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Werfel, Franz


WERFEL, FRANZ (1890–1945), Austrian novelist, playwright, and poet. The son of a prosperous Prague manufacturer, Werfel was a friend of Max *Brod and Franz *Kafka. He rejected the business career his father chose for him, and echoes of their disagreement are apparent in the story, "Nicht der Moerder, der Ermordete ist schuldig" (1920). While working as a publisher's reader in Leipzig (1911–14), Werfel attended the university there. His earliest verse collections, Der Weltfreund (1911), Wir sind (1913) and Einander (1915), substituted religious intoxication for the skepticism and sophistry to which his Austrian contemporaries were largely addicted. In his Euripides: Die Troerinnen (1915), an expressionist adaptation of the classical tragedy, war is seen through the eyes of the conquered and enslaved. Three years in the Austrian army on the Russian front (1915–17) confirmed Werfel in his pacifism, and the war poems of Der Gerichtstag (1919) voiced his longing for the rejuvenation of a blood-drenched world through love and universal brotherhood. After the war Werfel became a freelance writer in Vienna and Berlin. In Beschwoerungen (1923) he ecstatically called for a new, Dionysian comradeship with all creation – man, beast, and stone. Werfel's marriage in 1918 to Alma (Schindler) Mahler, the daughter of a famous Austrian painter and widow of the composer Gustav *Mahler, established him in Viennese society. Turning to the theater, he triumphed with the trilogy Spiegelmensch (1920) and his drama Bocksgesang (1921), but had less success with Juarez und Maxmilian (1924), a play about the ill-fated Hapsburg emperor of Mexico, and Paulus unter den Juden (1926; Paul among the Jews, 1928). In Der Weg der Verheissung (1935; The Eternal Road, 1937), a biblical play set to synagogal music by Kurt *Weill and staged in New York by Max *Reinhardt, Werfel revealed his spiritual homelessness and the tragic ambiguity of his religious position. When he abandoned expressionism for historical themes, Werfel portrayed not the lords and victors, but rather the lowly and defeated. His epic novel Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (1933; The Forty Days, 1934) depicted the hopeless struggle of the Armenians against the Turkish hordes. Werfel never actually embraced Christianity, although his essay, Die christliche Sendung (1917) was a step in that direction. Toward the end of his life he reassessed his position as a Jew in Zwischen Oben und Unten (1946), where he declared that God would one day settle the reckoning in Israel's favor. He also wrote: "Religion is the everlasting dialogue between humanity and God. Art is its soliloquy."

In 1938, Werfel fled to France. When the German army invaded France in 1940, he fled once more and managed to reach the United States. He spent his last years in California, where he completed Das Lied von Bernadette (1941), an account of the visionary of Lourdes. This became famous in the English-speaking world as The Song of Bernadette (1942) and was later made into a motion picture. Jacobowsky und der Oberst (1944; Jacobowsky and the Colonel) was a tragicomedy about the flight of a Polish aristocrat and a resourceful little Jew before the German advance into France. During his exile in France, from 1938 to 1940, Werfel wrote a novel depicting the life of the Jews in Burgenland and their sufferings after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis. The manuscript was hidden for years and was first published posthumously in 1954, under the title Cella und die Ueberwinder (Frankfurt; republished in East Germany, 1970). The book is one of the most powerful literary expressions of the Holocaust and represents an entirely new aspect of Werfel's creative work. Other novels by Werfel were Verdi. Roman der Oper (1924; Verdi: A Novel of the Opera, 1925), which promoted a Verdi revival in Germany; Der veruntreute Himmel (1939); and Stern der Ungeborenen (1946; Star of the Unborn, 1946). Gedichte aus den Jahren 19081945, a collection of Werfel's best poems, was published in 1946.

In the postwar years there was an increasing interest in Werfel both in West and East Germany, and his works continue to appear in English as well. Among the doctoral theses on him, mention should be made of D. Kuhlenkamp's Werfels spaete Romane (1971), which contains an extensive bibliography.


R. Specht, Franz Werfel (1926); L. Zahn, Franz Werfel (1966), incl. bibl.; W. Braselmann, Franz Werfel (1960), incl. bibl.; L.B. Foltin (ed.), Franz Werfel 18901945 (Eng., 1961), incl. bibl.; A. Werfel, And the Bridge is Love (1958); R. Kayser, in: G. Krojanker,Juden in der deutschen Literatur (1926), 17–26; W. Haas, Gestalten (1962), 228–36. add. bibliography: P.S. Jungk, Franz Werfel, A Life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood (1991); L. Huber, Franz Werfel: An Austrian Writer Reassessed (1992); J.T. Michaels, Franz Werfel and His Critics (1994).

[Sol Liptzin /

Yehouda Marton]

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