Franz Werfel (front seat, left) with friends, Breitenstein am Semmering, Austria, ca. 1925. Also shown are (front seat, right) composer Alban Berg; and (back seat, left to right) Berg’s wife Helene and Werfel’s future wife, Alma Mahler. (Mahler-Werfel Papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania)

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Werfel, Franz

(1890–1945), writer. Son of a prosperous Jewish glove manufacturer, Franz Werfel was brought up in Prague, where he was friendly with Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Willy Haas, and other members of the Prague Circle. He initially found fame as an expressionist poet, first writing Der Weltfreund (The Friend of the World; 1911).

Franz Werfel in a café, Leipzig, 1914. (Mahler–Werfel Papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania)

Werfel’s characteristic feature is his emotional, ecstatic appeal to human brotherhood, famously expressed in his poem “An den Leser” (To the Reader; 1911), which starts with the line “Mein einziger Wunsch ist, dir, o Mensch, verwandt zu sein!” (“My only wish is to be related to you, O [fellow-]human!”). His humanism corresponds to a loosely defined religiosity that draws on both Judaism and Christianity. Werfel never converted from Judaism, regarding both Abrahamic religions as intimately linked, but he professed belief in the messianic status of Jesus. The tension between Judaism and (especially) Catholicism animates much of his work.

During World War I, Werfel served in the Austrian army on the eastern front, mainly as a telephonist, before being transferred to the War Propaganda Office, where other poets, including Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Rainer Maria Rilke, found refuge. At the same time, he was establishing himself as a dramatist with Die Troerinnen, a pacifist adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women (first presented at the Lessing Theater in Berlin in 1916). His major dramas include the allegorical and satirical extravaganza Spiegelmensch (Mirror Man; 1921), his treatment of Jewish–Christian relations, Paulus unter den Juden (Paul among the Jews; 1926), and the tragicomedy of exile, Jacobowsky und der Oberst (Jacobowsky and the Colonel; 1944), in which the adventures of a Polish officer and a resourceful Jew in German-occupied France include an encounter with St. Francis of Assisi and the Wandering Jew riding a tandem bicycle.

From 1920 on, Werfel’s prose fiction made him a prominent and best-selling author. He had a long relationship with Alma Mahler (widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, divorced from the architect Walter Gropius), whom he married in 1929. In 1938, the German annexation of Austria forced them into exile on the French Riviera, from which, after the fall of France, they fled with other refugees across the Pyrenees and reached the United States, settling in Beverly Hills and Santa Barbara, California.

Franz Werfel, undated draft of “Begegnung über einer Schlucht” (Encounter over a Canyon), later published in 1919 in the Viennese magazine Daimo. A short dialogue between two characters who do not have names but are identified simply as “Wanderer” and “Jew.” The wanderer asks questions, and the Jew provides answers. The Jew explains that he is happy “in this moment” [“in diesem Augenblick”—a phrase recalling the key moment of Goethe’s Faust in which Faust achieves total happiness] because he loves all the peoples of the world despite the fact that they martyr and despise him. German. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F27.13. (YIVO)

Werfel’s brief participation in the revolutionary upheavals of 1919 in Vienna provided material for his Barbara oder die Frömmigkeit (Barbara or Piety; 1929), with contemporaries such as the radical psychoanalyst Otto Gross and the Communist journalist Egon Erwin Kisch recognizable under transparent disguises. The protagonist, Dr. Ferdinand R., is contrasted with Alfred Engländer, a Jew unable to reconcile his loyalty to Judaism with his deep attraction to Christianity, and sharply aware of the disintegrative effects of modernity. Ferdinand finds a refuge from modern dissolution in the religious values represented by his old nursemaid (based on Werfel’s own Czech nursemaid, Barbara Šimůnková).

Werfel’s masterpiece, Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (The Forty Days of Musa Dagh; 1933), is based on an actual incident from the Turks’ genocidal attack on the Armenians during World War I. A small Armenian community took refuge on a mountain by the sea and held out against Turkish besiegers for some six weeks before being rescued by a French ship. This exciting adventure story, based on thorough research into Armenian culture and history, frames the process of self-discovery by the protagonist, Gabriel Bagradian, an Armenian educated in Paris, who painfully rediscovers his ties to his people. Werfel’s interest in the relationship between nationalism and identity implies a political conservatism that, however, is far removed from Nazism, and is set against a broadly religious background of devotion to “the Inexplicable within and above us.”

Of Werfel’s many other novels, the most famous is Das Lied von Bernadette (The Song of Bernadette; 1941), about the visionary of Lourdes. Together with Der veruntreute Himmel (Embezzled Heaven; 1939), in which a Czech maidservant’s faith is betrayed, they gave him a misleading reputation as a narrowly Catholic novelist. Any such impression is corrected, however, by his dystopian novel, set in the future year 101943, Stern der Ungeborenen (Star of the Unborn; 1946), in which both Judaism and Christianity retain spiritual authority as an artificial, “astromental” civilization collapses.

Suggested Reading

Lothar Huber, ed., Franz Werfel: An Austrian Writer Reassessed (Oxford and New York, 1989); Peter Stephan Jungk, Franz Werfel: A Life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood, trans. Anselm Hollo (New York, 1990); Wolfgang Paulsen, Franz Werfel: Sein Weg in den Roman (Tübingen, 1995); Joseph P. Strelka and Robert Weigel, eds., Unser Fahrplan geht von Stern zu Stern: Zu Franz Werfels Stellung und Werk (Bern, Switz., 1992); Hans Wagener, Understanding Franz Werfel (Columbia, S.C., 1993).