Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 10

Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel and Franz Werfel in 1935
Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel (1879-1964) and Franz Werfel (1890-1945) in 1935

A Nice Hike

In early September of 1940, Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma (1879-1964) – now married to the Jewish author Franz Werfel (1890-1945) – walked from France to Spain in order to escape the Nazi occupation of Europe.

(Time out. We read constantly about those intrepid individuals who, in order to escape the Nazis, “walked across the Pyrenees from occupied France to neutral Spain.” The image so conjured is one of daring and desperate people braving an alpine climb and descent – after all, the Pyrenees rise to a height of 11,168 feet – all the while avoiding border patrols, searchlights, and barking dogs. In fact, the crossing from the French town of Cerbère to the Spanish town of Portbou involves walking a roughly two-mile-long path up and over a hill along the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a stroll, for heaven’s sake, one that hardly constitutes a hike!)

Alma had been told to bring only what she could carry, but she showed up in Marseilles (the point of departure for escapees) with twelve trunks worth of luggage. The man who arranged her escape from France was the American journalist and first order hero Varian Fry (1907-1967). (For our information: working for the privately funded “Emergency Rescue Committee”, Fry managed to spirit over 1000 people out of occupied Europe in 1940 and 1941. Among them were the philosopher Hannah Arendt, the mathematician Jacques Hadamard, the Nobel laureate physiologist Otto Meyerhof, the Hebraic scholar Oscar Goldberg, the artists Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, André Breton, and Max Ernst; the writers Claude Lévi-Strauss, Heinrich Mann, and Walter Mehring; and the composer Bohuslav Martinů.)

Varian Fry
Varian Fry (1907-1967)

As an American national with the proper exit and entry visas, Fry was able to travel by train from Cerbère to Portbou with Alma Mahler-Werfel’s luggage. It was in Portbou, following her “trek” (for which she wore a pair of light sandals), that Alma was reunited with her luggage. After cooling their heels in Portugal from September 8 to October 4, 1940, Alma and Franz Werfel finally boarded the S.S. Nea Hellas, which arrived in New York City on October 13, 1940. Among the treasures stashed in Alma’s voluminous luggage was her deceased husband Gustav’s manuscript for his unpublished (and unfinished!) Symphony No. 10.…

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