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Lion Feuchtwanger: Exile in Paradise

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In Partnership with USC Libraries: The USC Libraries actively support the discovery, creation, and preservation of knowledge at the University of Southern California and beyond.

Sunshine Sanctuary, a new series presented by the USC Libraries, investigates the legacies of exiled artists and cultural producers living in Los Angeles and Southern California. This series was prompted by an August 2013 conference on Weimar exiles in Los Angeles, sponsored by the London-based Legatum Institute and the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study.

It is often said that Los Angeles is a city of transplants, a mass migration that seems to be dominated by sun-worshipping delusional Hollywood hopefuls. The allure of perpetual summer and Hollywood stardom has certainly drawn many westward. However, numerous creative transplants find themselves in Los Angeles seeking sanctuary from their own homeland. Roughly 10,000 to 15,000 refugees came to Southern California between 1933 and 1941, many of them artists and intellectuals fleeing persecution from the Nazis.1 Exiles such as best-selling author Lion Feuchtwanger served as a cultural link between continents and altered Los Angeles' cultural landscape.

In 1933, Americans were vehemently anti-Nazi yet remained anti-interventionist. Artists and outspoken political writers were the first to experience Hitler's wrath. Fearful of racial and political oppression, they fled Germany in droves throughout the 1930s.2 Feuchtwanger, an internationally successful author, was an early and outspoken critic of the National Socialist Party. In his novel, "Success," published in 1930, Feuchtwanger helped expose Nazi barbarism to the world. He was included in list one of the Ausburgerungslisten -- Hitler's list of individuals to be stripped of their German citizenship. Hitler and the Nazi party set afire what was considered anti-Nazi propaganda in ceremonial book burnings. A passerby pulled part of a page from Feuchtwanger's novel, "Jud Suss," from the cinders in Berlin on May 10, 1933. In spite of his expulsion from Germany, Feuchtwanger's work continued to receive international attention and "Jud Suss" was adapted into a film, which premiered in New York in 1934. His fellow exile Albert Einstein and friends (Charlie Chaplin and Bethold Viertel) mailed him an image from the film's premiere with the affectionate message, "To the master of it all, Lion Feuchtwanger." Despite his relationships and critical acclaim in the United States, Feuchtwanger was facing displacement from his beloved home and life as an exile.

After escaping Germany, Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta took up residence in the Mediterranean fishing village of Sanary-sur-Mer, France. By May of 1940, the French Government decreed that all German citizens living in France were to be sent to the internment camps, and both Marta and Lion were imprisoned. Marta managed to escape, but Feuchtwanger remained in the camp. An image of Feuchtwanger against the backdrop of barbed wire in the camp made its way to the desk of President Roosevelt, who arranged for Lion Feuchtwanger's emergency visa. Following their escape from the camps, Marta and Lion set out on an arduous journey, which required them to climb the Pyrenees and enter Spain illegally. Through a network of trusted alliances and friends, the Feuchtwangers made their way to New York by ship.

Lion and Marta arrived in Southern California in 1941, and for the first few years lived in several different houses before purchasing 520 Paseo Miramar in the Pacific Palisades. They had the good fortune of acquiring the Spanish style palatial home for the extraordinarily low price of $9,000 due to the war. Villa Aurora, as they named their house, became a gathering site for a myriad of important intellectuals and artists. Living in Los Angeles, Marta and Lion were surrounded by the exiled elite. Ã?migrés Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Arnold Schoenberg, Peter Lorre, Berthold and Salka Viertel, and a constant stream of writers, poets, filmmakers, and composers found sanctuary there. The home served as the site for many social gatherings included readings by Feuchtwanger from his works, followed by discussions.

In Los Angeles, some of Europe's most esteemed creative minds were forced to reinvent themselves. Their rich and celebrated contributions were undervalued in Los Angeles' fleeting celebrity culture. In order to make a living, to work and continue to create, they had to discover and adapt to mass culture and the laws of the market.3 Often émigrés were spread throughout the city and lacked the proper financial resources to fill the cultural vacuums in which their work could have thrived. Some émigrés' influence, however, was confined to screenwriting and Hollywood. Salka Viertel, unable to find work in the 1930s as an actress, took up screenwriting and became one of Hollywood's leading scriptwriters, primarily working on Greta Garbo's films. Other exiles struggled to find cultural context. This is clearly evident in Theodor Adorno's detailed analysis of the Los Angeles Times astrology column in his essay "'Stars down to Earth." There is no singular narrative that defines the émigré experience. It horrified or disconcerted them. They cursed it or decided to remain. They carried on criticizing its values or adopted them. For better or worse, they became Americans.4

Lion Feuchtwanger was an exception. He settled down into a prosperous life as a writer and public figure. Lion and Marta continued to help others escape from Europe including Bertolt Brecht, whom Feuchtwanger collaborated with on "Simone," a Joan of Arc story set in occupied France. Despite their dissimilar principles in creating plots and characters, they worked together and completed "Simone," which ultimately consisted of two versions. Brecht thought of Feuchtwanger as his mentor, the only "Lehrmeister," or teacher and guide, in his life.5

From the middle forties to the early fifties Feuchtwanger dealt with political themes springing from the American and French Revolutions: "Proud Destiny" ("Waffen für Amerika"), 1947, his novels on Goya in Spain, 1951, and Rousseau in France, 1952.6 By 1952, the majority of Feuchtwanger's group of émigrés had left Los Angeles. Feuchtwanger eloquently voiced the plight and struggle of his fellow émigrés during a lecture in 1943 entitled "Working Problems of the Writer in Exile." He detailed the artists' personal struggles, describing "not the subject matter but rather, the character of the writer was changed by exile," Feuchtwanger emphasized that the author who has lost the reading public of his own land frequently loses at the same time the core of his economic existence.7 Feuchtwanger learned to embrace exile and manipulate the strain and hardship into creative implements. Feuchtwanger described divergent views of creative exiles, stating: "[S]uffering makes the weak weaker, but the strong stronger. Banishment has constricted some of us, but to the stronger, the more able, it gave breadth and elasticity, it opened their eyes more fully to the great and essential things and taught them not to cling to non-essentials." Feuchtwanger's exile experiences in France and Los Angeles altered his internal creative nature.

Ultimately he altered Los Angeles' cultural landscape, as well. Following his death in 1958, Marta Feuchtwanger bequeathed Villa Aurora, Lion's papers and the rights to his work, and his libraries to the University of Southern California. Marta Feuchtwanger survived Lion by 30 years and dedicated her life to promoting the work of her husband. Marta remained an important figure in the exile community and her correspondence and writing in part documented the exile experience. The Friends of Villa Aurora Inc., a German consortium in collaboration with the German federal government, now owns the Feuchtwanger residence, a Los Angeles historic-cultural monument. The Villa is home to the Villa Aurora Foundation for European American Relations. In cooperation with human rights organizations and the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library at the USC Libraries, Villa Aurora annually awards a nine-month fellowship to writers and journalists from countries that restrict freedom of expression. In addition to being an artists' residence, the Villa Aurora offers programming that commemorates the earlier emigration of artists and intellectuals during the 1930s. Fellows from Nigeria, Burma, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and other countries continue Feuchtwanger's legacy through their creative pursuits in exile, in paradise.

Notes:

1 Kenneth Marcus, "Heimat and Hybridity: Arnold Schoenberg, Exile, and the Crisis of Modernism." Forum for Inter-American Research Volume 4 Number 1: Accessed August 18,2013. http://www.interamerica.de/volume-4-1/marcus/

2 John Russell Taylor, "Strangers in Paradise The Hollywood Emigres 1933-1950," (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983), 27.

3 John-Michel Palmier, "Weimar in Exile the Antifascist Emigration in Europe and America," (New York: Verso, 2006), 458.

4 John Russell Taylor, "Strangers in Paradise The Hollywood Emigres 1933-1950," (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983), 16.

5 Harold Von Hofe, "Lion Feuchtwanger and America, (Los Angeles: Lion Feuchtwanger Memorial Library: University of Southern California, 1972)."

6 Ibid.

7 Lion Feuchtwanger, "The Working Problems of the Writer in Exile" (lecture, University of Los Angeles, October 1943).

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