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The Grand Budapest Hotel Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Friday, August 8, 2014


It drives my kids crazy that whatever we do, I end up referring to something Jewish. It doesn’t take much for me to connect something we are talking about with a parallel in Jewish history, or find a Jewish connection when we are sightseeing or visiting a museum. It happened again, earlier this summer when we saw the movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel". There are no Jews identified in the movie though we do have a hint at Nazis. There is nothing in film to suggest Gustav’s ethnic background. He does express sympathy for the orphaned, stateless, refugee Zero, but the boy’s family name Moustafa suggests a Balkan or Armenian background. But if you looked at the credits carefully you might have noticed that the film was based on the stories of Stefan Zweig, whom Gustav incidentally physically resembles.

Zweig, a Jewish writer from Austria, was extremely popular in the period between the two World Wars. His works were widely translated and also made into over 70 films and even an opera. His biographies of Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, Erasmus and Freud were eagerly awaited. He was a celebrity, with onlookers gathering across from his home, just to get a peek at him. He knew James Joyce, his contemporary, as well as nearly every other author of consequence in his time. And then, when he was forced by the rise of the Nazi’s to flee, first to England, then to New York and then on to Brazil, he lost his footing in the world, and ultimately committed suicide in 1942. He hated New York and though assumed to be rich by other émigrés, had already depleted his resources, partially in helping others. We have records of the many letters he wrote, and loans he extended trying to help other, less well known writers and artists, get a start in the United Stated. But unlike other refugees, who successfully replanted themselves in America, Zweig found exile from Europe unbearable. This is how it seemed to him:

The trickle, the stream, the flood. And then people surging all over the globe, falling from the skies, splashed up by the seas, hurled helter-skelter by the wildly spinning red and black wheel of the swastika.

Some of his friends and literary associates turned survival into a form of resistance, but for him the Nazi’s had destroyed the European culture that gave his life meaning. What he called “the golden age of secularity” had been swallowed up by what he referred to as “ pathological nationalism and obscurantism”.

Stefan Zweig was born in 1881 and raised in a prosperous middle class Jewish family in Vienna. He enjoyed a secure childhood and early success.  His father established himself as a textile manufacturer, and his mother came from an Italian-Jewish banking family. He started a manuscript collection as a child, and began writing while still in his teens. (His first editor was Theodore Herzl but being so very much a man of Europe, he never joined Herzl in his enthusiasm for Zionism.)

In much of his writing Zweig romanticized a world that was already disappearing during his lifetime, viewing the society of  pre-World War I Europe with nostalgia. In one early story he was prescient. He describes a Jewish community forced to leave their home, dying of exposure, when there is no place to take them in.

Zweig was variously described as:

An affluent Austrian citizen, a restless wandering Jew, a stupendously prolific author, a tireless advocate for Pan-European humanism, a relentless networker, an impeccable host, a domestic hysteric, a noble pacifist, a cheap populist, a squeamish sensualist, a dog lover, a cat hater, a book collector ( this actually was very important to him), an alligator shoe wearing dandy, a depressive, a café enthusiast, a sympathizer with lonely hearts, a casual womanizer, a man ogler, a suspected flasher, a convicted fabulist, a fawner over the powerful, a champion of the powerless, an abject coward before the ravages of old age, an unblinking stoic before the mysteries of the grave-- in short, an interesting character worth getting to know.

His books, as with many best sellers, are viewed today as fairly conventional. They are heavy on plot, replete with plot devices, even melodrama. Many are set in elegant settings, ocean liners, spas, and of course, grand hotels. His strength was in his insights into character, emotion and motivation perhaps fitting for someone who was such a close friend of Freud that he spoke at Freud’s funeral. Many critics comment on his portrayals of women, their yearnings and frustrations- in some ways ahead of his time.

The movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and perhaps the various anniversaries of World War I, with the sense that we have returned to some of the conflicts of that era, has led to a Zweig revival here in the United States. In Europe he had never really disappeared.

What shall we say about this portrayal of his world of “literary refinement, sexual adventure, aristocratic luxury and excellent pastry?” I thought the film did a fine job of capturing both poignancy and tragedy, of playfully dealing with a fundamentally serious and ugly history. Twice in the film there is reference to how a person can be “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” and in those words I felt Zweig shining through. The movie, in some ways like that of fellow refugee Lubitsh’s “To Be Or Not to Be”, was fun in the service of a “subtle and sober argument”. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s not too late, if you have and you enjoyed it, I hope you’ll take advantage of the Zweig revival to read some of his short stories.

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