The Failure of Heimat

/ by Doron Rabinovici

It was a Heimsuchung, a visitation, a scourge, an affliction, a home invasion. Even before the seizure of power in 1933, Berthold Jacob, a Social Democrat and a Jew, wrote articles against the efforts of the Reichswehr to secretly rearm. What had befallen Jacob as a soldier in the First World War had turned him into a pacifist. He uncovered the attempt to violate the Treaty of Versailles. In 1928, he was sentenced to six months in prison for treason. In 1932 he went to Strasbourg, which allowed him to escape persecution after the National Socialist takeover. In French newspapers he wrote against the Nazi regime. In August 1933, his name was on the first expatriation list of the German Reich. The Nazis were already depriving 33 opponents of their citizenship, including Lion Feuchtwanger, Ruth Fischer, Alfred Kerr, Heinrich Mann, Ernst Toller, Kurt Tucholsky, Otto Wels — and Berthold Jacob. Pictures of the thirty-three hung in the German Club in London, with the caption: ‘If you see one of these men, kill him!’

 

Berthold Jacob
In 1935, Berthold Jacob was lured to Basel by Gestapo agents. Once there, he was sedated with drugs — today we call them knockout drops — and abducted across the border to Germany. The Gestapo hauled him off to their prison in Berlin. Heydrich interrogated him personally, demanding the names of the informants who aided his journalistic work. Jacob did not betray them. Meanwhile, Switzerland protested against the violation of its sovereignty. The Confederation threatened a diplomatic brouhaha. Berlin did not want to risk an international scandal. Berthold Jacob was allowed to go free.

 

Back in Paris, he continued to publish against the Nazis. After the Wehrmacht invasion, Jacob was interned but managed to flee to Marseille. From there he made it across the Pyrenees to Lisbon where, in 1941, he received ship tickets to the United States for him and his wife Else. Shortly before the departure he decided to take a stroll through the city. Outside the hotel where Else was waiting for him, secret agents ambushed him, and he was taken back to Berlin via Madrid. During the ensuing years, he was in the Gestapo prison on the Alexanderplatz. In February 1944, he was admitted to the Jewish Hospital with pulmonary tuberculosis and typhus. He died there a short time later. His father, the antiquarian David Salomon, had already been murdered at Auschwitz in February 1943.

 

Berthold Jacob's native land, his Heimat, had become enemy territory for him, but not only for him. Countless people were on the run. Even the greatest among them had been reduced to supplicants. I read their writings, the papers with which they sought a way out; I read their letters to relatives who had already been murdered, and I read the newspapers of the exile associations. They expressed in plain German what their circumstances were.

 

In 1937, in his poem ‘On the Designation Emigrant’, Bert Brecht explains how false this word is, because it means nothing but someone who leaves a country. But Brecht says these people are expellees. Not too many years after Brecht had composed these lines, the Wehrmacht was pursuing those who had found shelter in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, the Netherlands, or France.

 

Hannah Arendt
They were refugees, trying desperately to escape the murderers. This is how Hannah Arendt introduced her essay ‘We Refugees’ (1943): ‘We especially don't like it when people call us “refugees”'. She was describing those who were running for their lives, even though they had done nothing against the regime. ‘Previously, the term “refugee” had been reserved for someone who, because of his deeds or his political views, was forced to seek refuge; most of us wouldn't have dreamed of harbouring any radical political views’.

 

The word ‘exile’ whitewashes the differences among the persecuted. Someone who speaks of exile still knows where his Heimat is, the place from which he believes he's been cast out, and to which he wants to return. A Jewish girl who had just barely escaped to London with a Kindertransport, before her parents and siblings were gassed, could hardly feel at home in Germany again. A Zionist youth who had left Vienna in time wanted to find a new homeland in Palestine. The concept of exile stems from a time when not many people had ever heard of a place called Auschwitz. If someone said ‘exile’, he probably still wanted to believe in a different Germany.

 

But even those who spoke of exile were not of one mind. They did not always cherish the same hopes, or even respect each other. When Robert Musil was at his wits' end in Switzerland, and was even threatened with deportation, Hans Mayer advised him to apply for asylum in South America. It was impossible for him go to South America, Musil is supposed to have said. Stefan Zweig was already there!

 

Arendt, for her part, traced the tirelessness with which many Jewish refugees tried to make themselves at home in a new land as quickly as possible. With the same enthusiasm with which they had been Germans, they became Frenchmen overnight, only soon to be, if not Americans by birth, then at least born Americans. This overzealousness is one theme of Mascha Kaléko's poem ‘Snapshots of a Contemporary’. Here she sketches the image of a refugee who, in a foreign country, finds himself so quickly that he loses himself. She writes: ‘He ist a born Inglisch-Spieker. / Ze lengvitch goddess knows just what he's made of / When it's required, he can speak / Even Esperanto like a native’.

 

A Jew's attempt to become something more than the Other, the Interloper, was doomed to failure in Germany and in Austria, not just after Hitler came to power, but effectively from time immemorial. They were denied the possibility of being a part of the truly genuine people, the Volk. And that's not all: Their effort to shed everything that distinguished them was declared to be their defining characteristic. In Vienna in the early twentieth century, those Jews who wanted to be nothing but Austrians were invariably referred to as ‘assimilated’, which makes clear how futile this undertaking was, for at that time, this term could not describe anybody but a Jew.

 

The Heimat remained denied to them because this word referred to a place that existed only on proper picture postcards. What didn't fit that image — a towering factory smokestack, for example, or even a synagogue — got quickly retouched. No conflict, no opposition, no criticism could harmonize with the music of Heimat. But most of all, this homeland had to be judenrein, ‘cleansed of Jews’.

 

Today, living without a Heimat may not seem so bad at all, since many profess to be nothing if not urbane. But Jean Améry knew only too well: ‘It takes a lot of Heimat, in any case more than can be dreamt of by a world of people securely at home, whose pride and joy is having fun on a cosmopolitan vacation’. The yearning to be part of Germanness especially marked those who were denied it.

 

When Hermann Göring's state secretary Pilly Körner went to Porto Ronco in 1935 to try to talk Erich Maria Remarque into returning to the Reich, Remarque rejected the offer and is said to have answered that he felt no homesickness, no Heimweh, for Germany, because after all he wasn't Jewish. Remarque simply didn't have to prove to anyone how German he was. His books had been burned in 1933. His citizenship had been revoked in 1938. His sister Elfriede Scholz, a tailor in Dresden, was denounced when in 1943 she dared to say the war had been lost. The hanging judge Roland Freisler, president of the Volksgerichtshof, the Nazi People's Court, condemned her to death, not without remarking: ‘Unfortunately, your brother gave us the slip, but you will not give us the slip’. Remarque did not find out about her execution until after the war. He dedicated the novel Spark of Life to Elfriede Scholz.

 

Remarque was not a Jew, but the Nazis started the rumours that he was, that he hadn't served in the war at all, and that his real name was Kramer, almost the palindrome of Remarque, and even though there is no truth to these lies, the legends have persisted into our times.

 

It is a Heimsuchung. The banished person is a purgation. He is disposed of like trash. The refugee leaves more behind than his residence, his valuables, and most of his wardrobe. To save his mere skin, he doesn't take along much more than the clothes on his back. He starts to resemble the dread apparition of himself that his enemies paint. Flight is a curse that is said to be a flood. Wherever the refugee passes by, everyone turns up his nose. He spreads a foul atmosphere, and no one can say exactly whether this odour clings to him or to those who torment him, but in any case, it's the stench of fear.

 

The expelled artists were declared to be literal nonentities in their Heimat. Their pictures had been banned, their music forbidden, their books burned. When I go to the archives and leaf through their writings, I can see how they understood what was totally incomprehensible. I note how many of them resisted the lie that had come to power and was declared to be the sole truth. They justifiably refused to recognize the injustice that now passed for law.

 

Writing in exile was resistance. The authors recorded what was happening around them. With every word, they tried to escape extinction. I read how one or the other wrote against silence. With each of their texts — not just the political ones — they laid claim to that Germanness from which the murderers wanted to delete them. I listen to those who did not fall silent in the face of the failure of Heimat, but put down in language what left them speechless.

 

Stefan Zweig
But I learn no less from those who decided to take their own lives. Stefan Zweig, that very subtle writer, did not want his suicide to be seen as a capitulation. In his suicide letter, he writes that he was ‘departing this life of my own free will and with a sound mind’. Zweig was a celebrated novelist who had lost his country and whose intellectual cosmos had perished, yet all the same he found acceptance and hospitality, because his readership extended far beyond Germany's borders. Most of the others encountered suspicion everywhere, as well as the limitations of a world of states that did not want to grant the refugees any protection. On the contrary: the other countries sealed off their borders. They refused to believe the warnings of the expellees and dismissed their reports about Hitler as horror stories. No sooner had the war broken out, however, than the persecuted came under suspicion of being agents of Berlin. Those who had just barely escaped their enemies' concentration camps were now locked up in internment camps by those to whom they had fled.

 

It was a Heimsuchung. His world, Zweig lamented, had been destroyed. Who could have denied that? When the erstwhile bestselling author Leo Perutz, in Israel in 1951, finally completed his masterpiece By Night under the Stone Bridge, which he had begun in Vienna in 1924, he reflected: ‘I think the book is a real achievement, but it's simply too bad I didn't write it twenty years ago. Kisch and Werfel would have appreciated it, but where are those two now’? Not only Kisch and Werfel were gone. Many of the readers who had once admired Perutz had been exiled or murdered. His publisher had reissued Perutz's old novels in the early fifties, but the house recoiled from By Night under the Stone Bridge because of its Jewish subject matter.

 

In the final lines of her essay ‘We Refugees’, Hannah Arendt writes that the Jews were merely the first to have been expelled. Arendt calls the Jews the ‘avant-garde of their peoples’ and closes her essay with the sentence: ‘And the community of European peoples shattered when — and because — it allowed the expulsion and persecution of its weakest member’.

 

At the end of the war, the Europe that at first refused to offer any refuge to a minority of those ostracized on racist, political, or cultural grounds had become a continent of expulsion and murder. Many millions were fleeing. The goal of annihilating anything that smacked of difference and individuality had transformed the entire land mass into a death zone. The criminals had attempted to convert modern society into a homogeneous ethnic community. Whatever could not be fit into the image of ideological Germanness was exterminated.

 

In exile, the expellees described what was happening at the time more clearly and distinctly than others elsewhere could. They knew their Heimat better than most of those who had remained there. Viewed from a distance, the contrasts stood out more sharply. Doesn't some of what they said sound more relevant to us today than we'd prefer?

 

‘Exile’ is not just a historical concept. Rather, in the age of globalization, it takes on a new meaning. There have never been more refugees, but the willingness to take in the people who need protection is waning. Granted, it would be cheap to equate what happened then with current events. It is not Hitler who is threatening us, especially not here, but it seems to me just as inappropriate to repeat the slogan Wehret den Anfängen, ‘resist the beginnings’, for those forces in Europe that don't want to hear about remembering exile have already been on the rise for some time now. In Poland, a law has been famously enacted that is directed against both the freedom of expression and academic freedom. It is now forbidden to mention the complicity of many Poles in the murder of indigenous Jews.

 

In Austria, the dashing German nationalists who dream of concentrating refugees in camps are now in the government (in fact, their interior minister recently spoke quite unambiguously of ‘concentration’). In their fraternities they like to bellow anti-Semitic songs about the seventh million, while being the only ones who act truly astonished when such songbooks turn up in their midst. In many countries, elections are being won by the powers that agitate in the name of the people against diversity in the population. Leading statesmen, whether in the United States, Hungary, Slovakia, or Austria, foment hatred toward critical media. Journalists are declared enemies of the people and legitimate newspapers are vilified as the lying press and fake news, with the purpose of intimidating independent editorial offices.

 

The literature of exile teaches me how rapidly parliamentary government and the rule of law can become endangered. At this point, some will object that democracy has always been threatened. But is that supposed to be some kind of consolation or reassurance? Hasn't democracy always been the exception in human history? Considering the memory of exile, aren't we more than justified, indeed obligated, to be doubly cautious and wary? However, can't we also take heart, in part because of what was written in exile? Aren't we indebted to texts like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's The Authoritarian Personality if our societies today are more diverse, more open, and more impudent than ever before? Maintaining the peace is no longer the first duty of citizens. The right to resistance is even anchored in the German constitution — although the Viennese in me thinks that where resistance is made law, irony becomes bloody seriousness and a café au lait turns into coffee with milk.

 

If I read what is written by those who were once thrown out, I can discover how individuals, each in their own different way, experienced harassment early on, and how dissent and opposition, indeed freedom of expression itself, were to be silenced. But then there were also those who emigrated in order to take up the struggle and raise their voices from abroad.

 

If I visit the archives of the expellees to unearth their prose, their articles, their diaries, their memories, and their documents or identification papers, I not only recognize what happened to them, but I also understand where I am at home, and I become more alert to what is happening around me, because I heed their voices. There is a great variety of evidence here, because each individual reports on a unique fate, on suffering that is always particular. In not a few instances it is evident that they don't know whether they can save themselves, but they do not give up and they set down in writing what was happening to them.

 

It was a Heimsuchung — perhaps even in the literal senses of the word, home invasion, or house search. With what they wrote down, they struggled against banishment. It was mostly those who returned after the war who established the exile archives. It's as if they compiled them especially for us — their writings are like a message in a bottle that reaches us from distant places across all tides. The memory of their expulsion and their flight, of Berthold Jacob's courage, of Stefan Zweig's despondency, or of Hannah Arendt's keen intellect, of exile as a bastion for a new and free Europe, is experience and witness, a legacy, from those who were expelled from their homelands, to us.

 

This is the text to a speech Doron Rabinovici gave at the opening of the exhibition „Exil. Erfahrung und Zeugnis“ at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, Frankfurt am Main. The German version was published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

 

Translated by Geoffrey C. Howes

....
Doron Rabinovici

, a writer and historian, was born in 1961 in Tel Aviv.  He has lived in Vienna since 1964. His study „Instanzen der Ohnmacht“ was published by Polity Press as „Eichmann’s Jews“. His novel, „Andernorts“, short-listed for the German Book Prize, was published by Haus Publishing as „Elsewhere“. 2013 Rabinovici and Matthias Hartmann produced the performance "The Last Witnesses". The play was staged on the Viennese Burgtheater. In 2017 he published his novel Die Außerirdischen.


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