Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Franz Werfel and ‘The Song of Bernadette’

In the summer of 1940, while attempting to escape Occupied Europe the Austrian Jewish writer Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Werfel (née Schindler, formerly Mahler) took refuge in the Christian pilgrimage town of Lourdes in the French Pyrenees, apparently staying in rooms in the 'Hotel du Louvre' (seen here).

While in Lourdes, Franz Werfel researched the story of a Lourdaise, Bernadette Soubirous, which he later used for his novel "The Song of Bernadette" published in 1942. In 1943, "The Song of Bernadette" was made into a film by Twentieth Century Fox and won four Oscars - one of them being the Best Actress Award for Jennifer Jones.

(For Further information click on 'Comments' below)


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

At the time of the Anschluss between Germany and Austria in 1938, whereby Austria became part of the Nazi-controlled German Third Reich, many people opposed to the incoming regime left the country and settled elsewhere. Among these were the Prague-born Austrian writer and poet Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Werfel (née Schindler, formerly Mahler) then living in Vienna. Although the Werfels may have been described as ‘worldly’, they belonged to the Jewish faith and thus would have been in great danger if they had remained in their homeland. The Werfels settled in the French capital of Paris where they remained during the early months of World War Two.

By June 1940 the Nazi armies were rapidly advancing through northern France after the British Expeditionary Force and much of the French army had been evacuated from the beaches around Dunkirk. Once again Franz and Alma Werfel were in great danger were they to find themselves under Nazi rule in Occupied France. Hence, the Werfels, without passports or travel documents, joined many thousands other refugees in attempting to escape to south western France close to the Spanish frontier and safety in a neutral country.

Finding themselves unable to obtain travel documents to cross the border to Spain or Portugal, the Werfels found themselves in Pau where they learned they might find sanctuary for a time at another French Pyrenean town - Lourdes. At that time Lourdes was, and still is, most famous as a place of Catholic pilgrimage following apparitions and the discovery of an apparently miraculous spring in a Grotto by Bernadette Soubirous (St. Bernadette), a young "Lourdaise", in 1858. It was at Lourdes that Franz Werfel wrote one of his most well-known works: "The Song of Bernadette" (in German: "Das Lied von Bernadette").

During a visit to the area in 2007 I made some enquiries about the time the Werfels were in Lourdes during the summer of 1940 and was told that they had stayed in rooms at the rear of the 'Hotel du Louvre', rue de la Grotte. This street leads from the town centre to the Grotto where Bernadette Soubirous discovered the spring. This particular hotel is approximately halfway down the street.

Although not a Catholic, nor even a Christian, but a Jew, Franz Werfel researched the story of Bernadette Soubirous during his stay in the town. He went to the Grotto each day to drink water from the spring. During this time of great distress, Franz Werfel made a vow to write about Bernadette, which he explains in the Preface to the book he eventually wrote:

"One day in my great distress I made a vow. I vowed that if I escaped from this desperate situation and reached the saving shores of America, I would put off all other tasks and sing, as best I could, the song of Bernadette".

In August 1940 Franz and Alma Werfel travelled from Lourdes to Marseille. There, they met Varian Fry, a Quaker, who was in Marseille with a mission to assist prominent anti-Nazi Europeans to escape. Eventually, the Werfels crossed the Pyrenees on foot from France into Spain by the high passes, apparently assisted by a little money hidden away by Alma Werfel in her clothing. They were now free of the Nazi Occupation and made it to America, firstly to New York and then to California.

Franz Werfel's novel, "The Song of Bernadette" first appeared in print in May 1942. By this time the United States was also involved in the war on the side of the Allies. The following year, "The Song of Bernadette" was made into a film by Twentieth Century Fox. It starred Jennifer Jones in the role of Bernadette, for which she won an Academy Award. Other members of the cast in the 1943 film were William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb and Gladys Cooper. The film "The Song of Bernadette" won a total of four Academy Awards, although not the 'Best Film' Category (which went to "Casablanca").

Franz Werfel passed away in 1945 at Beverly Hills, California. His wife Alma Werfel, who was also the widow of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, continued to live in the United States, living mainly in New York until 1964. Alma Werfel had a very 'colourful' life in her own right, and in her younger days had been regarded by some as "the world's most beautiful woman". The almost-miraculous story of how the Werfels escaped Occupied Europe during the Second World War and the origins of Franz Werfel's "The Song of Bernadette" is an intersting one in its own right. It would make a good subject for even further documentary research. I hope anyone reading this article may find it of interest, dealing as it does with the origins of one of the best-known films of American and world cinema.

Further reading:

Jugk, Peter Stehan (1989), "Franz Werfel: The Story of a Life", Grove Press, New York

Werfel, Franz (1989), "The Song of Bernadette" (English Translation), St Martin's Press, New York

Wednesday, 26 September, 2007  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Joseph -
Very interesting.....
I recall that movie very well and the part of the parish priest played by the incredulous Charles Bickford - when he was questioning the " superstitious and badly educated" Bernadette- he asked" and how do you know that this is the Virgin Mary" ?

Answered Bernadette "she said she is the Immaculate Conception"....this answer floored the PP and he was shocked that an ignorant peasant girl would have known of the recently promulgated encyclical of Pope Pius 1X of 1854 defining the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception which had been already made known by an encyclical of Pope Sixtus 1V in 1476 although not as a Dogma of faith, that being so - the apparitions must have claimed that title !

Many people - including Catholics - are confused by this Dogma and think it's to do with the Virgin Birth of Jesus - not so - as the womb bearing the Christ must be pure and free from Original sin and therefore the conception, the result of sexual intercourse by Anne and Joachim of Mary is the true "Immaculate Conception"

The fact that Franz Werfel did so much to spread this song and
movie is not too surprising inasmuch as the parents of Mary and her son Jesus were themselves Jewish and living in the times of the Old Testament.

We celebrate the anniversary of Mary's mother each 26th July as a double, second class Mass which I note is also the anniversary of the Ordination of one of my cousins to the priesthood from Blairs College Seminary at Aberdeen in the same day of 1943 who recently died in Edinburgh as a retired Canon of that Diocese.

One of the psalms in that Mass of St Anne is - 'Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum; dico ego opera mea regi ' - 'My heart overflows with good tidings; I sing my song to the King'

Thursday, 27 September, 2007  

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