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Exiled German-speaking intellectuals in Southern California: Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler-Werfel

During the 1930s and 1940s, many German Jews and intellectuals fled Nazi Germany. This LibGuide provides information about German-speaking intellectuals who found refuge in Southern California

  Franz Werfel (1890-1945) & Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879-1964)

Franz Werfel's years in Southern California: 1940-1945.

Alma Mahler-Werfel's years in Southern California: 1940-1952.


The Czech-born, Austrian-Jewish writer Franz Werfel married Alma Mahler (widow of composer Gustav Mahler) in 1929. The Werfels fled Vienna in 1938 for France when Austria fell to the German army. In 1940, the Werfels along with Heinrich Mann and his nephew Golo Mann fled by foot over the rugged Pyrenees to Spain, ultimately leaving Europe for the United States.

Werfel wrote poetry and plays but is best known for his novels. Among these are The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933; Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh) and Embezzled Heaven (1939; Der veruntreute Himmel). While in Southern California, Werfel completed his novel The Song of Bernadette (1941; Das Lied von Bernadette) thereby fulfilling his vow made in 1940 in Lourdes for a safe escape. This novel was made later into the film The Song of Bernadette, starring Jennifer Jones who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1943 for her performance. Werfel also wrote his final play, Jacobowsky and the Colonel (1944; Jacobowsky und der Oberst), while in Southern California. Werfel's ability to work in the film industry made him one of the few financially successful émigrés.

The Werfels lived in the Hollywood hills at 6900 Los Tilos Road between December 1940 and June 1942. In September they moved to 610 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills.

Franz Werfel died in Los Angeles during the summer of 1945 and was buried in Rosendale Cemetary. His body was later exhumed and returned to Vienna for reburial.

Alma Mahler-Werfel is well known for her close association with many of Europe's greatest artists and intellectuals. As the daughter of landscape painter Emil Schindler, she grew up in an artistic household, studing art and piano, turning later to composing with Alexander von Zemlinsky as her teacher.

In 1902 she married Gustav Mahler giving birth in 1902 and 1904 to their daughters, Maria and Anna (who became a significant sculptress, see photograph on the right). Although Mahler was not supportive of Alma's own musical career, he immortalized her in the first movement of his Symphony No. 6, and he dedicated Symphony No. 8 to her. After his death in 1911 Alma became involved with Oskar Kokoschka, who painted her many times, most notably in "The Tempest" (1914; "Die Windsbraut"). In August 1915 she married the architect Walter Gropius. In 1916 their daugther, Manon, was born; the couple was divorced after World War I.

During her lifetime Alma Mahler became friends with numerous celebrated artists, including the painter Gustav Klimt (who made several portraits of her), composer Arnold Schoenberg, the writer Gerhart Hauptmann, and the singer Enrico Caruso. The composer Alban Berg dedicated his opera Wozzeck (1921) to her.

After Werfel's death, Alma travelled to Europe and in the early 1950s moved to New York, hoping to leave painful memories behind in Los Angeles.


Hans Wagener. Understanding Franz Werfel. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Alma Mahler-Werfel. Mein Leben. Frankfurt/M: Fischer Verlag, 1960.

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Michaela Ullmann
Michaela Ullmann Head, Instruction & Assessment