Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

5.2. Exile and Literature
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Helmut F. Pfanner (Vanderbilt University in Nashville)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Heimweh as Creative Impetus: Friedrich Torberg's Literary Work in American Exile

Felix Tweraser (Utah State University in Logan)


Friedrich Torberg (1908-1979), Austrian man of letters, cultural critic, and political lightning rod, spent a large portion of his creative life in exile in the United States. During his formative years in Vienna and Prague, he had absorbed the ethos and attendant mythology of the late Habsburg empire, most intensely so in the echoes of its aftermath during the interwar years. Torberg's Jewishness was an important part of this socialization, something that he proudly asserted as a soccer player and then water polo star for the famous sports club Hakoah, but that also informed his early polemics against Hitler and general mistrust of totalitarian ideologies. His arguments against Nazism blended seamlessly into those directed against Soviet-style Communism, the latter reinforced during his experience of the early Cold War years in the United States. Torberg's route from Austria to the America was hardly direct: after forced flight from Vienna and Prague, a stint in the French military, and a narrow escape after the fall of France, Torberg was one of the lucky few émigrés, who, sponsored by a Hollywood studio, was allowed to enter the country. During the eleven years between 1940 and 1951 that Torberg spent first in Los Angeles, then New York City, he produced arguably his most vivid and compact fiction, in addition to voluminous correspondence, one successful screenplay, Voice in the Wind, and poignant, if conventional, poetry. Torberg's fiction from this period was animated by some of the central psychic disjunctures experienced by those in exile: ambivalence at having survived the terror when others had not; feelings of responsibility for publicly working against Nazi ideology; longing for a lost homeland, both physical and spiritual; and, perhaps most immediately important, the need to convey the experience of Nazi-dominated Europe to those who had not been there. His best work from this period-in theme and characterization-probes the crisis of conscience common to many émigrés through the narrative techniques of doubling and alienation from the self. In the fictional narratives that I will discuss here, "Mein ist die Rache," (1943), more extensively, and Hier bin ich, mein Vater (1948), more briefly, Torberg achieves a convincing picture of the world he had left; there is little intrusion of the didacticism or political agendas that undermined the artistic effectiveness of some of his other, more famous fictional works, such as Schüler Gerber (1930) or Süsskind von Trimberg (1972).

The experience of exile in America, characterized by Torberg even after his return to Austria as an "Emigration ohne Rückkehr," influenced his subsequent multifaceted career in many ways: though he hated American culture, low- middle- and high-brow alike, he embraced the ideals of tolerance, freedom, and pluralism central to the American political experience-in theory, at least-and complemented this political stance with a more specifically Austrian cultural reclamation project: to recall, if not recreate, the ferment of turn-of-the-century Vienna in a manner worthy of his erstwhile mentor, Karl Kraus. Torberg was under no illusions about the conditions of his return to Vienna, as he noted already in May 1946 in a letter to Hans Weigel: "man soll, wenn man schon zurückkommt, ohne Ressentiment kommen [...] und man muss sogar [...] bereit sein, die Rechnung als abgeschlossen zu betrachten" (Quoted in Braese, 465). Though others certainly shared such synthetic views, Torberg eventually acquired a unique platform for propagating them, the journal Forum, a critical monthly that he edited between 1954 and 1965 (Skorianz). From that position, Torberg tried to achieve just such a synthesis of American-style politics and the cultural production of turn-of-the-century Vienna, but, as a staunch anti-Communist on the payroll-if indirectly, and without his first-hand knowledge-of the CIA, he often used the pages of the journal for red-baiting polemics (Corbin, Saunders). This controversial career-most infamous was his involvement in the so-called Brecht Boycott that prevented the German dramatist's plays from being performed in Vienna during the 50s and 60s-has made it marginally easier for critics to dismiss Torberg's literary production, and Torberg did not help himself on this count by being slow to embrace the artistic avant-garde in Austria from his influential editorial position at Forum (Palm).

Torberg's literary work in American exile, written as it was as events in Europe were unfolding, puts it in a unique position with respect to the vast corpus of imaginative literature about the Holocaust written after the fact. One of the central paradoxes of writing about Nazism from a physical but not temporal remove-and then successfully conveying this temporal immediacy to others-is that such a perspective provides a different kind of access to the historical events than those accounts written more reflectively later on, that is, those written with knowledge of the Holocaust's final chapters (Adunka, 232). Torberg, particularly during his exile in Southern California in the last years of the war, presented in much of his creative work both the ambivalence felt by those who had successfully escaped the terror and the need to express solidarity with those who were not as fortunate.

A focal point in this creative output was the notion of Heimweh, the emotional attachment to soil, physical place, and, by extension, organic community, that was, even if defined mainly by its lack, felt most acutely within the émigré community. During the period 1941-1947, one that coincided with stays in Hollywood and Manhattan, and that also included contract work for Warner Brothers and Time magazine, Torberg found a creative voice animated by anguish, loss, and rootlessness that he did not equal artistically either before his flight from Austria or after his return. Reflecting on his arrival in America, Torberg, writing in the American German-language exile daily Aufbau, ascribed such creative ambivalence to "die nagende Besorgnis um die andern alle, die auf das Wunder noch warten" (Aufbau 1 November 1940).

Torberg's California exile was in some ways his second experience of a lost homeland. As a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Torberg was socialized in a political system that, for all its other shortcomings, promoted a transnational and multi-ethnic approach to decision-making, emphasizing "the unifying aspects of cultures," if you will. Torberg's early career as a writer and journalist in Vienna and Prague during the interwar years can be seen as a not uncommon path for those who looked with some longing at the best aspects of the monarchy, particularly those transnational tendencies that had succumbed to the centrifugal forces of nationalist aspirations. This sense of exile was particularly acute within the Jewish communities of Vienna, cut off from their original points of departure towards the capital, and expressed most keenly in the works of Joseph Roth.

Thus Torberg's original exile, the loss of a linguistically plural homeland that offered its Jewish citizens at least the comfort of benign acceptance, was repeated in a different way during his exile in California. Here, Torberg was confronted with the problems of literary emigration, which he characterized metaphorically: "Wir standen im luftleeren Raum. Wir mussten erst wieder atmen lernen, in fremden Sprachen sprechen, damit wir uns die Basis schüfen, in der eigenen Sprache wieder zu schreiben" (Quoted in Zohn, 174-75). Yet in Torberg's case, it was more than this: the works that he produced in California (presumably after the afore-mentioned breathing exercises) have stood the test of time to a much greater degree than his earlier or later prose work, because there is less of a self-conscious authorial presence; the convincing disappearance of the author with respect to the central characters achieves an imaginative immediacy, I would argue, specifically because of the physical and spiritual disjuncture experienced in exile.

I turn now to two exemplary narratives that Torberg produced in exile: the novella "Mein ist die Rache" (1943, finished in California, published by the Pacific Press) and the novel Hier bin ich, mein Vater (1948, begun in California and finished in New York, published by Bermann Fischer). In each work, Torberg creates a compelling central Jewish character who transgresses moral and ethical boundaries-one commits murder, the other spies for the Nazis-and embeds each within an imaginatively detailed picture of life within the camps and in the post-Anschluss Viennese underground, respectively. Paradoxically, perhaps, Torberg's portrayal of these settings is not informed by actual experience, but rather seems to result from an empathy for those left behind made more acute by the experience of exile. His ability to create a full and balanced picture of why these characters act as they do allows the reader access to the morally complex world in which they moved. Torberg achieves such a convincing sense of place because of the spiritual and physical split of emigration; what, written in a retrospective mode, might become nostalgic and mannered, seen in the context of being written as the events occur, achieves a potent immediacy. It is clear that Torberg is in some senses projecting possible alternative versions of his own life's trajectory onto those of his protagonists. As a Central European Jew, Torberg shared the milieu and circumstances, if not the fate, of Aschkenasy or Maier, his central characters; it is as if not being there was the precondition for imagining these circumstances more fully.

It would be an exaggeration to refer to scholarly consensus on Torberg's literary works, given the small amount of secondary literature, but, beginning with Hermann Broch's praise upon its release and continuing through Manes Sperber's assertion that "Mein ist die Rache" was the best thing that he wrote-in a letter written to comfort his friend Torberg right after the appearance of Torberg's novel Süsskind von Trimberg, which had been panned with gusto by Marcel Reich-Ranicki-critics have come to recognize this work as his most affecting and effective (Adunka, 228). In his convincing interpretation, Jörg Thuneke argues that "es sind die mittleren, im amerikanischen Exil geschriebenen Werke, die das Hauptwerk Torbergs ausmacht" (Thunecke, 17).

"Mein ist die Rache" tells the story of Joseph Aschkenasy, who waits on a New Jersey pier for one of his fellow inmates from the fictional concentration-camp Heidenburg to appear. The novella is framed by the encounter of a first-person narrator-who has come to meet some friends who have emigrated successfully-with Aschkenasy, who then recounts his experiences within the camp to this sympathetic listener. Aschkenasy has ended the sadistic rule of the camp's Kommandant, Wagenseil-who had either tortured to death or forced into suicide four of the other Jewish inmates-by murdering him with his, Wagenseil's, own revolver, before then fleeing through Holland, ultimately to the United States. During his account to his listener, it is by no means clear that the narrator and Aschkenasy are one and the same, because he recounts many deeply philosophical dialogues-about Jewish theology, free will, and the necessity of resistance-that he himself conducted with another inmate named Aschkenasy, which then turn to relevance of the biblical stricture that revenge is the province of God alone. Only at the very end of the novella is it revealed that first, the chronicler is actually Aschkenasy himself, and second, that the philosophical discussions depicted in the text were actually dialogues conducted within his own mind. Far from being merely a narrative device, this is actually an artful metaphorical rendition of the rupture felt by many in exile, projecting their own alternative fate onto the world left behind. By casting the escapee/émigré's personality as multiple, Torberg emphasizes the fate of the exile as the "Wanderer zwischen Welten," destined to be alien in any surrounding.

Writing in 1943, when the outcome of the war was still in doubt, gives the narrative immediacy and poignancy, but it is also devoid of any illusions about the Nazis' intentions with regard to the Jews. The confrontation between Wagenseil and Aschkenasy leaves little doubt that there is no exit from this world: it is not what the Jews do, but a more existential matter, simply that they are. In Wagenseil's formulation: "Die jüdische Weltverschwörung besteht darin, dass es Juden gibt. Und sie wird solange bestehen, als es Juden gibt. Jeder Jude gehört ihr an, einfach dadurch, dass er Jude ist. Diesem einfachen Tatbestand wollen wir von der Wurzel her beikommen" (MiR 34).

In a very compact way, Torberg presents the Nazi persecutors' progressive turning of the screw: demonization, separation, and ultimately annihilation. Though Torberg did not have any illusions about the nature of this enemy, the novella, through its frame, also registers the fragmentary nature of Jewish community and existence, and contains the anguish and ambivalence of those who were able to emigrate, and who, like Torberg himself, were tormented by the knowledge that for each successful escape there were hundreds who were not able to. Thus the novella's meditation on numbers: 80 Jewish inmates first separated into the Judenbaracke in the camp, four of those dead because of Wagenseil's sadistic methods, seventy-five the repeated number of those whose arrival Aschkenasy awaits in vain on the New Jersey pier. Torberg gave voice to this ambivalence in a letter of 3 February 1941 to Willi Schlamm: "Die Tatsache des geretteten Lebens [kann] nicht andauernd mit der eben aus der Welt geschaffenen Tatsache des gefährdeten Lebens konfrontiert werden, sondern allgemach und beinahe von selbst sich mit andern, vorherigen Lebenszuständen konfrontiert, auf deren Gestaltung man ein annähernd gleiches Maß von Einfluß hatte ausüben können. Und da ergibt sich mir nun immer unwiderleglicher das Fazit, dass mir noch nie so leer, so schäbig, so unerquicklich zumut war wie jetzt und hier" (EttZ, 169).

Hier bin ich, mein Vater also portrays a central character plagued by a conflicted conscience: Otto Maier, a Viennese Jew who agrees to spy for the Gestapo-he is led to believe that by doing so he may achieve the release of his father from Dachau-operates in a moral no-man's land and a vacuum of loyalty. Torberg's novel, like the novella, contains a useful framing device: two friends, one a Jewish émigré, the other a French judge, meet by chance in Paris in 1946; the French judge is plagued by one case in particular, and encourages his friend to read the manuscripts that the case's principal had written in French custody during the summer of 1939. Much like the novella, the framing device distances itself in space and time from the events narrated within the frame, and also sets up an analogous position for the reader to approach the task with empathy, a quality all-the-more necessary in Hier bin ich, mein Vater, in which the central narrative describes misplaced loyalty, an estranged father-son relationship, and a crisis of conscience brought about by working for the enemy.

The prison manuscripts that constitute Torberg's novel bear witness to a fate, at least in terms of its historical context, with some resemblance to Torberg's own autobiography. Otto Maier narrates his life story in episodic, chronological form: born in 1909, son of a Jewish doctor-wounded and much-decorated for his service in the Austrian army in the Great War-and sickly mother who dies before the war is over, attending Gymnasium in Vienna during the turbulent interwar period, gradual estrangement from the father because of his unsteady life circumstances-Otto becomes a jazz pianist-and eventual entrapment in a web of espionage and counter-espionage after the Anschluss. The figures binding the narrative together are Otto's father, whose arrest and imprisonment in Dachau prompt Otto to spy for the Nazis in the first place, and Otto's Aryan Doppelgänger Franz Macholdt, with whom Otto is bound by formative experiences in their Gymasium, such as a fight to a draw after an anti-Semitic incident or Otto's help during a particularly difficult oral exam. Macholdt has become a well-connected Gestapo officer whose position allows him to offer Otto the chance to obtain the release of his father from Dachau by spying on some of the characters involved in currency trading and counterfeiting who frequent the clubs where Otto plays piano.

The reception of Torberg's literary works cannot be fully appreciated without mention of his often controversial public position in arts and letters, but also not without looking at the tradition of literature that attempts to address issues arising from the Holocaust, and, as in these examples, attempts to come to terms with the contradictions and moral ambiguities within the Jewish community itself. Torberg returned in 1951 to an Austria that exacted a psychic toll on those Jews like himself who chose to return from exile and in some way participate in cultural and political life. The terms of such unwritten acceptance by the dominant culture can be seen in Torberg's case by comparing the enthusiastic critical reception and financial success of his Tante Jolesch books, in which the author conjures with melancholy, if not nostalgia, the aura of the late empire in representative anecdotes, with the cool reception of his fictional works from within the maelstrom, which perhaps all too clearly convey a notion of historical rupture in German/Jewish relations: in short, those who recalled the past with nostalgic melancholy-implicitly eliding the years 1918-1945 in Austrian history-were rewarded, while those who confronted, by their very presence, the dominant postwar Austrian cultural formation and its repressed complicity within the machinery of the Holocaust, were punished. In fact, Torberg's work on the Tante Jolesch books followed almost immediately the critical and commercial failure of the novel that he considered his magnum opus, Süsskind von Trimberg (1972), an account of the life of the medieval Jewish troubadour, but also an attempt to trace the whole arc of German-Jewish relations with the Holocaust as definitive rupture. It was clear that, at least in the early 70s in Austria, Torberg's critics and reading public preferred historical evasion to direct confrontation. Evelyn Adunka, for instance, has argued convincingly that Torberg's proud proclamation of his Judaism and unapologetic adoption of anti-Communism by any means necessary were a finger in the eye to the consensual politics that animated the formation of Austria's second republic (Adunka, 232-34). Torberg identified his own situation as émigré with the moral and ethical no man's lands that he depicted in his fiction in exile.

Torberg negotiated difficult terrain in becoming one of the most prominent opinion leaders in 1950s and 1960s Austria. His often compelling normative conceptions of a more hybrid individual identity-developed during his experience of the end of Empire and his exile in America-were to function ideally within a more openly democratic institutional framework, and would be a challenge to both the principal political developments in Austria, which privileged less transparent and more corporatist consensus-building, and the increasingly ideological formulations of the intellectual Left in Western Europe, in general, and Austria, in particular. Put succinctly: Torberg's exile continued.

Post-war Austrian culture has been characterized by a difficult relationship with those citizens who, though driven from Austria by Nazi persecution, chose to return following the War. The re-assertion of a specific Jewish identity, attempts to reconstruct a once-vibrant Jewish community, and the presence of those with a more culturally hybrid experience, recalling as it did some of the aspirations of the multinational empire, however paradoxical taken together, have had the potential to open the wound so efficiently bandaged by the political culture of the Sozialpartnerschaft and largely normalizing public commemorative practice. Torberg, perhaps not surprisingly, then, exists in the Austrian public imagination more as the bete noire of the political Left than as a figure who tried to reinvigorate the traditions of the Jewish community or whose cross-cultural odyssey might have served to reconnect contemporary Austria to its transnational roots.

© Andrea Reiter (University of Southampton)


Adunka, Evelyn. "Friedrich Torberg und Hans Weigel-Zwei jüdische Schriftsteller im Nachkriegsösterreich" Modern Austrian Literature 27.3/4 (1994): 213-237.

Braese, Stephan. Die andere Erinnerung: Jüdische Autoren in der westdeutschen Nachkriegsliteratur. Berlin: Philo, 2001.

Corbin, Anne-Marie. "Die österreichische Identität in Friedrich Torbergs Forum." Österreich in Geschichte und Literatur 46.1 (2002): 2-16.

--- . L'image de l'Europe à l'ombre de la Guerre froide. La revue viennoise de Friedrich Torberg (1954-1961). Paris: L'Harmattan, 2001.

Dubrovic, Milan. Veruntreute Geschichte: Die Wiener Salons und Literatencafés. Berlin: Aufbau, 2001.

Österreichisches Literaturarchiv, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, particularly the Manes Sperber and Hilde Spiel papers.

Palm, Kurt. Vom Boykott zur Anerkennung: Brecht und Österreich. Vienna: Löcker, 1983.

Rathkolb, Oliver. Washington ruft Wien: US-Großmachtpolitik und Österreich 1953-1963. Vienna: Böhlau, 1997.

Saunders, Frances Stonor. Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. New York: New Press, 1999.

Schnauber, Cornelius. "Friedrich Torberg in den USA." Der Weg war schon das Ziel: Festschrift für Friedrich Torberg zum 70. Geburtstag. Ed. Joseph Strelka. Munich: Langen Müller, 1978. 195-209.

Skorianz, Harald. Friedrich Torberg: Antikommunismus im österreichischen Monatsmagazin Forum. Dissertation, Klagenfurt 2001.

Thunecke, Jörg. "Man wird nicht Jude, man ist es": Zur Funktion der jüdischen Moral in Friedrich Torbergs Novelle Mein ist die Rache (1943)" Modern Austrian Literature 27.3/4 (1994): 17-31.

Tichy, Frank. Friedrich Torberg: ein Leben in Widersprüchen. Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1995.

Torberg, Friedrich. Forum: Österreichische Monatsblätter für kulturelle Freiheit (under Torberg's editorship from 1954-1965; published by Congress for Cultural Freedom until 1961, then by E. Deutsch Verlag).

---. Eine tolle, tolle Zeit: Briefe und Dokumente aus den Jahren der Flucht 1938-1941. Eds. David Axmann and Marietta Torberg. Munich: Langen Müller, 1989.

---. Die Erben der Tante Jolesch. Munich: DTV, 1981.

---. Hier bin ich, mein Vater. Stockholm: Bermann-Fischer, 1948.

---. Kaffeehaus war überall. Eds. David Axmann and Marietta Torberg. Munich: Langen Müller, 2002.

---. Mein ist die Rache. Los Angeles: Pazifische Presse, 1943.

---. Wien oder der Unterschied: Ein Lesebuch. Eds. David Axmann and Marietta Torberg. Munich: Langen Müller, 1998.

Torberg Papers, archived in the Handschriftensammlung of the Vienna City Library.

Zohn, Harry. "...ich bin ein Sohn der deutschen Sprache nur ...:" Jüdisches Erbe in der österreichischen Literatur. Vienna: Amalthea, 1986.

5.2. Exile and Literature

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For quotation purposes:
Felix Tweraser (Utah State University in Logan): Heimweh as Creative Impetus: Friedrich Torberg's Literary Work in American Exile. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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