The Exiled Word

The Zurich-based book collector Martin Dreyfus on barbarity and literature

with Alexander Scrimgeour and Michaela Unterdörfer

Martin Dreyfus' book collection. Photo: Ayse Yavas

  • May 19, 2023
  • Ursula: Issue 8
  • Translated by Sharon Howe

For our regular column The Keepers, which focuses on the obsessions of collecting, Alexander Scrimgeour and Michaela Unterdörfer of Hauser & Wirth Publishers talk with book collector Martin Dreyfus about his collection of historically banned literature

The most notorious of the book burnings that took place throughout Germany ninety years ago was that next to Berlin’s opera house on May 10, 1933. The German writer Erich Kästner watched his own books being burned alongside those of his Jewish and leftist compatriots in a bonfi­re of literature condemned as “contrary to the German spirit.” Writers and publishers who managed to escape Germany did so in two big waves, one in 1933 and another after the Anschluss of Austria and the Kristallnacht of 1938. “The exiles Hitler made,” the historian Peter Gay later wrote, “were the greatest collection of transplanted intellect, talent and scholarship the world has ever seen.” Numerous books that could no longer be published in Germany for political or “racial” reasons found a home in the publishing house run by Emil and Emmie Oprecht in the offices now occupied by Hauser & Wirth Publishers in downtown Zurich, where a small presentation featuring publications by writers including Ignazio Silone, Else Lasker-Schüler and Thomas Mann is on view through the end of May. - These books are part of the huge corpus of “exile literature”—a broad category that includes writings critical of National Socialism or expressing a conflicted relationship to the German language. The Swiss book collector Martin Dreyfus is a specialist in the ­field and an expert in this period of publishing history. Here, he talks about how he came to accumulate his remarkable collection and the connections between books and people’s lives as writers, emigrants, publishers, readers and collectors.

Martin Dreyfus' book collection. Photo: Ayse Yavas

Alexander Scrimgeour: What is the story of how you started your collection?

Martin Dreyfus: It all began when I first became interested in history at school, particularly that of National Socialism under the Third Reich—contemporary history, as it was at the time, and still is, in fact. The first book, which I bought in 1967 or ’68, was published in 1936 by Editions du Carrefour. Der gelbe Fleck (“The Yellow Spot”) was one of the first publications to deal specically with the persecution of the Jews but also with the whole Nazi system after 1933. Most of my acquisitions during the first few years were books about this period—some of them new publications but others second-hand, as I simply didn’t have the money to buy many new ones. In the early 1970s, I turned increasingly to exiled writers and those whose books had been banned or burned. My collection is the result of fifty-five years’ worth of acquiring books and looking for them. Other people spend their time golfing; I go to secondhand bookstores.

AS: So how big is the collection now?

MD: There must be between 35,000 and 40,000 books in total, though not all on the subject of exile and emigration. There’s also a whole section of Judaica, mostly published from around the turn of the century to the end of the 1930s.

AS: No one could read that many books, of course.

MD: Impossible. No way. Other people collect stamps. That way they can at least look at them all.

Michaela Unterdörfer: You can look at books, too.

MD: Yes. I think if you cultivate a suitably visual memory, you come to recognize them from the outside—like a stamp or a painting—without needing to look inside. I think it’s something you learn. Then you can pick them out purely by sight, as you say.

AS: Was that early interest also connected with your family history?

MD: My grandparents came to Switzerland from Frankfurt with their two daughters in 1933. That was undoubtedly what first got me interested in the history of the Third Reich.

AS: So they were refugees?

MD: No. It’s rather complicated. My great-greatgrandparents came to Switzerland from Riga and Jelgava in around 1880, before my grandfather’s time, and managed to get Swiss citizenship. My grandfather was born here in Switzerland in 1882, and the family later moved to Frankfurt. So he was Swiss, and consequently spent four years in the military here during the First World War. During that time—luckily, as it turned out—he sat his medical licensing examination. As soon as the war ended in 1918, he returned to Frankfurt, having already met my future grandmother in pre-war times. They married that same year. He then practiced as a gynecologist in Frankfurt until 1933/34 and became a professor at Frankfurt University. By 1933, his safety couldn’t be guaranteed. Because he wasn’t a German Jew, they couldn’t just dismiss him. Instead, they advised him not to lecture any more, and so he stopped. My mother and her younger sister came to Switzerland straightaway in 1933, to join an uncle who had stayed here. My grandparents then came for good in 1934. Because he had sat his licensing exam during the war, my grandfather was able to practice here again without further ado. That was a lucky break for him, if you like, or for the family as a whole.

AS: And when you started collecting, this period was your initial focus.

MD: Yes. The starting point was, as I say, history books on the 1930s and beyond. That led in turn to my interest in fiction and poetry. And that to my interest in publishers who specialized in books on Jewish themes and material, particularly after, but also before, 1933. Schocken was the biggest Jewish publishing house of the 1930s, but there was also the Jüdischer Verlag, founded by Martin Buber and others back in 1902, for instance. One book leads to another. It’s like the ripples a stone makes when you throw it into a pond. There is no end to it.

Cover of Walter Mehring, Die Gedichte Lieder und Chansons (Berlin: S. Fischer Verlag, 1929)

Cover of Bruno Schönlank, Lass Brot Mich Sein: Gedichte (Zurich/New York: Verlag Oprecht, 1940)

AS: In Ernst Fischer’s book on the history of German publishing, he writes that the German emigré book industry had special importance within a kind of global history because publishing houses and people associated with them were spread so far and wide. I wonder—also in relation to your collection, and the more well-known publishers such as Querido in Amsterdam or Editions du 10. Mai in Paris—what you think about this idea of exile literature as part of or a forerunner of a certain kind of internationalism?

MD: In my view, these were all very individual developments. To take Querido and Allert de Lange in Amsterdam first: Here you had two Dutch publishers, Emanuel Querido and Gerard de Lange, who invited three editors from the publisher Gustav Kiepenheuer in Berlin—Fritz Landshoff, Walter Landauer and Hermann Kesten— to set up a department for German émigré literature within their respective publishing houses. This they did, and very successfully. In Paris, Pierre Lévy invited Willi Münzenberg to run the program of his publishing house, Editions du Carrefour, which became a home for highly political German books. In other places, publishing houses emerged through different sets of circumstances. Oprecht was a Swiss publisher, one of a few, among them Steinberg in Zurich, too, where a Swiss citizen had already established a publishing house but would publish émigré writers where possible. In Palestine, meanwhile, Martin Feuchtwanger, brother of the German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger, was running Edition Olympia. Its aim was to publish books by German-speaking immigrant authors in Palestine, primarily for a German-speaking immigrant readership. In Mexico, there was El Libro Libre. That was initially cofounded by writers who had emigrated there and the publisher Walter Janka. And over in New York, Wieland Herzfelde founded the Aurora Verlag. That was a kind of successor to his original publishing house, the Malik-Verlag, which had moved from Berlin first to Prague and then to London, but was ultimately re-established as a new company in New York. So they all had their own stories.

AS: But were they aware of what was going on elsewhere?

MD: Yes, I think so. Particularly in the case of Fritz Landshoff, you can see from his published memoirs that he was pretty well informed. He may not have been aware of what was happening in Palestine at the time, but there was a lot of contact with France or England up to 1940. Hermann Kesten and Klaus Mann for example traveled more or less regularly to the South of France and Paris, among other places. That way they could cultivate their contacts with the authors who were spread around Europe, as well as with other publishers.

AS: When you look at the collection as a whole, one thing that strikes you, of course, is the sheer volume of books published. Distribution wasn’t easy. Despite no longer having access to the largest German-speaking market, publishers, booksellers and authors obviously managed somehow. Is that something the collection also shows?

MD: It never ceases to amaze me, all the books that were published and that I am still finding—books I never even realized had been published, and by small publishing houses at that, ones that only published one or two books in German. The other point—that they managed to operate at all—was probably partly down to the fact that there was still an Austrian and Swiss market until spring 1938. Not that they could compare with the German market at the time, of course. There was a large German-speaking public in the Czech Republic up to 1939 at least. Many intellectual readers from Germany had already emigrated to these countries. After 1940, the Netherlands and France were also occupied, so that production was no longer possible there. Exports to what was then Palestine, to South America, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and North America, where many German-speaking immigrants lived, continued up to 1940. In New York you had, for example, Arthur Adler and Mary Rosenberg. They dealt in imported books and made a point of bringing German-language books from Europe to America for a German-speaking émigré audience.

AS: I’d also like to pick up on what you said in a lecture on exile poetry you gave in Darmstadt in 2017. How would you describe the role of the German language, particularly from the perspective of Jewish writers?

MD: Schalom Ben-Chorin once said: “You can emigrate from a country but not from a language.” It wasn’t just that, for émigré writers, language was of course one thing they could take with them from their homeland—and many could take almost nothing or very little, in terms of physical objects. It was also an inalienable possession. That’s something that fascinates me. Most of them, apart from the younger ones, some of whom only began to write while in exile, still wrote in German, including—most notably—poetry. The literary scholar Walter Muschg says that the German emigrants who continued to write in their own language have—to paraphrase his words—bequeathed us the most memorable poetry.

MU: On the subject of poetry, didn’t the critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki also say that people’s response to literature changed in the 1930s, that people were much more likely to turn to poetry and read it to each other—I think he was referring to himself and his wife at the time—than to read a long novel, when you never knew how far you’d get with it?

MD: Yes. He describes that very vividly, and you’re right of course. A poem is relatively short. We can read it to each other and talk about it, whereas it would take much longer to read a novel, and there was no knowing whether you had that amount of time. I also think there is an additional aspect when you’re discussing poetry, which I’m not quite sure how best to express. I don’t mean that I read novels more superficially, but I can engage quite differently with a poem in the sense that I spend more time thinking about and analyzing it because there is much more scope for interpretation.

MU: You could say poetic language is a resonating chamber that naturally generates images, and so allows for a different kind of exchange…

MD: Yes.

AS: There are bound to be lots of things in the collection that are no longer talked about or weren’t really even talked about much back then. Is there a volume of poetry that comes to mind that has grown very important to you but that hasn’t gone down in history, for which there is no secondary literature?

MD: I can’t say that it has grown very important to me, but I can give you an example. I own a volume of poetry by an author named Hans Stein that was published in Shanghai in 1943. That’s all I’ve managed to find out so far. Neither the book nor the author seem to be known to any library. What’s more, the name Hans Stein is quite common. The book was published in 1943, probably in a tiny edition, and somehow found its way here.

Bookplate of Curt and Lilli Sobernheim, with text reading "Books Unify Thoughts." Designed by Charles William Sherborn, 1894. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

AS: Do you mean it was in a secondhand bookstore?

MD: Yes. Though it’s also worth noting that there are books that are very much back on the radar after being ignored for decades. It never ceases to amaze me. There are waves where an author is suddenly hyped up again, while others remain consistently popular.

AS: And where does exile literature itself sit in terms of these waves?

MD: On the whole, I think interest has declined a lot in recent years. There will always be the odd author who suddenly resurfaces, only to fall into oblivion again. It’s probably also because there are so many new and young contemporary writers, which can make things harder for long-dead authors, regardless of their significance. What you then need is a publisher brave enough to reprint and champion their books, which is not easy either.

AS: As a collector, are there books you would like to own that are already well-known? Or, conversely, surprises, when you come across something that you may have been searching for for years? Could you tell us a bit about the business of collecting, and what your experiences have been?

MD: Every year there is an antiquarian book fair here in Zurich, at the Kunsthaus art museum. On a visit there, I suddenly discovered an author, Lilly Rona, about whom I knew nothing. She didn’t publish very much. She came from Vienna, was an academic, and played a significant role in the work of her scientist husband, the physician Felix Ehrenhaft. They ended up emigrating to America. But she published a slim volume of poetry while still in Vienna. I had never heard or read about her before, and there was this poetry book, together with a few of her postcards from an estate sale. That sort of thing happens quite a bit. To this day, we are still far from having a comprehensive knowledge of all the books published in exile or all the authors who were forced to emigrate, either before or after publication of their work.

AS: Is that a moment of joy, when you come across a volume like that?

MD: Joy if it costs five francs—perhaps less so if it’s five hundred.

AS: Has collecting as an activity become easier with the internet? Is it more or less enjoyable now that it can be done online?

MD: If you ask me as a collector, I have to say it doesn’t make much difference to me. Unless I need something specific, I still go to flea markets and secondhand bookstores. If you ask a bookseller, they’ll tell you things have become incredibly difficult, as the market has changed completely—not only, but mostly, because of the internet. A book might be available online in better condition for half the price. But again, that has to do with these fluctuating waves of interest.

MU: Reading books used to be the classic way to spend one’s time. Now there are so many others. The role, the status of books has changed a lot—also in comparison with visual art, for example.

MD: The way prices have shot up in the art market is totally disconnected from reality; books are another story. It’s also interesting in terms of the whole restitution debate. I have two books belonging to Curt and Lilli Sobernheim that I found in a secondhand bookstore; I happened to know who they were. He had worked as a banker in Frankfurt and emigrated to Paris, where he died in prison in 1940 after he was arrested by the Gestapo during the German occupation. Lilli Sobernheim seems either to have died in Paris around then, too, or after being deported to a ghetto in the East. Two small, nondescript little volumes, but how did they get there? Given that books aren’t generally comparable in value to art, the question of whether they were salvaged by refugees or looted by the Nazis is at best of marginal interest. When the Germans marched on Vienna, Gottfried Bermann Fischer, the publisher behind the Fischer-Verlag, was forced to flee and leave his library behind. His private book collection was integrated into the Vienna National Library and restituted after the war, and I recently obtained a small number of books from this collection, from his daughter’s and granddaughter’s estates. The ex libris of Gottfried Bermann Fischer is by the artist Gunter Böhmer, and there is also a National Library stamp and an accession number. In this case, as in others, a lot of material will have been restituted where possible, but sometimes there is not anyone left who could shed any light on what happened. The grandchildren can barely remember. I don’t have any children myself, and my nieces and nephews think they have a rather peculiar uncle: You can have a good chat with him! But they haven’t a clue about this collection, and it doesn’t matter to them. That’s not a criticism. I’m just stating a fact. The same goes for the generation of grandchildren who should or could now lay claim to their grandparents’ book collections. They hardly know what was in them. So it is quite different from paintings. Books don’t have the same financial value. They have sentimental or intellectual value, but not a financial one.

AS: And then there is the question of what will happen to a collection like this in the future.

MD: Yes. That’s a good question! You know, that’s what people say when they don’t know the answer! [Laughs.] But I am on the way to finding a solution at least for part of my collection.

MU: I guess it’s not easy. You’re right, of course, that there’s less historical awareness among the younger generation. Perhaps it’s also something you grow into over time, so at some point you engage or identify differently with it all. Is it really always the book itself that interests you, or is it also people’s lives?

MD: The biographical element is definitely key. We know a lot about many of these authors. For instance, we know almost everything about Thomas Mann. But we know nothing about Hans Stein. How can I best express it? Let me put it this way: I know a lot about Bruno Schönlank that hardly anyone who comes after me will know. That applies to others as well. We just got onto Schönlank somehow, and he happens to be one of Oprecht’s authors. There are some archives that are, quite frankly, a bit sniffy about collecting books. I realize that they might not have the resources—books take up space and cost a lot of money. I get all that, but they really are losing a lot of information that way. I can show you two books inscribed by Schönlank. If they were to be lost, no one would know who they belonged to or who he gave them to. They may not be very important people, but it means we’re missing out on a whole web of relationships.

Martin Dreyfus' book collection. Photo: Ayse Yavas

Martin Dreyfus. Photo: Ayse Yavas

On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Nazi book burnings, the exhibition “bücher 1933” is on view through May 25 at Hauser & Wirth Publishers bookstore in Zurich. The presentation looks at how Emil and Emmie Oprecht used publishing as a tool to inform the public about fascism and provide a counter-narrative to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s ideas about culture. - The photographs on this page showing Martin Dreyfus’ book collection were taken by Ayse Yavas for the exhibition “Frisch und Fein. Exil Zürich 1933,” which focuses on women translators who emigrated to Switzerland. The show continues through June 10 at Galerie Litar, Zurich. A photo essay with additional images of Dreyfus’ collection is featured in the gallery's journal, Edition Litar. Further information is available at www.litar.ch