Exile on the Hudson

by Guy Stern

Helmut F. Pfanner. Exile in New York. German and Austrian Writers After 1933. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983. 252 pages.

With Hitler's accession to power in Germany and his gradual dominance over most of Europe, a mass exodus set in that was unprecedented in modern history. The participants came from all walks of life-union officials and bank directors, small-town shopkeepers and the descendants of nobility, average men and women and Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. And they fled because theythe majority of them-were Jewish and/or because they were political opponents of the regime or avant-garde artists or because they had simply given offense to a major or minor functionary of Germany's new rulers. If they were lucky enough to elude the brown hordes despite the Nazi conquest of their first country (or countries) of refuge or forcible "repatriation" (i.e., kidnapping) by the Gestapo or egregious expulsion from temporary havens (such as the Soviet Union), they would land in virtually every part of the globe. The German exiles settled or resettled, many "changing countries as often as their shoes" (as Bertolt Brecht put it), in such remote outposts as Shanghai, Christchurch, Capetown, Martinique, La Paz, or Bombay. Many others came to the United States, arriving by boat, a few select ones by clipper, from Germany or from another European harbor- directly, or more circuitously via such transit countries as Cuba, Mexico, Canada, the Philippines, or even the Soviet Union. Of these immigrants to America, the majority settled in or around New York City.

Helmut F. Pfanner's admirable book focuses, as its title and subtitle make clear, on those exiles, the intellectuals, who came to make their home in Baghdad-on-the-Hudson or a Fritz Langian "Metropolis," or New Weimar, USA, as they-from differing, often shifting perspectives-would come to conceive of New York. With a great deal of sympathy for both the heroism and the frailties of the refugees, Pfanner portrays, with New York as the constant backdrop, "the greatness and misery of their exile--to borrow a title of Lion Feuchtwanger's, a writer who merely passed through New York on his way to California. Or, to put it more prosaically, Pfanner provides us with a valid, well-researched socio-historical and intellectual account (rather than a strictly literary one) of the exiles' lives and accomplishments in New York.

The book is, or becomes in the reading of it, an illumination of the successive stages in the lives of the exiles. Pfanner unfolds these with the help of numerous examples and often through the words of the exiles themselves. He particularly stresses the frequently traumatic flight from their homeland; the frustrations in obtaining the necessary papers; the vissicitudes of voyage, arrival, and first attempts at home and job procurement; the planning of a new life while confronted with the loss of the old one and its often considerably greater status; the need to adjust to a new culture and language without severing the ties to their German heritage; the pressure to "conquer" a readership in America while sometimes held back (and occasionally helped) by divisions within their own ranks; the flexibility and inventiveness of exiled women; then the realization that even success did not or would not exorcise all fears; and finally the dilemma after the war whether to stay in America or return to war-torn Germany or Austria with their fratricidal pasts.

Pfanner imposes cohesiveness on this multiplicity by providing two guideposts in his introduction (which may also explain why and for whom, primarily, he wrote this book): "But while the political facts leading to and following the massive emigration have received a great deal of attention, the most personal aspects of the exile-the psychological effects and cultural consequences-are still largely unknown." Elsewhere he adds: "Few Americans understood the extent of the social and personal hardships experienced by the European intellectuals living in their midst after 1933." Having pointed out these two shortcomings-one of past scholarship, the other of national awareness or sensibility-Pfanner consistently keeps the first in focus and is constantly aware of his principal readers. As Exile in New York proceeds to chronicle the various stages of refugee existence, its author unfailingly examines how their common or individual experiences psychologically affected them and they, in turn, the culture of their new homeland. And, mindful of an intelligent lay audience beyond the experts, he applies (before sketching in many useful new details) broad brushstrokes of the historical and sociological background.

Pfanner's opening paragraph to his chapter "Cultural Conflict" exemplifies his psychological approach. After making due allowance for exceptions, he identifies three stages in the refugees' physical and psychological adjustment:

Typically, the process of adjustment was characterized by three stages, although not every exile experienced all three: first, a period of rejection, during which the newcomers tenaciously defended themselves against the new ways; then, a middle phase of bewilderment over the many unexpected cultural phenomena; and finally, that period of adjustment in which they attempted to evaluate American culture objectively.

Pfanner deepens and expands this analysis in subsequent chapters, but especially in the chapters entitled "Continuing Fears and Hopes" and "Diaspora." There he brings to the surface the existential crisis, perceptible even among the most successful of the exiled intellectuals, which was precipitated by the loss of their homelands. Or he deduces, from many sources, feelings of resignation, depression, and isolation, increasing strains on marriages or partnerships, the loss of self-confidence. Elsewhere Pfanner shows how past persecution and torture continued to be projected in fits of delusions or nightmares onto the reality of a benign and democratic America. Or he details how the writers, divorcing themselves from the here and now, eternally swung back between an idealized pre-Nazi past and a hoped-for utopian postwar Germany.

Many of Pfanner's observations are enlightening to experts and non-experts alike. Some that appear altogether obvious after he has formulated them have, to the best of my knowledge, not been made by past researchers; for example, the aperqus that writing and similar intellectual pursuits (which tend to be lonely by definition) further isolated the exiles engaged in them, while their fellow refugees who followed more practical occupations such as those of physician, teacher, or waiter were forced into a more gregarious lifestyle and hence assimilated more readily to their New York surroundings. Or he traces the cultural shock experienced by the exiles in their encounters with the pragmatic, business-oriented American publishing world to the special status that German writers had enjoyed ever since they had been pedestaled during the Romantic period. And though Mr. Pfanner does not break new ground when he finds that the exiles' previous attitudes and biases, both positive and negative, tended to be self-fulfilling, he brings such an abundance of new evidence, much of it from archival sources, that it buttresses all previous scholarship, especially in his observation that the blinders worn by communist intellectuals effectively cut them off from any objective appreciation of New York and America. (In their zeal to follow the party-line even their descriptions of the Statue of Liberty turned bilious.)

When describing the life of the rescued writers in America, Pfanner does not let us forget the narrowness of their escape or that the extermination camps of the Holocaust were partly the consequence of a failed attempt at flight. Thus he explains the intense psychological feeling of aliveness, experienced by one exile upon arriving in New York, by contrasting it to his despair of only a few weeks earlier in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Where I would disagree with the author of Exile in New York is in his assessment of the supposed generosity of American admission policies. Pfanner calls the roughly 280,000 exiles admitted to the U.S. a "stagering number," and his comments about U.S. officials (including Roosevelt), though not uncritical, tend to be positive: "Nonetheless, the American government, under Roosevelt, and private American groups, were quite successful in rescuing many of the politically endangered." Past and recent studies, especially The Abandonment of the Jews just published by David S. Wyman, would argue that the American effort was often marked by indifference or worse-and that many more of the endangered might have been rescued.

But this is the only substantial argument I have with this moving and intellectually honest and stimulating work. Errors are minor: Hertha Pauli and Alfred Neumann were the co-authors (rather than the sole creators) of, respectively, a history of the Statue of Liberty and a stage adaptation of War and Peace; Kurt Weill's and Franz Werfel's The Eternal Road stayed on Broadway for several months rather than just a few weeks. Obviously these are minor errata in a book abounding with facts.

But what elevates Exile in New York beyond even a thorough and praiseworthy chronicle is its profound understanding of the professional and human condition of the exiles and their often heroic rise above external and internal liabilities and obstacles. It is written with empathy and to use an old- fashioned word, with dignity. This spirit is encapsulated in its last paragraph:

One who is forced to flee his homeland usually will not be able to emerge from this experience unscarred. But whoever has breathed "the wind of exile" has not only changed in a personal sense; he will have left some imprint on the country that sheltered him and perhaps on the country to which he returns as well. Since exiles are those who have paid the highest price for their freedom, they know best what it is worth. They should be listened to and read wherever and whenever freedom is threatened.

To insure the realization of that wish we need the continuing publication of the works of the exiles both in the original and in translation-and appreciations of them like Exile in New York.

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