Egon Schwarz - Refuge. Chronicle of a Flight from Hitler.
When Adolf Hitler paraded into Vienna on March 11, 1938, Egon Schwarz was fifteen years old. In NoTime for Eichendorff he chronicles his family's remarkable escape through Bratislava, Prague and Paris, across the Atlantic through the Panama Canal and finally to Bolivia, where the Viennese family experiences a culture shock of Andean altitude. As the author comes of age, one picaresque adventure follows the next, until fate and fixity of purpose finally bring him to settle in the United States.
Since retiring from Washington University in St. Louis, Egon Schwarz has continued his peripatetic life lecturing at universities around the world.
- Author: Egon Schwarz
- Title: Refuge. Chronicle of a Flight from Hitler.
- Binding: Hardcover
- Publishing House: Ariadne Press
- Pages: 231
- ISBN: 157241104X
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Why would a professor of German literature and humanities want to write his memoirs? And who are the potential readers of this book?
In his introduction, Egon Schwarz attempts to answer these questions. "Writing," he claims correctly, "is communicating, and anyone setting out to write an autobiography must first consider for whom the narrative might be of interest." Obviously, Schwarz is aware of the fact that literature professors, by and large, neither carry a "famous name" nor have what might be considered "market value." Nevertheless, he is convinced that his story is "worth telling," for "a very personal reason," as he admits. However, "this very personal reason" for writing his autobiography, he adds, "leads promptly, [ to] a historical one." And history, according to Schwarz, is not the conventional history of the powerful. Quite the contrary, Schwarz views history from the point of view of "ordinary people," of history's subjects or victims. His account of events is not some by-product. True, it is history filtered through subjectivity, nevertheless an important piece of historical writing that deserves contemporary readers' attention and has lost none of its relevance.
In his autobiography, Schwarz describes his family's remarkable journey from Vienna to South America and on to the United States following the Anschluss of 1938. His narrative has, for the most part, a light and entertaining touch with a good deal of irony and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. It is filled with all kinds of episodes, many of them quite funny. It is hard, for example, to imagine the distinguished professor in the various roles he had to play as a young man in South America. His first job was as an electrician's apprentice, which included hauling material and mixing cement. Later, the job as an assistant to a somewhat eccentric "professor" was more to his liking, but it did not last long either. Schwarz also worked as a night watchman in a lead mine, in a chemical laboratory, as a debt-collector and as a bookkeeper. On the advice "from all sides," he even became a traveling salesman for a short time, "a disaster from start to finish." When he realized, he could not sell his merchandise, he sold it at a reduced price and, when that did not work either, he simply gave it away. "I haven't a whit of commercial talent," he comments in his memoir. Passages like this one read like excerpts from a picaresque novel, "in which the cocky antihero [from Austria] survives one predicament after the next." While Schwarz takes the reader to some of the most exotic places imaginable (Where is Cochabamba?) and thus presents a fascinating travelogue, his narrative is, most of all, the story of a young man who, cut off from the rest of the world, was forced to spend many years of his life in isolation and misery. Bolivia was the only option the Schwarz family had for a long time. Despite all fond memories of Vienna with its Kaisersemmeln and Torten, here he was, a young Jewish Gymnasium student, who had to leave his hometown abruptly when these "half and whole Nazis" took over his country. Bolivia was the only country that would admit the family and so they had no choice but to try to survive in a place that, as he writes, they approached in "hostile love and intimate estrangement."
While the bulk of the book is "plot," there's more to Schwarz' autobiography. It is indeed a unique piece of history and, although it provides entertainment, it does not conceal the author's frustrations and bitterness. "[…] as I wandered from place to place, job to job, and country to country, the roguish carefree guise I showed the world was actually a mask. As the turmoil of war began to settle across the globe, a storm was brewing inside me that finally broke and changed my life." This autobiography has a happy, almost fairy tale-like ending. Despite his "unorthodox education," Schwarz' dream of continuing his education in the United States came true. Bernhard Blume, then chair of the German department at Ohio State University, himself a refugee from Hitler's Germany and a rather unconventional scholar, provided him with that chance and paved the way toward what was to become a stellar career.
Egon Schwarz has dedicated the American version of his memoir to all his friends who either "cannot or will not read German." The reviewer, however, wishes to go at least one step further. This chronicle of a young man's flight from Hitler deserves a wide readership that goes well beyond the small circle of Germanists (and Austrianists for that matter). Ariadne Press is to be commended for publishing this book on the eve of the author's eightieth birthday.