From the modern classic Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank to Malala Yousafzai’s horrific recount of Taliban occupation, it would seem that war memoirs are a dime a dozen these days. The chaos of modern times has allowed for many a soldier and survivors to recount their experiences of hellish betrayal, and we as society lap it up, keen to hear first-hand what it was really like for people who were inches from death, only to escape at the last minute and leave a lasting mark on history as their story is recounted over and over again to an eager yet horrified new generation of history buffs.
Whatever the case may be, survivor stories such as these are just as important as they were at the end of the last world war, when Anne Frank’s tale shocked readers worldwide with a heavy dose of reality. But sometimes, stories go missing, which is just what happened with Moriz Scheyer’s Asylum, which has only been uncovered in the last few years, and was published by Profile Books (and Allen & Unwin in Australia) early last year.
A prolific arts critic living in Vienna, Moriz Scheyer moved in circles that would have lovers of all things arts and culture envious. But his reputation was not enough for him to escape from the clutches of a Nazi Germany hell-bent on removing any traces of the Jewish race. Though friends tried to hide Scheyer and his family in less than adequate accommodation abroad, it wasn’t long before the Germans caught up with him, throwing him into a concentration camp at an advanced age, where those more fortunate than he could be seeking early retirement. How he was liberated is something you’ll just have to read to believe.
Asylum is Scheyer’s story: the good, the bad and the ugly. And while it may be similar to recounts of fellow Jews, it seems all the more unique because of the way in which it is written. For comparison’s sake, take Diary of a Young Girl. While Frank’s journal is full of the hope and whimsy (offset by moments of panic and terror) that one can expect from a pre-teen girl, Asylum is much more direct in its portrayal of the way Jewish people were treated during Nazi occupation.
From the outset, Scheyer is completely aware of his mortality, as evident in the foreword, where he states, “There were many times when, even if by good fortune I did manage some work on this book, I did not know whether I would be delivered into the clutches of the Germans the next day … many times when – to put it bluntly – the end seemed to be before me.”
It is this brutal truth that makes the book so difficult to digest, and yet ever so compelling. Even as Scheyer is in fear of his life and pining lost family members or friends, he is critical of his captors and what they have done to a society he once loved dearly. When it comes down to it, often, he didn’t expect that he would survive the night, let alone the war itself, yet he worked on his little tale with the knowledge that his story needed to be told.
That is why this book is so important, not only for history tragics, but for those who desire a deeper understanding of the gifts we are given in life. A difficult read it may be, but Asylum as in life itself, some things aren’t meant to be easy but we do it anyway.