Stefan Zweig Biography: Chapter Eight - The Writer's Exile
Zweig wanted desperately to start a new life in England. His status as an enemy alien, however, affected him greatly. He was asked to do several radio interviews and he agreed, though reluctantly. He also performed the sad duty of speaking at his friend, Sigmund Freud’s, funeral. Freud’s death hit Stefan hard, and Freud was one of the last of Stefan’s teachers to die. Stefan had already spoken at the funerals of both Rainer Maria Rilke, and Hugo Hofmannsthal.
Zweig rallied, however, and attempted to revive aspects of his old life. He toured Britain and France, giving speeches, and worked on his writing as much as he could. Although it lifted his spirits a bit, Stefan’s life was continually darkened by the Nazi plague that spread across Europe. His conversations and letters spoke of the Nazis often, and it was rare that he could find any good news on many of his missing friends and acquaintances. Some, he found, escaped the claws of Nazi Germany, but many were missing, or they had died under mysterious circumstances. Zweig often fell into increasingly longer bouts of depression, especially when the Nazis began to encroach upon Paris.
In mid-1940, Stefan and his new wife, Lotte, left England behind. They fled as the Nazis invaded France, an event that the Zweigs had long feared. They left most of their belongings behind, in the ragged hope that they could return one day to retrieve them. They went to the United States, and stayed in New York City. Though they had escaped again, Zweig could not help but fear for his friend, and ex-wife, Friderike. She was trapped in France, as German forces swarmed all around her. Friderike and her daughters, along with her daughters’ husbands, managed to escape to the south of France. Stefan secured all of them passports for the United States. He could do little for those of his friends still trapped in Nazi Europe, but he did save Friderike.
Stefan was part of a wave of writers and artists who flooded into the Americas, as the Nazis threatened to conquer all of Europe. He spent some time with a few of his old acquaintances, before leaving with Lotte to travel to their new home: Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. It would be the last place they would call home.
Stefan and Lotte settled in Rio in 1941, but without the fanfare and entourage that he had enjoyed during his first visit to South America. He wanted peace and quiet, and he wanted to work in relative seclusion. Lotte, ever his secretary, as well as his wife, was the only one welcomed to join him. She had carried her typewriter with her from England, and prepared to transcribe Stefan’s purple-inked manuscripts.
Zweig was still a great celebrity, however, and could not escape the duties of that celebrity. South America was home to a host of refugees, not to mention Spanish and Portuguese-speaking fans, and Zweig again agreed to tour. He spoke at dozens of gatherings and lecture halls, and the tickets were always sold out. Though he had never been a masthead of Jewish pride, he was asked to speak at many gatherings of disaffected and exiled Jews, as well.
After resting just a few weeks, the Zweigs again traveled to New York. By chance, he and Lotte met Friderike at the consulate, just as Friderike entered the country. Stefan’s brother, Alfred, who had already settled permanently in New York, accompanied him. The meeting brought relief, as Stefan realized that Friderike was finally safe, and in country. The meeting also, however, sealed the enmity between Alfred and Friderike. Stefan’s brother continued to see her as a predator who continued to soak his brother for emotional and financial support, despite their divorce.
During this visit to New York, Stefan helped as many friends and colleagues as he could. He was constantly barraged by letters and entreaties to help, in one way or another, usually financial. He did what he could, but had to pull back before he was drowned by the needy refugees that poured in from Europe in waves.
A curious fact to those who knew him at the time, Stefan almost never advanced his own writing agenda during this last trip to New York. He sought out no publishing houses, and he did not refer to his own work. Many of his friends reported that Stefan seemed unusually depressed. He mentioned to many of his friends, in private, his belief that he would no longer see joy in his life, as he approached his 60th birthday.
Stefan and Lotte returned to Brazil toward the end of 1941. The two settled in a rented house in Petropolis, and Zweig began to work again. Strangely enough, though, he had left Lotte’s typewriter in New York, a gift to a friend. Lotte had written many letters during this time, expressing her concern as Stefan sank into bouts of depression. She seemed to regard the return to Brazil with hope, however. Stefan toured various libraries, and had seemed to reengage with his old writing life to some degree. She even mentioned that he seemed happier, more like his old self.
Stefan finished one more novella during this time, Chess Story, and made final edits to his memoir, The World of Yesterday. World War II escalated, adding the United States to the fray, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. It seemed that the entire planet would soon become embroiled in the conflict. The Zweigs wondered how long it would be before South America was also drawn into the fight. Where else could they go to escape the evils of the Nazi Empire?
In February of 1942, a flurry of letters from the Zweigs arrived at various destinations. Stefan and Lotte had written to nearly all of their friends and family that they could find. They put all of their affairs in order, leaving nothing to chance. Provisions were made to tie up nearly every loose end they could think of, and they made certain that everyone understood their final wishes. Stefan also sent the final version of his last novellas out to the publishers, including the typed copy of his memoirs. His last notes were written on the inscription page, and on the final page of the book. In true Zweig fashion, the notes were written in large script, and in purple ink.
Stefan and Lotte Zweig were found dead on Monday, February 23rd, 1942. They lay together in bed, their hands clasped. Lotte was dressed in a silk kimono, and Stefan had donned one of his impeccable suits. An empty bottle of barbiturates sat on a nearby table. The great author was gone, and with him, his loyal wife.
The doctor noted that Lotte seemed to have died much later than Stefan, as her body was still warm. He could only speculate that she had performed what she considered her final duty to Stefan, arranging his body in a dignified manner, before she, too, took her own life.