The Tension Of A War To Come, As Seen From 'Exile'

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:38 pm

House of Exile by Evelyn Juers is a "collective biography" of the artists and intellectuals whose lives were uprooted, torn apart or annihilated by the Nazi regime. At the center of this unusual book are Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas Mann, author of Death in Venice) and his second wife, Nelly Kroeger-Mann. To an American reader, Heinrich is the lesser known Mann brother, though he was equally prolific — the author of novels and political essays on the pitfalls of both fascism and communism. Anticipating war soon after Hitler's election, Heinrich and Nelly (along with Thomas and his wife, Katia) fled Germany in 1933.

Though the first 100 pages of House of Exile, a whimsical summation of Heinrich and Thomas' childhood, would indicate a straightforward biography, the pith of the book is the remaining 300 pages — a detailed chronicle of the events that unfolded in Germany between 1933 and 1944. According to her "Note on Sources," Juers has consulted hundreds of diaries, letters, biographies and histories not only on the people who fill these pages, but on the idea of exile itself. In painstaking detail, day by day, even minute by minute, World War II unfolds.

While House of Exile is nonfiction, there are moments where Juers has embellished the facts, most likely based on information from diary entries. When we meet Bertold Brecht, he "turns up his collar, pulls down his cap." On Sunday, Nov. 3, 1935, Juers tells us, "Thomas purred as he drank a cup of coffee with whipped cream. It was pure pleasure." She returns again and again to the activities and ruminations of Virginia Woolf. In 1940, Woolf writes in her diary: "Leonard says he has petrol in the garage for suicide should Hitler win." Juers continues: "Virginia made some buns for tea." Moments like this seem somewhat silly. How did Juers know that Thomas purred? Did he write this in a diary entry? What does it matter that he enjoyed his coffee? Later, Juers writes that Nelly bumps into Virginia Woolf in the streets of Berlin — she drops a silk slip she intended to give to her lover, Vita Sackville West. Nelly, finding the package on the ground, keeps it. It's an unlikely — but lovely — story.

Alongside the small details of these lives, Juers chronicles the major events of the war, splashed with horrifying stories of lives lost. While Sigmund Freud and his wife are able to escape to London, his three sisters will perish in the death camps. Ludwig Marum, a Jewish lawyer who had been awarded a medal for service in World War I, is arrested by the Nazis, strangled to death and then hung to look like a suicide in his jail cell in 1934: "Despite the Gestapo's attempts to intimidate them, thousands of mourners and demonstrators attended his funeral."

While these endless lists of deaths, murders, arrests, bombings and betrayals make for exhausting reading, this approach impresses upon the reader the shocking amount of time that passed as Hitler tightened his grip on Germany — and Europe — before Americans intervened. When history is retold in baby steps, it becomes clear how the Nazis were able to keep their systematic murder of the Jews a secret from the world.

House of Exile begins and ends with Nelly's suicide in the home she and Heinrich shared in Brentwood, Calif., in 1944. Little is known about Nelly apart from her being a muse to Heinrich — and it's unclear why Juers is so moved by her story. Alone and poor, Heinrich died in 1950 and was buried in California. Thomas expressed his disappointment with the German reaction, given Heinrich's commitment against fascism: "I am hurt and angry that from Munich as from the rest of West Germany not one word of official sympathy has reached me concerning the death of my brother Heinrich. It seems they have no idea in the Federal Republic of West Germany who it is that has died."

Juers closes with the idea that living in exile causes a certain amount of psychic pain, from homesickness and survivor's guilt. But it was also the anxiety that Hitler would prevail. After reading about Fay Wray's screams in King Kong, "Nelly said that the atrocities being committed in Germany, and what was going on in the world, made her want to scream like Wray, and in an instant, for a few long seconds, the warm Mediterranean night all around froze with the rendition of that scream." Juers' House of Exile makes it apparent that even for those living outside the conquered territories, the threat of a Nazi victory wasn't just the end of a way of life: It meant the end of the world.

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