Monday, February 7, 2011

Franz Werfel

Checking a neglected bookcase I came across a collection of short stories by Franz Werfel, in German, issued under the imprint of Fischer Bücherei that, together with RoRoRo saw me through my Army years in Germany. Last night I read the last story in the collection, “The True Story of the Restored Cross,” a wonderfully told but dreadful account of the Nazi party’s coming to power in a small town in Austria on the border with Hungary. The historical event took place in 1938; the story was written in 1942. It concerns a Jewish community and its Rabbi, who has befriended the town’s Catholic priest. The priest aids the Jewish families to escape to Hungary, not very successfully—indeed, horrified, he leaves with them. Dreadful, dreadful story. It makes present what has now been effectively forgotten, and even children who went through those times (I would have been two in 1938) are now in their seventies and eighties. The story-teller, who hears the account from the priest in America, asks the priest what he thought about these events in those days. The priest says: “I don’t know what I thought then. Nothing, I suppose… But today I think: Humanity must punish itself without a break. And it’s very logical—for the sin of lovelessness from which our whole misery stems, develops, on and on, from joint to joint.”

Werfel was a Jew born in Prague in 1890 and a very popular playwright and novelist. He underwent the flight himself from Austria to France to Spain to the United States—where he died, still young, in 1945. As he and his wife first approached the border with Spain, Nazi troops had just occupied the area and caused them to flee inland again mingled with masses of confused refugees and defeated troops. Someone suggested that they might find help in Lourdes, which was just thirty kilometers away. So it turned out. Werfel and his wife hid in Lourdes, passed from family to family to protect them and the families. Eventually they managed to move on. Werfel learned the story of Lourdes while hiding there and vowed to write it down if he ever got away. Thus came the inspiration for his most famous work of all, The Song of Bernadette, a world-wide bestseller, structured in five parts, each with ten chapters in imitation of the rosary, the story of Bernadette Soubirous.

The short story—which I had read before I knew the content of the paragraph above—and the story of that book are closely linked, of course: two related faiths fusing in each other’s aid in a time of dreadful trial. Where love is present, miracles happen.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the short story. I remember Werfel, but I especially remember his quondam wife, Alma, who - if memory serves - was also married to Gustav Mahler at one time.

    The "Song of Bernadette" deals with a fascinating event. I have recently paid more attention to the power politics in apparitions: the local priests, bishops, and the Vatican; local newspapers, left-wing groups and right-wing groups... even the local populace would favor some charismatics over others.
    It is easier to get full information about apparition events that are not immensely popular; the popular ones tend to have a orthodox account and dogma which makes them not very informative.
    The arm-twisting among theologians and clergy is a fascinating side of the Holy.


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