Books | Life after Wartime

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, by Eisabeth de Waal MacMilllan (January 2014) pp. 328
The Exiles Return
by Eisabeth de Waal
(January 2014)
pp. 328

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.”

Help us help you

“Strong media and independent journalism are built on the shoulders of subscribers. Your support means the world to us.

Benjamin Wolf
COO & Managing Editor

The coronavirus outbreak affects and challenges your life in big and small ways. Metropole is here for you and we are proud to be your news source during this crisis.

But just as the coronavirus has increased the need for independent journalism, it has also undercut a major revenue source of media companies, ours included – advertising.

We need your support to keep it up – donate or subscribe and #helpushelpyou!

Support Metropole!


RECENT Articles

Wiener Linien Steps in to Save the City Bikes

In an adroit move by Mayor Michael Ludwig, the enormously popular public bike rental program is to be Integrated into Vienna’s Public Transport Network.

The Coronavirus in Austria & Vienna | Travel Warning for Spanish Mainland

Here’s all you need to know about current measures and developments, including trusted sources and tips – regularly updated.

Beirut to Vienna: Funeral March for the Dead

Following the devastating explosion in Beirut, the Lebanese diaspora in Vienna is demonstrating in support.

The EU Deal Enters a New Phase

After an agreement over a coronavirus relief package, the European Union is working to implement the plan.

Book Review | Daniel Kehlmann & The Power of Mockery

In Tyll, widely-acclaimed German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann reinvents a medieval legend to unmask the fatuity of rulers and the wisdom of tricks.

Why the EU Recovery Fund Is a Big Deal – for Europe & for the Climate

The recent budget-corona negotiations could lead to the creation of a fiscal union and a greater emphasis on sustainability.


Join over 5,000 Metropolitans, who already get monthly news updates and event invitations.