German exile research “The subject of exile is experiencing a renaissance”

The former house of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig in Petrópolis, Brazil; © Andreas Maislinger/CC-BY-SA-3.0-DE
The former house of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig in Petrópolis, Brazil | Photo (detail): © Andreas Maislinger/CC-BY-SA-3.0-DE

Sylvia Asmus, the Director of the German Exile Archive 1933–1945 speaks about the state of German exile research and new projects on Brazil as a place of exile in the 2013/2014 German Year in Brazil.

Ms. Asmus, the German Exile Archive, 1933–1945, has existed for more than sixty years. Are there any new research trends?

My impression is that the subjects of exile and emigration are currently experiencing a renaissance. They are even being treated in contemporary literature. For several years we’ve been experiencing a period of change. On the one hand, there are fewer and fewer eye-witnesses who can report about their own experience of exile and emigration from the Nazi sphere of power. On the other hand, exile research has changed by relating itself to contemporary immigration research.

We too have chosen an approach that keeps the subject open to new connections in the project Arts in Exile (Künste im Exil), a virtual exhibition that shows objects from the collections of various institutions. The Commissioner for Cultural Affairs, Bernd Neumann, has helped get the project off the ground and provided funding. We set the time limit of 1933-1945 and included other exiles and various art forms. So archive material today is studied in a new way. But quite apart from trends, archives have the function of tracking down and securing source material.

A few years ago a symposium posed the question of the “alchemy of exile”. It was suggested that to some degree exile also always provides a creative, productive stimulus for authors. Is that so?

If we’re talking about, for example, emigration from the sphere of the Nazi dictatorship, then it should be stressed first of all that persecution, imprisonment, trauma caused by experienced violence and the separation of families, loss of social status, loss of familiar and habitual conditions of work, loss of one’s own language and many other such aspects form the background of exile. It shouldn’t be forgot that there is a political dimension to exile research, that after 1933 there was a dictatorship in Germany which forced people to flee and later murdered millions. Exile certainly isn’t invariably a creative and productive stimulus. I think it is both suffering, the experience of loss, and the experience of acculturation, of a life between cultures, which could be a productive and creative stimulus.

New research on Brazil as a country of refuge

Latin America took about 80,000 mainly Jewish emigrants from Nazi Germany. Nineteen thousand German-speaking emigrants alone went to Brazil. By 1937, however, Brazil was itself a quasi-fascist dictatorship. How suited was Brazil as country of refuge?

After Argentina, which gave refuge to about 30,000 emigrants, Brazil was the second most important receiving country in Latin America. The entry requirements were restrictive; in particular, the immigration of Jewish refugees was not welcome. On the one hand, the so-called “nationalisation campaign” made building of a new life more difficult; on the other, it forced rapid integration.

After Brazil’s entry into the war, use of the German language was forbidden. And as in many other host countries, in Brazil too there were internments, in which no distinctions were made between Nazi sympathisers and those that had fled the Nazi dictatorship. Nevertheless, for many emigrants who found refuge in Brazil, it became a new home.

A publication of the German National Library from 1994 states that research has scarcely taken account of Brazil as a country of refuge. Has this changed?

There’s been new research since 1994, a good deal has been worked up, and yet we can probably still say that Brazil as a host country doesn’t exactly stand in the centre of exile research. That’s why we think a comprehensive exhibition on this theme, which we’ve developed for the occasion of Brazil’s appearance as the guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair in autumn 2013 and for the 2013/2014 German Year on Brazil, can reveal many new aspects. The research of the curator of the exhibition, Marlen Eckl, has laid a good foundation for this.

Stimulus for cultural exchange

Many of the artists that immigrated to Brazil are unknown in Germany today. Have they left their mark in Brazil?

German-speaking immigrants contributed in many ways to culture and science in Brazil. In many areas of culture, in journalism, literature, graphic art and painting, photography and music, they gave their host country an important stimulus. They also made valuable contributions to setting up a chain of bookshops, a jewellery company or a coffee plantation. The exhibition will present all that.

Who besides Stefan Zweig, who initially let himself be used by the Vargas dictatorship, but never felt at home in Brazil and finally committed suicide, did the reverse and made Brazil known in Germany?

The returned emigrants Hermann M. Görgen und Dora Schindel made the establishment of a cultural exchange between Germany and Brazil their task. The economist and politician Görgen and his assistant Schindel had helped a group of people escape to Brazil and then returned to Germany in the 1950s. Mainly through founding the German-Brazilian Society, which still exists today, they succeeded in promoting cultural exchange between the two countries.

Walter Benjamin and Thomas Mann were denied entry to Brazil. Wouldn’t the cultural relationship between Germany and Brazil have scaled new heights had Germany’s most important theorist and most important novelist taken root here?

Interesting question, but an answer would be pure speculation. Thomas Mann’s mother, Julia, was born in Brazil; so there’s a connection. The immigration to Brazil is associated with a famous name in Stefan Zweig, whose house in Petropolis is today a memorial site. But apart from that, German-Brazilian relationships are good, as the 2013/2014 German Year in Brazil shows.

Sylvia Asmus read German literature, art history and art education in Frankfurt am Main and library science in Berlin, and has worked at the German National Library since 1994. There she has distinguished herself with exhibitions and publications on the subject of exile. In 2006 she became deputy director of the German Exile Archive, 1933–1945, and since 2011 she has been its director. Asmus is a member of the Scholarly Advisory Board of the Society for Exile Research and of the International Joseph Roth Society.