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A Survivor's Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France
Translated by P. N. Singer
Epilogue by P. N. Singer
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As arts editor for one of Vienna’s principal newspapers, Moriz Scheyer knew many of the city’s foremost artists, and was an important literary journalist. With the advent of the Nazis he was forced from both job and home. In 1943, in hiding in France, Scheyer began drafting what was to become this book.
Tracing events from the Anschluss in Vienna, through life in Paris and unoccupied France, including a period in a French concentration camp, contact with the Resistance, and clandestine life in a convent caring for mentally disabled women, he gives an extraordinarily vivid account of the events and experience of persecution.
After Scheyer’s death in 1949, his stepson, disliking the book’s anti-German rhetoric, destroyed the manuscript. Or thought he did. Recently, a carbon copy was found in the family’s attic by P.N. Singer, Scheyer’s step-grandson, who has translated and provided an epilogue.
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Asylum is an extraordinarily tense, painful, dramatic–and at times almost miraculous–account of an Austrian-Jewish writer's persecution, flight and rescue, first in Vienna and then in wartime France. It was written at the time of the actual events: drafted in hiding in a convent in the Dordogne from 1943 to 1944 and finally completed after the end of the War in Europe, in 1945.
The account is the memoir of Moriz Scheyer, who before being driven out of Vienna in 1938 was the arts page editor for one of the city's principal newspapers, the Neues Wiener Tagblatt. As such, he was a personal friend of Stefan Zweig, acquainted with Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Mahler and Bruno Walter, and himself the author of several volumes of essays and travel writings. So, despite his own protestation that this is not 'a literary work', it is a recollection of the Holocaust by a prominent, published writer.
The manuscript was discovered by chance–by my brother and myself–in the loft of my father, Konrad Singer, Scheyer's stepson, when he was in the process of moving house at the age of eighty-nine. Scheyer seems to have made some attempt at publication: what we found was a typescript, contained in a folder inscribed with the address of Stefan Zweig's first wife, in America. However, Scheyer died in 1949 and my father, who inherited his original typescript, did not pursue publication; indeed, he strongly disliked the book and its intensely 'anti-German' sentiments, and believed himself to have destroyed it. The typescript that I came upon was, it seems, a carbon copy kept by my grandmother–Scheyer's wife, Margarethe (Grete)–and had found its way into the loft amongst other of her possessions.
Scheyer's memoir has a number of unique features, even among Holocaust survivors' accounts. First, as noted, it was written at the time, with the events fresh and raw; almost a diary, it rivets the reader with the actual perspectives and minute details of those days. Secondly–just because of the events that happened to him–it covers an unusually wide range of experiences: the Anschluss in Austria; Paris during the 'phoney war' and under German Occupation; the Exodus from Paris; life in two different French concentration camps; an attempt to escape to Switzerland; contact with the Resistance in the Unoccupied Zone; and, finally, a dramatic rescue, and clandestine life in a convent in the Dordogne. Thirdly, there is the distinctive voice: Scheyer, who had been a serious Viennese literary journalist, dissects what is happening to him with a relentlessly acerbic critique.
The text that follows is a faithful–unedited–translation of Moriz Scheyer's typescript, which was written in German and entitled, simply, 'Ein Ueberlebender' (A Survivor). I have kept footnotes to a minimum but have added relevant biographical notes in an appendix of 'People mentioned in the text', as well as an epilogue giving further information on the narrative's events and its characters' subsequent history, and a summary of Moriz Scheyer's life and career.
P. N. Singer, London, 2016
Written in hiding at the Convent of Labarde, Dordogne, 1943–44, and revised at Labarde in 1945
* CHARACTERS (AND ORGANISATIONS) identified with an asterisk are noted with brief biographies in the Appendix 'People mentioned in the text.'
ON 7TH FEBRUARY 1938 COUNT G., of the Bundeskanzler's office, had lunch with me in my apartment in the Mariahilferstrasse in Vienna.
It was shortly after Schuschnigg's* return from Berchtesgaden. Count G. gave us an account of the reception that Schuschnigg had been accorded: how Hitler had first of all kept the Austrian Chancellor waiting for hours in an antechamber; how, in response to any mild attempt at counter-argument, he had resorted to shouting in the most vulgar way imaginable; how Schuschnigg, a hardened smoker, had not been allowed to touch a cigarette for the entire duration; and how, that evening, by the time he arrived in Salzburg, he was in such a state of nervous collapse that he had to break his onward journey to Vienna.
G. ended his account with these words: 'There can be no doubt about it. In spite of any assurances to the contrary from Hitler, we are going to be swallowed up by the Germans. Still, we should have at least a year till that happens.'
That was the 7th of February.
On the evening of 9th March I left my office at the Neues Wiener Tagblatt* to return home. In the Rotenturmstrasse I encountered a group of white-stockinged adolesecent lads, barking 'Hitler!' and 'Sieg Heil!' alternately. (The white stocking, being a sign of affiliation to the Nazis, was supposedly illegal.) Two policemen on patrol at the corner of Brandstätte and Rotenturmstrasse gave the group clear indication of their approval. Schuschnigg was still the chancellor of Austria. But, even now, both policemen were displaying Swastikas openly on their uniform.
Near me, an old woman shouted excitedly at the demonstrators: 'Austria!'1 At this, one of the youths went up to her and laughed in her face: 'Don't fret yourself, granny. Your Austria's had it. Heil Hitler!' The old woman burst into tears.
Two days later the 'Anschluss' was a fait accompli. Whatever political events took place in between were in a sense no more than directorial details in the staging of the Tragedy of Austria.
The outrage had been carried out overnight. And all that remained of the famous 'face of Austria' was an unpleasant leer. No one could have imagined such a swift transformation possible. Within the physiognomy of Vienna, it was only lifeless objects that retained their previous appearance; but even these appeared somehow changed from within. The very air seemed to have acquired a different taste.
Everywhere you went there was a rabble. People who suddenly felt they were someone–who saw that this was their chance. People who looked on the Anschluss, first and foremost, as an opportunity to get involved in the witchhunt. Everywhere the triumphant grins of those traitors, with their 'illegal' party insignia, hitherto carefully hidden but now worn proudly and openly. Everywhere the vulgar hubbub of a provincial market. In short, there was a gross, ugly 'Teutonification' of the city, which felt like a punch in the face. If we were not talking about a terrible catastrophe, the whole thing would have resembled nothing so much as an elaborate festival of bad taste. Language itself became a caricature overnight. In the press, on the radio, in every announcement, a ghastly sort of jargon had already appeared along with the goose-step, emanating from the Nazi mania for neologisms and abbreviations, for Germanification in all things. Austria became 'the Ostmark' (Eastern Province); Vienna, the capital of the 'Lower Danube Area'.
And for whole weeks the incessant, painful noise of the loudspeakers and chants in the streets. It was quite impossible to escape from them.
The fact that the great and the good in other countries, who had stood by and observed the shameless Rape of Austria without lifting a finger–the fact that these people attached no significance to such chants as 'Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil' or 'One People–one Empire–one Leader', was no longer a surprise. That they were totally unaffected by such heroic battle-cries as 'Jew–perish!'2 or 'When Jewish blood spurts from the knife', was quite natural. We were only talking about Jews, after all. The anti-Semitic persecutions in Germany had never previously troubled these 'representatives of world opinion'. That they were not prepared to take notice of a chant like 'Today Germany–tomorrow the whole world', on the other hand–that was something that would cost them dear. They simply refused to take any notice, too, of the fact that–as early as March–high-ranking German officers in Vienna could be heard to declare openly: 'Now we have got Austria. But in a few months we will be in Prague. After that–well, after that, we shall see.'
We saw, all right.
'Jew–perish!' From the first day of the invasion, the 'Comrades of the People' started to put this programme into action.
Bürckel, the first Gauleiter of the 'Ostmark', had given an assurance immediately after his arrival in Vienna, that the Austrian Jews would feel a much sharper wind blowing than the Germans had. And Seyss-Inquart*–who had hitherto been a supporter of so many 'non-Aryan' businesses, and been a charming dinner-guest and bridge-partner in so many Jewish households renowned for their cooking–this same Seyss-Inquart made the following pronouncement at a meeting: 'We are indebted to our brothers from the Reich for everything. But there is one respect in which they may learn something from us, and that is how to deal with the Jews.'
Actually, they had nothing to learn in this respect, these brothers from the Reich. And the brothers from the Ostmark had nothing to teach. They were exactly on a par–the Heroes of the North and the Golden Heart of Vienna.
If, nonetheless, a certain unhappiness began to be felt on the part of the 'Comrades of the People' in the Ostmark, then this was only because the 'Master Race' from the Reich, quite naturally, kept the lion's portion of the Jewish booty for themselves, while the Austrian hyenas had to content themselves with the crumbs that fell from the table of the Feast of Aryanisation. They were quite substantial crumbs, to be sure, but they were still only crumbs.
It would require a separate book to enumerate the crimes perpetrated against the Austrian Jews from the day of the 'Advent' up to 15th August 1938, the day on which I was finally able to leave Austria. What a tortuous journey, even to reach the point where finally–after the payment of a sum which the Bandits of the Swastika had the nerve to call a 'fine for flight from the Reich', after being robbed down to the shirt on your back, abased and humiliated to the very depths of your soul–where, finally, after all this, you were actually able to have in your hand a passport and a permit to leave the country. From one day to the next I had become an outcast, someone who was fair game: a Jew. Against a Jew, now, everything was permitted, and nothing was forbidden. Or, to look at it another way, nothing was permitted any longer: even my best 'Aryan' friends took every imaginable precaution before daring to telephone–or, if they were particularly brave, to visit me in person.
I was not–in contrast with many other writers and journalists–immediately arrested and placed in a concentration camp. That was a fate that was to befall me a little later, after my emigration. I was left in 'freedom'–unlike, for example, the venerable chief editor of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, the highly respected Hofrat Dr Löbl, who was locked up, along with his wife and daughter. I was extremely lucky. Still, at this time it was only the thought of my wife and children that kept me going. In these first five months alone, nine thousand Viennese Jews could not resist the temptation to escape to their deaths.
Nine thousand suicides in the first five months. While the 'Comrades of the People' looked on and laughed.
The door to the apartment of a well-respected Jewish family–parents and three children–who had 'exterminated' themselves was decorated, before the funeral, with a placard bearing the following inscription from the hands of the Nazis: 'Five Jews, who have killed themselves. Course of action highly recommended to others.'
Nine thousand in five months. And, even so, these nine thousand could never have imagined all that would have lain before them, if they had not found the courage to commit suicide.
It was not simply physical, material things that led these nine thousand to prefer to pay the 'tax for flight from the Reich' with their own lives. They had had enough. It was not just that the brown-shirted German heroes made a sport of tying together male and female Jews on the open street; making them crawl on all fours, and then finally trampling their victims' hands to a bloody pulp with their boots. It was not just that they thought it amusing to freeze Jewish café owners in their own refrigerators. It was not just that they enjoyed burning holes in the cheeks of defenceless Jews in the prisons with their cigarettes. Nor was it just that Jews were deprived, at a single stroke, of any possible means of making money; that every public space, every bench was daubed with the warning: 'Jews strictly forbidden'; that the trams were decked out with huge posters declaring: 'Jewry is criminality'; that… the list could be continued ad infinitum.
No: what drove so many to death was the spiritual, the mental abuse. And the embittered, disgusted sense of disappointment at the cowardice and meanness of spirit of 'friends', who suddenly did not know us–who denied us, betrayed us, who were greedy for the booty that we would leave behind us, or who–in the best cases–dared to show themselves only from far off, their face covered with a protective mask. One day they were greeting you with open arms; the next day–well, they still stretched out their arms towards you, but this time in an anxious attempt to ward off any possible contact. You were an outlaw, something contaminated.
Mixed marriages alone provide a miserable chapter in this story. There were many (legal as well as illegal) partnerships in which the 'Aryan' partner, in many cases after decades of a close relationship, not only brutally severed himself from his 'non-Aryan' companion, but even used the sanctions of the Nuremberg laws for the most appalling blackmail. The fabrication of a 'crime of racial impurity' could in certain circumstances be a profitable business.
It was pitiable, too, to see how willing the vast mass of people was to take on board the most absurd terms of insult, as well as the most stupid anti-Semitic slanders. I remember one portly working-class woman, a nice, friendly-looking type, sitting opposite me in the tram with a female friend, and studying the Stürmer newspaper intently. Suddenly she turned to her companion and, with a sad shake of the head, said: 'I really had no idea that the Jews were as bad as that.'
'Jew–perish!' Of those who died of their own accord, many were really killed by mental anguish, by disgust, by horror. They could simply not bear the ghastliness of Hitler's world any longer. And all the while they had no idea that all this was actually a relatively harmless overture; had no idea what unprecedented pinnacles of devilish sadism would yet be achieved by German culture and science, by the German spirit of enquiry and invention, in its noble struggle to find ever new, ever more gruesome types of torture to accompany that catchy folksong, so full of true German sentiment: 'When Jewish blood spurts from the knife'.
As for the others–those who had steeled themselves to emigration, to a 'new life' somewhere abroad–somewhere where a visa had finally managed to open the door for them–those others of course had no inkling that Hitler would catch up with so many of them and get them in his grasp again. If they had, even more would have chosen emigration into the Beyond.
Those of us who contemplated emigration were certainly not in any mood to laugh. And yet perhaps nothing encapsulates the tragedy of our situation–and also the world's indifference to our fate–better than this little selection of anecdotes that did the rounds among Viennese would-be émigrés at that time. Gallows humour of the Emigration.
Three Jews, who are considering emigration, meet on a street-corner. 'I'm going to England,' says the first. 'I'm going to America,' says the second. 'And I'm going to Australia,' declares the third. 'Such a long way!' cries the first, in amazement. To which the one destined for Australia simply replies: 'A long way from where?'
Four Jews, this time. The same old question about destination. The first replies: 'China.' The second: 'New Zealand.' The third: 'Bolivia.' 'Well,' says the fourth, 'I'm staying here.' The others look at him for a moment in silence. Finally one says, in a tone of admiration: 'My God: that is adventurous!'
And finally: one Jew, who has walked his feet sore in the futile effort to get hold of some kind of visa, finally goes into a travel agency. 'I must get out,' he tells the man at the desk, in desperation. 'But where to, where to? Can you give me any advice?' The man fetches a globe. 'Here,' he says, 'here you have all the countries in the world. You must be able to find something here.' The Jew turns the sphere this way and that for a long time, shaking his head the whole time. Finally, crestfallen, he puts it to one side. 'Well,' says the man behind the desk, 'what have you found?' 'Oh, sir,' says the Jew very diffidently, 'you wouldn't possibly have another globe, would you? There's no room for me on this one.'
To this day I cannot rid myself of a feeling of bitterness, when I think of the endless forest of red tape that was put in our way by most states at that time, as we begged for visas. With a little good will, it would have been possible to save everyone.
Meanwhile Goering–the stout, jovial Goering–had announced even in those days, in Vienna: 'For Jews who are not able to leave, there are only two possibilities: to die of hunger or to be rooted out by fire and sword.'
Emigrating: that was the Act I of the tragedy. But once this problem had been solved, there began the second act: Being an Émigré.
To begin with Act I, let me give just a very brief summary of my experience of it.
Since 1914 I had been on the staff of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, as essayist and critic. In 1924 I was recalled from Paris, where I had been working as a correspondent for the paper, to take over the post of head of feuilleton after the death of Paul Busson.3
It goes without saying that after the completion of the Anschluss I was immediately back on the street. As a 'non-Aryan', I received not a penny of the severance money promised me in my contract, nor of the amounts owing to me from my pension and insurance funds. The investments I had in a deposit account, and the author's royalties held by my publisher, were also both frozen.
It was very simple. Anything I possessed–and could still get access to–had to be spent in obtaining permission to leave the country. To get what I needed for everyday living expenses, I was forced to sell valuable objects, furniture, books, and so on.
We were allowed to take with us ten marks per person, with which to start our 'new life' abroad.
And yet the actual, physical robbery–the poverty–was not the worst of it. Much worse, as I have already said, was the impoverishment–the degradation–of the soul. No reparation could ever compensate for these experiences.
Few are born with the capacity for loyalty. Few, even, with the courage to behave decently. As regards Hitler's 'Comrades of the People' in the Reich, there was no depth that would surprise me. Yet all too many Austrian 'Aryans', too, of my immediate and not-so-immediate acquaintance, were every bit the equal of their brothers from the Reich. Intellectuals, especially–even people who owed me some kind of debt of gratitude. If I have any positive memory of individuals in Vienna at that time, they were with few exceptions the ordinary people: a waitress, who sobbed uncontrollably when I left the Neues Wiener Tagblatt building for the last time; a compositor, who even dared to look me up in my apartment; our porter in the Mariahilferstrasse.
Others–people who had worked alongside me daily for decades–people who just a short while before had been unable to do enough to show their friendship and intimacy with me…
It is better not to dwell on such things. Although it is also important not to forget them. These people at least made my leavetaking from my homeland easier. 'A long way from where?' It was an observation that applied to the spiritual aspect of emigration too. Even homesickness had lost its home.
On the evening of 15th August 1938 I was finally able to leave Vienna. My elder stepson, Stefan, a medical student, had been taken in by a wonderful woman, Miss Marian Dunlop*–who had not previously even met him–in the most magnificent spirit, and was already in England. My wife had to wait a few days longer in Vienna with my younger stepson, Konrad, who was waiting to obtain a transit visa for Switzerland, in order to be able then to go to Scotland, where he would be enabled to continue studying for his degree in chemistry at the University of Glasgow, thanks to a grant from the International Student Service.* For my wife and myself I had obtained visas for France–with great difficulty, in spite of the fact that I had for decades been an active and enthusiastic propagandist on behalf of French literature and culture. But that was all in the past…
The afternoon before my departure I made a last visit to a friend, the well-known architect Dr Hans Berger, to say goodbye to him. At the end of the visit Dr Berger went with me as far as the tram stop. As the tram came into view, I said to him: 'Look at this. This is the last time that I shall be able to buy a ticket out of my own pocket. From the moment that I cross the border, I shall have to live on… on… charity. That is something I shall have to get used to.'
To be, suddenly, in the position of a poor relation who lets people thrust money into his hands (even if those people happen to be your best friends); to be compelled to accept invitations which you will never be able to return and which must therefore be regarded as a subsidy, as a merciful bounty–this is among the most painful things contained within the concept 'refugee'. To be a beggar you have to be born to it.
The facts of my situation, though, would be brought to my attention with absolute clarity the very next day, even before I crossed the border at Feldkirch.
A few minutes before the train's departure, the boy in the Storm-Trooper uniform who had taken my passport at Innsbruck returned, holding it in his hand. Apart from me, the compartment was occupied by three Swiss people.
'So: you are the Jew Scheyer,' he said. Then, looking at the passport: 'Fifty-one years old.'
I wondered where he was going with this.
'Fifty-one,' he continued. 'Not as old as all that. And ten marks in your pocket. So–how are you going to live, now, with your ten marks? Can you tell me that?'
I ground my teeth together and said nothing.
'These Jews,' he shouted furiously, 'these Jewish pigs! You can take everything away from them and they'll still find someone to take them in.' And with that he threw the passport down at my feet. The train started. One of the Swiss people stood up and grasped my hand, silently.
How are you going to live… Jewish pigs… take them in… These were the last words of comfort–the provisions with which my homeland sent me off into the unknown.
They have lasted me up to the present day.
Breathing again: Switzerland
THE TRAIN ROLLED OVER the bridge above the Rhine: it had crossed the Swiss border. Buchs. Switzerland. Noble land. No more 'Heil Hitler!' No more Swastika. No more Brown Shirts. No 'Jew–perish!' Saved. Free. The land beneath my feet is a land where Jewry is not, after all, criminality.
How I had dreamed of this moment. How I had looked forward to it, as to a transport of joy. Homelessness, poverty, uncertainty–all the anxieties and questions about the future–how unimportant that all seemed, put alongside the sensation of being free of the constant mental presence of Hitler. That, at least, is how it was in my dreams, my longings.
"'Try to understand me,' Moriz Scheyer begs the future readers of his memoir in 1944. And we do, leaving it drained, but exhilarated by the description of how he roamed an unfriendly Europe, stateless. With the publication of this mesmerizing book, his search for asylum might just be over."
—Ronald C. Rosbottom, Amherst College, author of When Paris Went Dark
"Moriz Scheyer's gripping account of survival under Nazi rule is both a chilling reminder of the fragility of life in a world gone mad, and a record of the generosity of spirit and courage of people who hardly knew him but risked everything to save him. Shocking, heartbreaking, but hugely inspiring."
—Susan Ottaway, author of A Cool and Lonely Courage
- "Scheyer's account of his struggle for survival as a foreign Jew under Vichy, largely written while still in hiding, is propelled by the raw passion of righteous anger. His nuanced picture of wartime France, with its collaborators and resisters, vividly underscores the power of ordinary human kindness in the face of supreme evil."—Thomas Ertman, New York University, author of Birth of the Leviathan
- "A well-written book full of desperate hope, intense fear, and a demand for vigilance against the mentality of hate."—Kirkus Reviews
- "His prose is unembellished - direct and simple, like that of Ernest Hemingway".—Winnipeg Free Press
- On Sale
- Sep 27, 2016
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little Brown Spark