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Finding a Forgotten Book on Surviving the Holocaust

30 September 2016

From Literary Hub:

In the attic of a suburban house outside London in the 2000s, my brother made a remarkable discovery: a folder containing 200 fragile pages, typed in German, dated 1945, and apparently placed in a suitcase and never touched since. Its first page bore the name Moriz Scheyer and the title Ein Überlebender (A Survivor).

We were clearing out the old family home: our father, Konrad Singer, needed to downsize. The attic—in the way of attics of family homes lived in for 40-plus years—had accumulated detritus gradually throughout that period (garden furniture, books, toys, bedlinen, kitchenware), without apparently ever jettisoning any.

In the midst of all that was this incredibly valuable, irreplaceable document. The written account of a family legend: my grandparents’ wartime flight through France, involving incarceration, hairsbreadth escape from deportation, and a final heroic rescue by a French family and improbable concealment in a rural convent. A story which had always been recounted to us as extraordinary, even miraculous—but in fragments, the details unclear or forgotten, the original protagonists silent.

As I turned the first page, and was transported back to the beginning of that story—to Vienna in February 1938, immediately before the Anschluss—I was also meeting a family member for the first time. Moriz Scheyer, my father’s stepfather, a well-respected literary figure of 1930s Vienna, and a friend of Stefan Zweig, who died long before I was born.

. . . .

But there was another issue—one connected with the reason that the find had been so unexpected. And that was that I knew the book to have been destroyed. And the reason I knew that was that my father had told me so: he had himself destroyed it (or thought he had).

At the time of that revelation—when, some 25 years before the discovery, as a teenager, I had begun to be intensely curious about this lost side of the family and the family history—I was incredulous, even angry. How could my father have been so uninterested in preserving this historical document, his own stepfather’s account of this extraordinary story?

He gave (at different times) two reasons: the “self-pity” he discerned in his stepfather’s account, and its uncompromising “anti-German” sentiment. Either judgment, in the context of what Moriz and his companions went through, may seem to us unbelievably harsh and unsympathetic. But that reaction does, I think, draw attention to something important—about the role of a generational dynamic in relation to family memory, and the conflicts of memory. First, there is the specific postwar context. My father was a young man in 1945, desperate to look forward, to create a new world—socialist, rationalist, free of racial and nationalist thinking—above all not to dwell on the catastrophes and terrible irrationalities of the immediate past. Moriz Scheyer, over 50 at the time of his enforced emigration, unable to build a new life, shattered in health and spirit, could do little but “dwell,” could only bear witness to that trauma.

. . . .

Because this is the uniqueness of the book. It is a time capsule. Unlike so many survivors’ accounts, written or produced through interviews decades later, this is a book where you cannot doubt that what you read is what someone experienced and thought at the time. That perspective, that reaction to the events, has been preserved unaltered for 70 years. It suffers no risk of false memory or suggestion, of distortion.

Sometimes the perspective is surprising, arresting, bringing the reader face to face with a different world view. How remarkable, from our 21st century, to read Scheyer’s view—leading him, doubtless, to despair of the book’s publication—that “no one will ever be interested in what happened to Jews.” Antisemitism, from his 1940s perspective, was so ingrained in European culture that an account of something that “only” affected Jews could never attract serious attention.

How poignant, too, not least now, to encounter in Scheyer’s writing the concept of the “good European.” A well-known phrase of the time, now long forgotten, it was bound up with the pan-European ideal (associated with another forgotten figure, Romain Rolland) of a culturally bonded brotherhood of nations. It was, arguably, despair at the fate of this ideal that drove Moriz’s friend Stefan Zweig to suicide in 1942.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

Here’s a link to Moriz Scheyer’s book.


4 Comments to “Finding a Forgotten Book on Surviving the Holocaust”

  1. This is one of those times I want the book available NOW. In the meantime, it’s tacked on my wishlist.

    The article is a poignant reminder of how we tend to rewrite our history. While cleaning out the in-law’s house, we discovered that one of my husband’s great-great-grandfathers had been a POW at Libby Prison. Also, my FIL had been awarded a Bronze Star during the Korean War, but he refuses to talk about it. It makes me sad that certain things are considered “shameful” without looking at the context.

    Thanks for posting this article, PG.

  2. Wow….

  3. Yes.

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