This Day in Jewish History

1884: German-Jewish Author of 'Jew Suss’ Born in Munich

Novelist Lion Feuchtwanger was one of the Third Reich's earliest and most prominent critics, going to exile the day Hitler came to power.

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July 7, 1884, is the birthday of the German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, who, as one of the Third Reich’s earliest and most prominent critics, went into exile the day Hitler came to power. Although Feuchtwanger lived for another 25 years, he never returned to Germany.

Lion Feuchtwanger was born in Munich, although the family of his father, Sigmund Feuchtwanger, a margarine manufacturer, could trace its roots back to the city of Feuchtwangen, whose Jews were expelled in 1555. Lion’s mother was the former Johanna Bodenheim. He was one of nine children.

Feuchtwanger studied literature and philology at the universities of Berlin and of Munich, and earned a doctorate from the latter for a dissertation on Heine’s unfinished novel “The Rabbi of Bacharach.” He was also a drama critic. He married Marta Loeffler in 1912 he founded a literary magazine.

Nearly all Feuchtwanger’s work — mainly novels but also plays — was historical fiction, with the fiction often taking precedence over historical accuracy. While still in school, he wrote a trilogy of plays about the biblical figures Joel, Saul and Bathsheba. His first novel, “The Ugly Duchess” (1923), was about the 14th-century Margaret, Countess of Tyrol.

In 1925, he published the novel “Jew Suss,” based on a play he wrote in 1916 but did not publish, on the life of the Jewish financier Joseph Suss Oppenheimer. Although Feuchtwanger’s portrait of Oppenheimer was sympathetic (and was an international success), it served as the nominal basis for the virulently anti-Semitic movie of the same name, directed by Veit Harlan for the Nazi regime in 1940.

Feuchtwanger was in the United States in 1933 when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany; on January 30, the author was the dinner guest of the German ambassador to Washington. The diplomat, who himself resigned the following day, warned Feuchtwanger not to return to Germany. Lion and Marta went into exile in southern France. The Nazis confiscated Feuchtwanger’s home and bank accounts and burned his books.

In 1940, with the occupation of France, Lion and Marta were sent to the Les Milles concentration camp. Both escaped from custody. With the help of the U.S. Vice Consul in Marseilles, Hiram Bingham IV — who risked his career to help some 2,000 refugees flee from occupied Europe — as well as Varian Fry and Waitstill Sharp (and the encouragement of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt), the couple made their way to Lisbon and eventually to the United States. They bought a villa overlooking the sea in Pacific Palisades, California, and became prominent members of a large expatriate community.

Feuchtwanger ran into some political trouble in the United States over a 1937 visit to the Soviet Union that included a meeting with Joseph Stalin and a refusal to condemn Russian human-rights abuses. As a result, he never left the United States again, fearful that he would be barred from reentry.

Feuchtwanger’s most notable novels included two that were directly critical of Hitler, “Erfolg” (“Success,” 1930) and “The Oppermanns” (1933), whose name was changed to “The Oppenheims” after an Oppermann family with ties to the Third Reich threatened the author; historical novels about Benjamin Franklin (“Proud Destiny,” 1947), Francisco Goya (“This Is the Hour,” 1951), and a Jewish woman in 12th-century Castile (“Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo.”) and a trilogy about Flavius Josephus.

Feuchtwanger was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1957 and died on December 21, 1958. Marta subsequently bequeathed their home, Villa Aurora, and her husband’s papers and library to the University of Southern California. (She died in 1987.) Today, Villa Aurora is owned in part by the German government, which runs it as a retreat for writers and journalists from countries with limited freedom of expression.