Trove of Letters Spotlights Stefan Zweig's Take on Judaism, Zionism and Writing

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Stefan Zweig in 1925.
Stefan Zweig in 1925.Credit: Imagno / Getty Images

A 92-year-old Bat Yam resident recently gave the Jewish National and University Library a literary treasure of international value – 26 letters and six postcards penned by Stefan Zweig, one of the great writers of the first half of the 20th century. The letters shed new light on the Austrian-Jewish author's personality, his attitude toward Judaism and Zionism, and his opinions on publishing and literature, among other subjects.

The letters constitute part of the correspondence that Zweig, who was born in Vienna in 1881, conducted with a young admirer named Hans Rosenkrantz, a 16-year-old lover of books and poetry who lived in Koenigsberg, Germany. The correspondence started in 1921, when Rosenkrantz sought Zweig’s advice on how to plan his future so that he could be a writer. The letter writing ended in 1933, about the time the Nazis came to power.

It was Rosenkrantz’s stepdaughter, Hanna Jacobson, who decided to turn the letters over to the National Library in Jerusalem. Among other things, this extraordinary correspondence reveals the warm, paternal relationship Zweig had with his young fan, according to archivist Dr. Stefan Litt.

In one letter, sent by Zweig to Rosenkrantz in 1921, we learn much about the author’s attitude toward his religion and nationalism. “Dear Mr. Rosenkrantz. No, your message was not a burden in the least, but actually made me happy. Your work, your entire spiritual approach, is so surprising coming from a 16-year-old, to the extent that I felt real respect for the passion arising nowadays from the new Jewish youth in Germany, who find themselves in the very heart of problems and tragedies,” Zweig wrote.

Later on, he addressed issues mentioned by the teenager: “I myself am not nationalist in the conventional sense. Such a position would be nothing more than agreeing with the simple fact that a Jew will discover that he is a Jew and a German that he is a German. There’s nothing I hate more than peoples’ self-worship and their refusal to recognize the various types of nations and people, and to experience them as the beauty of being.

One of Stefan Zweig's letters to Hans Rosenkrantz. A collection of their correspondence was donated to the National Library in Jerusalem.Credit: Courtesy of the National Library

“But from a strictly historical perspective it’s clear to me, of course, that Judaism is now flourishing as a source of creative cultural power and flowering as it has not flowered for hundreds of years. It’s possible that this is burst of fire before it is extinguished; it may be that it’s nothing but a short flash that breaks through the hatred in the world, but whatever it is, Judaism is coming to life, with all the risks this entails ...

“But what I don’t agree with," Zweig added, "is that the individual should see in this flowering, joy, and collective achievement a source of pride, that someone should be proud of his Judaism and brag about it. It’s not proper to boast of your own achievements, let alone the achievements of a homogenous group to which you belong (the German layman who relies on Goethe and remains idle, and the Italian who rests on Dante are not allowed to see themselves as equal to the intellectual)."

Judaism as tragedy

Subsequently, the author wrote, “But to feel ourselves inferior, to suffer from Judaism as if from an accusation or a genetic disease is no less of a curse. We must love our fate with 'amor fati' [i.e., by seeing everything that happens as good] and we must never try to deny it. Anti-Semitism, hatred and internal rifts are ancient components of our fate – if we push them off ourselves, we won’t be ourselves. We are who we are because of our historic fate – which is always problematic anew in the same fashion – no less than because of our blood; we therefore should not seek a way out, we must be brave enough to remain within our fate.

Young Hans Rosenkrantz, who corresponded with Stefan Zweig beginning in the early 1920s.Credit: Courtesy of the National Library

"If Judaism is a tragedy, let’s live with it; it stands before the world as the greatest tragedy of the great poet God, and I don’t see any shame in the fact that (now) we are its actors, its impermanent characters.”

In another letter, from 1922, Zweig addresses Rosenkrantz’s query about moving to the Land of Israel. Zweig, who had visited many countries, had never been to what was then Palestine. “Of course you want to go to Palestine! I feel the beauty and ferocity of this decision. But there’s something that stops me from supporting you in this, and I want to tell you about it openly,” Zweig wrote, recounting the story of an Austrian Jewish boy who emigrated to Eretz Israel, died of malaria, and broke the heart of his father who had remained in Europe.

Still, Zweig left open the possibility that his young correspondent would indeed act on his desire to move to the Holy Land, but on condition that he would so with the proper motivation. “If you can do it with all your strength, with all your faith, that’s fine," he suggested. "But go there only if you believe, not out of disgust for this German world, or out of a bitterness seeking relief in escape."

In this same letter Zweig also described his admiration for Theodor Herzl, whom he had met, but admitted that this was only a theoretical admiration: “In recent days I’ve read through Theodor Herzl’s diaries: How great was his idea, so pure, so long as it was merely a dream, free of politics and sociology. Young people made him so happy! And we, who were close to him, hesitated to put our entire lives in his hands.

"I remember one time when he spoke to me at length (in a certain sense it was he who ‘discovered’ me, and despite my youth he had rare confidence in me), and I told him that I cannot do anything unless I do it completely, and that this would mean giving up everything else. I didn’t have the strength: The arts, the world as a whole, were too important to me to devote myself to the nation and nothing else.”

In his letters Zweig also offered insight into what he thinks it takes to be a successful writer. It’s important to study in university, he noted, because a broad education is vital, and it is also necessary to become familiar with other countries and cultures and, in particular, to learn as many languages as possible.

“That’s the key to liberty. Who knows, perhaps Germany and Europe will be so suffocating that the spirit of freedom won’t be able to breathe in them,” he wrote.

In a letter from 1921, Zweig also advised Rosenkrantz to spend a few years outside Germany, in a place where the “Jewish problem” didn’t exist.

“I lived for years abroad, where no one was interested in race. When I came back, the problem popped up again in front of me and demanded everything I had,” he explained.

“That period of living outside of Judaism in thought, that same emotion, that same understanding, while at the same time standing aside, is the respite that allows for true formulation of the problem. And that same release from the thought, the ability to leave it outside yourself, is what I wish for you, so that you can understand and grasp it, hold it and control it.”

Archivist Litt explained, after his study of the correspondence, that Zweig also recognized the teen's writing talent and offered him professional advice and moral and financial support for several years. They met a number of times, and when Rosenkrantz eventually went on to open his own publishing house, Zweig referred many of his writer friends to him.

But despite Zweig’s support, Rosenkrantz did not succeed in actualizing many of his literary ambitions. In the early 1930s he married Lily Heiman, a divorcee with a young daughter, and the family moved to Palestine in December 1933. After several years Rosenkrantz enlisted in the Jewish Brigade and fought in Italy during World War II. During the war he developed a lung ailment from which he suffered for the rest of his life. After the war, he divorced, changed his name to Hai Etron, and started to write for The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz.

Zweig, who during the prewar period was already a renowned and successful writer, moved to England in 1938, after Austria was annexed by the Nazis. When the war broke out, he moved to the United States, and in 1941 he moved to Brazil with his second wife, hoping to find hope and a future, but he suffered from loneliness and the recognition that his beloved European world had been irretrievably lost. In 1942, both he and his wife committed suicide. The following year, his autobiographical work, “The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European,” was published. Zweig's best-selling books of fiction, biography, drama and essays, published in editions of millions, have been translated into some 50 languages.

Rosenkrantz also took his own life, in 1956. His stepdaughter, Jacobson, kept in touch with him even after he divorced her mother. Jacobson, who was an Israel Police officer, told the National Library that her stepfather had broad knowledge of art and literature, and corresponded with other writers, including Thomas and Klaus Mann.

On Wednesday, November 23, the National Library will be holding a special evening to mark its receipt of the letters. Some of them will also be uploaded to the library’s website.

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