Letters from the past

Exactly 71 years ago on this day, the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig and his second wife Lotte committed suicide in a rented two-story house in Petropolis, Brazil. It was an event that sent shock waves through the world and through the German-Jewish emigre population in the Americas in particular. Seen as cowardice by some (most notably by Thomas Mann), the Zweigs’ final act of desperation marks a dark episode in the history of those fortunate enough to escape Nazi persecution in Europe but not to face the day-to-day emptiness left behind by loved ones lost at home.

The past years have witnessed a renewed surge of interest in Zweig. His suicide has been the subject of a bestselling graphic novel in France and a feature film in Brazil; a new German biography has highlighted unknown aspects of his life; and new translations of his many works have made this once most translated author in the world again readily available to English readers.

But there is something the world has yet to discover about Zweig – that he’s a Fredonian!

Not literally, of course. Zweig gained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Vienna and went on to gain a doctorate in philosophy from this same institution. And although he traveled extensively, the closest he ever came to Western New York was the six months he spent in Ossining, where he drafted his autobiography “The World of Yesterday.” But it is at SUNY Fredonia today where one of the largest collections of Zweig manuscripts and personalia in the world can be found. This is thanks to the efforts of a former Modern Languages Professor, Dr. Robert Rie, who convinced Zweig’s first wife Friderike to sell the author’s voluminous correspondence to the college in 1967 for the symbolical sum of $2,800. An additional gift made to the college in 1975 by Dr. Eva Alberman, the niece of Zweig’s second wife Lotte, brought in a second load of letters that considerably enlarged the existing collection.

Visiting the Stefan Zweig collection, as I do every semester with the students in my European Literary Landmarks class, is truly a delight and a treat for the lover of art and history. The voluminous correspondence that Zweig kept up during his lifetime (it is estimated that he wrote around 20,000 letters) reads like a who’s who of European culture and it attests to Zweig’s unique position as a counselor and friend to so many of the early 20th-century’s most significant artists and writers. Among the many highlights in the Zweig collection are three handwritten letters by the Irish novelist James Joyce (one of them asks if Zweig could help find a German theater that would be willing to stage Joyce’s play “Exiles”); a postcard in ink by the painter Salvador Dali (thanking Zweig for introducing him to “Sigmund Froid” while in London); and one by the English novelist Virginia Woolf (telling Zweig that, yes, she would be happy to co-sign the birthday card that he has prepared for Freud’s 80th birthday).

But it is the documents relating to the holocaust in the Zweig collection that invariably leave the strongest impression on students. Consider a typed letter by the Czech-Jewish author Max Brod, the close friend of Franz Kafka who “betrayed” him by publishing his writings posthumously. The letter dated 1939 is sent from Tel Aviv (where Brod had moved to escape Nazi persecution) to England (where Zweig had moved) and written in English because, as Brod writes in broken English, “I learn that letters in German are sometimes going slower and therefore I choosed (sic) English.” Here, in this seemingly ordinary epistolary exchange, one encounters something like the essence of the “cultural” violence done to writers in the early 20th century: here are of two masters of the German language uprooted from their native surroundings and forced to communicate in a borrowed language that neither of them felt comfortable in.

By far the most sinister document in the Zweig collection, however, is an official Nazi document, complete with swastika in the lower right-hand corner, that was sent to Zweig’s Austrian domicile in 1938. The document informs him of a special tax that the German state was levying on Jewish possessions of any kind, a little extra for them to contribute simply because they were Jewish. Documents such as this one make the Holocaust come alive in a way that no history book ever can; they are a must see for any high school student in Chautauqua County (and their teacher) learning about the Holocaust.

In order to honor the legacy of the SUNY Fredonia Zweig collection and of the enduring presence of this great Fredonian, scholar Robert Kelz (University of Memphis) will deliver the second bi-annual Stefan Zweig lecture. This lecture, which will focus on Zweig’s 1936 trip to Argentina, will be held in Rosch Recital Hall March 19 at 7:30 p.m. The lecture is free of charge and open to the public.

Birger Vanwesenbeeck is an associate professor of English at SUNY Fredonia.