Thomas Mann and his family, Franz Werfel, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Alma Mahler – many famous authors gathered in Zurich before the outbreak of World War II. Central to the group were Ferdinand and Marianne Rieser, a largely unknown married couple who have been overlooked by posterity. Eveline Hasler takes an informal, novelesque approach in her exploration of the anxieties and creative tensions that defined the time.
Ferdinand Rieser was a vintner who never quite managed to shrug off his mercantile image even when he became director of the Pfauen Theatre. But it was thanks to his commitment and dedication—as well as that of his wife Marianne, one of Franz Werfel’s sisters—that the theatrical company he bought and ran as a private concern became a refuge for many threatened thespians from Germany. Wolfgang Langhoff, Kurt Hirschfeld, Leopold Lindtberg and Therese Giehse staged bold plays critical of the Nazi regime alongside light entertainment and comedy. They all were caught up in the heated debates that raged between members of the Swiss National Front and leftists: Thomas Mann, the world-famous author who finally made a stand against the Nazis, his children Erika and Klaus as well as factory-owner family Schwarzenbach- Wille, whose antithetical offspring Annemarie and James went on to have very different careers; she became a widely travelled writer and he a right-wing nationalist politician. Eveline Hasler succeeds in conceiving a compelling portrait of a group of people awaiting the unthinkable with baited breath. As the shadows of war gather across Europe, she examines the situation in Vienna, Prague and Munich before moving to neutral Zurich to consider the reactions to the approaching conflict through the eyes of the exiled literati.