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  • From left: Victor Suchy, founder of the Literaturhaus Wien, who later created the Austrian Archive for Exile Studies, or ÖEB, within the Literaturhaus (photo: @ Alisa Douer); street view of Literaturhaus Wien; and files belonging to the archive. All photos courtesy of ÖEB/LHW.

  • Library at the Literaturhaus Wien. (Photo: @ Lukas Dostal.)

  • Items from the literary estate of Maria Lazar. Bottom right: photo of Veronika Swerger of the ÖEB with Kathleen Dunmore, granddaughter of Lazar, with the two boxes of Lazar's literary papers that she discovered. (Estate of Maria Lazar, ÖEB/LHW.)

  • From left: Logo of the Federation of Free Austrians in La Paz, Boliva, and photo of Fritz Kalmar (top) and federation board members. (Estate of Fritz Kalmar, ÖEB/LHW.)

Austrian Archives for Exile Studies: Preserving literary and cultural history

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, February 1, 2024 — The Austrian Archives for Exile Studies, which houses literary manuscripts and personal items of Austrian writers who went into exile abroad beginning in either 1933 or 1938, is a unique institution.

Founded in 1993 within the Literaturhaus Wien (House of Literature) in Vienna, the Austrian Archives for Exile Studies has evolved into a research archive, an educational and cultural center and a valued partner of Jewish Austrian writers and artists, their families and friends.

Veronika Zwerger, head of the archive, kicked off the UCLA International Institute’s Democracy, Freedom and Truth Initiative on January 17 with a talk on the archive’s history, its holdings and various activities. The initiative supports events that explore how the concepts of democracy, freedom and truth interact in a world increasingly diverse and fraught at the same time. The Austrian Archives for Exile Studies are particularly relevant to the initiative, given that they collect the materials of writers and artists who were displaced, dispossessed or murdered by the political forces of fascism.

Zwerger’s lecture was supported by the Austrian Consulate; the Center for the Study of International Migration, or CSIM; the Center for European and Russian Studies; and the UCLA Department of European Languages and Transcultural Studies, or ELTS. It was also linked to a community-engaged course taught by Associate Vice Provost David Kim that is examining the life and letters of Ernst Waldinger, a Jewish Austrian poet and the grandfather of Professor Roger Waldinger, director of CSIM.

To celebrate this collaboration, Consul General of the Republic of Austria in Los Angeles Dr. Michael Postl, Vice Provost Cindy Fan and ELTS Chair and Professor Todd Presner welcomed the audience.

Origins and Work of the Archive

Zwerger offered a historical overview of the archives within the Literaturhaus Wien. The institution, formerly known as Dokumentationsstelle für neuere österreichische Literatur (Documentation Center for Contemporary Austrian Literature), was created by Austrian literary scholar Viktor Suchy in 1965.

Despite his Jewish background, Suchy survived the Second World War in Austria. Afterward, he devoted his life to promoting Austrian literature and writers, including the ones who had largely been forgotten. Today, the organization functions as part of a larger network of German-language literature archives in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Over time, the archive has come to curate archival materials and personal items of Austrian writers in exile. Both are typically donated by the writers themselves or their families. Perhaps the most remarkable among these items are roughly 50 hats owned by poet Mimi Grossberg, which have been featured in exhibitions across Austria.

Today, the archive’s holdings include materials of celebrated Austrian writers, artists and historians in exile, including Ernst Waldinger, Walter Abish, Carole Asher, Lore Segal and Maria Lazar, historian Leo Spitzer, architect Victor Gruen, actress Hedy Lamarr and film director Billy Wilder. Zwerger chose several examples from these holdings to illuminate the organization’s breadth and import.

One example Zwerger discussed was the work of Mimi Grossberg. Early materials held by the archives documented her flight from Amsterdam to New York City and included pictures of her in this refuge. Without greater context, said Zwerger, one would assume that this journey was a vacation, but it was a matter of life and death.

The literary estate later acquired by the archive included Grossberg’s personal letters and appeals to Austrian authorities. Those materials revealed that the poet had left for New York City to escape racial persecution with the help of a U.S. Jewish organization, and that she had desperately tried to obtain permission for her parents to flee Austria as well. However, her efforts were unsuccessful.

Another archival collection described by Zwerger included materials from the Federation of Free Austrians in Bolivia — a civic organization founded and later chaired by Austrian jurist, actor and writer Fritz Kalmar. Bolivia was Germany’s largest trading partner before World War II and welcomed German immigrants throughout the war. The country also welcomed refugees and exiles from Austria and the rest of Europe.

Kalmar’s organization united Austrians who had chosen to live in Bolivian exile. Many of them were Jewish and highly critical of the Nazi regime. In addition to promoting Austrian cultural events — including well-reviewed theater performances — the association played a significant role in cultivating an Austrian identity apart from the German Reich and advocated for the country’s right to be an independent sovereign country after the war.

Among the many activities of the archive, Zwerger mentioned exhibits, research visits, tours for student groups and public lectures. For some writers who went into exile after 1938, an invitation from the Austrian Archives for Exile Studies offers the first occasion to speak about their works in their homeland.

The relationships that the archive forges with these writers, artists and their families constitute its most meaningful activity. In many cases, Zwerger said, she helps visitors achieve a deeper understanding of the lives and creative work of individuals whom they knew only as parents or grandparents.

Asked if visitors to the archive and their interests have changed over time, Zwerger responded that younger generations often need to learn the history of the 1930s to understand the significance of the archive and its holdings. By contrast, older generations are aware of the meaning of 1933 (the year the Nazis seized power in Germany) and 1938 (the year of the Anschluss, when the German Reich German annexed Austria).

In conclusion, Zwerger reminded the audience of Ernst Waldinger’s quote, which conveys the reason why many Austrian writers were forced into exile in the 1930s, and why the Austrian Archives for Exile Studies was created: “Man’s spirit and love of freedom and truth are indestructible and unyielding.”