29 July 2013


The first American forces arrived in Europe in January. In March the War Relocation Authority was signed into law by Roosevelt creating internment camps for Japanese citizens. Anne Frank started her famous diary in June. In December the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction is set off under the bleachers on the football field at the University of Chicago.

And Anna Seghers wrote Transit, a book about the plight of refugees of the Nazis. The book would be published in 1944.

The book basically details the bureaucratic process of getting transit papers. Those papers are defined as: "A transit visa...gives you permission to travel through a country with the stipulation that you don't plan to stay." And that is the entire plot. A man who just wants to stay but cannot. Anywhere.

Seghers went through this process. She fled to Marseilles in 1940 and then on to Mexico in 1941. She wrote The Seventh Cross there and it was released in 1942. It was one of the earliest representations of a concentration camp in media. A movie version was made in 1944. It starred Spencer Tracy, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

It's hard to imagine in 2013 the idea of fleeing your home and then moving consulate to consulate hoping to find a country to take you away to a better life. Or maybe it isn't. The Edward Snowden/NSA story seems out of spy novels. Out of WWII era tales of people trapped, country-less. Whether or not you agree with the details, the similarities are interesting.

That the ultimate feeling from the book is one of hopelessness. A sense of futility. It becomes clear that Seghers is very suspicious of people who leave Europe. In the end her main character decides to attempt to stay. To carve out a new life for himself. He chooses to not abandon Europe. And it is shown to be noble.

It is a bold statement in 1942 to make.

It is a bold thing to openly talk about the horrors of WWII.

I was reminded of Carlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. That film holds a firm place in history as an early shout against the Nazi takeover of Europe. The final speech is still shocking and wonderful to hear today. And this book seems to conjure a darker version of it.

From the afterword by Heinrich Boll:
For anyone who would like to make writers aware of the dangerous conditions under which they live and write, I would refer them to the last danger enumerated by Saint Paul and cited by Anna Seghers: 'Perils among false brethren'.

The cover of the new NYRB edition has a cover featuring a drawing by Francis Picabia.

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