Although Franz Schoenberner was a man of letters for his entire adult life, aside from a short time of service in the German Army at the end of World War One, he was over fifity before he wrote his first book. Throughout the 1920s and up to Hitler’s taking power as Chancellor of Germany in early 1933, Schoenberner was a journalist and editor–most notably of the satirical (and anti-Nazi) weekly, Simplicissimus. As such, he was an archetypal European intellectual of the golden days of transnational humanism–the world of Stefan Zweig, Jules Romains, and André Gide. Not surprisingly, then, when he did come to write his first book–a clear-eyed and self-deprecating account of that period–he titled it, Confessions of a European Intellectual.
When the Nazis began cracking down on all forms of political opposition following the Reichstag fire in February 1927, however, Schoenberner quickly realized that the only options available to him were exile or imprisonment. Taking a few belongings and a little money in a backpack, he crossed into Switzerland in March 1933 and began life as a refugee. The Inside Story of an Outsider, his second book, published in 1949, is his account of eight years of living as an outsider.
From the time they set foot in Switzerland until their acceptance as long-term residents of the United States in 1941, Schoenberner and his wife, the novelist Ellie Nerac, existed in a political and economic limbo. For most of this time, their passports were in the hands of the local police. They could not leave without visas and sufficient funds to gain entry to another country, and they could not return to Germany without risking certain imprisonment or death in a concentration camp. Their status did not allow them to hold down regular jobs, and no one in Switzerland or France needed an editor of a liberal German-language magazine. Nazi laws had made it almost impossible to get any of their funds out of their German bank accounts or to sell their remaining property, and what small royalties they could get out of selling an occasional article in a Swiss or French magazine often took months to make it through a complex chain of bank transfers.
Even so, Schoenberner and Nerac were able to get by, living in cheap apartments in the south of France and devising countless ways to economize. These he recalls in a charming chapter titled, “How to Live Without Money.” “Having lived so many years almost exclusively by miracles, I feel obliged to relate for the personal benefit and encouragement of my readers some of these experiences and even some of the practical techniques which, as I have found, are likely to create the practical and psychological preconditions for such miracles to happen.”
Schoenberner is the first to admit that what he and his wife experienced–even the months of internment with thousands of refugees in filthy camps run with gross incompetence by the Vichy French–hardly compared with the fate of millions of other victims of the Second World War. Even among his fellow internees, some found their situation too much to bear. Schoenberner recounts the fate of his friend, the poet Walter Hasenclever, in the Camps des Milles, outside Aix-en-Provence:
Only when, getting up at dawn, I suddenly heard that Hasenclever could not be awakened, I knew that his good night had been a last good-by. He was still breathing when two stretcher bearers brought him to the infirmary. But a last look at his face–so deadly pale and deadly quiet–made me feel sure that any attempt to save him would be in vain. An empty tube of veronal had been found in the straw of his sleeping place. He probably had taken all the twenty tablets shortly after going to bed, and I knew enough of medicine to be certain that after eight hours the stomach pump could not remove the poison from his body. … If he reused to take this chance, it was because his will to live, as well as to create, was exhausted, and the new struggle seemed no longer worth while to him. If all he wanted was peace, life should not be forced upon him. In our times more than ever, life would always mean the opposite of peace, and everyone had to make his choice, Since he had decided for peace, it should not be disturbed.
Schoenberner had the advantage of a tremendous internal resilience–and of just enough recognition outside Germany–based largely on the reputation of Simplicissimus–to win an occasional favor with a French official–such as a release from a internment camp outside Bayonne just a day or so ahead of its being taken over by German forces.
He and Nerac also benefitted from the support of their friend, the German novelist Hermann Kesten, who was active on the Emergency Rescue Committee in the U.S.. Eventually, with the help of Varian Fry, the committee’s representative in Marseilles, who was responsible for the release of thousands of refugees from Vichy France, they were able to pull together the necessary paperwork and enough funds to gain passage to New York via Lisbon.
Having made it to the safety of the United States did not, however, mean that all their worries were over. They still faced the challenge of adapting to a new language and culture and finding a way to make a living. Fortunately, standing alone and stranded with their few suitcases in a customs shed on Staten Island, they sought out the help of woman wearing a Red Cross uniform.
This woman turned out to be a member of the local Unitarian Church, and her generosity in taking them in, offering room and board for weeks, helping them find a place to stay in Manhattan, setting them up with connections for work, and simply offering much-needed compassion and support to two very tired and uncertain people, makes you wish that all refugees coming to this country could experience the same kind of welcome.
As do many writers trying to tell a story with a happy ending, Schoenberner struggles a bit in the final chapters of The Inside Story of an Outsider. He throws in a tribute to the work of Thomas Wolfe that has little to do with the rest of the book–particularly given that Schoenberner never met or knew Wolfe personally. Although he is able to gain a position with the Office of War
Information and is persuaded to write Confessions of a European Intellectual, which wins very favorable reviews, he does not believe that the peace achieved at the end of the war represents anything but an ugly compromise. Schoenberner is unwilling to attribute any special meaning to his experiences or his choice to record them aside from the imperative for a writer to be “an incorruptible witness.”
I hope I’m not being too rude when I say, however, that, for a German intellectual, Schoenberner’s style and outlook are surprisingly light and optimistic. One might say he possesses an almost Gallic charm. And it is the pleasure of spending some hours in the company of a remarkable narrator–intelligent, compassionate, humorous and self-effacing–that makes The Inside Story of an Outsider a book worth seeking out. Over the last few days, I’ve always enjoyed picking it up, even if just for a few minutes, and regretted setting it down. Considering the book’s subject, that’s quite a recommendation.