Before and during World War II, many of Europe’s premier writers, actors, artists, and intellectuals fled their homelands and settled in Los Angeles — a world completely unfamiliar to them. In their most recent books, Donna Rifkind and Alexis Landau evoke this “Weimar on the Pacific” through two compelling female Jewish emigrés. Rifkind’s biography The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood details the life of Galician-born actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel; Alexis Landau’s novel Those Who Are Saved (a follow-up to the 2015 The Empire of the Senses) focuses on a Russian French writer, Vera, who must leave her young daughter behind when she escapes France with her husband. In conversation, Rifkind and Landau discuss portraying the community of exiles in Los Angeles through fiction and nonfiction.
Donna Rifkind: Alexis, I’m fascinated to see the ways in which you, a novelist, and I, a nonfiction writer, used the same piece of history — that of the European immigrants who came to Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s to escape fascism — to craft two very different narratives. It’s such a vast and complex world, spanning not just geography but also cultures and philosophies. I’m impressed by the way your research gives such rich dimensions and texture to your novel — without showing in any ungainly way at all! — and I wonder if you could tell me where your research started and where it led you.
Alexis Landau: The initial spark to research this world came from my discovery of “Weimar on the Pacific” as it’s sometimes called — the little universe that the exiles created here in Los Angeles between the late 1920s and the early 1950s. The main figures that opened doors to research were Salka Viertel. I read Salka Viertel’s memoir The Kindness of Strangers, and even though her circumstances are very different from my protagonist Vera’s, as a woman struggling to adapt to this new American culture living in Santa Monica Canyon, she provides wonderful background information and small details that were very helpful as I shaped Vera’s world.
Additionally, it was thrilling to find out that this rich history existed in the very places where I grew up: Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, and Santa Monica Canyon. Then I was getting my graduate degree at USC, I discovered the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library and met Michaela Ullmann, the head of exile studies at USC. She helped me delve into the archives of photographs and letters, and directed me to Marta Feuchtwanger’s oral history, which illuminated exilic life in LA through a female lens. Then of course I visited the historical landmarks where the exiles lived and gathered, such as Villa Aurora and Thomas Mann House. I tried to see Salka’s house on Mabery Road, too, but it’s a private residence so that proved harder to do.
AL: Through my research, I discovered that some of the exiles who came to LA, such as Salka Viertel and Lion Feuchtwanger, were dedicated to not just surviving but thriving. They were armed with a steely determination to carry on as they had in Europe, whether that meant hosting Sunday salons and cocktail parties for the refugees at their homes and recreating, for an evening, a lost Vienna or Berlin — or forging ahead with their careers, disallowing language barriers or new audiences from stopping them.
Other exiles, such as Heinrich Mann and Bertolt Brecht, had a much harder time adjusting to life in Los Angeles, citing everything from the insufferable sunshine and the lack of a real “café culture,” to, more significantly, their inability to produce work and find an audience for their work. Of course each person’s experience was different in terms of how they adapted, but it seemed as if there were two categories of refugees (and almost all of them hailed from a similar intellectual European milieu); those who thrived and those who languished once they arrived here. Were there various determining factors that shaped their success versus failure to assimilate to their new culture? Or one quality in particular that helped certain exiles survive while others floundered?
DR: I think the key here, as you say, is that every person’s experience was different. Salka Viertel, for instance, was not originally an exile, having voluntarily arrived in Los Angeles in 1928, before Hitler’s rise to the chancellorship in Germany in 1933. By that time, Salka was established in Hollywood and had already written her first film for MGM, the classic Queen Christina, with the studio’s biggest star, Greta Garbo, as the lead. Salka’s position at the studio made it possible for her to advocate for the many refugees who were lucky enough to escape from Europe and find their way to Los Angeles. Once they arrived, she hosted them at her house, introduced them to potential employers, and helped them navigate an exotic new culture and landscape.
This led to an amazing confluence of personalities at Salka’s Sunday afternoon parties in Santa Monica, where movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, Johnny Weissmuller, and Harpo Marx mingled with European writers and musicians including Franz Werfel and Arnold Schoenberg. The kind of hospitality Salka offered was crucial for the new émigrés, many of whom did not speak English or know how to drive a car, much less understand how to translate their professional skills to a foreign milieu. Most of them did not end up succeeding in America. The ones who did, for the most part, had international reputations that they were able to maintain after they left Germany: Lion Feuchtwanger and Thomas Mann, for example, whose books sold well around the world. Thomas Mann’s brother Heinrich, once a hugely popular novelist in Germany, was not able to have his books translated, and very few people in America knew who he was. He was seventy years old by the time he reached Los Angeles and his life there was a struggle — in a sad counterpoint to his Nobel-prizewinning, endlessly celebrated younger brother.
Bertolt Brecht was a different case: while he was an international celebrity, he was ideologically opposed to American capitalism, especially in its Hollywood iteration. So his struggle came from his absolute unwillingness to adapt. He did write one successful Hollywood movie, Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die!, which came out in 1943. In 1945, he and Salka collaborated on a screenplay together about Joan of Arc, but it was never produced. And he mounted a legendary production of his play Galileo at the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard in 1947, in collaboration with the great British actor Charles Laughton. But Brecht engaged only minimally with America, and only because he had no other choice. He returned to East Germany in 1947, after testifying at the HUAC investigations.
The kind of hospitality Salka offered was crucial for the new émigrés, many of whom did not speak English or know how to drive a car, much less understand how to translate their professional skills to a foreign milieu.
AL: Did you see a gender difference in these attempts to assimilate? For example, did the women adapt better than the men or vice versa? During my research, I read that female exiles on the whole adapted better than their male counterparts because they were less attached to their former identities, or at least appeared to be, and were more willing and able to recreate themselves in their new homelands. For example, they learned the language faster, or took jobs far beneath their educational level to support their families. Their husbands were much more immobilized by the sudden change of life circumstances and status
DR: I do think that for the most part the women were better at adapting than the men, for some of the reasons that you mention. To me, that stems from the conditioning of these men and women within the structure of the patriarchy. Men were encouraged to develop giant egos, which made them resistant to criticism and reluctant to compromise. Women were raised to be more self-effacing and service-oriented, which made adaptation and accommodation easier. Of course there were exceptions on both sides, but for women the stakes were somewhat lower than for men, at least professionally, and frequently they were used to flying under the radar. So they could often make themselves more malleable in the face of drastic change.
Speaking of every case being different, I was so interested to see quite a wide diversity of immigrant experiences within this milieu depicted in your novel. Could you tell us a bit about this diversity as embodied by two of your protagonists, Vera and Sasha (both of whom, interestingly, are writers)? Vera arrives in Los Angeles as a refugee from France, while Sasha has vague memories of his early childhood in Eastern Europe, though he grew up on New York’s Lower East Side and works in Hollywood. Although both are Jewish, their responses to cataclysmic events in Nazi-dominated Europe are influenced by their vastly different individual histories. Is their chemistry a matter of opposites attracting, or are there other more complex reasons for their intense connection?
AL: Yes, I wanted to explore different types of immigrants even when they came from the same country. Vera and Sasha both come from Russia, but their vastly different circumstances really change their experiences of exile and assimilation. Sasha immigrates with his mother from Riga (in current-day Latvia) to New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1920s, when he is about seven. He grows up assimilating into that particular American Jewish cultural milieu of people striving to survive and make it through a mix of grit, stamina, and chutzpah that was oftentimes passed down to the next generation. His immigrant experience contrasts sharply with that of Vera, who arrives in the US about thirteen years later, in 1940, under vastly different circumstances. Vera’s child is still in France, and she clings fiercely to her identity as a French writer, and to the cultural status she had enjoyed. It proves much harder for her to adapt to American culture, especially the glitz and glamor of LA in contrast to the horrors she knows are unfolding in Europe. She also resents the brisk “look forward not back” attitude which is something that Sasha actually loves and treasures about his new country.
They are both writers, but while Sasha is propelled to write and tell stories infused with the energy of the streets and his background as a crime reporter, Vera falters once she leaves France. I wanted to show how exile affects creativity in various ways through these characters.
And despite their unlikely pairing, their wounds dovetail each other, as they are both dealing with grief and loss. Vera’s painful separation from her daughter is recent and raw. She is so mired in guilt and alienating grief she can barely get through the day, whereas Sasha’s loss of his father is buried deep in his past — so far back that he represses it until Vera opens the door to the past for him, and he opens the door to the future for her. Vera needs Sasha to look forward, so that she can hope for a future that includes her daughter, Lucie, in it, and he needs her to help him confront his own complicated past.
Why did so many European exiles flee to Los Angeles or end up here, as opposed to New York, Chicago, or other places in the US? I realize that Hollywood was a big draw, as it was a place where they could put their talents to use and secure employment as well as organizations such as the European Film Fund that found jobs for refugees in Hollywood. But was there something else, beyond the financial incentives, that drew them out west?
DR: The common response is that the visual artists tended to end up in New York or Chicago, while the writers and musicians came to Hollywood where they were more likely to find jobs. I think this is generally true, but I also think that then, as now, you tend to go where you know there are people who can help you. That could mean help through a coordinated grass-roots network like Hollywood’s European Film Fund, and it also could mean personal help from compassionate individuals like Salka Viertel. She had a natural talent as a connector of people and she used it in this case to save and sustain lives.
The European Film Fund plays a role in Those Who Are Saved, as the heroism of Varian Fry, a real-life rescuer who fulfills a key function in the novel. Did you use any amount of novelistic license when you wove these elements into the novel, and/or did you feel a responsibility to stay close to the facts? Was it freeing or restricting to work within the requirements of fiction as opposed to nonfiction?
AL: Yes, I did rely on a degree of novelistic license in terms of research but at the same time, I felt that sticking to the main facts and dates/timelines proved necessary for the integrity of the book. For example, the escape from the Gurs internment camp, and trek over the Pyrenees and then reaching Lisbon to board the ship was simplified in the novel to keep the pace moving. In reality, that particular escape route took much longer with various stops and starts and moments of reversal. In real life and in my novel, escape from France involved not just the help of Varian Fry but also the aid of Unitarian minister Waitstill Sharpe, who played a role in helping Fry get refugees to safety, as well as American vice consul Harry Bingham Jr., who actually hid Lion Feuchtwanger in his home for a period of time. But I also took certain freedoms, using the facts as a jumping-off point to understanding the character’s emotional states in reaction to the reality of their escape.
DR: Your character Leon Freudenberger, who is, it seemed to me, inspired by the German Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, says at one point in the book that “Historical novels should reflect the present state of things. If not, why write them?”I wonder whether you, as a historical novelist, agree with this sentiment. If so, was it a motivation for writing this novel in particular?
AL: Yes, Leon Freudenberger is clearly based on Lion Feuchtwanger — and I agree to a certain extent with his statement about historical fiction. When I set out to write this novel, I was more motivated by the complex rich history of the exiles in LA and how being “exiled in paradise” created a jarring dissonance with what they had left behind in Europe, and I wanted to explore how they dealt with that grief and rage over what was happening to their homelands. But I didn’t realize that the novel would also come to reflect the current state of affairs, specifically the pain of children and parents being separated at the border here in the US. The similarity to Vera’s story shows how history echoes across decades and continents and continues to be relevant.
In histories of the world of the exiles, the men — such as Lion Feuchtwanger, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, and Theodore Adorno — loom large. But what about their wives? Even when their wives, such as Salka Viertel, did remarkable things and paved the way for other artists to come live and work in LA, they didn’t receive much credit. Was this just because of the misogyny of history that dictated this narrative (and that you are wonderfully challenging and recasting with your book) or was there also an inherent misogyny within the exile community despite it being more avant-garde in many ways (i.e., open marriages, women working outside the home, and a tolerance for same-sex couples, etc.) than the rest of American culture?
DR: I think those two forms of misogyny are fundamentally the same. You can’t help being caught in your time period and its prevailing beliefs, even if you’re on the more progressive end of those beliefs. It was possible for these European exiles to have open marriages, a wife working outside the home, and a tolerance for sexual differences (as Salka’s husband, Berthold Viertel, did) while at the same time believing (as he also did) that women are purely emotional while men are rational and intellectual.
Honestly, I think women were left out of this story for decades because men were the ones writing it. I definitely wanted to give Salka Viertel the spotlight after she had been relegated to the shadows for so long. There’s now a lot more attention in exile studies directed toward the women, and thank goodness, because they — not just Salka, but also women like Marta Feuchtwanger, Helli Brecht, Katia Mann, and Alma Mahler-Werfel — are every bit as fascinating, if not more so, than the men.
On the subject of women being emotional, in your novel there are huge differences in the ways that men and women process trauma, guilt, shame, and PTSD — most notably in the case of Vera and her husband, Max. Can you tell us about that? Did the differences come purely from the imaginative evolution of these characters, or did your research into specific real-life situations affect the dynamic?
AL: The differences in the way that Max and Vera react to their separation from Lucie came from personal experience, research about how fathers and mothers process grief differently, and the fact that gender roles were much more traditional and mandated then they are now, especially around the expression of painful emotions. In the research, I found with the loss of a child in particular, mothers become much more subsumed by grief, and paralyzed by it, whereas men repress it — but interestingly, their depression often emerges years later, when it’s not as expected. And on a mythological and narrative level, the trope of the grieving mother is very ingrained in old stories. The two that come to mind is the ancient Greco-Roman myth of Demeter mourning and raging over the loss of her daughter Persephone, and Mary weeping at the cross on which Christ, her son, was crucified.
But to return to the novel, I also felt empathy for Max because he couldn’t allow himself to feel grief and he had to keep going for Vera’s sake and for their economic survival, whereas in some ways, Vera sucked all the oxygen up in the room with her grief. If there’s a next book, I think we will learn that Max suffered much more than he could express, and that, years later, he reckons with these painful emotions that he kept bottled up for too long.
The end of WWII brought with it the beginning of the Red Scare, HUAC, the blacklist, etc. and the growing silence, conformity, and paranoia of the1950s. Do you think this pendulum was inevitable given the initial seeds of this hysterically anti-communist political climate that the refugees already sensed during the 1940s?
Even today I feel more ‘at home’ in an unfamiliar environment because that’s what I’m used to. That feeling reminds me of Thomas Mann’s wonderful statement that you cite in your book: ‘When the homeland becomes foreign, the foreign becomes the homeland.’
DR: Yes, the seeds of that political climate had been planted long before they bloomed. Both Salka and Berthold Viertel had extensive FBI files and were under surveillance throughout the 1940s because of their association with outspoken leftists such as Brecht and Hanns Eisler. By 1950 it was clear that Salka was more or less unemployable in Hollywood, though she was never officially blacklisted. Many of the Los Angeles exiles, including Thomas Mann, felt that the same fascist headwinds that had driven them out of Europe were now threatening them once again in the U.S., and they left the country for good. Salka herself, with enormous regret, moved to Switzerland in the early 1960s, though she remained an American citizen until her death in 1978. She never stopped missing her house in Santa Monica, which she called a “port of entry” for so many refugees who had lost their own homes.
Your novel contains beautiful, heartbreaking evocations of the feeling of having lost one’s home forever, of not belonging anywhere: not in ravaged Europe after the war, and not in the US, either. What helped you channel those emotions for your characters — personal connections, literary inspirations, pure imagination?
AL: After writing this book, I realized that this sense of dislocation and not feeling at home in the world experienced by the characters reflects my own upbringing. My parents divorced when I was seven, and I spent my childhood traveling between their two houses, which were vastly different in their value systems. I was always either packing or unpacking a bag. I didn’t quite belong in either place and felt like a stranger to my own experience. I was skeptical of the idea of a homeland or family home, and realized that if I ever wanted one, I’d have to create it within myself wherever I went. Even today I feel more “at home” in an unfamiliar environment because that’s what I’m used to. That feeling reminds me of Thomas Mann’s wonderful statement that you cite in your book: “When the homeland becomes foreign, the foreign becomes the homeland.”
Are there aspects of Salka that you identify with as a writer? For instance, a commonality or spark that transcends time and space that perhaps emerged while you were researching her life and work?
DR: As many people do, I fell in love with Salka after reading her 1969 memoir, The Kindness of Strangers. Since then I’ve felt a strong spiritual connection to her. I think that’s probably a necessary condition for writing a biography, but for me it went even deeper: she expanded my moral imagination in ways I had never thought possible. I don’t want to suggest that she was a saint; she had her faults, as all humans do. But she showed me ways to take action in the most bewildering circumstances with courage and compassion. She taught me that everything global has local implications, while everything local reverberates around the globe. And also she was warm, funny, witty company throughout nine years of researching and writing.
AL: Are you thinking about writing another book? Or another kind of project?
DR: I was inspired by Salka’s long, complicated relationship with her husband, Berthold, to start work on a new nonfiction book about a literary marriage. Stay tuned! How about you? Have your characters from Those Who Are Saved left you in peace, or do they want more from you? What’s next?
AL: I think the characters want more from me! I’m researching the next book, which will trace Lucie’s story, starting when she’s in her thirties living in Paris in the late 1960s and trying to become a painter with two young children and a husband. Vera and Sasha end up having a son, who is draft age for Vietnam by 1967, so the novel will deal with second wave feminism, what it means to be an artist (and the determination it took to become a female artist in the male-dominated art world at that time), intergenerational trauma, and the Vietnam War.
Alexis Landau is a graduate of Vassar College and received an MFA from Emerson College and a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Empire of the Senses and lives with her husband and two children in Los Angeles.
Donna Rifkind grew up in Los Angeles entranced by the European aura of her Jewish grandmothers and aunts. Her literary criticism appears in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Commentary, and many other publications. In 2006, she was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.