Walking the walk with Alma Mahler

Today it is different. The steady war of propaganda avalanches loosed by press, radio and film makes it impossible for the thought to hear itself. It wavers, weakens and ends up in resignation. And the worst of it is that the evil is not confined to the "totalitarian" parts of Europe, but that it is spreading and infecting the intellectual life of all nations with a strange anarchy mixed of doubt, discontent and confusion.
That extract is from a lecture given in Paris by the the Czech writer Franz Werfel in 1937. The evil that Werfel spoke of forced him, together with his wife Alma, who is seen above, to flee Vienna a year later and follow an arduous path to freedom in California. For part of their journey they had to walk - with Alma carrying the autograph score of a Bruckner symphony - along the torturous path seen below.

The path is in the region of south-west France where the hills known as the Albères reach the Mediterranean. These hills are the eastern extension of the Pyrenees which form the border between France and Spain. This rough track connecting the coastal towns of Cerbère in France - visible in the distance - and Portbou in Spain was a favoured escape route for refugees in the early years of the Second World War, and today's overgrown path literally walks the walk with Alma Mahler along it.

Alma Mahler, famously described by Tom Lehrer as 'the loveliest girl in Vienna', had married her third husband Franz Werfel in 1929 after a long affair; they are seen above around the time of their wedding. She had been married to Gustav Mahler from 1902 until the composer's death. Alma then married the architect Walter Gropius in 1915 and divorced him five years later. The photo below was taken in Venice in 1920 and shows Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel with Alma's daughter by Walter Gropius, Manon - it was the death of Manon in 1935 that inspired Alban Berg's Violin Concerto. Franz Werfel was Jewish and he and Alma escaped from Austria to France after the Anschluss in 1938. When France surrendered to the Nazis in June 1940 the Werfels were in Paris and joined the exodus south into the unoccupied zone. In Marseille they were given American visas; but were unable to obtain French exit permits as they had been stripped of their nationalities by the Third Reich and did not have passports. They then made several unsuccessful attempts to escape from France, one of which took them to the Catholic pilgrimage centre of Lourdes. There Alma, who had been raised a Catholic, collected pamphlets and religious tracts telling the story of Bernadette Soubirous and the Marian visions. When Franz read the tracts he vowed that if they escaped to freedom he would write a tribute to the girl who became Saint Bernadette.

After they returned to Marseille the Werfels' escape was finally masterminded in July 1940 by Varian Fry. He was an American journalist and humanitarian who ran a privately funded rescue network that helped thousands of Jewish refugees and other fugitives to escape from Vichy France over the Pyrenees into Spain. Varian Fry deserves his own post: while at Harvard he published an influential literary magazine with New York Ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein, he interviewed Harvard alumnae and Nazi court composer Ernst Hanfstaengl in 1935, was one of the first to reveal the planned extermination of the Jews, and masterminded the escape from Vichy France of prominent figures including Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Wanda Landowska and André Breton. His role in saving key European intellectuals is being celebrated as part of the Marseille European Capital of Culture 2013 activities with the exhibition 'Varian Fry in Marseille: the culture of Europe in exile'. The escape group led by Fry in July 1940 comprised Thomas Mann's son Golo, and Mann's' brother Heinrich with his wife Nelly, as well as the Werfels. Alma and Franz are seen below in the Austrian Alps.

Alma's baggage filled twelve trunks and included several Mahler manuscripts, among them Das Lied von der Erde. In her diary Alma describes how "I was wearing sandals, and lugged along a bag containing the rest of the money and jewellery and the score of Bruckner's Third Symphony." In fact the score comprised only the first three movements of the symphony. When Bruckner died the autograph score of the Third Symphony was donated to the Hofbibliothek in Vienna, but was found to comprise just the Finale. This was because the composer had given the other movements to Gustav Mahler, either to make a two-piano transcription or as a reward for having made the reduction. Alma discovered the score among Mahler's papers after his death and it became one of her most treasured possessions. After Alma married Franz Werfel the manuscript was displayed in their house in Vienna where it came to the attention of Hitler. The Führer, who was an ardent Brucknerian, offered to buy it. But the manuscript was smuggled out of Vienna after the Werfels fled, and was reunited with Alma in Paris. That is Alma below walking in the countryside in happier times.

Led by Varian Fry, Alma, together with her priceless baggage and companions, travelled by train from Marseille via Perpignan (where Pablo Casals held his first Casals Festival ten years later) to Cerbère; but they could not cross the border by train as they did not have exit visas. After spending the night in Cerbère, Varian Fry, who as an American citizen did have an exit visa, continued on the train with Alma's twelve trunks to Portbou in Spain. A guide then led Alma - cutching her bag containing the Bruckner manuscript - and the other four refugees along the steep path over the Albères hills into Spain to avoid the border patrols. After successfully crossing into Spain the Werfels travelled to Barcelona and on to Lisbon where they boarded a ship for America. They eventually settled in Hollywood where Franz Werfel wrote his novel The Song of Bernadette inspired by the material Alma had collected in Lourdes, and the subsequent film adaption was a huge box office hit. Franz Werfel did not convert to Catholicism, but The Song of Bernadette is considered a classic of Catholic literature. The Werfels are seen together in their Californian home in the photo below. Franz died in 1945 and Alma lived to 1964.

At this point it would be easy to leave the Werfel's in comfortable exile in California. The story of their escape is moving, but it is one that any writer with a good research library and internet access could have told. When I finished my version of their story some time ago the narrative seemed too monochrome and, in common with so much online writing, lacked any real experiential substance. So I set the post aside until I was able to travel to Languedoc with my wife, to literally retrace Alma Mahler's footsteps. It seemed unlikely that the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek would let me take the now complete autograph score of Bruckner's Third Symphony - an impecunious Alma sold her manuscript to them in 1948 following Franz Werfel's death - in my daypack; so I compromised with a recording of the work on my iPod. In fact I travelled to Languedoc twice because, as recounted here previously, my first trip ended in a peritonitis induced near-death experience - which just proves some music bloggers will do anything for a good story. But there were no such complications on my second visit, and our journey produced the photo journal below. So here, in colour rather than black and white, is a contemporary reconstruction of Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel's trek to freedom.

Above is the view of the town of Cerbère (Cervera in Catalan) that Alma and Franz would have seen when they arrived by train from Marseille. At the time Cerbère and Portbou on the Spanish side of the border were major transport hubs, with much of the cross-border traffic passing through them. But the decline of the railways and the building of the E15 motorway inland means they are now ghost towns.

This is the view looking towards Spain from Cerbère station. The tunnel is the one that Varian Fry's train would have travelled through to Portbou, while Alma and Franz had to climb over the Albères hills above it to reach freedom.

After climbing the hill this is the view that Alma and Franz would have seen looking back towards Cerbère station where the previous photo was taken.

This is the border crossing between France and Spain that the refugees had to avoid - the checkpoint has been disused since the creation of the borderless Schengen area in 1995.

As Alma and Franz did not have exit visas and the area was patrolled by Vichy sympathisers, the refugees had to avoid the check-point by taking the path over the hill above it, this is the view down to the border crossing.

I try to avoid using photographs of myself, but this one is included to prove that I walk the walk as well as talking the talk. Alma Mahler was 61 when she walked the walk, which was two years younger than me. But I had the advantage over Alma of Gore-Tex walking boots instead of sandals!

On the Spanish side of the border is this memorial to the Spanish Republican refugees who perished crossing the frontier in the opposite direction during the 1939 La retirada (retreat) from Franco's forces. Their story is told in Postcards from a forgotten concentration camp.

In the background of this view of the Spanish frontier town of Portbou is the descent which Alma and Franz followed. My final photo shows Portbou station where Alma and Franz took the train to Barcelona and on to fame and fortune in America. The Werfels trek across the Albères had a happy ending, as did mine at the second attempt. But others were less fortunate, and another post tells of how, just two months after the Werfels passed through Portbou, another refugee - the German-Jewish writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin - took his own life in the town.

* Sources include
- Franz Werfel, A Life in Prague, Vienna and Hollywood by Peter Stephan Jungk (Fromm ISBN 0880641304)
- A Hero of Our Own, the Story of Varian Fry by Sheila Isenberg (Randon House ISBN 0375502211
- Alma Mahler, Muse to Genius by Karen Monson (Collins ISBN 0002163152)
- The New Bruckner: Compositional Developments and the Dynamics of Revision by Dermot Gault (ISBN: 9781409400912)
- Love and War in the Pyrenees by Rosemary Bailey (Phoenix ISBN 9780753825914)

Originally posted On An Overgrown Path in May 2013. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


Andrew Morris said…
This is fascinating. I have, coincidentally, recently read Justus Rosenberg's autobiography, The Art of Resistance, published at the beginning of the year. Prof Rosenberg is now 99, but in his 20s, he worked with Varian Fry and his Emergency Rescue Committee. In the book, he describes (fairly briefly) trekking across the Pyrenees with the Werfels. He is, incidentally, uncomplimentary about Fry, whose post-war reputation he and others seem to have viewed as overblown. Its all round a dramatic and very worthwhile book. I will be posting a review on my other blog, holocaustreader.com, as soon as I actually get it finished.

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