Elisabeth de Waal’s The Exiles Return depicts the heartbreak of postwar homecoming
Elisabeth de Waal is a familiar name to readers of her grandson Edmund’s enthralling family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, which recounts the fate of one of Europe’s preeminent prewar Jewish dynasties. Blessed with a cosseted childhood in a mansion on Vienna’s Ringstraße in the early years of the 20th century, Elisabeth later witnessed the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rise of Nazism. Educated as a lawyer, she was also a writer of poetry and prose, though none of her five novels was ever published – until now.
The Exiles Return, set in 1954-55 when Vienna was still under Allied occupation, follows the fortunes of Kuno Adler, a Jewish chemist, Theophil Kanakis, a wealthy playboy from Vienna’s small but prominent Greek community, and Resi Larsen, the teen aged daughter of an Austrian princess, who have all
returned from America to a city still in the throes of post-war trauma.
Much of the action revolves around Resi and Kanakis, but it is Prof. Adler whose story resonates the deepest. Perhaps his experience of return was closest to Elisabeth’s own.
After helping her family escape in 1938, Elisabeth returned to Vienna in December 1945 to reclaim the family’s confiscated property. For years Elisabeth led claims, but achieved few victories. Finally in 1950 the Ephrussi family regained title to the Ringstraße palais, some artworks and books. With no desire to live in Vienna, they sold the building far below its actual value, all they could get in the depressed postwar economy.
In the moving opening chapters of The Exiles Return, Kuno Adler experiences profound shock and disorientation. He arrives at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, remembering the grand station of his youth. “But now there was just – nothing: an open space where the bombed wreckage of the old station had been cleared away; stacks of building material, steel girders and concrete mixers for the new modern station under construction.” He is continually jarred by signs of the war’s destruction. A walk down Mariahilferstraße “aroused in him that curious ambivalent sensation which one experiences in dreams, that of knowing where one is and not knowing, of recognition and nonrecognition, of the comfortingly familiar and the frighteningly strange.”
The old order has been overthrown, but a new one has not yet been created. The children of servants are now university students, while aristocrats scrape by in severely reduced circumstances. Marriages of convenience between old titles and new money are common.
Although “scandalous” plot elements are dated and Elisabeth’s style can be mannered, the novel is a compelling intimate portrayal of the heartbreak that exiles experience when they return home. As Edmund de Waal eloquently puts it in his preface, his grandmother’s novel captures “the push and pull of love, anger and despair about a place which is a part of your identity, but which has also rejected you.”
So why return?
Adler offers a simple answer: “I came home. I am an Austrian. I belong here.”