Exile is a grave. Historical epochs, things and peoples vanish in it. Yet, often they are suddenly back in the public consciousness, if for example the ancestors open an old chest. This is exactly how we find out about Hugo Simon, one of the leading representatives of the Weimar Republic. Simon was a respected banker and for a short while even finance minister; he collected modern art, was a committed patron and held decidedly socialist views. But these were turbulent times and success was jeopardized. In the early 1930s the Nazis mobilized. For people like Hugo Simon the world was hanging in the balance, even if they hadn’t yet suspected that looming ahead of them were not months, but years of persecution, fleeing and uncertainty.
The aforementioned chest was standing in a house in Interlagos, Brazil. In 1987 it was opened by the author Rafael Cardoso, the great-grandson of Hugo Simon. Inside he found documents, passports, photographs, letters and even the manuscript of an “unfinished biographical novel of my great-grandfather, entitled Seidenraupen”. But because all of these documents were in German, an unfamiliar language for Cardoso, he first set them aside. For Hugo Simon and his family, Brazil was not a longed for destination. They found refuge here by chance and good fortune. Besides, it needed a real dose of courage and presence of mind. Hugo Simon was a red flag for the Nazis. Realizing this, in March 1933 he already left all his books, pictures and possessions back in Berlin. The escape route took him and his wife – both the daughters already lived in France – on the classic stages of exile: Paris, then the South of France and onwards across the Pyrenees and by boat overseas. If it had only been a question of money, the route would have been easily attempted. But displaced persons had their passports confiscated, they lacked all kinds of certificates and visas. In occupied France they were always under threat from the Gestapo or the local authorities that deported Jews back to Germany.
Rafael Cardoso narrates the story of his great-grandparents and grandparents with epic contours. He condenses events into a series of closed episodes that lasted for varying intervals of several weeks up to many months. An omniscient narrator supplements the author’s documentary knowledge about conversations and insights into the feelings of the main protagonists. A parade of famous names including Heinrich Mann, Varian Fry, Stefan Zweig or Georges Bernanos, passes by the readers. Rafael Cardoso provides impressive accounts from Southern France where in 1940/41 the authorities played a cat and mouse game with the refugees and only Varian Fry promised help with his Rescue Committee.
Rafael Cardoso left the “true treasure” from the chest untouched for four years, until an exile researcher reminded him about it. In 1991, he finally set to work to revive the forgotten story of the flight of Hugo Simon.
By Beat Mazenauer
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 14 November 2016.