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Open AccessArticle

Haunted Encounters: Exile and Holocaust Literature in German and Austrian Post-war Culture

School of Languages and Linguistics, The University of Melbourne, Parkville 3010 VIC, Australia
Religions 2012, 3(2), 424-440; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel3020424
Received: 2 May 2012 / Revised: 11 May 2012 / Accepted: 12 May 2012 / Published: 14 May 2012

Abstract

In an essay titled ‘The Exiled Tongue’ (2002), Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész develops a genealogy of Holocaust and émigré writing, in which the German language plays an important, albeit contradictory, role. While the German language signified intellectual independence and freedom of self-definition (against one’s roots) for Kertész before the Holocaust, he notes (based on his engagement with fellow writer Jean Améry) that writing in German created severe difficulties in the post-war era. Using the examples of Hilde Spiel and Friedrich Torberg, this article explores this notion and asks how the loss of language experienced by Holocaust survivors impacted on these two Austrian-Jewish writers. The article argues that, while the works of Spiel and Torberg are haunted by the Shoah, the two writers do not write in the post-Auschwitz language that Kertész delineates in his essays, but are instead shaped by the exile experience of both writers. At the same time though, Kertész’ concept seems to be haunted by exile, as his reception of Jean Améry’s works, which form the basis of his linguistic genealogies, shows an inability to integrate the experience of exile.
Keywords: Friedrich Torberg; Hilde Spiel; Jean Améry; Imre Kertész; exile literature; post-war era; Auschwitz; Holocaust literature Friedrich Torberg; Hilde Spiel; Jean Améry; Imre Kertész; exile literature; post-war era; Auschwitz; Holocaust literature

1. Of Exile and Holocaust literature

In a recent keynote address, the distinguished Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer insisted on maintaining the historical contingency of the term Holocaust, and voiced his concern about comparing the exile experience to the Holocaust, arguing that he himself—although he had fled from National Socialism in Czechoslovakia with his parents—was not a Holocaust victim [1]. At the same time, parallels in the representation of exile and the Shoah do exist. The sense of insecurity created by the ‘Garden of Exile’ in the Berlin Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, an American architect of Central European Jewish descent, for example, is intended to represent the exile experience of German Jews who fled after the rise of National Socialism [2]. In the ‘Garden of Exile’, visitors stand on an uneven floor below the surface of the outside world, trapped in a labyrinth of skewed pillars, which make the surrounding buildings outside appear tilted. A comparable discombobulating experience is also created in the works of Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész, when he develops his genealogy of Holocaust and émigré writing in two essays titled ‘The Exiled Tongue’ and ‘The Freedom of Self-Definition’ (2002) [3]. While for Kertész, the German language before the Holocaust signifies intellectual independence and freedom of self-definition (against one’s roots), the trauma of the Holocaust resulted in the loss of language for the surviving writers. Kertész argues that survivors were confronted with severe difficulties in the subsequent post-war era—not only in Germany and Austria. They remained outsiders speaking a borrowed, post-Auschwitz language—even when writing in the national language of their home country [4]. In ‘The Exiled Tongue’, Kertész uses this notion of a borrowed language to illustrate the distance of Holocaust writers from the respective societies they lived in, and develops a genealogy of Holocaust writers, including Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski and Jean Améry. In ‘The Freedom of Self-Definition’, Kertész furthermore situates his own writing in a wider tradition of Central European Jewish literature, including writers who did not write in the language of their national literature such as Franz Kafka. The home of such an émigré language, which closely resembles Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s concept of a minor language [5], Kertész argues, always remains fragile, and can only survive, if another big language, like contemporary German, is willing to embrace it—for a time. Kertész’ model seems haunted, and shifts between times and places, the literary realm, historical narrative and (auto-)biographical experience—its logic as palpable as its contradictions. By leaving the reader with an elusive image of the émigré and post-Auschwitz tongue that is just outside his or her grasp, the texts embody the very condition/s they describe.
If this article engages in the ways in which exile and Holocaust literature are haunted by one another, it is not to question the historical difference between having escaped through exile and having survived in a concentration or death camp, but rather to investigate the ways in which exile and the Holocaust are represented by four acculturated and assimilated Jewish writers. The article will explore the selected works of two survivors, Kertész and Jean Améry, and two returned exiles, Hilde Spiel and Friedrich Torberg, and submits that in the post-war world, exile and Holocaust literature are haunted by one another, and that these narratives seem distinct and entangled at the same time.
According to Jacques Derrida, the concept of hauntology inherently embeds the realm of the past in that of the present as the ghosts of the past return to haunt us [6]. Such hauntings have been used both in trauma studies and in literary studies in an attempt to describe the lingering aftereffects of violence on its victims, which can be seen in the biographies of all the writers discussed in this article [7], and the textual instability that “makes[s] it impossible to assign meanings to things” [8]—best represented in Kertész’ fluid concepts of post-Auschwitz and émigré language. Applying Kertész’ concept of a post-Auschwitz language to the works of Torberg and Spiel exposes how their literary works were haunted by the Holocaust, but at the same time shaped by their own exile experience. Reading Kertész through his reception of Austrian exile and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry in turn reveals how Kertész reinterprets Améry’s position as both an exile and a survivor. The central site of haunting then remains the way in which the post-war representations of two distinct, but closely related historical experiences (exile, Holocaust), remain informed and haunted by one another.
A short introduction to the writers at the heart of this study: Kertész, born in 1929, who describes himself as a “chronicler of an anachronist condition, that of the assimilated Jew [9]”, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 from his native Budapest, still a youth, and later sent to Buchenwald and Zeitz; his father had previously been forced to join a compulsory labour squad and died during a death march. While his maternal grandparents were killed in the Holocaust as well, his paternal grandparents perished under the communist regime [10]. After the war, Kertész worked as a journalist, playwright and translator of German literature and philosophy in Hungary. Fatelessness, the first of his many novels, was published in 1975, and he eventually received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002. The other writers in question differ from Kertész in nationality and generation, and show distinct biographical parallels with each other, having been born in Austria within half a decade (1908, 1911 and 1912) into assimilated and acculturated Jewish families. Jean Améry (1912–1978) was born in Vienna as Hans Maier, his father Paul fell in battle in WWI, and Améry moved to Bad Ischl with his mother, who opened a boarding house there to sustain the family. Améry’s first literary publications stem from the late 1920s. In the 1930s he worked as a bookseller in Vienna, while starting his studies at the University of Vienna, attending the salons of Moritz Schlick and Karl Bühler, like Hilde Spiel a few years later [11]. Améry escaped to Belgium in late 1938 with his wife Regine Berger-Baumgarten. After the German invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium in May 1940, he was first interned in France, in the Camp de Saint-Cyprien and later at Gurs, from where he escaped to Brussels. He joined a small subgroup of the Belgian resistance, but was caught and subsequently tortured. Eventually identified as Jewish by the German authorities, he was deported to Germany in January 1944, first to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. After his liberation, and upon his return to Belgium, he learned that his wife had died of heart failure in 1944, while in hiding in Brussels; his mother had died in hospital in Vienna in 1939 [12]. After the war, Améry wrote mainly for Swiss newspapers, but remained in Belgium. His first major post-war work, At the Mind’s Limits, was originally broadcast as a series of radio essays in Germany, and eventually published in 1966, and would become the foundation of a successful career as a public intellectual and writer in the German-speaking world [13]. Despite this, Améry never returned to live in Austria or Germany, and remained highly critical of anything that could be interpreted as a symbolic appropriation by either state [14]. Only for his last journey—he committed suicide—did he return to Salzburg.
In comparison to Kertész and Améry, Spiel and Torberg survived WWII relatively unscathed, since neither of them was interned during the war. Spiel (1911–1990) came from a relatively privileged background and had been a pupil at the renowned Schwarzwald reform school. Her debut novel Katie auf der Brücke was published in 1933, the same year she joined the Social Democratic Party, which would be declared illegal just one year later. At university she studied philosophy and worked for the Research Centre for Economic Psychology during her studies. Spiel already left Vienna in 1936 because of the worsening political climate, having received her PhD and married the German writer Peter de Mendelsohn, who accompanied her to London, in the year of her exodus. She worked as a journalist for both English and—after the war—German newspapers, and published several fiction and non-fiction books on Austrian and Jewish history. Spiel commuted between Berlin, London and Sankt Wolfgang until 1963, before settling in Vienna permanently, where she continued to publish both critical and creative works, and would play an important role in fostering a young generation of Austrian writers [15], among them Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann [16].
Torberg’s escape route was more long-winded than Spiel’s, Prague, Zurich, Paris, Lisbon and finally New York and Hollywood. Torberg (1908–1979) had been born in Vienna and had grown up in an observant middle-class Jewish family [17]. In 1920, after his Bar Mitzvah, he left with his family for Prague only to return in 1927. With the success of his first novel Der Schüler Gerber absolviert (1930) he was widely accepted in the literary circles of Prague and Vienna [18]. After his return from American exile in 1951, Torberg became one of the founders of the anti-communist journal FORVM, and was chief editor from 1954 to 1965. FORVM, which was financed by the CIA-supported Congress for Cultural Freedom, formed an important platform for intellectual debate in post-war Austria [19,20]. Torberg, however, was not only a Cold Warrior, but published several novels during and after WWII, which all engaged with Jewish life, and was also well-known as the German translator of the works of Israeli writer Ephraim Kishon.

2. A post-Auschwitz language? Friedrich Torberg and Hilde Spiel

Although Torberg and Spiel were not Holocaust survivors, both lost close family members in the Holocaust: Torberg lost his mother and his oldest sister (his younger sister Ilse Daus escaped to Palestine) [21], while Spiel lost her maternal grandmother [22]. Spiel, furthermore, blames the strains of exile for having killed her father “more slowly and less brutally, but just as definitely as a German concentration camp” [23]. The return to their former homes was not easy for either of the writers. Spiel was the first to put her feet on Austrian soil: she did so as a journalist and “belated war correspondent” for the London New Statesman [24], reporting both on her return to Vienna and the state of the DP camps in Carinthia in 1946. In a letter to her husband in Berlin, she describes the raw emotions surfacing more intensely than she had predicted and the sense of security she obtains from socializing with the British soldiers in Vienna [25]. Even if Spiel was gradually able to feel at home in Austria again after her return, she would reflect on her decision to return in her writings for the rest of her life, highlighting the fact that despite her success she continued to feel alienated from the Austrian population in some respects, which mourned the lost war while she rejoiced that it had been won [26]. Torberg had a similar emotional response to his return in 1951. Even though he could not see himself living anywhere else than Vienna, he continued to be haunted by wartime loss, as encapsulated in the last line of his poem Return from 1951: “But wherever I go, the dark garments of the dead fly around me [27]”.
Spiel and Torberg were more aware than other members of Austrian society of the impact and devastation of the Shoah on post-war Germany and Austria. They never felt entirely comfortable upon their return to Austria and would keep their foreign citizenships for the rest of their lives. But did they write in what Kertész calls a post-Auschwitz language? After all both writers were able to forge successful careers for themselves in post-war Austria, and engaged in fierce political debates, not always sparing one another: Spiel criticized Torberg’s very outspoken anti-communist stance, while Torberg accused her of being a fellow traveler. These public debates highlight, on the one hand, the pressures returned émigrés were under, but, on the other hand, the public nature of this debate also shows their status as prominent members of post-war cultural life [28,29,30,31]. While they were aware that the course of their lives had been altered, they did not have to rebuild their lives based on their camp experiences; in other words they did not become a ‘medium of Auschwitz’—as Kertész puts it [32]— in that their whole existence was defined by past events. However, as authors of fiction and autobiographical accounts, their work, at least in large parts, revolved around the impacts of the Shoah on German and Austrian cultural life.
In the case of Torberg, such an assessment stands somewhat in contrast to secondary literature which often highlights his involvement in Cold War post-war politics, and his ostensible complicity in (unwittingly) supporting the mantle of secrecy that defined Austria’s (not) coming to terms with the past in the 1950s and 1960s. According to Scheichl, Torberg’s anti-communist stance in FORVM was detrimental to such matters, since large parts of the Austrian resistance to National Socialism in Austria had been carried out by members of the communist party, who also remained vocal in the post-war era [33]. Like Marcel Atze, he praises Torberg’s rare satirical attacks on the Austrian judicial system in the context of the trial against former SS officer Franz Murer, also known as the “Butcher from Vilnius”, or his support of the Eichmann trial. However, both commentators agree that Torberg could have done and said more [34]. Only when it came to the Shoah, Scheichl further adds, did Torberg’s emotions ever overrule his political stance [35]. This split, however, into a ‘conservative’ and an ‘emotional’ Torberg falls short of acknowledging that the writer was on the whole a very passionate person, and that his Cold War enthusiasm could also be seen as an emotional reaction against Soviet anti-Semitism [36].
As a writer of fiction, Torberg found himself in a complex situation. He could not see himself living anywhere else than in Vienna [37], though he could have remained in the United States if he had seen a life for himself there. According to his own appraisal, he had mastered the English language “with ease” [38], but he only had very limited literary success in the United States, which he blamed on the working conditions in the film industry. His awareness of the political situation in Austria while in exile becomes obvious in his novels. In Auch das war Wien, published only in 1984, but written in 1938 or 1939, he already described anti-Semitic riots after the annexation. Mein ist die Rache (1943) is set in a concentration camp and features rabbinical candidate Joseph Aschkenasy, who can only free himself from the camp, if he shoots the KZ-commander, but eventually comes to regret his deed. In Hier bin ich, mein Vater (1948) the central character, Otto Maier, is a Jew who worked as an informant for the Gestapo in order to save his father, and only in the end understands the futility of his efforts (for summaries of Torberg’s further works see [39,40]).
After his return to Vienna, however, the author Torberg fell silent for nearly 20 years, which in secondary literature—relying on Torberg’s own testimony—is usually explained through his involvement with FORVM and his active engagement in Austrian post-war cultural and intellectual life [41]. But maybe, there was not so much that Torberg felt inclined or was able to say? Kertész argues that in the case of Holocaust survivors it takes a very long time, before they are—if at all—able to express themselves, and can regain their personal and authentic voice [42]. A collection of stories titled Golems Wiederkehr (1968), which also reprinted his earlier story Mein ist die Rache, represents Torberg’s first attempt at a literary response to the Shoah after his return. In the eponymous story, Torberg combines the Golem myth with the history of the National Socialist Central Jewish Museum in Prague. He retells the miraculous prevention of the planned National Socialist torching of the Prague Altneuschul, where the Golem presumably rests, in anecdotal form, and intimates that the fact the Altneuschul survived unscathed was uncanny. Such an anecdotal style, however, which was for Torberg the essence of Jewish storytelling, was hard to maintain in the face of the enormity of the Shoah, and Torberg turned to the Middle Ages for his novel Süßkind von Trimberg (1972), which gives a fictional account of the life of the first documented Jewish poet of the German language. The life of Trimberg, who is first celebrated and then expelled, is a clear allegory for German-Jewish symbiosis and its tragic destruction.
It is only in his most popular work, Die Tante Jolesch oder Der Untergang des Abendlandes in Anekdoten, first published 1975 [43], however, that Torberg’s anecdotal style comes into its own. This “book of melancholy”, as he terms it in the introduction [44], contains, like the follow-up volume Die Erben der Tante Jolesch [45], a series of anecdotes, through which Torberg aims to (re-)create a lost past. While denying the nostalgic character of his undertaking in his introduction, and thus preempting his critics, a strategy often used by Torberg [46], he mourns the decline of an era and of the Habsburg middle-class. In order to make this retrospective view convincing, and to make it possible for Torberg to function as a witness—after all he was only ten years old when the monarchy ended—, he needs to construct a specific temporality, which “extends” the Habsburg empire until the annexation of Austria, ignoring the political frictions and any debate of the role of Austro-fascism. His anecdotes introduce the reader to a series of eccentric figures, unfit for the societies of the post-war era, who are distinguished by their peculiar sense of humor, ripe with self-irony and characterized by an inverse logic, which for Torberg were key features of Jewish humor [47]. It is this sense of humor that all characters in Tante Jolesch share, no matter if they are Jewish or not, and in this sense all citizens of Torberg’s visionary Habsburg Empire seem Jewish.
Rather than engaging in a political debate about justice or restitution, the book conveys a sense of loss, and names National Socialism as the ultimate reason of the demise of this “extended” Habsburg Empire. At the same time, Torberg does not represent the crimes committed during the Shoah, although its presence is not far from the anecdotal surface. In a fairly comical story, Torberg describes a quarrel between his favorite uncle Paul and another Uncle:
“Uncle Paul was a lieutenant with the Deutschmeister. Uncle Bertie, with full name Albert Grossmann and husband of my mother’s older sister, was a major in the same regiment. And suddenly Uncle Bertie jumped up, slapped the table with his hand so that the dishes rattled, and screamed at Uncle Paul with a voice trembling with anger, moustache tips bristling: ‘Herr Lieutnant, how dare you?’ and yelled a lot more that I did not understand. All I saw from the children’s table was that Uncle Paul stood up—red-faced—and remaining standing until Uncle Bertie sat down again. Conversations amongst adults, who discussed the incident for days, helped me work out for myself that Uncle Bertie had made Uncle Paul stand at attention. The whole thing seemed scary and funny to me at the same time. Should the, probably very lengthy, book What Jews are Capable Of ever be finished, this episode cannot be left out.”
[48]
Much could be said in this context about the importance of the Habsburg military for unifying the empire, and the ways in which it both undermined and perpetuated ethnic rivalries; or about the glass ceiling Jews encountered within this institution. What remains unsaid by Torberg though, is the fact that his favorite uncle was killed in the Holocaust [49], and that this story was an act of remembrance, not of the useless death of his favorite uncle, but of his life. Only after the success of Tante Jolesch did Torberg talk about the fate of his family in public [50]. For his mainly non-Jewish readers, the quirky and memorable characters created a possibility to relate to a Jewish past in a post-Holocaust society, the people close to him would have understood the personal meaning this work had for Torberg.
How does Torberg fit into the model suggested by Kertész? Torberg’s strict adherence to the anecdotal form does not represent the break with literary traditions that Kertész associates with a post-Auschwitz language. Additionally, Golems Wiederkehr and the Trimberg-novel attempted to create a historical continuum of European anti-Semitism starting in the Middle Ages and culminating in the Shoah. In the Golem story, the comparative nature of the anecdote undermines the notion of the Shoah as an absolute caesura, as the German-Jewish literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki also suggested in a review of the Trimberg novel [51], for Kertész a prerequisite for post-Auschwitz language. Additionally, Torberg felt not so much that he was writing in a guest language in the post-war period, but instead that he was the only representative left who spoke a language at the brink of extinction. This becomes obvious in a letter to Max Brod from 1955: “I am a German-Jewish writer that means a Jew writing in German, I have always known, that that is what I am, and, if anything, since then the knowledge has increased that I most likely will be the last (…)” [52]. At the same time there is a shift in Torberg’s writing pre- and post-exile. The four novels before his expulsion did not engage with Jewish topics as such, but with school life, sport and love. It is during his American exile that Jewish issues are raised in Torberg’s fiction, the turn to the anecdote in this context could be compared to the formalist turn in exile poetry—poets shying away from modernist literary experimentation and returning to sonnets and other more classical forms—and was born out of a communicative practice of commemoration. Torberg and his close circle of friends not only preserved nostalgic memories of a lost coffee house culture, but also commemorated friends killed in the Shoah—just as he would commemorate his uncle Paul in Tante Jolesch [53]. The depiction of the consequences of the Shoah consequently was based on a model developed in exile; an argument that could be extended to his anecdotal style in the post-war era.
The discussion of Jewish history and culture in the German-speaking world, and the pained swansong of Central European (Jewish) Culture also resonates in Spiel’s work, even though she refused to identify as Jewish [54]. Jacqueline Vansant has pointed out, that the “story of Jewish assimilation allows Spiel to highlight the contributions of Austrians of Jewish heritage [55]”. Spiel’s work includes a biography of Fanny von Arnstein (1962), which discusses the complexities of German-Jewish emancipation. In her historical works, she depicts the Austrian character, and in Vienna’s Golden Autumn (1866–1938) (1987) she specifically highlights the contribution of Austrian Jews to the development of Vienna’s rich culture and, implicitly, its loss. Unlike Torberg, Spiel does not situate any of her stories in a concentration camp or deal with the Shoah directly, instead snippets of information are embedded in her exilic tales, and the Shoah influences the underlying context of her explorations. This is the case in Anna und Anna (1988), a film script that dramatizes the parallel lives of the main character Anna, a liberal to left-leaning middle-class young woman, who has one Jewish grandmother, like Spiel. After the annexation of Austria, two versions of the same life are given, with Anna I remaining in Austria and Anna II leaving Vienna for London. In this late, and maybe most conciliatory of Spiel’s works, the plight of Viennese Jews is mentioned once as part of Anna I’s story, when a group of dissident artists and intellectuals who oppose but do not actively resist the regime learn of a grossly anti-Semitic speech of the infamous Reichstatthalter of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach. In this speech, Schirach, who is renowned as a friend of the arts, claims to have made the biggest contribution to European culture by ensuring that the remaining Jews of Vienna would be deported [56]. When challenged by his subordinate Thomas Walter, an associate of the dissident group, who points out that the Viennese artists would never forgive him, Schirach denigrates them as naïve and not understanding the needs of politics. After Thomas’ account to the group, Anna points out Schirach’s cynical approach, but her comment is perceived as insolent by the other group members, and she is objurgated by her partner who finds her remark incautious considering Thomas works for Schirach, to which Anna replies that they all do—including herself [57]. While the deportation of Jews does not play a central role in the film script, this scene highlights how artists and intellectuals also become complicit with the regime, not least by perpetuating a culture of fear and social control even amongst themselves.
Anna und Anna was one of Spiel’s last comments on her own ongoing crisis of homecoming, which permeated her writing in the post-war period after her return. With the exception of Anna und Anna, her texts engaging with this topic remained autobiographical and depicted a self-attested schizophrenia contemplating the impossibility of living in two countries at once, and at the same time questioning her choice, i.e., her return to Austria. Reich-Ranicki summarized this stance critically as ‘wanting to have her cake and eat it too’ [58]. While her treatment of the topic of homecoming after her return sometimes has nostalgic moments and represents an idée fixe, her novel The Darkened Room (1961) published in English shortly before Spiel’s return to Austria—the German version titled Lisas Zimmer was published after her return—seems the most innovative of her treatments of the topic. It is characterized by what Kertész would call an atonal voice, a narration that challenges the reader, asking questions and allowing for a new representation of the past.
The story is set in post-war New York, and narrates the demise of its main character, the ageing, but still attractive femme fatale Lisa, who despite being married to an American, mainly surrounds herself with German and Austrian exiles. Having lived a glamorous life full of sex and drugs, she is homesick for Vienna but in order to finance her drug addiction and to support friends and lovers, sells off piece after piece out of her trunk of valuable European collectables. Her tragic story, symbolizing the demise of Europe, is predominantly narrated through the eyes of Lele, a former Lithuanian DP, whose parents were killed during the war and who first worked as a maid for a National Socialist German family, then after the war for the family of a British officer, and then for the Langendorfs, a Viennese émigré psychoanalyst couple in New York. She then starts working for Lisa and her husband Jeff. Her engagement with her new employers starts on good terms, however, by the end—the novel is written from a retrospect perspective—she has adjusted so “well” into the family that she not only shares Lisa’s past lovers, but also her husband.
For Dagmar Lorenz, who judges Lele’s character quite harshly, the competitive relationship between the two women symbolizes the conflict between humanism and fascism, with fascist thought disseminating internationally in the post-war era [59]. However, Lisa’s downfall, like that of the Europe she symbolizes, starts long before fascism, as becomes obvious when Lisa expresses her homesickness for the Vienna of her youth: “No one but us knew what it meant to grow up in the ashes of an empire [60]”. For Lele, the introduction to this exilic Europe remains a quite ambivalent encounter [61]. Not only is she sexually harassed by a writer, the seething emotions that erupt when Lieutenant Kline, formerly Klein, reports on the situation in post-war Berlin, and his momentary sympathies for the communist regime that killed her parents, shock her deeply. If, at the beginning of the narration, she had stated in her depiction of the DP camps that the Jewish survivors had only wanted to go to Palestine, since for them Europe represented a graveyard [62], she now describes the exiles as “with few exceptions, figures from afar and from the past, symbols of death and the obsolete, lemures on a graveyard, but nonetheless impressive in a macabre kind of way [63]”.
Spiel thus has her prejudiced and emotionally involved homodiegetic narrator voice a view of exile, which highlights both its enduring character and the futility of exile from a post-war perspective. After the end of the war, the exiles remain stranded, still caught up in a past, they are not willing to forget, but at the same time without the possibility of return, due to geographical distance and the passage of time. An escape seems impossible, and compromise remains the best alternative: Lisa’s marriage to Jeff, the commodification of the past—symbol both for the American lust for historical objects and the involuntary role of the exiles as executors of their own estate—, the warped attempts of assimilation. Rather than committing suicide, Lele aims to escape by marrying an American and moving as far West as possible. However, the reader can assume that her attempt to forget her past will be futile, after all she still has the urge to tell the story, which remains unresolved, and is unable to genuinely reflect on her own behavior and experience [64].
Like in Anna und Anna, the Shoah is only discussed in passing: Lieutenant Kline’s fiancée was murdered in the gas chambers, and Lele’s observations of Holocaust survivors confirm her desire to escape from Europe. While the devastation of the Shoah forms the underlying frame work for all of Spiel’s exilic tales, it seems that with Lisa’s Zimmer—written shortly before her own return—she was able to create a destabilizing narrative that was more complex than her later elaborations on the topic. Similarly to Torberg, the return to Austria left her speechless for a time, which might not only have been a result of the unwillingness of the Austrian public to engage with works dealing with the National Socialist past, but also with her own adaptation process [65]. Kertész’ verdict that writing in the post-war era remained hard holds true then, and it seems for Torberg and Spiel the loss of language that Holocaust survivors experienced in the post-war world did to a degree apply to them upon their return. While neither writer wrote in what Kertész calls a post-Auschwitz language, their work was not only defined by the experience of exile but also haunted by the Shoah.

3. Imre Kertész, Jean Améry, and the Ghosts of Exile

If Torberg and Spiel were not able to write in a (metaphorical) post-Auschwitz language, the question arises, what would such a language look like? To investigate this issue more closely, it is necessary to scrutinize Kertész’ own terminology in more detail. Kertész develops the term in a series of literary associations arguing that, after Auschwitz, the languages, i.e., societies, in which survivors lived, either did not come to terms with their past, and swept the memory of the Shoah under the carpet, or victimized survivors yet again [42]. He contrast this with an authentic language, that only few survivors were able to develop, a language, however, that eats its children as all of the writers cited by Kertész committed suicide, as he notes [32]. While writers—and Kertész states as much—love the actual language they write in [66], in a post-Auschwitz language this actual language, i.e., German or Hungarian, can only function as a medium, as a borrowed or guest language that might tolerate interlopers and grant them asylum for a time [67]. The terrible and privileged post-Auschwitz language, however, is only accessible to a select few, survivors. Considered in the context of Kertész’ wider goal to develop a culture of the Holocaust, which is directed towards Wiedergutmachung, while being aware of its impossibility [68], the function of such a post-Auschwitz language is to commemorate a select group of writers and strengthen their voice.
This idealized and skewed view of a post-Auschwitz language is contrasted by Kertész with an émigré language that is portrayed as the home of Eastern and Central European Jewish literature. According to Kertész, the latter was never written in the language of the immediate national environment—this is somewhat contradicted by such obvious examples as Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud, but also Torberg and Spiel—and was written in a language that can never be considered a native tongue; in other words the outsider status is engrained in its very definition. With some allowances, such a language could form the home for all four writers discussed here. In developing the model for his post-Auschwitz and émigré language model, Kertész draws heavily on an admired speaker of the post-Auschwitz language, namely Jean Améry and his ground-breaking essay ‘Wieviel Heimat braucht der Mensch?’, ‘How Much Home Does a Person Need?’ in English. It is this intertextual connection, which will be central to understanding how exile haunts the Shoah in the post-war period [69].
In his essay, Améry makes a distinction between “normal” homesickness and the homesickness of refugees, and argues while migrants mourn the loss of their country, the Jewish exiles from National Socialism had additionally lost their sense of belonging to a people, which rejected them, as well as their language [70]. This loss of language has been addressed by many exile writers, including Anna Seghers [71] and Peter Weiss [72]. Améry’s examination of the issues of Heimat, which is based on his own (exile) experience, contains an eerie description of the impacts of National Socialism on the language of his fellow émigrés and the peculiar nature of their homesickness. Some exiles, Améry points out, refused to engage with the new German language crafted in the National-Socialist state, arguing that they were the original keepers of the German language, but they, according to Améry, spoke a language that was growing old. In an attempt to bridge this gap, he and some other fellow exiles read the ‘Brüsseler Zeitung,’ the Belgian National Socialist organ. While this did not ruin his language, it also did not allow it to evolve: “For I was excluded from the fate of the German community and thus from its language.” Not unlike Spiel, he argues: “‘Enemy bombers, fine, but for me these were the German bombers that were laying the cities of England in ruins, and not the flying fortresses of the Americans, which were attending to the same business in Germany [73]”. This led to an irreversible self-alienation, although, argues Améry, this was not necessarily obvious at the time, but rather the notion grew gradually and was furthered by the fact that so much of National Socialist terminology remained part of the post-war German language [74].
Consequently, Améry’s relationship to the German language was deeply ambivalent. He viewed it as a Feindheimat, since “words were laden with a given reality [70]”, forming the basis for the concept of self-alienation that was crucial for his philosophical interrogations in the post-war world. When Améry speaks of a language, he means an actual language. Unlike Torberg, Améry never aimed to reinvent or even commemorate the language of yesterday, although he publically appreciated Ingeborg Bachmann’s use of a German no longer spoken [75]. His conflictedness about his decision not to become a French writer after 1945—somewhat comparable to Spiel’s inability to find an answer to the question of where to live—haunted him until the very end [76]. For Améry, the post-war solution to the self-alienation he experienced was inherently political: “The only therapy could have been history in practice. I mean the German revolution and with it the homeland’s strongly expressed desire for our return. But the revolution did not take place, and our return was nothing but an embarrassment for our homeland, when finally the National Socialist power was crushed from without [77]”.
What becomes apparent, is that for Améry the beginning of the existential crisis, which Auschwitz was to become for him, was the expulsion from Austria, and that the homelessness of exiles and survivors could have been addressed and eased on a political national level after the end of WWII. We can assume that Torberg and Spiel would have agreed with this verdict, although the specific visions such a solution might have entailed would have looked different for the three writers, considering the political tensions between Spiel and Torberg already mentioned.
With the knowledge of hindsight, Kertész however points out that the downfall of the political, caused an ongoing disillusionment, which left most survivors and exiles with a sense of profound loneliness. In the freer, i.e., non-totalitarian, post-war societies, the flood of disappointments resulting from the fact that the catharsis many surviving intellectuals and philosophers had built their hopes on, did not take place the way they imagined, drove some survivors into further despair [78]. In a comment on his own resilience, he argues that the very continuity of self-denial in his life, be it in the Hungarian “humanist” (i.e., with a focus on classics) high school that taught Jewish pupils separately, to the Shoah to the Stalinist regime in Hungary, had helped him to develop his individual language [79].
When it comes to language, Kertész shifts Améry’s concept of self-alienation to that of self-denial, and refers to the language of survivors (or émigrés) rather than exiles. By making Améry the privileged speaker of an exclusive language, Kertész expresses his appreciation and furthers Améry’s literary esteem. He reacts to Améry’s political disillusionment, and gives him a home in the world of literature. But just as the Shoah haunts exile literature, exile also haunts Kertész model of post-Auschwitz. Even when Améry accepted Auschwitz as the defining moment of his literary life—he rarely mentioned his budding pre-war literary career [80]—, his notion of self-alienation was grounded in the exile experience. That he, Spiel and Torberg belonged to a community of sorts, despite their different experiences, was understood and becomes apparent in the exchange of letters between Spiel and Améry [81], in the latter’s, fairly critical, review of Torberg’s debut novel Der Schüler Gerber [82], and perhaps best in an incident he described to his life-long friend Ernst Mayer in a letter. In it Améry commented on a radio discussion he had participated in with Torberg and Hans Egon Holthusen, an influential German intellectual and former Nazi and SS officer. In the debate, Améry argued that there was no such thing as a rightist intellectual, and he expresses slight surprise that he was met on friendly terms by Torberg, who had seemed somewhat dazed: “He obviously seemed displeased that he had to oppose an Auschwitzer [Auschwitz survivor] [83]”. Even if the political distance between Améry and Torberg was substantial, in this context they called a truce based on a common understanding of the past.
For Améry the notion of a post-Auschwitz language would have undoubtedly had a political character, its implications used for contemporary politics. Nearly forty year after the publication of Améry’s essay, the fall of the wall, and a lengthy process of coming to terms with the past in Germany and Austria, the situation presents itself differently to Kertész. While his post-Auschwitz language transcends linguistic boundaries, it cannot find a way in which to contain the German and Austrian exile experience. Kertész’ concept of an émigré language is more likely to embed the exile experience, however, his implicit reference to Guattari and Deleuze and the insistence on the foreign language environment as prerequisite at this point excludes not only Schnitzler and Freud, but also Torberg and Spiel.

Conclusions

While the writers in this article were all affected by, and wrote about, the events of the Second World War, their depictions of exile and the Holocaust seem both specific to one experience and at the same time haunted by the other. The works by Spiel and Torberg reveal that at least in the case of these two writers the return to Austria coincided with a hesitation to embrace more radical modernist forms of narration and/or to engage with the Holocaust in a more probing way. Further studies would need to reveal, if this was solely an effect of living in a society that had not yet come to come to terms with its past, or if the personal wish for return left the writers conflicted between the need to reintegrate and the wish to speak up. That such hauntings are defined by the author’s biography can be seen in all four cases, most poignantly maybe in Kertész’, who remains bound by the Holocaust experience even three decades (and more) after the publication of Spiel’s and Torberg’s work discussed in this article. However, also his notion of the émigré language offers strong parallels to his own biography. As a translator of German works into Hungarian, and as a Hungarian writer living in Berlin, he functions as an exemplar of his own theory. This would explain why he does not explicitly extend the linguistic inclusiveness of his concept of a post-Auschwitz language to that of the émigré language, while at the same time appropriating Améry’s notion of language crisis, which the latter developed from his specific positionality to allow a more integrated account of the exile and the Holocaust experience.

References and Notes

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  37. The idealizing nature of his relationship to Vienna started well before 1938, as an essay from 1934 shows, in which Torberg argues—somewhat satirically, but then again not (he was a master of the oxymoron)—that the civil war-like fights in February in Austria, in which over a thousand members of the paramilitary organization of the Social Democratic Party were killed by the police, the military and the Christian-conservative Heimwehr, were an Austrian rather than a Viennese act, and that the essence of Vienna, its inner melody, would form the most powerful resistance against the powers that be (Torberg. Wien oder der Unterschied. 53–54). The reason for such a deep connection to the city lay—according to Torberg—not only in the fact that he was born in the city and spent his formative years there, but “maybe even more so through the years of absence rather than those of residency” (“[D]urch die Jahre des Fernseins vielleich noch mehr als durch die der Ansässigkeit.” Torberg. Wien oder der Unterschied. 53). Indeed, Torberg’s family had left Vienna in 1921, two-years after Torberg had started at the progressive humanistic high school in Wasagasse, and directly after his Bar Mitzwah, since his father’s Prague based employer, for whom he had built up a new central office in Vienna, pulled out of Vienna and offered Alfred Kantor a position in Prague (Axmann. Friedrich Torberg. 29–30). Torberg was uprooted for the first time, and he did not take to it overly well. The change to a more authoritarian, not reform oriented and scientific, German high school represented a culture shock, and the fact that he arrived three weeks into the school term and lived with friends of the family until his family arrived several month later, fostered a profound longing for Vienna (Axmann. Friedrich Torberg. 33).
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  61. “Even then, Lisa’s attempts to assimilate into a world, which was already shattered, were hindered by various intrigues; initially the aristocratic uncle of her fiancé seduced middle-class assimilated Jew in order to compromise her. However, her extravagant and destructive life style, the lies and the confusion around the drug addicted Lisa and her fallible narrator, which are furthered through characters like Mrs. Langendorf, who not only communicates to Lele that Lisa had not helped her parents to escape from National Socialism, but also leads Lisa believe that she is actually suffering from cancer, which furthers her demise, allow Spiel to present a complex perspective on the exile experience. Spiel.” In Lisas Zimmer. p. 74.
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  64. Spiel might herself have been worried about the reception of the novel. In a letter to fellow émigré and writer Hermann Kesten, she called her attempt at the novel bold (Ariane Thomalla. “Nachwort: Der Damaskusweg der Hilde Spiel.” Spiel, Lisas Zimmer, 316), the fictional epilogue of the novel by Paul Bothe, a writer and character in the novel, suggests the same. On the last three pages, Spiel drives home to the reader what already has been said. She relativizes the story again by having Bothe emerge as the editor of Lele’s novel. Not only does he suggest that he interfered with her manuscript—“where necessary” —, but he also distances himself from Lele’s view of Lisa: While the victorious cause pleased the gods (that is Lele, the Americans, the powers that be), he argues, the conquered cause (Lisa, Europe), pleased Cato, i.e., himself (Spiel. Lisas Zimmer. 297).
  65. Whether Spiel’s ambivalence stance on her own Jewishness played a role here would need to be considered further. Reich Ranicki points to the fact that Spiel rejected being classified as Jewish and maintained a Catholic identity (Reich-Ranicki. Reden auf Hilde Spiel. 92–93). Other commentators have pointed to Spiel’s conflictedness on the issue, as her biographer highlights, additionally adding that Spiel’s individualism might play a role in this context (Wiesinger-Stock, S. Hilde Spiel: Ein Leben ohne Heimat? Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik: Vienna, 1996, 51–53).
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  79. While Kertész’ post-war resilience could also be a result of his relative youth upon his deportation, and the fact that he had not been a grown-up member of society and hence might not have experienced its collapse as profoundly as other survivors, his ability to live in the “extended temporality of Auschwitz” and to generalize from this experience seems astounding, but might point to a sense of displacement or at least the refusal to expose that very experience.
  80. He had sent the manuscript of his posthumously published novel Die Schiffbrüchigen to Thomas Mann and Robert Musil, and parts of it had been published in Hermann Hakel’s Jahrbuch 1935 (Pfäfflin. Améry, unterwegs nach Oudenaarde. 21).
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