The Best Holocaust Novel Ever
Franz Werfel’s classic The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, about the Armenian Genocide, gets a new translation
Summers in the Salzkammergut were the happiest times of the novelist Franz Werfel’s young life. In Prague, he and his family were a minority twice over—Jews in a Christian town, Germans amid the Czechs. He remembered the days of rioting led by the Glovemakers’ Union that the local authorities struggled for almost a week to put down; Franz’s father, Rudolf, was the biggest glovemaker in town. It was all the proof Werfel, then 7 years old, needed that he didn’t belong.
Things were different in the Salzkammergut forest, filled with the scent of tree resin and thin Alpine air, droves of cousins and idle days to fill with inventions. Franz wrote plays with biblical themes and titles like Classical Philistines that were secretly meant to insult his teachers and rivals at the gymnasium by casting them as history’s goons and boobs. When his ink ran dry, he convinced his sisters to play cowboys and Indians, saving for himself the role of the helpless victim tied to the stake. And then, one afternoon, when he was 15 years old, it rained.
It was dusk, and Franz and his sister Hanna were playing outside. When the drizzle turned into a downpour, and lightning streaked the skies, they ran for shelter in a nearby shack. They closed the door and noticed that their pet kitten had run in after them and was shaking off the raindrops. Thunder struck.
“My muscles went into spasms in the voluptuous experience of digging into soft life,” he wrote later that year, “and my ears yearned for the sharp outcry of a victim. … With treacherous tenderness I finally picked up the kitten’s almost weightless body and obscured its eyes with my thumbs. … And I pushed ever deeper until I felt warm liquid run down my fingers and, with unprecedented pleasure, uttered small cries through my clenched teeth. … Then I heard myself, whipped into rage by thunder and lightning, cry out fearfully, ‘Dear God, protect me from the Devil, God help us.’ ”
More, perhaps, than any other writer in recent memory, God and the Devil seemed to have jointly guided Franz Werfel’s life. The former gave him a keen eye and a tremendous sense of style, driving his dear friend Kafka, Prague’s other famous native Franz, to state that when he read Werfel’s first collection of poems, “I was going off my head with enthusiasm.” The latter cursed him with a sulfurous personality that led him to betray friends, abandon ideologies, denounce his Judaism, reject his family, marry the blatantly anti-Semitic Alma Mahler, seek to sidle up to the Nazis, and, only when the jackboots came too close, flee to Hollywood and write silly screenplays until his early death. But all of Werfel’s sad apostasy is dwarfed by his singular achievement, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel about the Armenian holocaust that Werfel wrote in 1933 and that is available now in a new English-language translation from the publishing house of David R. Godine. In nearly 1,000 pages, it tells an adventure story of Armenian partisans fending off the Turks, but it also delivers a stunning breadth of Armenian folklore, history, language, customs, and politics. The Nazis, freshly in power in Berlin, were quick to grasp that the book wasn’t only a work of historical fiction about one genocide but also a clear allegory about the impending murder of the Jews, which would soon cause Werfel to flee Europe for America.
Read in chronological order, Franz Werfel’s work leads through all the dreams and nightmares that Europe had withstood in the first half of the 20th century. It begins with a collection of hymns, grandiosely titled The Friend of the World and containing lines like this one, in his poem “To the Reader”: “My only wish is to be related to you, O fellow human being!” The author of these lines was 21, a rotund café-dweller who often entertained the crowds at his favorite haunt, the Arco, by standing up and belting out arias by his beloved Verdi.
Young Werfel believed in the world and saw it as sunny and filled with possibilities. The world, for the most part, did not feel the same way about Werfel. His father insisted that literature was no way for a respectable gentleman to make a living and dispatched him to Hamburg to work at a friend’s import-export business. Werfel pretended to be mentally challenged, spent his days at the office doodling and laughing loudly, and was soon dismissed. He sent his manuscript to the publisher Axel Juncker, who found it juvenile and overly bombastic and summarily rejected it; it took a firm letter from Werfel’s famous friend Max Brod to get Juncker to change his mind.
At work on new pieces when World War I broke out, Werfel enlisted and served mainly as a telephone operator. Moving around the Austro-Hungarian empire with his unit, he did his best, whenever the occasion permitted, to abandon his barracks and rent a small apartment where he could write without interruption. Eventually, his admirers arranged for him to be transferred to the propaganda ministry, where he would spend the rest of the war giving patriotic speeches across the empire. Werfel, however, couldn’t help it; before too long, he joined Martin Buber’s secret pacifist society, re-imagined Euripides’ The Trojan Women as a contemporary antiwar play, and infused his speeches with his socialist sympathies. “Comrades!” he cried out at one such public talk in Switzerland, “that which today calls itself art is just an iridescent blob of fat floating on top of the capitalist broth.” Catching word of Werfel’s performances, his commanders were displeased; he was reprimanded but never seriously punished. And when the war ended and the empire crumbled and Vienna was awash with the eddies of revolutionary politics, Werfel played along, happy to cast his lot with the radicals.
Alma Mahler changed all that. The famous composer’s widow had a brief and stormy affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka before marrying the celebrated Walter Gropius, the architect who would eventually found the Bauhaus school. Werfel was introduced to Mahler, 11 years his senior, by a mutual friend. The very first time he met her, he serenaded her with his arias and recited his best poems as her husband sat by her side. Nor did he care that the object of his infatuation was openly and vocally anti-Semitic. Shortly after he had first met her, Werfel began sending Alma Mahler impassioned letters, calling her “my giver of life” and “keeper of my flame.”
The letters worked. Despite his weight, his thinning hair, his bulging eyes, despite being young and loud and Jewish—or maybe because of all these things—Mahler fell deeply in love with Werfel. Early on in their acquaintance, she wrote in her diary that had she been two decades younger, she would have abandoned everything and followed her Franzl around. He was, she wrote, the “beloved of the gods.”
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