Franz Werfel (VEHR-fuhl) was born into a Jewish family of Prague on September 10, 1890. His father, the owner of a glove factory, was intensely interested in art and music, but he saw in his son only a future partner and an heir to the business; consequently, he opposed the boy’s early inclinations toward literature. Young Werfel was educated at the local Gymnasium and spent two years, 1909 to 1910, at the University of Prague. Having had the pleasure of seeing some of his work in print, Werfel had little interest in an academic career, preferring to spend his time writing and discussing literature with friends, who included such recognized writers as Gustav Meyrink, Max Brod, and Otokar Březina.
Franz Werfel in 1940
After leaving the university in 1910, Werfel went to Hamburg, Germany. There he took a job in a business firm but continued to write. Following a year of compulsory military service, from 1911 to 1912, he settled for a time in Leipzig, where he became a publisher’s reader. With the beginning of World War I, he took a pacifist stand, publishing pacifist poems such as “Der Krieg,” “Wortmacher des Krieges,” and “Der Ulan,” all of which appeared in Einander. Despite his attitude toward the war, Werfel was called into the service as an officer in an artillery regiment and served during 1916 to 1917. In 1916 his adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women had a successful season on the Berlin stage and in other cities. By the time he was thirty, Werfel had made for himself a reputation in both poetry and drama; in addition, he already had written and published a short novel, Not the Murderer.
During the early 1920’s Werfel’s work was primarily in drama. Spiegelmensch opened simultaneously on stages in Dusseldorf, Leipzig, and Stuttgart. Werfel’s first play to appear on the American stage was Goat Song, produced in New York in 1926. One of his most popular plays was Juárez and Maximilian, which after a successful run in Europe was translated into English and produced in New York before being made into a motion picture. Three religious plays were written somewhat later in Werfel’s career: Paul Among the Jews, The Kingdom of God in Bohemia, and The Eternal Road. The last-named, a presentation of early Jewish history, was translated into English and produced in New York in 1936.
From 1925 on, Werfel was interested primarily in fiction, and a series of stories and short novels preceded his more important novels. In the United States his popularity came with the publication of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel based on the Armenian resistance to the Turks. Hearken unto the Voice showed the author’s continued interest in the Jews and their history. Embezzled Heaven, also popular in the United States, illustrates how Werfel’s religiosity caused him to become highly sympathetic to Roman Catholicism.
After World War I Werfel lived in Vienna. At the time of the Anschluss he fled to Paris, only to become a fugitive once again when the Germans invaded France. Eventually he reached the United States and safety. While escaping from the Germans, he had found a temporary refuge at Lourdes. While there, he vowed to write a book about the young woman who had seen a vision of the Virgin Mary at that shrine. The Song of Bernadette fulfilled that vow. A play, Jacobowski and the Colonel, was successfully produced in New York in 1944, and a collection of his verse, Poems, translated by Edith A. Snow, was published in 1945. Werfel and his wife, Anna, who was the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, moved to Hollywood, where Werfel continued to write despite failing health. His last novel, Star of the Unborn, was completed only days before he succumbed to a heart attack on August 26, 1945.