In Search of Myself, by Hans Natonek

Hans Natonek, Paris 1939About a year ago, I posted a short item on Hans Natonek’s In Search of Myself, his account of his experiences as an exile from Nazi-occupied Europe coming to grips with a new life in America. At the time, there were no copies of this book to be found for sale on the Internet, and that’s still the case today.

However, thanks to my son and his access to the great resources of the University of California Library system, I was recently able to borrow a copy and can supplement the reviews I quoted on the original note.

In Search of Myself opens with Natonek and his fellow refugees awakening from their rude beds in the hold of a ship arriving in New York Harbor from neutral Lisbon. The time is somewhere in the fall of 1940.

As we learn, Natonek was one of a number of German and central European writers who fled to France in the late 1930s to escape Nazi persecution. Then, when France fell to Hitler in June 1940, they were uprooted again. Some of Natonek’s friends, such as Ernst Weiss, lost all hope and chose suicide as their escape. Natonek, like Lion Feuchtwanger, made it to Marseilles and were able to link up with Varian Fry, whose Emergency Rescue Committee was able to secure passages to America for over two thousand artists, writers, and others marked for capture by the Nazis.

Natonek did not regard America “as a kind of umbrella under which I may huddle until the storm is past.” He was convinced from the very beginning that it could only be a temporary refuge: it would either join the fight against Hitler or find itself another victim. His frustration with the isolationist view of America as a haven made safe by the Atlantic comes up again and again until the attack on Pearl Harbor brings the US into the war.

A street in lower Manhattan, 1942. From the Charles W. Cushman collection (Archive ID P02677)

He arrived with just four dollars in his pocket and a few vague references. He had no plan for how to survive, and the first fifty-some pages of the book, which describe his first two days in New York–walking around Manhattan, eating in a drugstore, encountering orthodox Jews on the Lower East Side, discovering the cheap hotels in the Bowery where a quarter bought one night in a bed in a room full of other dirty and drunken men–are the most vivid and exciting in the book.

He struggles with a language he knows very little of:

The business of making oneself understood with a minimum vocabulary has a charm of its own, particularly for a man who has made the use of words his métier. I had delighted in the splendor and the ornate richness of my native tongue. I reveled in its abundance, squandering it in intricate expression. Now I found a sober joy in economy, building what words I had into simple patterns solid with meaning. At first I tried self-consciously to carry out this feat. Then, as I embarked upon the vast sea of my subject, my few words began to fail. How could I bail the sea of sorrow with the thimble I had?

While Natonek was early on filled with admiration for the optimism and opportunities of America, he did not consider himself a candidate for a starting a new life from scratch. His counselor at the National Refugee Service quickly dismisses his hopes to continue working as a writer, surviving on the meager $18 weekly allowance provided by the service. “I hope you will not persist in your attitude. Writing is a hobby ….”

Natonek, however, considered it full-time job requiring the most intensive commitment of himself: “To learn a new language at fifty, to learn it intimately as a writer must know it, is, of itself, an almost superhuman undertaking. For only by making the language a part of myself shall I ever succeed in expressing not only what I am, but what I have seen.”

In the end, he is forced by circumstance into a rough compromise. He works a variety of small jobs, often getting fired for incompetence within the first few days, but making enough to eke out a survival and still find time to begin writing a new book in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. He makes a few friends and eventually manages to speak with a literary agent who takes a sample of his new diary and encourages him to carry own.

He connects with Anna Grunwald, an acquaintance from his time in Paris, and through her is able to travel outside New York. The size and openness of America thrills him:

The road unwound like cotton from a spool. I imagined it leaping onward, Nebraska, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming. … It was not necessary to plan this trip or any trip within the confines of this country’s boundaries. You could cross a line and never know that you had entered a new state.

The money I had in my pocket would buy the necessities of living from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There was not a hot-dog stand, a soda fountain, or a tourist camp that would not welcome me. The political ideas in my head were my own business.

Will I ever become accustomed to the wonder of these things?

He continues to scrape by, however, stumbling from job to job, until he accepts, sight unseen, a position as porter working in the morgue of Harlem Hospital. It is while there that he finally hears back from his agent, who has managed to land a contract for his American diary: this book.

Natonek married Anna and took U. S. citizenship in 1946. Although he wrote, late in In Search of Myself, that, “One day, perhaps, if God grants me another year, I will stammer a book in English,” he never did. Nor did he ever publish a new book in German, despite attempts, after the war. He died in Tucson, Arizona, in 1963.

The novel he refers to working on throughout the book, about the life of Gilles des Rais, companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc and a notorious child killer, was published posthumously in 1988 as Blaubarts letze Liebe (Bluebeard’s Last Love). Just a few months ago, Lehmstedt, a German publisher, released a collection of Natonek’s short pieces, Letzter Tag in Europa: Gesammelte Publizistik 1933-1963, along with the first biography, by Steffi Böttger, Für immer fremd (Forever Foreign or Forever an Outsider).

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