Like many people, I prepared a summer reading list for vacation time. Not that I don’t read when I’m not on vacation, but I enjoy planning to buy some special books to take with me when my wife and I cruise in our Ford F-150 northwest with our camping trailer across the Pennsylvania Turnpike up to mountains to beat the heat of the Philadelphia metro area.
This year, I chose two novels by Franz Werfel: Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933) and The Song of Bernadette (1941). I could not have chosen better. Not only was I inspired by these books, I was enamored with the personal history of Werfel himself and knew I must write about him (the books I purchased at Amazon for next to nothing – although they were used, they were in good condition.)
First, though, a brief outline of the novels.
Forty Days of Musa Dagh is the tragic story of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Millions of Christian Armenians were exterminated by the Ottoman Empire during the middle of World War I. The book is a gut-wrenching, historically accurate account of an entire race of innocents sacrificed to satisfy the pleasure of Islamic tyranny and the delusions of the autocratic Young Turks and their provincial ministers who decided to use the First World War as a screen to kill their own Christian people. The world was busy. Now was the time to settle the “Armenian question.”
The unlikely protagonist is a line officer of the Turkish army, a brilliant engineer, who tries to save his home village from certain death and who knows what a defensible position on all four sides truly means. It is a masterful expression, from the mind of a uniquely qualified author, of the struggle between good and evil that defined a generation’s naiveté before anyone could possibly imagine the horrors of ethnic cleansing yet to come in Turkey. It’s more than probable that Adolf Hitler used the Armenian genocide as a template for the extermination of millions of Jews and other races trapped in the evil web of the swastika. Forty Days of Musa Dagh is a great page-turning novel that will keep you thirsting for more even until the final line on the final page.
The Song of Bernadette is, in itself, a masterpiece beyond anything ever written about Marian apparitions. You know the story, of course. But, Werfel puts into words what no Catholic has ever described before. He sees the documented phenomena through a different lens. Bernadette Soubirous is, for Werfel, a canvas to be painted upon, a blank sheet of music to pencil in the notes.
As you know, the girl, Bernadette, sees the Blessed Virgin at the grotto in Massabielle, a garbage dump outside the town of Lourdes. Here, the Mother of God announces to the world that she is, indeed, the Immaculate Conception.
Sure, Werfel did embellish some parts of the story and added a character here and there, and a little romantic notion between Bernadette and a local, young mill owner. That is to be expected in any historical novel. But, if you read this book, and experience the carefully thought out progression of its characters, those who believe – and those who cannot believe, you will come to recognize two very important principles: faith is a gift from the Holy Spirit, the advocate of those who seek his help; wisdom and knowledge are two completely separate constructs. Read the book and see if you come to the same conclusions as I have.
“O God, I will sing a new song for you. On a ten-string lyre I will sing to you.”
Franz Werfel had just received the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art in 1937 when the world turned upside down. There were, of course, dire and desperate warning signs. Especially the tragic night of Nazi book-burnings on May 10, 1933, where Werfel’s works and thousands of others were burned in Berlin in an attempt to purge universities of literary hypocrisy against Aryan purity and the National Socialist agenda. Joseph Goebbels exclaimed to the horde of young students cheering the blazing bonfire of countless generations of erudite poetry and prose: “the era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end!”
The Gestapo had targeted Franz Werfel as an enemy of the state. They would not tolerate a Jew, no matter how internationally accredited, speaking about the Holocaust of the Armenian people. Nazi newspapers labeled him a fanatic who spewed propaganda of “alleged Turkish horrors perpetrated against the Armenians.” It was the hour of the Anschluss and Werfel and his wife were forced to flee their beloved Austria.
How they ended up in the little town of Lourdes, in France, is anybody’s guess. But it does follow a logical pattern of escape. Lourdes was close to the French-Spanish border. The plan was to get across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, then a hoped for plane or ship could lead to America, where the Werfel’s could finally obtain safety from certain death in a German concentration camp. The BBC had already reported Werfel had been murdered by the SS.
The famed writer did not waste time familiarizing himself with his new surroundings. He recognized the historical and spiritual significance of Lourdes immediately and made a compact: “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.”
He escaped to American soil and fulfilled his sacred promise. The novel and the movie were both a bestseller and a box office smash. The movie won four Oscars including best actress for newcomer Jennifer Jones.
“I have dared to sing the song of Bernadette, although I am not a Catholic but a Jew; and I drew courage for this undertaking from a far older and more unconscious vow of mine. Even in the days when I wrote my first verses I vowed that I would evermore and everywhere in all I wrote magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of man – careless of a period which has turned away with scorn and rage and indifference from these ultimate values of our mortal lot.”
The first book prefigures the evil that Franz Werfel and his fellow Jews would live to see happen to them. The second was the fulfillment of a solemn vow made by a frightened Jew who was enamored out of his fear by the visions of an obscure French girl.
In the movie, Director Henry King prefaced Bernadette’s song with these words: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary, for those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.” This is derived from a 13th century quote from Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
Franz Werfel remained a Jew all of his life. He kept his promise to tell the truth. I think he explained everything well enough, even for a skeptical mind. And he sang brilliantly for anyone who cares to hear the truth.