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Review: Asylum

Inside an intellectual's harsh hiding place

    By Moriz Scheyer (Trans: Peter Singer)
    Profile, £14.99

    His name is virtually forgotten today but, in pre-war Vienna, Moriz Scheyer was an influential Jewish figure in the city's rich literary, artistic and intellectual life.

    The arts editor of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt newspaper, his social circle included Stefan Zweig, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler and Bruno Walter. He was also a critic and essayist who had been based for several years in Paris, covering the French arts for his paper. He adored France, his "spiritual home".

    Following the Anschluss in 1938, he was forced out of his job and forfeited his worldly goods, and with the noose tightening around Austria's Jews, he and his wife Grete sought asylum abroad. His grown stepsons had luckily found refuge in Britain, but Scheyer chose his beloved France, where he had important contacts. As he soon learnt, however, people treat you differently when you become poor and desperate. No one helped.

    Nor did the French want to hear about the dire plight of Austria's persecuted Jews. "Everywhere, I encountered… total disbelief or bored indifference," wrote Scheyer. As for the French Jews, "they were even less keen to know than the 'Aryans'". "Those things couldn't happen in France," they all declared. But of course they did, when the country fell like a house of cards in 1940. The Scheyers were trapped and once again in mortal danger. Moriz was in his mid-fifties with a chronic heart condition.

    'But those things couldn't happen in France,' they all declared

    Asylum is his account of the hardships, humiliations and terrors he and Grete experienced in their efforts to save themselves from deportation to the death camps. This included a lengthy spell for Moriz in the grisly concentration camp for foreign Jews at Beaune-la-Rolande, south of Paris, as well as many brushes with ruthless French antisemitism.

    But, finally, the Scheyers were rescued by a brave French family involved in the Resistance, who found them a hiding place with the kindly nuns at the Convent of Labarde, in the Dordogne. It was there that Scheyer wrote these recollections in 1943-44.

    After his death, in 1949, his unpublished manuscript was destroyed by his stepson Konrad Singer, who disliked its vehemently anti-German and "self-pitying" tone. But, in 2005, while the aged Konrad's attic was being cleared out by his own son, a carbon copy of the original was discovered, and so at last Scheyer's wartime opus has been published here (translated from the German by his step-grandson, British academic Peter Singer).

    It is indeed an impassioned text, dripping with hatred for the "monstrous, sadistic, inhuman" Nazis. And it's true he needn't have laid it on with a trowel; it can be more effective to let horrifying facts speak for themselves. But he was writing from within the maelstrom, and in constant fear, not in calmer post-war times. I think he can be forgiven his emotive prose.

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