A Found Memoir of Running and Refuge

Book review: Asylum, by Moriz Scheyer

Viennese author Moriz Scheyer completed his memoir of being wrenched from his life as an editor and critic for a major newspaper in Vienna and hiding out in France even before World War II had ended. Considering that, it’s incredible that he had so much perspective about what was going on in the war and abroad. Some people try to deny awareness of the history happening around them, but here’s proof that there was a lot to be known if you were willing to open your eyes and ears.

The Scheyers and their housekeeper, who wasn’t Jewish but in a touching gesture chose to follow her employers, were very lucky. Anyone who’s read similar memoirs about Holocaust survivors will recognize that immediately. They were helped by many in their flights and concealment, including the legendary French Resistance and a couple who remained their close friends for life. Scheyer and his wife fled Vienna after the Anschluss and went to France, where they never seemed to settle very long before being chased out by Nazis or their French assistants. Eventually they find safe refuge in a convent ministering to the disabled in the French countryside, and they survive the war.

The book was a found manuscript, only located decades after its writing and presumed destroyed by the author’s stepson. It’s published now in translation by Scheyer’s step-grandson. The reason his stepson disliked and destroyed one copy of the manuscript is that it contains strong anti-German rhetoric, which is pretty understandable considering its author spent time separated from his family in a concentration camp, when not being ousted from every clandestine home they made and forced into hiding, and witnessed horrors so unspeakable that even reading his account today, more than 70 years after the fact, it’s hard to fathom and digest. It’s just hard to know, period. So I understand his anger. But what he’s missing and that other authors like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel have, to give just two examples, is the introspection that maybe comes with distance.

Those writers and many others who have contributed memoirs to the genre have time and distance between their experiences and the stories they’re telling about them, and they come across less bitter and bluntly angry, more able to impart wisdom and perspective about human nature and actions. Scheyer argues, like they do, that remembering is a crucially important thing to be done after such tragedy. In that sense, the personal accounts here are valuable contributions to the literary genre.

Another sore point for me was Scheyer’s insensitive tone towards other groups, which was strange considering the persecution and judgment he was a victim of at the very moment he was writing. He wrote that many of the nuns at the convent where he finds asylum took the habit despite their attractiveness and chances for romantic relationships, and that just rubbed me the wrong way and I’m nowhere near religious or sensitive about religious issues.

Worse are his descriptions of patients cared for at the convent. In multiple passages he uses an array of cringeworthy adjectives to describe how ugly, deformed, and generally wretched they are, making the point of how they’re lucky that because of their mental ailments they don’t have to witness the full horror of war. When the Scheyers return to the convent after time away, these pathetic creatures (his language) are happy to see them and actually, he doesn’t even find them ugly anymore! How generous of him. I was completely taken aback but maybe it was good to include these sections. He paints those around him with a broad brush but undermines his own argument by showing that he himself is capable of quite divergent thoughts.

So as not to sound too critical, there were parts that I really appreciated – even in translation, there are some poetically gorgeous lines and poignant observations. The book makes a good counterpoint to works by the authors I mentioned above, to show how differently events can transpire, often just by sheer luck, and be processed by those experiencing them. And Scheyer and his wife did have a lot of luck, even if he didn’t see it that way – he describes himself as “defeatist” in his afterword, which was still written before the war officially ended.

But all of these stories serve the purpose of not letting these events be forgotten, and most importantly, not letting them be repeated. He writes eerily presciently that no one would say that “…that’s what they are all like, the Catholics/Protestants/Muslims” except yes, people are still saying exactly that. We still have a long way to go, and knowing everything we can about the past is a big part of doing it better in the future.

Asylum: A Survivor’s Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France
by Moriz Scheyer, translated by P.N. Singer

published September 27, 2016 by Little, Brown and Company

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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