The Best Holocaust Novel Ever
Franz Werfel’s classic The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, about the Armenian Genocide, gets a new translation
Werfel’s narration is weighted down by his predilection for bombastic turns of phrase, but he impressively soars and dips in and out of numerous characters’ consciousness, narrating the unfolding events from various points of view. And just as some bit of symbolism begins to feel too cumbersome, he delivers stunning passages about cruelty, compassion, and the strange logic of extermination attempted on a very large scale. Close your eyes for a moment after you read Lepsius’ account of the concentration camps built to contain the Armenians fleeing the massacre, and it’s impossible not to imagine Dachau, which at the time of the novel’s writing was nothing more than a ghoulish future prospect. To ensure that the reader doesn’t walk away with a burning hatred of Turks, however, Werfel took pains to present many Turkish characters who found their government’s actions revolting and who ached to help the slaughtered Armenians. Whether these portraits owe more to the novelist’s artistic judgment or to the Jew’s crippling fear of seeing German friends and neighbors swept up by Nazism is for the reader to decide.
As Werfel was preparing the novel for print, reality pierced his historical cocoon. His friend Heinrich Mann, the president of the Prussian Academy of Literature, had signed a manifesto calling on socialists, communists, and other left-wing parties to unite and stop Hitler’s rise. Sensing the changing political tides, a number of his fellow academy members forced Mann to resign. After Hitler became chancellor, the academy’s new governing board required its members to sign an oath of loyalty to the new regime, promising to serve its ideology. Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin, and several of the academy’s other members, most of them Jews, refused to sign. Werfel signed. The most likely reason, as his biographer Jungk suggests, was his reluctance to jeopardize the future sales of Musa Dagh. Whatever the reasoning, it proved misguided: Within days of signing the oath, Werfel’s books, too, were burning in Berlin’s squares. He was dismissed from the academy soon thereafter.
With the new laws forbidding any publicity for the work of a “burned author,” copies of Musa Dagh nonetheless sold at a brisk pace when it was finally released, in November of 1933. Critics outside of Germany raved about Werfel’s accomplishment, with some comparing the work to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But its author was still jittery. Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, had formed an association of German writers, calling those writers “of German blood” to register with his office and show their fealty. Incredibly, Werfel tried to do just that, sending a letter and declaring, falsely, that “I have always kept my distance from any political organization or activity.” To support his cause, he enlisted the help of a few friends who had risen in the ranks of Goebbels’ bureaucracy to vouch for his merit as an upstanding citizen of the new Reich.
Goebbels’ response came early in 1934, in the form of a decree banning Musa Dagh from being sold anywhere in Germany. “I have been deleted from the book, and the books, of the living,” Werfel wrote his mother-in-law, “and since I am, after all, a German author, I am now suspended in empty space.” His sole comfort was a check for $20,000 from MGM, for the movie rights to Musa Dagh. Immediately after these were acquired, Mehmed Ertegun, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, mounted a campaign to stop the movie from being made. “It rekindles the Armenian question,” he told an MGM executive. “The Armenian question is settled.” The Turkish press joined in on the cause; identifying Werfel as a Jewish author and MGM as a Jewish-run studio, some threatened that unless the production was halted, Turkish Jews would suffer in retaliation. The project was scrapped.
From this point on, Franz Werfel’s life became little more than a literary footnote. He and Alma Mahler fled to France and then, with the help of Varian Fry, to Hollywood, where his most notable achievement was the Danny Kaye vehicle Me and the Colonel. On Aug. 26, 1945, as he was sitting at his desk, working, his heart stopped. His funeral was a gathering of all of Germany’s artists-in-exile. Bruno Walther played Bach and Schubert. Father Georg Moenius, a friend of Werfel and Mahler’s, delivered a strange eulogy about baptism, which led to the insistent rumor that Alma Mahler had her dead husband posthumously baptized so that he could be buried as a Christian. “Nothing,” her daughter Anna told Werfel’s biographer Jungk, “was more important to her than to see that her Franzl didn’t go to meet God as a Jew.”
Werfel died as he had lived, on the cusp between cultures, religions, and ideologies, a human seismograph registering the turbulence that devastated his continent and his people. We should remember him for exploring, in his life as well as in his art, the full register of human emotions, from the merciless to the sublime. Most of all, we should remember him for Musa Dagh, his sadly forgotten work of genius. And we should see book and author alike as an omen, warning us that as history’s travesties are being written as novels, they are frequently also reborn as news.
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