The Tension Of A War To Come, As Seen From 'Exile'

House of Exile by Evelyn Juers
 
House of Exile
By Evelyn Juers
Hardcover, 400 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $28
Read An Excerpt

House of Exile by Evelyn Juers is a "collective biography" of the artists and intellectuals whose lives were uprooted, torn apart or annihilated by the Nazi regime. At the center of this unusual book are Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas Mann, author of Death in Venice) and his second wife, Nelly Kroeger-Mann. To an American reader, Heinrich is the lesser known Mann brother, though he was equally prolific — the author of novels and political essays on the pitfalls of both fascism and communism. Anticipating war soon after Hitler's election, Heinrich and Nelly (along with Thomas and his wife, Katia) fled Germany in 1933.

Though the first 100 pages of House of Exile, a whimsical summation of Heinrich and Thomas' childhood, would indicate a straightforward biography, the pith of the book is the remaining 300 pages — a detailed chronicle of the events that unfolded in Germany between 1933 and 1944. According to her "Note on Sources," Juers has consulted hundreds of diaries, letters, biographies and histories not only on the people who fill these pages, but on the idea of exile itself. In painstaking detail, day by day, even minute by minute, World War II unfolds.

While House of Exile is nonfiction, there are moments where Juers has embellished the facts, most likely based on information from diary entries. When we meet Bertold Brecht, he "turns up his collar, pulls down his cap." On Sunday, Nov. 3, 1935, Juers tells us, "Thomas purred as he drank a cup of coffee with whipped cream. It was pure pleasure." She returns again and again to the activities and ruminations of Virginia Woolf. In 1940, Woolf writes in her diary: "Leonard says he has petrol in the garage for suicide should Hitler win." Juers continues: "Virginia made some buns for tea." Moments like this seem somewhat silly. How did Juers know that Thomas purred? Did he write this in a diary entry? What does it matter that he enjoyed his coffee? Later, Juers writes that Nelly bumps into Virginia Woolf in the streets of Berlin — she drops a silk slip she intended to give to her lover, Vita Sackville West. Nelly, finding the package on the ground, keeps it. It's an unlikely — but lovely — story.

Alongside the small details of these lives, Juers chronicles the major events of the war, splashed with horrifying stories of lives lost. While Sigmund Freud and his wife are able to escape to London, his three sisters will perish in the death camps. Ludwig Marum, a Jewish lawyer who had been awarded a medal for service in World War I, is arrested by the Nazis, strangled to death and then hung to look like a suicide in his jail cell in 1934: "Despite the Gestapo's attempts to intimidate them, thousands of mourners and demonstrators attended his funeral."

Evelyn Juers was born in Germany and moved to Australia as a child. House of Exile was first published in Australia in 2008, where it won the Prime Minister's Literacy Award. i i

Evelyn Juers was born in Germany and moved to Australia as a child. House of Exile was first published in Australia in 2008, where it won the Prime Minister's Literacy Award. Conrad Del Villar hide caption

itoggle caption Conrad Del Villar
Evelyn Juers was born in Germany and moved to Australia as a child. House of Exile was first published in Australia in 2008, where it won the Prime Minister's Literacy Award.

Evelyn Juers was born in Germany and moved to Australia as a child. House of Exile was first published in Australia in 2008, where it won the Prime Minister's Literacy Award.

Conrad Del Villar

While these endless lists of deaths, murders, arrests, bombings and betrayals make for exhausting reading, this approach impresses upon the reader the shocking amount of time that passed as Hitler tightened his grip on Germany — and Europe — before Americans intervened. When history is retold in baby steps, it becomes clear how the Nazis were able to keep their systematic murder of the Jews a secret from the world.

House of Exile begins and ends with Nelly's suicide in the home she and Heinrich shared in Brentwood, Calif., in 1944. Little is known about Nelly apart from her being a muse to Heinrich — and it's unclear why Juers is so moved by her story. Alone and poor, Heinrich died in 1950 and was buried in California. Thomas expressed his disappointment with the German reaction, given Heinrich's commitment against fascism: "I am hurt and angry that from Munich as from the rest of West Germany not one word of official sympathy has reached me concerning the death of my brother Heinrich. It seems they have no idea in the Federal Republic of West Germany who it is that has died."

Juers closes with the idea that living in exile causes a certain amount of psychic pain, from homesickness and survivor's guilt. But it was also the anxiety that Hitler would prevail. After reading about Fay Wray's screams in King Kong, "Nelly said that the atrocities being committed in Germany, and what was going on in the world, made her want to scream like Wray, and in an instant, for a few long seconds, the warm Mediterranean night all around froze with the rendition of that scream." Juers' House of Exile makes it apparent that even for those living outside the conquered territories, the threat of a Nazi victory wasn't just the end of a way of life: It meant the end of the world.

Excerpt: 'House Of Exile'

House of Exile by Evelyn Juers
 
House of Exile
By Evelyn Juers
Hardcover, 400 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $28

Approaching from a distance, hand in hand like lovers, the tall blonde and the old gentleman both called out to him — Brecht! He turned towards them and waved. The Californian sun glinted from his glasses like the sword of Zorro. It was early morning. Heat and the scent of jasmine hung loosely all about the marketplace. Sunlight played upon the unreal splendour of the fruit and vegetables. Not quite real. Some people claimed the produce of this country lacked character, it always looked much more pro missing, bigger, brighter, than it tasted. Especially apples. They complained that there were certain things — gooseberries, for instance – which you could not get at all. Asparagus only came in cans. And who had been able to buy chanterelles since they'd left Europe? On this day in the summer of 1944, just before the German generals' attempt on Hitler's life, the news had sped like wildfire through the community of European exiles in Los Angeles that a farmer from the north was selling berries at the market. Not just strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, there was also a small supply of gooseberries. At the head of a line of people anxiously waiting to be served, Bertolt Brecht chewed on his El Capitan Corona. Fond of sayings and slogans, he proclaimed that the early bird catches the vorm, and money talks, and proceeded to buy up all the golden berries. Oh yes, they were ripe enough to eat. Striding across the plaz a towards Nelly and Heinrich, he stopped here and there to divide the loot, handing Gansebeeren, as he jokingly translated from the English, to friends who had missed out. — Ah, here comes the man who loves gooseberries, someone said in a heavy accent, referring to one of Chekhov's stories, casually, as if Russian classics were still common currency, as if Brecht had just crossed Berlin's Savignyplatz and was offering summer berries from a cone-shaped paper bag. Finally he scooped a great mound of amber fruit into Nelly's basket. He gave them each, Heinrich and Nelly, a translucent gem to taste. — One for Adam and one for Eve, he chuckled. The proof of the pudding. And crushing a berry against his own palate like an oyster, announced triumphantly that it was delicious, the real thing, not a hybrid, and that he was no gooseberry fool.

It could have happened.

It had to happen.

It happened earlier. Later.

Nearer. Farther off.

It happened, but not to you.

WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA, 'COULD HAVE'

Several months later, on Sunday 17 December 1944, at home at 301 South Swall Drive, Los Angeles, in the not yet broken darkness before dawn, the outline of a bowl of fruit on the windowsill, its curves — a hand of bananas Nelly had bought earlier in the week, grapes, some pears — reminded Heinrich of Brecht's generosity and of their animated exchange that day at the market, when they'd all had new information about friends in trouble, jailed, people killed, and shocking rumours of the progress of the war. Oh the terrible disgrace! They'd switched between languages, Stachelbeeren, Stacheldraht, Stacheln, barbs. — Barbarians! Brecht had exclaimed. But that moment, which Heinrich tried to conjure up, now faded.

It left nothing before his eyes but a silhouette of fruit backlit by a gauze of curtains, grey on grey. He was a very old man shrinking from the night, from this terrible night, the worst night of his life. He was no longer sobbing uncontrollably. He felt numb. Unable to focus. Did he doze? Briefy? Perhaps he was dying? His only physical sensation came from the bridge of his spectacles pressing on his nose. He made himself take them off, and rubbed his eyes. Did he then recall or did he dream? That when they were children his brother had once worn a peg on his nose for a whole day, until a blockage in the plumbing was fixed and the stench the household had to endure was gone.

Heinrich sat very still inside the folds of his suit. Inside the immaculate whiteness of his long-sleeved shirt. His wife had washed it, hung it out, brought it in, ironed it as he watched her through the open door, and placed it on a hanger, smoothing it with the flat of her hand, tugging each cuff into shape. This image and the thought of her absence was too much to bear. He was crushed with grief. He sat deep inside the maculations of his own soft skin and felt minuscule. Like a grain of sand. His mind searched for a place to go, where it could escape.

In Lubeck. In summer. In the garden. In the scented air. Where it was warm and still. A red dragonfly — Sympetrum vulgatum, the vagrant darter, how strange to remember it — hovered over the fountain like a hawk. Dragonflies fed on mosquitoes; mated in the air; this one settled for a moment on the leaf-blade of a stand of purple irises. Blackcurrant and prickly gooseberry bushes grew against the garden wall. He sat in the shade of the walnut tree. From an open door someone called his name. — Children, how far did we get with this? he heard his mother ask.

A change in the weather. A wind came up, and suddenly clouds like great grey waves were being swept along. The boy looked up, following their crazy script. Just then a grain blew into his eye and he rubbed the irritation with his fist until the billowing sheet of sky that he'd been watching flashed red from too much rubbing, and his eye burned with pain. He took up his pencils, blindly, and the sketches he'd made. With one lid shut, the other squinting sympathetically, he felt his way along the wall until he reached the door.

The old man did not want to enter. He knew that there was no going back. For one thing, this house at Beckergrube 52 no longer existed, it had been destroyed during the British raid in 1942.

Excerpted from House of Exile by Evelyn Juers. Copyright 2011 by Evelyn Juers. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

House of Exile

The Lives and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann

by Evelyn Juers

Hardcover, 384 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
House of Exile
Subtitle
The Lives and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann
Author
Evelyn Juers

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.