Travelling for life, German and Spanish writers in exile between Europe and America



Literary emigration is more frequent than one could imagine. Some writers have even changed their language and become very important in the literature of their new country. Vladimir Nabokov, Nina Berberova, Joseph Brodsky are not only Russian, but a part of American writing. The common feature of my chosen writers is their decisive travelling experience between the two continents.

 Emigration is no travelling for fun or curiosity. In many cases it was a matter of life or death, as it was with the exiled writers: Spanish writers during the civil war, the Jewish, German and Austrian writers escaping from Nazi Germany.

After an indroduction that deals with some foreign authors writing German, a widespread tendency since the seventies (Gastarbeiterliteratur), I will be describing in the main part the travelling experience of the exiles in the thirties and forties, their feelings of liberation or disappointment, until at last they could reach America.

Some of the names are already familiar to American readers.

Emigration after 1933 to USA: Brecht, Feuchtwanger, Werfel, the Mann family, Toller, Zweig, Döblin, Seghers, Zuckmayer, Marcuse, Adorno, Broch, Oskar Maria Graf, etc.

Spanish writers. mexico: Altolaguirre, Aub, Bergamín, Moreno Villa, Rejano, Cernuda. Argentina: Alberti. Boston: Salinas. San Diego: Sender. San Juan de Puerto Rico:  Juan Ramón Jiménez.

In the end I’ll try to analyze the very complex relationship of the authors to both, the country of birth and the country of exile.

1. Change of language and the importance of emigrants for the literature of their new country


A blind author and photographer, Evgen Bavcar, once wrote:

“At the time of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy my parents were Slovenians, then they became Italians and later Yugoslavians.”

This quotation shows how arbitrary and dependant on political circumstances nationalities are. It would be very short-sighted to judge literature only in terms of nationalities. Writers may decide to use one or another language according to their family background, which may be more important than birthplace. Thus Paul Celan in Czernowitz and Franz Kafka – in Prague - chose German instead of the other languages spoken there.

Moving into a new country is another further source of change. There are different terms to describe these new literatures being created. The term “Gastarbeiterliteratur“ in the seventies and eighties includes all those coming to Germany, Switzerland and Austria for work since 1955; it was later substituted with the wider term “Migrationsliteratur“ and since 2000 with the still more general term “interkulturelle Literatur”, the latter taking into account the full variaty of reasons for emigration.

The phenomenon of writers becoming so integrated into their new homecountry that they start writing in the non-native language is more common than one would expect.

Let us think for example of Joseph Conrad or Louis Begley from Poland who adopted the English-speaking literature as their own. The same applies to the Russians Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky and Nina Berberova.

Émil Cioran, Gehrasim Luca and Eugene Ionesco (Rumania) have already become part of the French-speaking literature. Samuel Beckett (Ireland) wrote in both English and French: Jorge Semprún (Spain) wrote most of the time in French, but also in Spanish. During her long stay in Kenya, Danish writer Tanja Blixen became accostumed to writing in English; back in Denmark she kept to this habit.

Nowadays there are many foreign authors writing in German, for example, Ilja Trojanow, Dimitré Dinev, Feridun Zaimoglu, Rafik Schami - a very successful Syrian  novelist and oriental fairy-tale writer - Vladimir Kaminer, etc.

As evidence of their significant presence in the German literature of our time, I can mention Chamisso prize winners: Yoko Tawada (Japan), Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Selim Özdogan, Yüksel Pazarkaya (Turky), José Oliver (Spain), Professor Gino Chiellino, Franco Biondi (Italy), etc.

On the whole, we can affirm that writers who emigrate are particularly interesting, bringing their own intensity, maturity and concentration into languages and thus expanding the horizons of their new countries. Most of them have travelled

– this being one of the most crucial experiences - and belong to a transnational, cosmopolitan literature.

Turning back to the main issue in this paper, we could start also by asking to what extent the exiled writers became a part of American or Latin American literature. But I think the answer is that the German-speaking authors have remained, in the first place, German until the end. English meant a passing, difficult chapter for them, even for Klaus Mann who strained so considerably to keep pace with the new language by writing his autobiography, “The turning point”, in English.

The Spanish writers against Franco and for the Republic were at  an advantage, for they did not have to change their language. But all the same, they remained mostly Spanish too and cannot claim a prominent place in the literature of their new country, as Nabokov might in the American or Conrad in  England. If nowadays there is more of a tendency to see literature as an intermingled field opened to merges, assimilation and all kinds of adjustments, the exiled writers of the 30s and 40s remained extremely attached to their own traditions and countries. Their situation was one of emergency, of forced stays somewhere waiting for news and for the return at some point or other to their countries.

Bertolt Brecht succeeded brilliantly in expressing the feelings of those concerned in his poem: “The definition of the emigrant:

“I always found something wrong in the name they gave us: emigrants... ... we didn’t expatriate ourselves of our free will and didn’t choose another country. We did not immigrate into a country either to stay there if possible for good. It was just that we had to flee. We were displaced persons, we had been banished.” And Thomas Mann wrote: “We, in foreign lands that have become familiar to us, are in truth living in the wrong place.”

But the exiled writers could never again be what they had been before, as exile meant such an enormous change for them that in a way they remained homeless for the rest of their lives. They were neither capable of integrating into the new country nor of reconciling themselves to postwar Germany. They visited Germany, but didn’t feel up to staying there. They even preferred dying in an exile they had not chosen.


2. A  quick view of the writers’ experiences

I am not going to discuss here those who didn’t emigrate to America, like the great poet Else-Lasker-Schüler who finished her life in Jerusalem, Nelly Sachs who lived in Sweden, neither those who went to Russia or those who didn’t have any time left any longer to go somewhere else, like Jean Améry, who to his own misfortune had stayed in Europe, (France and Belgium), falling several times into the hands of the enemy and becoming one of the most tortured and victimised intellectuals, first in Gurs, southern France, afterwards Ausschwitz, and in 1945 Bergen-Belsen. I am not going to talk about Walter Hasenclever who killed himself in 1940 in the concentration camp Les Milles near Aix-en-Provence or Walter Benjamin who did the same encircled in a trap between the Nazis in France and the Franco troups in Spain, or René Schickele who fell ill and died shortly before embarking to America. A few days after his death, his widow Anna boarded the ship that should have taken her husband and her to their two sons in the USA. Others had already died before like Kurt Tucholsky (1935), Joseph Roth (1939).

I will start with Bertolt Brecht and the Mann family who are so internationally famous.


Bertolt Brecht


In February 1933, a day after the burning of parliament, Brecht left through Prague and Vienna, first living in Switzerland, then meeting many of his compatriots in Sanary-sur-Mer. He lived in Denmark with interruptions between ‘33 to ‘39. In 1935, he visited the Soviet Union and the Nazis retaliated, officially depriving him of all rights. Crossing Sweden, Finland and Russia, he arrived in 1941 in California, where he stayed near Hollywood and met many of his contemporaries including Marcuse, Adorno and Döblin. He stayed in California till, in 1947, he had problems with the authorities, always in search of communists and so-called “non-American activities, who mistrusted his political ideas. So he came back to Europe, to East Germany.

The first U.S. travelling experience of Klaus and Erika Mann had been in 1927, when they pretended to be twins and wrote a book together entitled: "Rundherum- Abenteuer einer Weltreise". Some nine years later they came to America again, but no longer as tourists, but as emigrants. Klaus became a soldier in the U.S. army in 1942 and a US citizen in 1943. At the end of the war he was in Germany as a reporter, but he coudn’t stay there long. He was very depressed at the desolate state of the country. He killed himself for various reasons: his homosexuality, his  dependence on drugs, the prohibition in Germany of his novel “Mephisto”, the disappointment with his half-fulfilled integration existing only on the surface.

Klaus’ father, the Nobel prize winner of 1929, Thomas Mann, had at first been reluctant to break completely with Nazi Germany; for this reason there had been quarrels inside the family. But since ‘33 he was already an emigrant, delivering lectures in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris; he was not to return for 16 years. Mann spent the summer in Southern France and settled in Küsnacht, near Zurich, where he remained until 1938. He attacked the Nazi regime in an open letter published by the Neue Züriche Zeitung on Feb. 3, 1936. Soon the Nazis denaturalized him, banned his books, and the University of Bonn withdrew the honorary doctorate awarded him shortly after World War I. As a further manifestation of his political engagement, in 1937 he founded a literary magazine: “Mass und Wert”  (Measure and Value), published in Zurich until 1940. In 1938, Thomas Mann and his family emigrated to the United States. For 2 1/2 years they lived in Princeton, where he gave lectures at the university. In 1941 he moved to Southern California, built a home in Pacific Palisades and became one of a colony of German and Austrian exiles which included his brother Heinrich, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel and many others. In 1944 he became an American citizen.

His brother Heinrich Mann had emigrated first to Czechoslovakia, to France and then to America together with the Werfels from Lisbon in October 1940.


Hermann Broch


He was arrested on 13th March 1938, a day after Hitler’s annexation of Austria. He remained in prison until the end of March. In July, James Joyce succeeded in getting a visa for him to Great Britain, from where, in the end, Broch could emigrate to the USA owing to the intervention of T. Mann and Albert Einstein. He lived alternately in Princeton and New York, and 1944 he became a naturalized American citizen. In 1945 his famous novel: “The death of Vergil” appeared in New York. In 1949 he married for the second time and moved to New Haven, started teaching at Yale University, and in 1950 was awarded the nobel prize. He died in 1951 at 64.


Hans Sahl


He escaped from the Nazis in 1933 across Prague and Zurich to Paris, where he was arrested and taken to the concentration camp Le Ruchard in Southern France. He managed to escape to Marseille and thanks to the Varian Frys „Emergency Rescue Committee“ he got to the USA via Lisbon. He wrote about his experiences in his autobiiographical novel: “The Few and the Many” published in 1959. This served as a monument to Varian Fry and his help committee that had saved the lives of so many emigrant writers. He came back to Germany after the war, but like most exiles was not much welcomed and successful. In 1957 he left Germany for the second time and didn’t return until 1989. He spent his last years in Tübingen.


Egon Erwin Kisch


Born in Prague in 1885, he was a master of the literary reportage. He had already visited the USA in 1928, where he wrote his ironical and critical book “Paradise America”. In the morning after the burning of the Reichstag on 28 February 1933, he was arrested in Berlin and deported to Prague. In that year he emigrated to Paris and travelled to different countries: to the congress against war and faschism in Australia, to Spain as a correspondent of the civil war and, after the beginning of World War ll, emigrated with his wife Gisela to Mexico city. In 1946 he came back to Prague, where he died in 1948.


Oskar (Maria) Graf


Born in 1894, died 1967 in New York. He was in Austria when the Nazis plundered his flat in Munich and destroyed many of his writings and belongings. In 1934, he attended the Soviet Writers Congress in Moscow together with many other writers, Ernst Toller, Klaus Mann, etc. In the same year he fled from Austria to Bratislawa. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, he fled through Holland to the USA. He became an American citizen comparatively late -- in 1958. He obstinately refused to learn English, because he didn’t want to neglect his own language and 1943 he started a German roundtable, meeting always on Wednesdays, for exiles to keep in touch with their homecountry. However, we see here again an interesting contradiction: in the end he didn’t make it back to Germany for good, as he had sometimes planned. Like so many, he died in exile.


Mascha (Golda Malka) Kaléko (1907-1975).


In 1938 she escaped to New York with her second husband, the composer and musicologist Chemjo Vinaver, and her son. There she wrote for the exile newspaper "Der Aufbau" and earned her living as a scriptwriter and translator for her husband. In 1956 there was a second edition of her “Lyrisches Stenogrammheft”, which was extremely successful and sold remarkably well because of its simple, almost daily-life, but very profound language. She dedicated it to Franz Hessel, another exiled writer who had helped her in her beginnings and who had died in France, near Sanary. In that year she travelled throughout Europe, mainly to Switzerland. In the Sixties she moved with her family to Jerusalem. She never felt quite at home there, though; less than in New York, but after the death of her husband and her son she couldn’t gather strength enough to return to Europe or to America.


The German-French novelist Annette Kolb


With a French mother and with very much love for this country, she left Paris on 31 May 1940 after the German invasion. She lived most of the time in Switzerland, but then (when she was already 71 years old), emigrated via Madrid and Lisbon to the USA, where she lived in New York, changing residence very often. In October 1945 she came back to Europe, residing first in Ireland, then in Switzerland and then again in Paris. She was awarded many prizes from both Germany and France for her literature and her constant commitment to bringing the two nations closer together. She was a tireless traveller. In 1967, less than a year before her death, she visited Israel. She died at 97 years of age in her birthplace, Munich.


Alfred Döblin (1878-1957).


If Annette Kolb was a good example of a successful exile when she came back to Europe, we have unfortunately many cases in Germany where we can say exiles were very unjustly treated, ignored and not given the place of honour they deserved. One of the most typical is the writer and physician Alfred Döblin. He and his wife Erna emigrated to Paris in 1933, a day after the burning of the Reichstag. In 1936 he became a naturalized French citizen. But then, because of the German invasion, he had to flee again. This was the destiny of many exiles. It meant, as we have seen, a double migration or having to escape as many as three times, always being persecuted by a powerful enemy taking possession of new territories and never allowing the fugitives to feel completely safe in one place. If they had ever felt secure at the beginning, when they left for Holland (like Anne Frank and her family), to Czechoslovakia, France or Austria,  they soon realised that it had been a lie and the whole procedure of escape, difficult as it was, had to be carried out again and again. America was the only really safe place. That’s why most of them took the momentous decision of putting the ocean between the dangerous enemy and themselves. On 3. September 1940 Döblin left on a Greek shipping line from the port of Lisbon for the USA. In 1946 he came back to Germany as a Colonel of the French military government. He lived in the French-occupied zone Baden-Baden and Mainz. After 7 years he left postwar Germany, bitterly disappointed with the treatment he had received and moved to Paris.


Hilde Domin

In 1932 before the Nazis came to power, she went to live in Italy with the art historian Erwin Walter Palm. In 1940 they emigrated to the Dominican Republic, where he was employed as a professor. In 1954 after 22 years of exile she returned to Germany.

The philosopher Ernst Bloch was in 1933 expatriated by the Nazis and emigrated first to Switzerland, then to Czechoslovakia. In 1938 he decided to leave Europe for New York. In 1944, together with Brecht, Heinrich Mann and others, he founded, the  “Aurora Verlag”, a very important project, as it was urgent that the German writers should continue publishing in their language. Bloch believed at first in the new communist state of East Germany and accepted a professorship at the University of Leipzig in 1948. But he soon came into conflict with Marxism and especially the brutal repression of the Hungarian Revolution. During a visit to West Berlin in 1961, he and his wife decided not to come back to East Germany.


Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958).


As it was for so many, his first exile was in France. On 25. September 1940 he left the port of Lisbon on the S.S. EXCALIBUR bound for America. He died in Los Angeles.


Franz Werfel


Born 1890 in Prague, he died 1945 in Beverly Hills, California. He too had a first exile in 1938 in the French Sanary-sur-Mer where he met so many emigrants: The Manns, Feuchtwanger, Hermann Kesten, Brecht, René Schickele, Annette Kolb, Benjamin, Toller, Hasenclever, Bloch, etc. It seems that the whole of Germany had concentrated in this place. With his wife, Alma Mahler and Heinrich Mann, Werfel fled on foot through the Pyrenees to Spain and Portugal and from there to the USA. On 2nd October 1940, they left Lisbon on the Nea Hellas and reached their destination on 30th October.


Anna Seghers (1900-1983).

This name was the pseudonym of Netty Reiling. She was doubly persecuted, both as a Jew and as a communist. She found refuge first in France and then in Mexico.


Alfred Kantorowicz


He began his French exile on 12th March 1933. As a reaction against the May burning of books by the Nazis, a year later he founded the “German library of freedom”, which by May 1934 already had more than 11.000 volumes. Like so many others, he was a witness to the Spanish Civil War and wrote on this in his “Spanish diary”. In May 1940, he was taken prisoner in Les Milles, where he saw Hasenclever’s suicide. He managed to escape, and in March 1941, he went on a cargo ship from Marseille to Martinique, and then to New York. In the USA he was very much under control by government authorities (like Brecht or Erika Mann). In 1946 he went back to live in East Germany, but in the same way as Bloch, he ended up disappointed with the new Socialist state and moved to West Germany in 1957.


Erich Maria Remarque


He went to the USA in 1939 and wrote about his experiences as an emigrant in his book: “Shadows in Paradise” where we see that the emigrant hopes for a paradise, but finds a quite different reality. After the war he came back to Germany, but there had many problems readjusting.


Bruno Bettelheim, a disciple of Freud.


He wrote his Ph.D. on Kant’s philosophy in 1938. In 1939, after a year of prison in Dachau and Buchenwald,  he emigrated to the USA. In 1943 he published a most remarkable book on psychological analysis regarding extreme experiences in a concentration camp. He taught at the University of Chicago till 1973. In his own school founded in 1944, he devoted himself primarily to the problems of traumatized, autistic children. His book: “Children Need Fairy-tales” became a bestseller. At the age of 86, Bruno Bettelheim committed suicide.


Hermann Kesten

He escaped in 1933 to Paris and Sanary sur Mer, where, in 1934, he lived with Joseph Roth and Heinrich Mann. The following periods of exile in Ostende, Brussels, Amsterdam were full of dangerous situations; he was caught in France. In 1940 he managed to flee to the USA with a tourist visa, but his wife had to stay behind in France till September, when she too could escape. From 1940 to 1942, he worked as an adviser for a committee to rescue persecuted writers and artists. In 1949 he became an American citizen. He visited Nürnberg, the city of his youth, but didn’t stay. In 1953 he moved to Rome and in, 1973, after the death of his wife Toni, he took up residence in Basel.


Ernst Toller


was on a lecture tour in Switzerland in 1933, when SA officers went to his flat to capture or kill him. He married a very young actress in London. He was an activist, helping refugees, collecting money for Spanish children of the civil war and seeking contact with friends in all countries. But in the end, he became tired, lonely and frustrated and killed himself at a hotel in New York.

Suicide was a very common motif for many writers in exile as we have seen: Améry, Bettelheim, Toller, Klaus Mann, Benjamin, Hasenclever. Another was Stefan Zweig, who had emigrated first to England, and then to the USA and Brazil. He took his own life together with his second wife Charlotte in Petropolis in 1942. Péter Szondi, born 1929, drowned himself.

The situation for Spanish writers was not much better. They didn’t have Auschwitz and Hitler, but they were executed, imprisoned and tortured as well, like García Lorca or Miguel Hernandez. Capital punishment was quite common in Spain, not only during the Civil War, but afterwards. Out of fear and disgust for Franco’s military regime many freethinkers who had wanted progress and the Republic left the country. Their fate was worse than that of German speaking writers in so far as their exile lasted almost 40 years. Only after Franco’s death in 1975 did some of them return to Spain.

The majority had emigrated to Mexico, a country that had been against the dictator from the start. They include Manuel Altolaguirre, Max Aub, José Bergamín, Moreno Villa, Juan Rejano, Luis Cernuda and Giner de los Ríos, some of whom wrote very interesting books about Mexico. Rafael Alberti, Teresa León and Pedro Salinas went to Argentina, although Salinas died in Boston in 1951. Some lived in numerous different countries - like Rosa Chacel who was in Paris, Athens, Geneva and Rio, Ramón Sender who went to San Diego, and Juan Ramón Jiménez who went to Puerto Rico.


3. The travelling experience


If we think of all the dangers they had had to face before embarking for America, we can imagine that in those first moments, at least, they were immensely relieved at having escaped. We see before us the wonderful rescuing figure of Variant Fry as described by Hans Sahl; he had saved so many!

They came from different places: Brecht from Russia, Adorno from Southampton on the Champlain, Broch also from Great Britain and Thomas Mann from Cherbourg on the Queen Mary. Most of them, however, started from Lisbon, having to undergo many difficulties. For example, Annette Kolb, Döblin and Feuchtwanger. Hans Sahl escaped first to Marseille and from there to Lisbon. Lisbon was the keyword for many. Heinrich Mann and the Werfels, went through the Pyrenees on foot.

We can guess that they were full of tension and uneasiness because of the long journey ahead (it took about 28 days by ship from Lisbon) and especially due to the circumstances of emergency. Alfred Kantorowicz, for example, had been a prisoner in Les Milles; luckily he was able to flee on a cargo ship from Marseille to Martinique. How powerful the feelings must have been in the hearts of these writers during the journey! Hermann Kesten managed to flee to the USA, but he had to leave his wife behind in France till September. And what must René Schickele’s widow have felt when she saw that on the day of liberation,  going to America was still possible for her, but too late for her dead husband! An enormous stream of feeling must have pulsed through the veins of these people who had already gone through two or three exiles, who were restricted to temporary lodgings and uncertainty, some of them remembering prison and the cruelty of the enemy, for instance Bettelheim, Kesten, Kantorowicz, Broch and Sahl. They were probably also exhausted from bureaucratic obstacles and the uncertainty of the future; for not all of them were financially well off like T. Mann and Stefan Zweig.

But I think that the prevailing feeling was on the whole one of relief and of thankfullness, because in the end they had escaped the wicked spirit that was tormenting Europe and the whole world. And no matter how successful or disappointing the American experience for each one of them became, on a personal basis, the first minutes and even days were of a very special, tremendous value to them; the epiphany of dreams coming true and dangers being overcome after so many hardships and terror in the end.




Perhaps afterwards, in daily life, the exiles felt unhappy because they were homesick and some of them had to take jobs they did not like or even suffer poverty; they had to bear even the disapproval of many who, until 1939, hadn’t considered Hitler to be dangerous and did not justify emigration. In spite of it all, I am sure that the feeling of epiphany, salvation and light never completely died in them. They would always remain thankful to the USA, even if they couldn’t become a part of its literature.

It is like the Spanish writers who will always remain thankful to Mexico or the whole of Latin America for having saved them from destruction and death. In any case, they didn’t remain unproductive during exile and incorporated some elements of the foreign literature in their work.

Despite any negative features, the greatness of their travelling experience, of crossing the ocean and regaining life, must have remained present and never quite forgotten in their relationship with the new country of shelter and survival.