September 10, 1890 is the birthdate of Franz Werfel, the Prague-born Jewish poet, dramatist and novelist, whose most acclaimed work, the 1933 “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” about the Armenian genocide, was widely read as a warning about the Nazi rise to power and the murderous threat it posed to the Jews.
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Franz Werfel was the first of three children of Rudolf Werfel and the former Albine Kussi. Rudolf owned a successful glove manufacturing firm in the Bohemian capital. Franz was largely raised by a Catholic governess called Barbara, who took him to visit both church and synagogue. Franz developed an early affinity to Catholicism, setting up his own altar at home while still a child, and in general was fascinated by the religious experience.
Werfel attended a school run by the ecumenically minded Catholic Piarist order, where a rabbi was invited in to give Jewish boys instruction for their bar mitzvah. That was followed by gymnasium in Prague, during which time he already befriended Franz Kafka and Max Brod, hanging out with them and other German-language writers at the Arco Cafe.
In 1911, at age 21, Werfel published his first book, a poetry collection called “Weltfreund” (The World Lover), which included such open-hearted lines as “My only wish is to be related to you, O Man!” That same year, he began his period of obligatory service in the Austro-Hungarian army.
After the army, Werfel moved to Leipzig, where he began working as an editor of avant-garde literature for the German publisher Kurt Wolff. He now became acquainted with such writers as Martin Buber, Else Lasker-Schuller and Rainer-Maria Rilke, and was involved in organizing pacifist activities.
Pacifist or not, Werfel was called up to service in World War I, and was sent to the Russian front as a telephone operator, which left him with ample time for writing. In 1917, the army transferred him to its press bureau, recalling him to Vienna.
‘Bow-legged Jew with bulging lips’
It was in 1918 that Werfel met Alma Mahler, the femme-fatale widow of composer Gustav Mahler and former lover of painter Oskar Kokoschka. At the time she was married to architect Walter Gropius, who was off in the war.
Mahler, who was 11 years Werfel’s senior, was quite openly anti-Semitic, referring to him as a “fat, bow-legged Jew with bulging lips,” but she was also in love with him, and their relationship continued for the rest of Werfel’s life.
When Mahler became pregnant with Werfel’s child, Gropius granted her a divorce. She had the baby but it died within a year of birth, due to Werfel’s “degenerate seed,” as Mahler had it. She refused to marry him until 1929, and then only after he had appeared before a state clerk and “resigned” from the Jewish community, though he never converted.
Werfel was introduced to the Armenian saga by a chance meeting in Damascus, and the result was a best-selling novel about the Turks’ 1915 campaign against the Armenians. He described the book to audiences as telling how “one of the oldest and most venerable peoples of the world has been destroyed, murdered, almost exterminated … by their own countrymen.”
Not surprisingly, “The Forty Days” was one of the first books consigned to the bonfires by the Nazis, and Werfel’s application to join the Third Reich’s Organization of German Authors was rejected. Werfel and Mahler fled Austria after the Anschluss, in 1938, and after being given shelter briefly at the Catholic Sanctuary in Lourdes, they were smuggled out of Europe with other writers by the American journalist-rescuer Varian Fry.
Resettled in Southern California, Werfel made good on a promise to write about St. Bernadette of Lourdes if he escaped from Europe alive, producing the novel “The Song of Bernadette” in 1941, which was remade as a hit film two years later.
Werfel’s last years were taken up with writing a number of works dealing with religion, in particular the tension that existed until his death between his Jewish background and his spiritual affinity for Catholicism. Much to the frustration of his wife, he never did convert.
Franz Werfel died on August 26, 1945, at the age of 54. Alma Mahler passed away in 1964.