Death in Petrópolis

Viennese Writer Stefan Zweig Honored With Brazilian Museum

By Benjamin Ivry

Published June 13, 2012, issue of June 15, 2012.
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If Zweig was exploited in his relationship with Ebermayer, his friendships in the Jewish literary world of his day were more securely rewarding and lastingly genuine, for Zweig was fascinated by Yiddishkeit. Zweig’s 1929 tale, “Buchmendel,” tells of a book peddler named Jakob Mendel who sells his wares at Vienna coffeehouses around the time of World War I. As an inveterate bibliophile and collector, Zweig evidently sympathized with this protagonist, who was down on his luck like so many of Zweig’s literary friends. Earlier, in 1916, Zweig’s essay “The Tower of Babel” drew inspiration from the Old Testament to urge war-torn Europe to unite as a “heroic community” to build a project exemplifying common understanding “after the chaos of Creation.”

Zweig’s friends included some of the most notable Jews of his era, from Freud to Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. Yiddish authors such as Sholem Asch admired him, and Yiddish readers clamored for his works. “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” which appeared in Germany in 1927, was promptly published in the Forverts in a translation credited to Chaim Brakartz years before any English translation appeared. In 1929, Zweig’s biography of his friend, Nobel Prize-winning French author Romain Rolland, was published in Warsaw in a Yiddish translation by Isaac Bashevis Singer as Romen Rolan: Der Mentsh un dos Verk.”

Given these close associations, the destruction of European Jewry during World War II took a permanent toll on Zweig’s spirit. “To Me All Friendships Are Perishable: The Joseph Roth-Stefan Zweig Correspondence,” out last October from Wallstein Verlag, notes that the day before he took his own life, the refugee Zweig said of the torments of expatriation for Roth — who died of alcoholism in 1939 — and Erwin Rieger, a translator who died in 1940, “How glad I always was for them, that they had not to go through those ordeals.”

Zweig was fully aware of his own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and the limits of the psychic suffering he was prepared to accept. For this reason, perhaps, he was a preternaturally understanding friend, as many mutual acquaintances noted after Roth’s death. Zweig had published a sympathetic short study of French poet Paul Verlaine, a helpless alcoholic entirely dependent on friends for support and survival, and Zweig considered Roth to be “the quintessential poet,” both in literary talent and in this inability to cope with day-to-day life. After Roth died, Benjamin Huebsch, head of the New York publisher The Viking Press, wrote to Zweig on June 6, 1939: “It must afford you satisfaction to remember your fraternal attitude to [Roth], for you were generous in your assistance and tolerant when others would have been irritated.”

The following day, Hermann Kesten, a devoted friend of Roth’s who would edit the first collection of Roth’s letters in German, wrote along the same lines, praising Zweig for “so many acts of friendship for [Roth].” Zweig’s own obituary for Roth, published in The Sunday Times of London on May 28, 1939, is balanced between admiration for the writer and grief over the loss of a friend, with a kind of selflessness that is quintessential Zweig:

Joseph Roth was one of the really great writers of our day; his German prose has always been a model of perfect style. He wrote every page of his books with the fervor of a true poet; like a goldsmith he polished and repolished every sentence till the rhythm was perfect and the color brilliant. His artistic conscience was as inexorable as his heart was passionate and tender. A whole generation loses with him a great example, and his friends a wonderful friend.

In parts, this eulogy might have been applied to Zweig himself only three years later, instead of the captious critiques by those contemporaries such as Arendt, who saw his death as a petulantly privileged cop-out. The world’s tributes today, from Brazil to Europe to America, are reflections of appreciation for his human and artistic ideals.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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