Zeugen der Vergangenheit: H. G. Adler-Franz Baermann; Steiner Briefwechsel 1936-1952 ed. by Carol Tully
Thanks to recent centennials of their births, H. G. (Hans Günther) Adler (1910-1988) and Franz Baermann Steiner (1909-1952) are receiving overdue scholarly attention—especially Adler, as a recent special issue of Monatshefte (103/2, 2011) attests. Carol Tully's volume of the Adler-Steiner correspondence, compiled from the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach with the permission of Adler's son and executor Jeremy Adler, joins the new editions of novels, poetry cycles, essays, documentations, and now biographical treatments of both men, such as Franz Hocheneder's H. G. Adler (1910-1988). Privatgelehrter und freier Schriftsteller (2009) and Ulrich van Loyen's Franz Baermann Steiner. Exil und Verwandlung (2011).
Tully's 23-page foreword introduces the correspondents, while her 77 pages of annotations clarify intellectual figures and mutual acquaintances. Both are extremely helpful, and the final two pages of the book offer an up-to-date bibliography. Most of the volume's 221 letters, postcards, and telegrams are Adler's. Letters in Czech are translated into German, but the few short notes in English from Steiner remain in the original. [End Page 109]
Friends since childhood, both men attended Prague's German University. Although Adler pursued musicology and Steiner ethnology and Oriental studies, both were conversant in philosophy, art history, literary criticism, psychology, and history. Steiner is studying in London when the correspondence begins, but only one of his prewar letters to Adler is preserved. For that reason, we get to know Steiner much better following the war's six-yearlong interruption. Another lapse comes after Steiner's coronary thrombosis in 1949, which prevents his response to more than two dozen of Adler's concerned and encouraging letters between August 17 and November 28.
"Zeugen der Vergangenheit" is an appropriate title for two Jewish Czech writers in English exile writing in German to examine their identity in the shadow of profound loss. Adler reports on his visits, both as friend and "deputy son" on Steiner's behalf, to Steiner's parents in Prague and following their deportation to Theresienstadt, where both perish. Adler himself is briefly transferred in October 1944 to Auschwitz, then to Niederorschel and Langenstein-Zweiberge, which is liberated by the Americans in 1945. The grief of losing his entire family, including his first wife and her mother upon arrival in Auschwitz, is behind Adler's determination to bear witness, only one expression of which is his monumental documentation Theresienstadt 1941-1 945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft (1955).
A bureaucracy reminiscent of Kafka's Prozess welcomes Adler back to Prague. A letter of July 30, 1945, reveals: "Ich bin gesund, aber meine Nerven, Nerven—Ich empfinde Leere und unglaubliche Traurigkeit. Menschen fühlen sich weit entfernt an, ich fürchte mich vor der Einsamkeit, und trotzdem wird mir in Gesellschaft anderer Menschen unwohl. Ihr alle, die Ihr zum Glück all das nicht erlebt habt, könnt Euch unmöglich vorstellen, was uns tatsächlich geschehen ist" (71). He claims not to have changed fundamentally as a result, except that doing without warm clothing, cigarettes, real tea, or books (thinking he had perished, his friend Rosenkranz sold them) has made him desperate. Adler pleads for Steiner to help find him connections and a position—anywhere except the United States. This kind of a letter, detailing life far away from the safety of Oxford, accounts for Steiner's complaint in a letter to Elias Canetti of August 24, 1945, about "allerlei Ideologisches und Halbpolitisches" (12) in Adler's letters. Whether it shows ideology or emotional straightforwardness, Adler's honesty is difficult for Steiner to match.
As Tully notes, Adler's request that Steiner be his best man in his wedding to Bettina Gross in Wales in the spring of 1947 expresses hope that the [End Page 110] friend from his youth, whom he has not seen in eleven years, can provide a continuity that compensates somewhat for the loss of family and friends, books, manuscripts, photographs, and Heimat. Now, with Steiner in Oxford, Adler's letters from London (August 1949 to November 1952) almost always begin by advising Steiner not to work so hard. London is not kind to Bettina's health either, and we never read anything about his son Jeremy. Despite his slow recovery, Steiner shows high spirits from his relationship with Iris Murdoch, from his new lectureship in Oxford, and from grand plans for ethnological tours. In one remarkably long and upbeat letter from a tour of Spain, Steiner raves about his suntan and how refreshing Spaniards are.
The two men are constructive critics for each other. Adler is enthralled with Steiner's Eroberungen poems, pressing Steiner to finish them for publication: "Sie haben in der deutschen Dichtung nicht Ihresgleichen" (140). There is admiration for Kafka's works, and Adler borrows every volume of Schelling he can from Steiner. We witness the start of the Adorno-Adler correspondence on musical aesthetics. Increasingly, Adler comments on bbc music recordings, while he himself procures radio lectures slowly as his English improves. Besides comments on frequent houseguests such as Suse (Sattler) Tieze, there is talk of Elias and Veza Canetti, Wilhelm Unger, Charles Odic, Hans Oplatka, Hermann Grab, Emil Vogl, Hermann Broch, and Max Brod.
This volume is indispensable because it addresses unflinchingly the hardships of Central European exiles in the years leading up to, during, and after the war. Specifically, it introduces readers to two multitalented intellectuals who find their refuge in books while generating a testimony through their thoughtful letters and the enormous literary output to which the letters refer.