Skip to content
Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!

Publishing in Exile, German-language Literature in the U.S. in the 1940s

By Nicolle Elizabeth

According to curator Paul North, never in history has there been an event on German publishers exiled by the Third Reich in one show. íOur task tonight is to bring a group of publishers into view,ë North said. íThe right to discourse was taken.ë The panel and show was revelatory, historically important, innovative and brave and the mood at the Leo Baeck Institute for Jewish History was celebratory.

The show was curated as any other silent art auction, though the difference was in the tagging. Walls were lined with posters, unframed copies of photographs, original letters, each with generous written descriptions. The items for sale and display were essentially curated with a history lesson. A historical walk through publishing in America during and post World War II. íThe systematic persecution of certain writers in Europe had one of its beginnings in the university,ë a poster read. íIn 1933 the German National Student Association, dominated by a National Socialist political agenda announced its plan to reclaim the universities for a èpoliticized education.'ë Among the offending authors listed: Freud, Marx.

The act of the event itself was an homage to the publishers. Experts in the room were generous with what light they could shed on the pieces and I tried to eavesdrop in every corner as much as possible. The most astounding relics, for me, were Thomas Mann's handwritten manuscripts from his famous July 1941 radio broadcast urging a stop to the war. Above the yellowing penciled paper was a picture of Mann and Einstein, surrounded by books, soft window-light framing them both.

There would be talk of book bonfires later at the panel in the evening, a difficult image to conjure amongst so much hope displayed within the show. A letter from Bertolt Brecht hung on a wall, arguing stamp and font issues for a forthcoming work...

íDon't curse because I respond to the misgivings here: something positive comes out of such things sometimes…

Warmly, Your Old Bë

Another from Kurt Wolff to Herman Broch: íI finished the German version of Virgil and am enormously impressed.ë From Felix Guggenheim to Dr. Feuchtwanger: íWe look forward to the Devil in Boston and promise you the most beautiful and loving volume that the art of book production and our weak powers can offer such a valuable and important manuscript.ë

These publishers, as was evident in every section of the room, loved the sweat and determination and work and respect it takes to make the books they brought to the world.

An interesting addition to the exhibit and evening as a whole was the addition of Mexican literature within the dialogue. There was a strong German-Jewish exile contingency in Mexico City between 1942-1946 and on display were documents from El Libro Libre, meaning The Free Book, a group of publishers in the German-speaking leftist community in Mexico City.

The Panel was opened warmly by Carol Strauss, Director of the Leo Baeck Institute, and moderated by Frank Mecklenburg, Leo Baeck Institute's Director of Research. The panelists were Professor Wulf Koepke of Texas A & M University, Columbia University's Mark Anderson, Ernst Fischer, Johannes Guttenberg University, Beth Merfish from NYU's Institute of Fine Arts and John Spalek from the University of Albany.

Professor Koepke opened the discussion by saying, íPublishing before World War One, was not really a business, it was a passion.ë Prof. Mark Anderson (Columbia) shared a personal story, first saying, íPublishers and authors who undertook the Quixotic task of keeping German literature alive…who often times, also in America, were found as disagreeably ethnic,ë then went on to talk about a ítattered brown Kafka book in my officeë which he had found during graduate work at a used book store in Milwaukee in the 60s.

His talk paid homage to íThe Publishers and Authors and Intellectuals who carried Kafka's work with them, who gave them to translators in Paris. Kafka became all the rage in the (West) Village in the 40s and 50s.ë He would then later say, íI hadn't thought it possible that a Jewish publishing house could still publish a Jewish author in Berlin in 1935.ë It was a sentimental and beautiful story aptly told, particularly given that such books as a first edition of The Death of Virgil, were in glass in the exhibit directly upstairs above us. Prof. Ernst Fischer wanted to speak directly to the íChallenges of selling books in the new world,ë and Koepke chimed in with a comparison to Germany, íDuring the war it was difficult because they couldn't even get paper.ë

Hildegaard Bachert, who has been codirector of the Galerie St. Etienne here in New York since 1940, lectured on Publisher Otto Kallir, who, is responsible for publishing Rilke. íHis (Kallir's) passion was to disseminate information.ë Ms. Bachert said. íThere was a warrant out for him, so he came to America, where he would publish Rilke in 1944.ë

She told the legend of the lithograph publishing some recognize Kallir for. The story is that his wife passed away in transit to America, and when here, he published for her íLullaby for Miriam,ë the text printed as original lithograph. Beer-Hoffman, the author of the work, wrote the text out on paper for his friend, and Kallir then had it transferred to stone, and printed as if it were a lithograph image. What a thing to have been able to hear this story from Ms. Bachert herself, I thought to myself.

Beth Merfish, PhD candidate at NYU's Institute of Fine Art talked about Yiddish speaking writers and publishers in Mexico City. Between 1942-1926 twenty books with a run of 500-1,000 copies, she told us, of íThe Black Book Of The Nazi Terror In Europeë were produced in Mexico. Apparently, she also told us, the United States Government, Hoover, specifically, was keeping close watch on these writers, publishers, activists. Many people in the audience had no idea there was a contingency of exiled writers in Mexico City.

I spoke with her about Bolano's 2666 and whether it was possible he was aware of Libro Libre –But I was asking her to speculate, which she couldn't do, though she did offer me some fact on the current body of knowledge regarding publishing in Mexico in World War Two, -which is that it happened, but we don't know enough about it, (possibly thanks to bonfires not dissimilar to the ones in Berlin, and possibly thanks to sealed Hoover documents).

John Spollack discussed what he called, and I couldn't help but empathize with, íExile, the writer's experience,ë and then went on to discuss as Merfish had alluded to, and Koepke would later talk about, the problem with improperly archived material. Works which survived the war, half a century and are now sitting unmarked in boxes in storage bins. íI was trying to research with (a publishing house),ë Koepke said, íand they had a warehouse of just piles of things packed together in New Jersey. It was a very Kafka situation.ë

The event brought together works which would have been apart, separately enjoyed by private collectors and galleries together, and a dialogue was born for the first time. It was a monumental occasion, one which, as the sign at the door to the exhibit stated, paid homage to the work and bravery and artful and cultural and surviving determination the exiled publishers shared with the world. The urgency and struggle under which they had to operate. The sign read, íProverbs, Cervantes wrote, are èshort sentences drawn from long experience.ë

Published Apr 28, 2009   Copyright 2009 Nicolle Elizabeth

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.