Monday, January 25, 2021

Franz Werfel

Franz Werfel (1890―1945) is one of the leading writers of pre-Nazi Austria. When his first poetry collection appeared in 1911, he befriended such German-speaking Jewish writers as Max Broad and Franz Kafka at Prague’s Café Arco. He soon moved to Leipzig, and during the war to Vienna.

Werfel was born into a Jewish family in Prague, though was influenced profoundly by his Czech nanny who secretly took him to Roman Catholic masses. He found himself in the no man’s land between the two religions, finding Judaism forbidding, but being drawn to the piety of the nanny he affectionately called Babi. The light she was for his life appears again and again in his writing, although in his early work he explored many religions.

In the 1920s he produced historic pieces ― Verdi: A Novel of the Opera, and plays such as Juarez and Maximilian. His 1928 play, Paul Among the Jews, combined his fascination with history and his conflicted interest in both his heritage and Christianity. For more than ten years, Franz Werfel had an affair with Alma, the widow of composer Gustav Mahler, before she agreed finally to marry him in 1929 on the condition that he renounce Judaism.

Franz and Alma, fled from the Nazis during WWII ― first to Paris, and then to Lourdes on their way to America. Werfel became fascinated with the story of Bernadette, which he vowed to make his next priority. Werfel’s best-selling novel The Song of Bernadette (1941) became a Hollywood film in 1943 ― starring Jennifer Jones, who won the Best Actress Oscar in the role. Franz Werfel was officially baptized into the Catholic Church shortly before his death.

The Snowfall

Oh the slow fall of snow,
Its unending blanketing swirl!
Yet my mind's eye was giving shape
To what couldn't be kept hidden,
That in the white drifts each fleck
Is known, weighed, counted.

Oh you spinning dancing flakes,
Your tiny souls and personalities
Withstand gravity, weightlessness, wind,
In your coming and going
I see your destinies glide down,
Which you begin, fulfill, begin ...

This one falls soft and like wool,
The next is crystal and tenacious,
The third's a clenched fist of struggle.
Yet their white realm disperses by morning,
Thus one doesn't die from the rest,
And they dissolve into the purest drop shapes.

Oh the world's slow falling snow,
That race's dense, blanketing swirl!
It perishes and not one fate melts alone.
We melt, but we are left behind
When death, the way spring wind thaws, overtakes
Us drops and comes together home in the womb.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection is Ampersand (2018, Cascade). His books are available through Amazon, and Wipf & Stock, including the anthologies The Turning Aside, and Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse.