On his trip in 1925.
Still aboard the Vienna, Werfel noted in his “Egyptian Diary” that the Zionists were regrettably repeating the anachronistic mistake of nationalism: the Jews believed, Werfel wrote, that they were compelled to prove that they, too, could “do the same thing they have so despised and mocked in other nations.”
After his stay:
...The journey through Old Testament lands shocked Werfel into an intense preoccupation with his Jewish origins that went far beyond his admitted interest in Israel’s religion and history. In the months following his return from the Middle East, he spent time almost every day reading about Jewish history, customs, and rituals; he relearned Hebrew, written and spoken, and studied German translations of the books of the Old Testament and the Talmud....
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...He took daily walks through the narrow streets of the Old City, returning over and over again to the places of worship of the world’s three monotheistic religions. He met the Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem; talked to physicians, architects, and philosophers, arguing with them about the pros and cons of Zionism; and visited numerous agricultural schools and cooperatives in the countryside surrounding Jerusalem.
From his wife's diary:
From Cairo we went to Palestine. Our train reached the border at El Cantara about midnight; it was icy cold, and a gale blew us along the platform as we got out for the strict passport and customs inspection. The Russian Jew who was to help us looked gloomy. We asked why. "Only five Jews today," he explained. "You two, and three others." I said this meant that only four Jews had arrived - because I was a Gentile. "Never mind," he said severely. "You're coming here with Herr Werfel, so you're Jewish." My attempt to talk him out of his chauvinism failed.
Some of Mann’s friends were astonished that he could maintain his friendship with Alma when he had been such a prominent opponent of Nazism. After all, she was an unrepentant anti-Semite who spoke openly and often of her preference for Aryans and her disappointment with Jews, even though she had married two of them, Mahler and Werfel. At a social event in California in 1942, when Werfel was still alive, she had been heard remarking that the Nazis had done ‘a great many praiseworthy things’ and that the concentration camps were ‘fabrications put out by the refugees’...Werfel remained tied to her, almost against his will. He hated her infidelity and her anti-Semitic outbursts – ‘we’re tearing one another to shreds,’ he lamented in one letter – but somehow always came back for more...
...Hilmes is the first of Alma’s biographers to treat her anti-Semitism and belief in her own godliness as driving forces in her life, rather than a form of unthinking prejudice. In The Bride of the Wind (1991) – the title is taken from the famous swirling Kokoschka painting of himself in bed with Alma – Susanne Keegan presented Alma’s anti-Semitism as tangential to her personality: a ‘tasteless’ aberration. Keegan noted that she had many Jewish friends and treated Jewish men such as Schönberg and Mahler as ‘honorary Gentiles’, if they were brilliant and creative enough. Hilmes puts a rather different gloss on it...
...In the diaries that Hilmes has uncovered, Alma is far more unguarded in her frequent expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment. She calls Canetti a ‘half-crippled, nihilistic Jew’ and writes warmly of a meeting with Hitler, when, under the influence of a bottle of champagne, she admired his ‘kindly, soft eyes’. As Hilmes sees it, Alma deliberately sought out relationships with talented but ugly Jewish men so that she could lord it over them. She would try to improve them, even sanctify them with her love, and when this failed she would feel contempt for them. When the initial glow of feeling for Werfel wore off, in 1924, she wrote that he ‘has shrunk back down to the short, ugly, fat Jew’ that he was when they first met. Her anti-Semitism was so deep-rooted that it applied even to her own children. She favoured Manon, the ‘Aryan’ child of Gropius, over Anna, the surviving child from her marriage to Mahler. When Manon died, aged 17, she lamented the death of ‘an angel’: Manon was her own ‘posterity in the purist form’. When she told the writer Claire Goll that she had lost her only daughter, Goll responded, ‘But Alma … don’t you have two others as well?’ to which Alma said: ‘Yes, but those two are both half-breeds.’ In her diary, she was more merciless still about Anna, lamenting her misfortune that ‘a 150 per cent Jewess had been born from my womb.’
Many women have aspired to ‘conquer’ men. Some have sought to be muses, under the impression that enabling a man’s creative work is itself a form of genius. It takes a strange personality indeed – something more than Hilmes’s ‘hysteric’ – to see it as her mission to inspire powerful Jewish men to worship her in order that she could then liberate them from their Jewishness. Alma recorded in her diary in 1914 that she ‘quivered with joy’ when a friend of hers, a professor of cultural history, remarked that she had led Mahler away from Judaism. ‘That was what I always felt, but I was even happier when I finally heard the word from someone else! I made him brighter. So my presence in his life was a mission accomplished after all!? That alone I always wanted, all my life! To make people brighter.’
...She behaved with the conviction – calcified by alcohol, a habit she deemed Aryan, often berating the Jews around her for not drinking enough – that she was performing God’s will.
This played out most blatantly in her relationship with Werfel. Alma’s dislike of his Jewishness was a source of tension from the outset. There were happy moments, when she sat at the piano playing Bach for him – she refused to play for anyone but her husband. But then there were the other times, when she shouted at him for being a ‘weakling’ – for taking the side of the Spanish democratic government against Franco, for example – or yelled at him in front of dinner guests: ‘Don’t forget, I’m not a Jew! I’m not a Jew!’ So far as she was concerned, the lack of sensitivity was all on Werfel’s side, as he failed to understand the sacrifices she had made for him in leaving her Christian life in Vienna behind. One year, Alma and Werfel spent the Christmas holidays with their friend Paul von Zsolnay on the Italian Riviera. Christmas Eve, she told her diary, was happy for the two Jews but ‘very sad’ for her because ‘nobody took any notice of the thirsting Christian woman yearning to bring back her childhood.’
In August 1945, Werfel suffered a fatal heart attack, aged 54. Alma did not attend the funeral – ‘I never go to those things,’ she said – but she is known to have helped Georg Moenius, the Catholic priest who performed the ceremony, to write the funeral address. In it, Moenius rather curiously spoke of the different kinds of baptism that were possible: baptism by water, baptism by emergency and finally ‘baptism by desire’, when in the last moments before death someone can become a Christian ‘by the mere force of this desire’ without any explicit rites. The suggestion – never absolutely confirmed – is that Alma finally forced on the ailing Werfel (who had so often affirmed his Jewish faith) a baptism by desire, a desire that was actually all hers. If she willed something enough, it must be so. If a symphony should have been arranged differently, if a man should have held different beliefs, if any artist needed brightening, it was Alma’s Christian calling to intervene.^
In her eighties, Alma, now living in Manhattan, was in very poor health. She had a weak heart and after several mild strokes seemed confused...The old lady’s New York doctors diagnosed diabetes and urged her to cut down on the drink, but she rejected both the diagnosis and the advice. Since diabetes, in Alma’s view, was a Jewish disease, she couldn’t possibly have it...