How Ste­fan Zweig set out and found him­self iso­lated in a far­away land

METROPOLE - Vienna in English - - CONTENTS - By Ja­cob Las­sar

Ste­fan Zweig, one of Aus­tria’s most beloved au­thors, spent the last years of his life in the ex­ile in Brazil. He wrote some of his best nov­els there, but yearned for his lost home.

The snowy white villa where Ste­fan and Lotte Zweig once lived, and where they took their own lives, is perched un­der ter­ra­cotta roofs over a busy street in Petrópo­lis, in south­east­ern Brazil. The noise of traf­fic and day la­bor­ers nearly over­shad­ows the tufts of lush green­ery and ter­raced gar­dens be­tween the houses. A sign by the drive and a plaque over the ter­race door an­nounce it as “Casa Ste­fan Zweig.”

Petrópo­lis was a log­i­cal choice for the Zweigs in 1941. Sit­u­ated in the moun­tain re­gion of the Serra dos Órgãos, but close enough to the for­mer cap­i­tal of Rio de Janeiro, the city had long been the fa­vorite of the Brazil­ian elite, a gra­cious, hilly neigh­bor­hood of­fer­ing tran­quil­ity and re­lief from the sum­mer heat. Stroll along the grand Avenida Koeler today, turn­ing right on the Rua da Im­per­a­triz, the shabby el­e­gance of the fine old build­ings re­flects the his­tory of the Brazil­ian aris­to­crats who once lived there. Well-kept gar­dens, parks, im­pe­rial mu­se­ums and a gothic re­vival cathe­dral all sur­round the cen­ter of this quaint and beau­ti­ful old town.

“Hardly in my life have I seen a more calm and pleas­ant town, a taste­ful city,” Zweig wrote in one of his first let­ters from his Brazil­ian ex­ile. “We feel ex­tremely happy here, the lit­tle bun­ga­low with its large cov­ered ter­race (our real liv­ing room) has a splen­did view over the moun­tains and just in front a tiny Caféhaus called “Café Ele­gante,” where I can have a de­li­cious café for a Groschen.” For Zweig, the re­gion with its mild moun­tain sum­mers re­minded him of “a town as beau­ti­fully aban­doned as Bad Ischl in Oc­to­ber.” For a vis­i­tor, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that it was here in the midst of this Brazil­ian idyll that the great late Aus­trian author chose to end his and his wife’s life.


Born in 1881 in Vi­enna into a tra­di­tional Jewish fam­ily, he was a child of the Aus­tro-hun­gar­ian Em­pire and the Kul­turzwang (drive for cul­ture), in­ter­ested in literature and the arts from a young age on. In 1900, he pub­lished his first story, For­got­ten Dreams, fol­lowed by Spring in the Prater, cov­er­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal themes and of­ten por­traits of strong women. He was in­ter­ested in po­ten­tial new forms of art and tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances, which he wrote about with great en­thu­si­asm. His in­ter­est in tech­nol­ogy cul­mi­nated in his 1927 book De­ci­sive Mo­ments in His­tory, in which he de­scribed de­ci­sive events such as the fall of Con­stantino­ple and the lay­ing of the first tele­phone ca­ble to the United States.

The Great War changed Stephan Zweig. See­ing it as fool­ishly self-de­struc­tive and an ir­repara­ble loss, the war turned him into an ar­dent paci­fist. He wrote of “be­gin­ning my per­sonal war: the fight against the be­trayal of rea­son dur­ing the cur­rent mass suf­fer­ing.”

Although Zweig never con­sid­ered him­self a re­li­gious Jew, he did take credit for be­ing part of the Jewish­driven cul­tural re­nais­sance in Aus­tria and Cen­tral Europe at the time, with its core mis­sion to dis­sem­i­nate a cos­mopoli­tan world­view. At the same time, his writ­ing of­ten took on the un­der­ly­ing nos­tal­gic tone typ­i­cal of Jewish sto­ry­telling, what bi­og­ra­pher Ge­orge Prochnik de­scribed as “whole col­lec­tions of sen­ti­men­tal glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of a cer­tain shtetlish au­then­tic­ity.”

Although fas­ci­nated by the cul­tural de­vel­op­ments in Aus­tria right af­ter the Great War, Zweig wrote in his most fa­mous book World of Yes­ter­day with a very strange and haunt­ing un­der­tone draw­ing on his child­hood and youth, con­demn­ing, for ex­am­ple, the Aus­trian ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that de­stroyed am­bi­tion and seemed prej­u­diced against the young. Many of Zweig’s con­tem­po­raries, such as the late Friedrich Tor­berg, who at around the same time wrote the clas­sic Der Schüler Ger­ber, strug­gled to cast off the shack­les of an op­pres­sive ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that dis­cour­aged cre­ativ­ity. They saw it as an ex­am­ple of the qual­i­ties that un­der­mined the so­ci­ety and helped pave the way for the next war.

Like many of his con­tem­po­raries, Zweig’s fate was marked by flight from his home­land and a life in ex­ile, a tragic refugee at a time of war and de­struc­tion. His per­sonal voy­age in ex­ile changed Zweig’s lan­guage, thoughts and feel­ings for­ever.


On Fe­bru­ary 18, 1934, four po­lice­men knocked on Zweig’s door in his house on the Ka­puziner­berg in Salzburg. Some­one told the po­lice that Zweig, the prom­i­nent paci­fist, was hoard­ing weapons in his house. Ob­vi­ously, it was ab­surd, but un­nerved at what was com­ing, Zweig and his then-wife Frid­erike packed their bags and left for Lon­don. Although he wanted to like Eng­land – like Freud, there he saw so­bri­ety and the rule of law that he missed in Vi­enna – he was not able to find any so­cial or lit­er­ary con­tacts. Granted Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship, they joined the grow­ing refugee com­mu­nity in Bath. But Zweig felt out of place, per­ceiv­ing Eng­land as a soggy class-based so­ci­ety that didn’t of­fer any of that col­or­ful pas­sion that he had found in Euro­pean cul­ture at large.

Zweig was 55 years old when he ar­rived in Rio de Janeiro in 1936, to a celebrity wel­come. It was a mild Au­gust day, and the air was “hu­mid and sweet,” the sea­side city “pulled me in with soft, fe­male arms, in a wide and ten­der em­brace,” as Zweig would later tell in his mon­u­men­tal homage Brazil: Land of the Fu­ture.

“It was the ar­rival of a cos­mopoli­tan in a strange and for­eign land,” says Margit Dirscherl, lec­turer at LMU Mu­nich, “a world cit­i­zen and Euro­pean now in an al­most un­rec­og­niz­able world. While his books were for­bid­den by the Nazis in Europe, here in Brazil, he sees mixed race cou­ples walk­ing hand in hand, peo­ple of all col­ors, races and back­grounds work­ing at the port, serv­ing at restau­rants and strolling through town.” It was a utopian dream, where Zweig was wel­comed as a celebrity. Hun­dreds of jour­nal­ists wanted to in­ter­view him, and dur­ing a read­ing of his work in the city cen­ter of Rio, more than two thou­sand fans came to lis­ten.


He came back to Brazil from New York in the win­ter of 1940, with his new wife Lotte Alt­mann and moved not to Rio but to Petrópo­lis. He didn’t like big cities. He had cho­sen Salzburg over Vi­enna, Bath over Lon­don. It was the same in Brazil.

The first days were happy. Lotte and Ste­fan sent let­ters to rel­a­tives and friends. But it was the long­ing for the past, how­ever, that moved him the most. The food was un­fa­mil­iar. Not speak­ing Por­tuguese and re­jected by the Ger­man mi­grant com­mu­nity, they felt iso­lated. Lost in his mem­o­ries, he be­came deeply de­pressed.

In The Royal Game, writ­ten just be­fore his sui­cide, Zweig tells the story of Dr. B, in hid­ing from the Nazis, play­ing ob­ses­sively through a book of master chess games in de­fense against the despair of ex­ile, and the yearn­ing for the or­der in a world he has lost. Like much of his work, it is deeply nos­tal­gic, recre­at­ing a vivid and more per­fect past – the ethos Wes An­der­son used as the back­ground for The Grand Bu­dapest Ho­tel. Set in a re­con­struc­tion of the grand old Süd­bahn­ho­tel on the Sem­mer­ing, An­der­son uses the ide­al­iza­tion of the im­pe­rial past of Aus­tri­aHun­garia in a long­ing for or­der – as­pects of nos­tal­gia we know from The World of Yes­ter­day.

Today, with the re­cent Aus­trian film Ste­fan Zweig: Farewell to Europe and the reis­su­ing of his work, Zweig him­self has be­come a sub­ject of nos­tal­gia.

And from Brazil, the flare-up of an anti-im­mi­grant mood in Aus­tria looks only too fa­mil­iar.

“While his books were for­bid­den by the Nazis in Europe, in Brazil, Zweig saw mixed race cou­ples walk­ing hand in hand.” MARGIT DIRSCHERL, lec­turer at LMU Mu­nich

Ste­fan Zweig cul­ti­vated friend­ships with artists, writ­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als all across Europe. Pic­tured left, Zweig and his first wife Frid­erike on a 1937 visit to Henry and Grete Joske in Vence, France. Zweig and his sec­ond wife Lotte com­mit­ted...

The Casa Ste­fan Zweig in Petrópo­lis, left, is today a mu­seum de­voted to his life and lit­er­ary oeu­vre. In 1936, Zweig trav­eled for the first time to Brazil, where he was wildly pop­u­lar, meet­ing diplo­mats and the pres­i­dent Getúlio Var­gas' daugh­ter,...

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