A suicide note in neat handwriting, kept in a plastic sheath at Israel’s national library, recalls the life of a writer who, after watching the European culture he worshiped devour itself in World War II, killed himself in exile exactly 70 years ago Wednesday.
The note was written by Stefan Zweig, famous for his novels, plays and poems and remembered as one of the 20th century’s great men of letters.
An Austrian and a Jew who saw himself above all as a citizen of Europe, Zweig started his career as the protégé of a journalist and playwright named Theodor Herzl, whose writing Zweig admired but whose political ideas about Jewish statehood he found unrealistic and backward. Judaism, he once wrote to the philosopher Martin Buber, had taught him that he could be at home anywhere.
By February 22, 1942, Zweig was in the Brazilian town of Petropolis, in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro. Forced to flee the growing ferocity of the nationalist sentiments he detested, he found that he was at home nowhere. Other Jews who had loved the German language and culture were already gone. A year and a half before, Walter Benjamin had killed himself with a morphine overdose as he tried to flee across the border between France and Spain.
Zweig left his home in Salzburg for Britain, then the United States, and finally Brazil, where he and his wife, Lotte, contemplated their exile and the loss of a Europe that he called, in the title of a memoir that is perhaps his best-known work, “The World of Yesterday.“
“Zweig stood for the best basic values — humanism, peace, the togetherness of humanity. He was above nationalism,” said Stefan Litt, an archivist and scholar at the National Library of Israel who has studied Zweig’s documents. “He was ahead of his time by several decades in calling for a united Europe.”
“The loss of his cultural world is what broke him, and the fact that he didn’t know when his exile would end, if ever,” Litt said.
By the time he reached Brazil, part of his archive was already in Jerusalem. In 1934, before leaving Austria as National Socialism began its rise, Zweig — in an unusual move for a man who had evinced no sympathy for Zionism — sent some of his documents to the Zionist movement’s new National Library. Among them was a tender 1903 note from Herzl offering the younger writer advice and counseling him, apropos of an ongoing discussion the two seem to have been carrying on, not to “act with too much pride in front of beautiful women.” In the letter he wrote to Jerusalem accompanying these documents, Zweig confided his belief that it was important for them to be kept in “our” library.
“I have been vitally interested in Jewish problems all my life,” he once wrote, “vitally aware of the Jewish blood that is in me ever since I have been conscious of it.”
That night in February 1942, Zweig played chess with a neighbor. Then he went home. He wrote a draft of a note, altered it, then copied it onto another page, scratching out a few words. Then he poisoned himself. Lotte did as well.
Zweig had written and published hundreds of thousands of words. His final ones occupied less than one page.
“Declaracao,” began the note, “Declaration,” — the word helpfully written in Portuguese to alert the Brazilian police to its nature. Then he switched to German, which forced the local officers to call in a German-Jewish doctor to translate. The doctor eventually obtained the note from the police and donated it to the National Library in Jerusalem in 1991.
Zweig was taking his life “of my own will and in clear mind,” he wrote. He thanked Brazil for its hospitality.
“Every day I learned to love this country more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself,” he wrote.
“But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom — the most precious of possessions on this earth.
“I send greetings to all of my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them.
“Stefan Zweig,” ends the note. “Petropolis, 22.2.1942.”
Follow Matti Friedman on Twitter.
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.