LONDON — In 2005, a chance discovery of a manuscript written by his grandfather revealed details about Peter Singer’s Viennese grandparents’ wartime past. Tucked in a suitcase in his father’s attic, the sheaf of delicate carbon papers recounted their survival experiences as refugees — information that Singer had wanted to know since his teenage years. Its discovery “was an extraordinary gift,” he says.
Moriz Scheyer wrote down his story between 1943-1944 while he was in hiding in a French convent and asylum for mentally ill women, and completed it after the war in 1945. Written in German as events unfolded, it narrates Scheyer’s dramatic, tense and often miraculous flight from Nazi-occupied Vienna to wartime France.
Until the Anschluss, or annexation, of Austria in 1938, Scheyer was a renowned essayist, critic and arts editor of the prestigious Viennese paper Neues Wiener Tagblatt. He was a friend playwright Stefan Zweig and an acquaintance of composer Gustav Mahler. Although a prominent writer, “This book has nothing to do with ‘literature’ as best understood,” he wrote in the foreword. Its ambition was to record “the witness of a Jewish refugee.”
After Scheyer’s death in 1949 his stepson, Konrad Singer, having inherited the original manuscript, destroyed it — disliking what he perceived to be its self-pitying tone and strong anti-German sentiment. Or he thought he had.
His mother, Grete, had kept the carbon copy, the one Singer stumbled upon. It appeared that there had been some attempt at earlier publication. The typescript — originally titled “A Survivor” — was contained in a folder addressed to Zweig’s first wife in America.
“Asylum” is Peter Singer’s translation of the manuscript. Although a classicist by training, with a focus on translating ancient Greek texts, he had worked in German before. Apart from the addition of a few footnotes and an epilogue contextualizing the people and events, it is a faithful, unedited version of Scheyer’s text. The book has now been published in the UK with a US publication date set for the fall.
Part memoir, part diary, Asylum is unusual in that Scheyer chronicles such a wide range of experiences, says Singer: the Anschluss in Vienna, Paris under German occupation, the Exodus from Paris, life in two French concentration camps, a failed escape attempt to Switzerland, contact with the Resistance and finally, rescue and clandestine life in a French Franciscan convent.
The reality of living in a state of constant fear is vividly conveyed but it is Scheyer’s unflinching angry, acerbic tone and profound emotional anguish that distinguish the book. He notes with disbelief the ease with which the Austrians adapted to the Nazi invasion and how the French accommodated the Germans — his rage directed in particular towards those who collaborated. Above all, is his sense of incredulity. How, Scheyer repeatedly asks, could it all have happened?
How, Scheyer repeatedly asks, could it all have happened?
“It’s a very riveting story, even if you don’t have a personal connection,” Singer tells The Times of Israel by phone.
Although he never knew his step-grandfather, working on the manuscript inevitably became, “an encounter with this person I’d not met.”
Despite the book’s negative tone, he admits he found aspects of it very moving, particularly the everyday heroism, self-sacrifice and danger that the French family were prepared to undertake in order to save the Scheyers.
In 1941, Scheyer was released from a period of internment in a camp in Beaune-la-Rolande, in northern France. Other Jews were less fortunate — many would travel onwards from there to their extermination.
Following his release, he and his wife, together with their devoted non-Jewish Czech housekeeper and friend, Sláva, decided to cross into Vichy France — paying a passeur to smuggle them over the Demarcation Line. They then tried and failed to reach Switzerland.
By 1942, when the searches and deportations of Jews were at their peak, they met the Rispal family in passing, who were members of the Resistance. They organized refuge in the convent and it was here where they remained for the duration of the war.
“The Rispals [Gabriel, Hélène and their son, Jacques] became like an extended family, [especially] to my grandmother,” Singer explains. After the war, his grandparents and Sláva remained in France, living close to the convent and the Rispals in a house that belonged to Hélène Rispal — a gesture that he refers to in the epilogue as “another spectacular act of generosity.” Moriz and Grete Scheyer are buried in the Rispal family graveyard.
Singer’s childhood visits to his grandmother meant that he too became acquainted with the Rispal family. He says, “We would see Hélène every day. She was obviously someone who cared very much about other people. Gabriel was a larger-than-life sort of character, a bon vivant.” He recalls occasionally seeing Jacquot (Jacques), by then an actor, who lived in Paris.
Singer says that his father described Scheyer as hypersensitive. He was also irrational at times and would harbor grudges against a colleague or friend, which would then be quickly patched up. He valued his privacy: Konrad told Singer that Scheyer had a habit of getting up to open the windows during social gatherings at their apartment. It was a signal, understood by his guests, that it was time for them to leave.
Singer believes that his father’s criticisms of Scheyer’s book were largely due to a difference of attitude and experience, especially as his father had been sent to the UK to continue his studies.
“He was very lucky, he was young, he didn’t witness any of these atrocities at first hand,” Singer says about his father, adding that he didn’t want to dwell on what had happened to his parents. His view was that others had suffered far more than them. Instead, he wanted to look forward.
“It does seem terribly unsympathetic to us,” Singer says, “but I wonder if his attitude was somewhat representative of the mindset of many young people at that time.”
“Part of me thinks that what my father disliked [about the book] was his way of expression. It’s almost an aesthetic reaction. To some extent, it’s quite sentimental, it’s rhetorical at times but it is very highly crafted,” he observes.
Singer conducted considerable background research around the book — it was important for him to learn more about the period his grandfather lived through as well as what had happened to the “characters” involved.
For Scheyer, the purpose of his book was straightforward.
He wrote, “If this book had the effect of making a few of those who were spared the fate of being refugees, of being Jewish, in the Hitler era, ask themselves the question, ‘How could it all have happened?’ that would be the best reparation I could receive — the greatest achievement of my life.”