude (The Jew). and wrote of Werfel in his prefatory remark:

Austro-Hungarian Army ground force of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy from 1867 to 1918

The Austro-Hungarian Army was the ground force of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy from 1867 to 1918. It was composed of three parts: the joint army, the Imperial Austrian Landwehr, and the Royal Hungarian Honvéd.

Eastern Front (World War I) part of World War I

The Eastern Front or Eastern Theater of World War I was a theatre of operations that encompassed at its greatest extent the entire frontier between the Russian Empire and Romania on one side and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire on the other. It stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, involved most of Eastern Europe and stretched deep into Central Europe as well. The term contrasts with "Western Front", which was being fought in Belgium and France.

Total war conflict in which belligerents engage with all available resources

Total war is warfare that includes any and all civilian-associated resources and infrastructure as legitimate military targets, mobilizes all of the resources of society to fight the war, and gives priority to warfare over non-combatant needs. The Oxford Living Dictionaries defines "total war" as "A war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded."

Since I was first moved by his poems, I have opened (knowing well, I should say, it's a problem) the gates of my invisible garden [i.e., an imaginarium] to him, and now he can do nothing for all eternity that would bring me to banish him from it. Compare, if you will, a real person to an anecdotal one, a late book to an earlier, the one you see to you yourself; but I am not putting a value on a poet, only recognizing that he is one—and the way he is one. [3]

An imaginarium refers to a place devoted to the imagination. There are various types of imaginaria, centers largely devoted to stimulating and cultivating the imagination, towards scientific, artistic, commercial, recreational, or spiritual ends.

In the summer of 1917, Werfel left the frontline for the Military Press Bureau in Vienna, where he joined other notable Austrian writers serving as propagandists, among them Robert Musil, Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Franz Blei. Through the latter, Werfel met and fell in love with Alma Mahler, widow of Gustav Mahler, the former lover of the painter Oskar Kokoschka, and the wife of the architect Walter Gropius, then serving in the Imperial German Army on the Western Front. Alma, who was also a composer, had already set one of Werfel's poems to music, reciprocated despite Werfel being much younger, shorter, and having Jewish features that she, being both anti-Semitic and attracted to Jewish men, found initially distasteful. [1] Their love affair culminated in the premature birth of a son, Martin, in August 1918. Martin, who was given the surname of Gropius, died in May of the following year. Despite attempts to save his marriage to Alma, with whom he had a young daughter, Manon, Gropius reluctantly agreed to a divorce in 1920. Ironically, Alma refused to marry Werfel for the next nine years. [1] However, Alma, more so than with her first two husbands and lovers, lent herself to the development of Werfel's career and influenced it in such a way that he became an accomplished playwright and novelist as well as poet. They married on 6 July 1929.

Robert Musil Austrian writer

Robert Musil was an Austrian philosophical writer. His unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities is generally considered to be one of the most important and influential modernist novels.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal Austrian novelist, librettist, poet, dramatist, narrator, and essayist

Hugo Laurenz August Hofmann von Hofmannsthal was an Austrian prodigy, a novelist, librettist, poet, dramatist, narrator, and essayist.

Franz Blei playwright

Franz Blei was an essayist, playwright and translator. He was also noted as a bibliophile, a critic, an editor in chief and publisher, and a fine wit in conversation. He was a friend and collaborator of Franz Kafka.

In April 1924, Verdi – Roman der Oper (Novel of the Opera) was published by Zsolnay Verlag, establishing Werfel's reputation as a novelist. In 1926, Werfel was awarded the Grillparzer Prize by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and in Berlin, Max Reinhardt performed his play Juarez and Maximilian. By the end of the decade, Werfel had become one of the most important and established writers in German and Austrian literature and had already merited one full-length critical biography.

A journey in 1930 to the Middle East and encountering starving refugees inspired his novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh which drew world attention to the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government. [4] Werfel lectured on this subject across Germany. The Nazi newspaper Das Schwarze Corps denounced him as a propagandist of "alleged Turkish horrors perpetrated against the Armenians." The same newspaper, suggesting a link between the Armenian and the later Jewish genocide, condemned "America's Armenian Jews for promoting in the U.S.A. the sale of Werfel's book." [5]

Werfel was forced to leave the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1933. His books were burned by the Nazis. [2] Werfel left Austria after the Anschluss in 1938 and went to France, where they lived in a fishing village near Marseille. Visitors to their home at this time included Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann. After the German invasion and occupation of France during World War II, and the deportation of French Jews to the Nazi concentration camps, Werfel had to flee again. With the assistance of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille, he and his wife narrowly escaped the Nazi regime, [1] finding shelter for five weeks in the pilgrimage town of Lourdes. [2] He also received much help and kindness from the Catholic orders that staffed the shrine. [1] He vowed to write about the experience and, safe in America, he published The Song of Bernadette in 1941. [6] Fry organized a secret crossing over the Pyrenees on foot. They went to Madrid and then Lisbon where they boarded a ship for New York, arriving 13 October 1940. Werfel and his family settled in Los Angeles, where they met other German and Austrian emigrants, such as Mann, Reinhardt, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. In southern California, Werfel wrote his final play, Jacobowsky and the Colonel (Jacobowsky und der Oberst) which was made into the 1958 film Me and the Colonel starring Danny Kaye; Giselher Klebe's opera Jacobowsky und der Oberst (1965) is also based on this play. Before his death, he completed the first draft of his last novel Star of the Unborn (Stern der Ungeborenen), which was published posthumously in 1946. [1]

Franz Werfel died in Los Angeles in 1945 and was interred there in the Rosedale Cemetery. However, his body was returned in 1975 to Vienna for reburial in the Zentralfriedhof. [7]

Honours and awards

Armenian stamp (1995): Franz Werfel and a Hero of Musa Dagh Stamp of Armenia m72.jpg
Armenian stamp (1995): Franz Werfel and a Hero of Musa Dagh


In English (some of these titles are out of print):

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Jungk, Peter Stephan (1990). Franz Werfel: A Life in Prague, Vienna, & Hollywood. Translated by Anselm Hollo. New York: Grove Weidenfeld. ISBN   0-8021-1097-5.
  2. 1 2 3 "Franz Werfel", U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
  3. Martin Buber, "Vorbemerkung über Franz Werfel", Der Jude 2, nos. 1–2 (April–May 1917): 109–112.
  4. James Reidel, "Translator's note" in Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, trans. Geoffrey Dunlop and James Reidel (1934; revised and expanded, New York: Godine, 2012).
  5. Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, (New York: Knopf, 2006), 231."
  6. Personal Preface, Song of Bernadette, Werfel, Franz
  7. Franz Werfel – timeline and works (in German)
  8. HayPost stamps from 1995