The Mystery of Herzl's Rebuff

Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet

“How young you are! A young branch,” Theodor Herzl called the Austrian-Jewish author Stefan Zweig in a letter from 1902. The letter, preserved in the manuscript collection of the National Library in Jerusalem, will go on display today in honor of the 120th anniversary of the library’s founding.

Herzl was at the time at the height of his diplomatic activity to realize the Zionist idea, just months after addressing the Sixth Zionist Congress, in which he reported on the failure of talks with the Turkish sultan, the German Kaiser and the British with regard to settlement of the Jews.

Impatiently and imperiously, Herzl responded to Zweig, who was indeed 21 years his junior, “My dear Zweig, I am sending you back your letter so you can read it again for amusement in another 20 years.”

But what was in the letter that Zweig sent to Herzl? Dr. Stefan Litt of the National Library archives has tried but failed to locate the letter in other collections. “He was apparently ashamed of it and when he got older, he didn’t keep it,” Litt told Haaretz.

From Herzl’s response we learn that Zweig had asked for a meeting with him to discuss something − perhaps a book or an article that Zweig had written in the newspaper Die Welt, which Herzl had founded in Vienna and by 1903 was the newspaper of the Zionist Movement.

“As to the matter itself: For some time, due to family reasons − illness and so on − I have been out of the office and still do not know when I will be returning. Approach the editorial office directly,” Herzl wrote the younger man.

Another sentence in Herzl’s letter is somewhat mysterious, hinting at something Zweig had written. “Especially the waiting room for a beautiful woman will make you happy … a man is not proud when it comes to beautiful women.”

Herzl signed the letter with the words: “You have not lost my feelings of affection, young bird [in French]. On the contrary, warm regards, Herzl.”

Thirty years later, in 1933, Zweig − by then a world-famous novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer − contacted the National Library in Jerusalem and asked that part of his personal archive be sent to the library. The material was received and served as the basis for the library’s Zweig Archive.

Zweig emigrated to England when Nazi Germany annexed Austria. In 1941 he moved to Brazil, where he hoped to find a haven. However, the war going on in Europe magnified his sense of loneliness, and he lost the wide recognition he previously had.

In 1942, Zweig committed suicide. In the letter he left, he wrote: “The world of my own language has declined and been lost to me, my spiritual homeland in Europe has committed suicide … I greet all my friends. May they see the dawn after the long night. I, who am very impatient, am going before them.”

Zweig’s best-known book, “The world of yesterday,” was published posthumously.

Stefan ZweigCredit: Courtesy National Library of Israel

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