Tag Archives: Anschluss

#germanlitmonth 2016 – Robert Seethaler: The Tobacconist

The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant) is after A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) the second novel by Robert Seethaler that was published in English translation. I read it in the original German, therefore my review cannot do justice to the English translation.

The year is 1937. Franz Huchel, the main character of the book, is a 17-year-old from the Austrian countryside, who grows up as a single child of a single mother. At the beginning of the book, Franz is very much a protected child, a namby-pamby, but after the unexpected death of his mother’s wealthy lover, the days of dreaming are over: he is sent to Vienna for work. His employer, Otto Trsnjek, is also a former lover of his mother from pre-WWI days, and is running a trafik, a shop where people can buy tobacco, newspapers, stationery. Otto Trsnjek lost a leg in the war and with his shop he is a well-known presence in the neighborhood; he is teaching Franz how to properly read and understand the newspapers, but also the psychology of the different customers of the shop, and the characteristics of the different varieties of cigars they are selling (although none of the two is a smoker); and a few lessons about life in general. Otto’s tobacco shop becomes the new home of Franz, and it is from there where he learns to adapt to the big city.

With his mother Franz stays in touch via the picture postcards they are writing each other; it is from these postcards his mother learns about the major changes in Franz’ life: Franz falls in love with Anezka, a girl from Bohemia, and he gets acquainted with an old gentleman who is a regular customer of the tobacco shop: Sigmund Freud who is living nearby in the Berggasse, is buying cigars from Otto Trsnjek.

While the buxom Anezka with the charming tooth gap is awakening Franz’ sexuality and lust, the professor, who is taken in by the persistence with which the simple country boy is asking him for advice regarding his sorrows related to love and lust, is reassuring Franz. The frailness of the old professor, his fight with old age and the illness from which he is suffering since many years – the permanent pain and the problems with his jaw prosthesis are a recurring theme -, but also his frankness about how little he actually knows about the human psyche, impress Franz very much and the moment when the professor teaches him how to enjoy the smoking of a cigar on a park bench belong for sure to Franz’ most happy moments.

What would be in other times a normal coming-of-age story gets a twist because of the political events that are taking place in Austria at the time the story of Franz unwinds: 1938 is the year of the “Anschluss”, Austria is uniting with Nazi Germany, a development that is changing things forever in the lives of many people. Professor Freud is emigrating in the last moment (thanks to the organizational skills of his daughter Anna), socialists and other leftists are arrested or forced into suicide, and the tobacco shop is vandalized, and finally Otto Trsnjek is arrested by the Gestapo, a development that is seen by some neighbors with obvious glee, particularly by the rather disgusting butcher from next door, a sadistic figure as if from a play by Ödön von Horvath.

And Franz? He is still in doubt about Anezka, who appears and disappears without note on various occasions, and who displays her naked body in a “Varieté” (a kind of music hall), finally starting a relationship with a young SS officer for whom she is deserting Franz. When Franz is arrested in the tobacco shop which he is running after Otto’s death in the hands of the Gestapo, he locks the doors of the trafik because “you never know”. But when Anezka passes by the shop in March 1945, briefly before a major bombing raid, all that is left from the previous tobacco shop are some chairs and a note on which Franz had noted a dream he had, a habit he developed after Freud convinced him of the usefulness of this practice. Obviously, Franz never came back after his arrest, and it is easy to guess why.

Did I like the book? Yes, very much! There are a number of reasons for this. Seethaler writes a beautiful, elegant, effortless prose, and I hope that also the English translation will give a good idea of his stylistic abilities. As a professional actor (you can see him here in the movie Youth), Seethaler has obviously a good ear for dialogues and for the individual way of expression of each of his characters. He succeeds with very simple means to give the reader a clear indication about how each of the major figures in the book is speaking. Anezka for example comes from Bohemia, a region whose people were famous for their problems with the German umlauts, and a very few examples are already enough to have her voice practically in your ear. Another beautiful element are the postcards between Franz and his mother which in the beginning are full of platitudes but which develop into a real correspondence parallel to the process of Franz’ intellectual and sensual awakening. The atmosphere of the growing paranoia after the Anschluss, the outbursts of personal violence and sadism on a large scale of otherwise “normal” citizens that was without precedence even in Nazi Germany; the seemingly im-probable and “impossible” friendship between the simple Franz and the sophisticated Professor Freud; and the fine characterization of the inhabitants of Vienna – all this made me enjoy the book.

Franz is a hero in the typical German tradition of the simple, good-hearted, noble fool (“reiner Tor”); but contrary to Eichendorff’s Good-for-Nothing, The Tobacconist has no ending in which “everything, everything was delightful” – the exact opposite is true in this case. A Happy End is not possible in the time of Nazism.

It was particularly interesting for me to read this book for this year’s German Literature Month after I reviewed last year The Tortoises by Veza Canetti, a work that covers the same period in Vienna. Considering the recent very strong support of right-wing extremists by the voters of those political forces in Austria who represent the ugly side of the Austrian national character in the latest elections in the country, the book had also sometimes a chilling effect on me. The mentality that showed its ugly face after the Anschluss in 1938 is still existing and very widespread in Austrian society; however, the wave of successful political movements which are based on hatred of certain groups within a society is unfortunately not limited to Austria alone these days.



Robert Seethaler: Der Trafikant, Kein & Aber, Zürich 2012; The Tobacconist, Picador 2016, translated by Charlotte Collins


(This review is part of the German Literature Month, again hosted by my two blogger colleagues Caroline@beautyandthecat, and Lizzy@lizzysiddal, who are doing a great job promoting German literature in translation since years.)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


The Tortoises


This blog post is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Austria 1938. Andreas Kain, a renowned writer and his wife Eva, live in a beautiful villa just outside Vienna. What could be a normal and fulfilled life in the “loveliest city of Central Europe” turns for Kain, Eva, and Werner – Kain’s brother with whom he has a loving but nevertheless troubled relationship – into a nightmare: it is the time of the Anschluss, the Nazis are triumphing also in Austria, and for Jews like the three main characters of Veza Canetti’s novel The Tortoises (Die Schildkröten) a time of growing humiliations and deadly dangers has begun. The bank accounts of the Jews are frozen, those among them who have a regular job are dismissed, and the homes and furniture of Jewish households are being “requisitioned”. And that will be just the beginning.

While Kain and Eva have to leave their home, they have nowhere to go and visas are getting unattainable. Hilde, a Jewish girl from the neighborhood, tries to find a rather grotesque way out of this situation: with her father’s money and her charms for whom one of the new Nazi neighbors falls, she intends to hire or even buy a private airplane with which the whole group could possibly leave Austria (illegally), a project that is obviously doomed from the very beginning.

The Tortoises is a brilliant novel. Not only because of Veza Canetti’s ability to describe her own ordeal – the book is autobiographical – in an elegant, beautiful prose (well translated by Ian Mitchell). If you ever asked yourself how it was possible that the Nazis took hold of the big majority of Germans and Austrians within such a short time and how – at least on the surface – normal and otherwise decent people turned into Nazis or willing followers seemingly out of the blue then you should read this book. It gives a haunting description of the paranoid atmosphere in Vienna after the Anschluss.

Veza Canetti’s language is Viennese – elegant and always slightly ironic. The plays of Johann Nestroy, the prose of Arthur Schnitzler, the satiric furor of Karl Kraus, they all resonate in her writing. And she can write exceptionally well dialogues that sound as if they come directly from a Volksstück of Ödön von Horvath. The Nazis are ridiculous and pathetic figures; the name of the main villain in the book is Pilz (=mushroom), and this gives Frau Wlk (whose Czech name means “wolf”), the cleaner, an opportunity to denigrate this man but at the same time we readers get an insight in the mentality of even good-natured people like the landlady who is suddenly impressed by the Nazis:

“His name is Pilz-Mushroom! Toadstool, Mould, Fungus, Frau Wlk goes through all the variations. He lives down there where she lives, he’s a brownshirt, a bigwig, because he has a low number. Having a low number means he was one of the very first to be in the National Socialist Party….It seems that this low number exudes a fascinating effect. Because Frau Wlk was complaining. Even the landlady, here in this house, who is so kind, for whom she cleans the house, even she has been taken in. She who, after all, goes to church every Sunday. Who puts her last penny into the collection box to pay for a new figure of the Holy Virgin. Here in this house, the right atmosphere reigns to corrupt the landlady. The Mushroom came up and immediately won her over. And, simply because he has promised her South Tyrol, the landlady, who is so persnickety, is letting him move in here.”

Another “horvathesque” element are the dialogues between Pilz and Kain and his wife – on the surface polite (“Herr Ingenieur!” “Herr Doktor!”) and considering the changed circumstances even funny – but there can be no doubt that the new rulers will ruthlessly execute their program of extermination of the weak and of the “inferior” races, particularly the Jews.

While this is at least in the first days after the Anschluss not yet visible in the bourgeois villa neighborhood where Kain – the name is alluding not only to the biblical Kain but also to Peter Kien, the main character of Elias Canetti’s novel Auto-da-fé – and Eva are living, the open brutality of the new regime is evident from the very beginning in less privileged areas of the city. But also in the villa suburb, the signs are clear: a sparrow, and later a dog are killed by one of the new Nazis in front of a group of children to “teach” them that the weak and the useless have to be wiped out mercilessly. And the tortoises to which the title of the novel is referring, are branded with a swastika by another Nazi and sold as souvenirs, but some of them can be saved by the good-hearted Andreas Kain. As Schopenhauer says in The Basis of Morality

“Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”

The novel is also a book about the relationship between the brothers Andreas and Werner, and is mirroring the relationship between Elias Canetti, Veza’s husband, and his brother Georges. In this respect it is not only interesting to read Elias Canetti’s autobiography (which mentions Veza’s great importance for Elias Canetti’s intellectual development, but doesn’t say a word about the fact that Canetti’s first wife was an exceptional author in her own right), but also the correspondence between Elias, Georges, and Veza Canetti that was published a few years ago.

The Tortoises was completed after the Canettis could escape to England in the very last moment, but never published during Veza’s lifetime. She published very little during her life and in a bout of depression destroyed the manuscripts of most of her unpublished works. During the last years of Elias Canetti’s life, he published/re-published her remaining works. Veza Canetti is one of the greatest prose writers of the 20th century in German language. It is high time to discover her.  


Veza Canetti: The Tortoises, translated by Ian Mitchell, New Directions Books, New York 2001; Die Schildkröten, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 1999

Veza Canetti / Elias Canetti: “Dearest Georg!”: Love, Literature, and Power in Dark Times, The Letters of Elias, Veza, and Georges Canetti, 1933-1948, translated by David Dollenmayer, Other Press, New York 2010; Briefe an Georges, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2006

For German speakers I recommend also the performance “Der Herr Karl” by Helmut Qualtinger, a truly revealing portrait of a (fictional) Nazi follower in Vienna – where until today a considerable part of the population views itself – quite in contrast to the overwhelming and frenetic support of the biggest part of the Austrian population for the Nazis after the Anschluss – as “the first victims of the Nazis”.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


A Belated Echo

Josef Burg, born 1912 in Wyschnyzja, a small town in the Bukovina, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now belonging to the Ukraine, reached an almost biblical age. He died 2009 at the age of 97 years in the nearby town of Tschernowzy (Czernowitz).

Czernowitz, his home for most of his life, once housed a vibrant German-speaking Jewish community. Czernowitz not only had one of the best universities in Austria-Hungary and an excellent German theater, it had also dozens of newspapers and literary journals. It was, according to the poet Paul Celan who was born there, a place where people and books lived. It is therefore not surprising that Czernowitz was also the home of important German poets like Celan himself, Rose Ausländer, Immanuel Weissglas, Alfred Gong, and several others.

Josef Burg was one of the last of this generation of authors. But contrary to the above mentioned poets, Burg wrote mainly prose – and he wrote exclusively in Yiddish, not German. Yiddish, the traditional language of Eastern European Jews is derived from Medieval German (Mittelhochdeutsch) but has absorbed many Hebrew, Slav, and recently English words. By the educated Western European but also by most Zionist Jews, Yiddish was considered as ‘jargon’, a ‘wrong’ German, a dialect of the uneducated and backward people from the ghettos of Eastern Europe. But this point of view doesn’t do justice to this language – it is rich, colorful, even juicy, and it has produced many eminent writers and an extremely interesting literature. Josef Burg was one of the last authors to write in this language.

In one of his short stories A loschn beazmoj (A language of its own), Burg is describing the surprising reactions of his environment towards Yiddish: as a student in Vienna just before the Anschluss in 1938, he is witnessing how a Jewish student from the East is earning verbal abuse and even open hatred from his Jewish colleagues from Vienna – just because he is addressing them in his native language (which for sure all of his colleagues at least understood).

A short time later the narrator is congratulated by his professor for his excellent German. When the professor asks the foreign student what his native language is, he answers: “Yiddish, Herr Professor!”. The professor, probably a conservative Austrian aristocrat reacts not like the student expects:

I remark that he wants to say something. Maybe the hackneyed “Yiddish is spoilt German”. But he looks at me vividly. Warmth and a certain hesitation are in his gaze. And he says something unexpected. Simple, pure and full of expression: “Yiddish, young friend, is a language of its own.”

(Ich bamerk, as er grejt sich epess sogn. Efscher doss ojssgedroschene “Jidisch is a fardorbn dajtsch!”. Nor er kukt af mir zudringlich. Sein blik is erwoss farzojgn un warem. Un er tut umgericht a sog. Poscher, rejn un saftik: – Jidisch, junger frajnt, is a loschn beazmoj!)

The stories in Josef Burg’s collection of stories A farschpertikter echo (A belated echo) are grouped in three thematic chapters. One is consisting of childhood memories from his poor shtetl and its lumberjacks and rafters. The second deals with the life of the survivors and their attempts to find back to some kind of normality, which for most of them is impossible (Burg for example was the only surviving family member – he lost 50 relatives in the holocaust). And the third is focusing on the time of the persecution.

All of these stories leave a strong impression on the reader. That is partly because of the backdrop of these stories: the genocide. But it is also because of the art of Josef Burg. He leaves everything superficial out and is concentrating on the essential: the fate of the people he is describing, their hopes and fears, their rare joys and frequent sorrows.

In jene teg (In those days) is a good example. On five pages only, Burg is describing the fate of a man he knew in Vienna in 1938. The crippled Galician Jew is like the narrator a regular guest in the Cafe Central, a popular meeting point of intellectuals, writers and artists. The man with the hunchback is one of these luftmentschn that are such a familiar view in many Yiddish stories: someone with an unidentifiable profession (this one seems to be a photographer and a poet, but it is doubtful how he can survive from this almost non-existing income), origin and future, living on the edge of destitution.

The friendly and very modest behavior of this Quasimodo make the narrator curious and he is finally befriending this man. But he is too shy and modest to recite his own poems, as much as the narrator insists. After the Anschluss and the introduction of the “racial” laws in Austria, the Cafe Central has closed its doors for the Jews and on a last occasion before the narrator leaves Austria (he is a foreigner and therefore lucky to find a way out of the mousetrap which Vienna has become for local Jews), he is meeting his friend a last time and his friend is finally giving him a notebook with his poems:

“You wanted my poems? Here you are…Maybe they prove to be useful for you…for sure not for me anymore.”

(“ir hot gewolt majne lider?…Ot hot ir sej…Efscher wet ir sej kenen ojssnuzn…Ich – schojn sicher nit.”)

Some years later, the narrator learns about the fate of his friend from another emigrant: the poet was hiding in a chest, but found while sleeping by the SS. They buried him alive. The manuscript with the poems is handed over to a Jewish publisher in Prague who is later also to become a victim of the Nazis. The notebook is lost without a trace.

“Maybe one day you will remember me!”

(“Efscher wet ir amol mich dermonen!”)

Josef Burg remembered him. And we need to be grateful for this work of a great writer.



Josef Burg: A фаршпэтиктэр эхо: дэрцейлунген, новелес, фарцейхенунген, Sovetskij pisatel, Moscow 1990

Josef Burg:  A farschpetikter echo / Ein verspätetes Echo, P. Kirchheim, München 1999

Translations from Yiddish to English in this blog by Thomas Hübner


© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.