Franz Werfel was born in 1890 in the city of Prague, the son of a wealthy Jewish glove manufacturer and merchant. During his high school years in Prague, he became a personal friend of Willy Haas and Max Brod, who were also to become writers. After his graduation, Werfel attended lectures on law and philosophy at the German University of Prague. His mandatory one-year military service was spent in an artillery regiment in Prague. His father’s attempt to make him a merchant by sending him as an apprentice to a freight company in Hamburg failed: Werfel showed no inclination or talent for becoming a merchant. In 1911, his first book of poetry, Der Weltfreund, appeared, evidently influenced by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871, 1876, 1881-1882, 1889, 1891-1892).
Because of the success of this collection, Werfel was able to obtain a position as an editor with the Kurt Wolff publishing company in Leipzig in the fall of 1912, where he stayed until 1914—an extremely productive time. In July of 1914, he had to follow the call to arms; during the first months of World War I, he wrote a number of antiwar poems. In 1917, he was ordered to the war press headquarters in Vienna, where a number of other authors, among them Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal,Robert Musil, Peter Altenberg, and Franz Blei, were able to survive. During this time, he met Alma Mahler—the widow of composer Gustav Mahler, then the wife of the architect Walter Gropius. During the revolutionary turmoil at the end of the war, Werfel participated in meetings and rallies of the leftist Red Guards, which had been founded by young authors, an activity that he later regretted.
The years from 1918 to 1938 Werfel spent in and around...
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