Every end-of-year media round-up highlighted the plight of refugees as the story of 2015. Photographs held sway in capturing the depth and breadth of the disaster, and one could argue that the immediacy of events is better served by documentary photographers than the background causes for the outflow of millions from Syria on their way to Europe.
The idea that photographs offer something beyond language took hold in the aftermath of World War II, when, initially, print journalists led the way, until photographs proved brutally direct in their ability to take account of what the German war in Europe caused in total human suffering.
But the power of the photograph to examine social facts was recognized in the 1920s. In response to the work of German photographer August Sander, one writer concluded that entire “stories could be told” from Sander’s photographs of ordinary Germans: “They are raw material for writers, material that is more stimulating and more productive than many a newspaper report…”
In the years that Sander was photographing German farmers, workers, and what he called “The Persecuted” of the Nazi regime, Joseph Roth was riding the rails across Europe, from Marseilles to Astrakhan, sampling the hotels of Tirana (in Albania), Rome and Hamburg, even off into the sticks in Polish Galicia. He was among the best-known European newspaper writers of his era, sending dispatches to newspapers in Berlin, Frankfurt and Prague, while working on novels and short stories.
The Hotel Years collects newly translated articles that date from the immediate post-World War I moment up to the outbreak of World War II. In this way, they depict the variety of disasters that transformed European life and sent millions in any direction that would take them away from their home’s particular calamity.
Of Sarajevo Roth writes: “The World War began in Sarajevo, on a balmy summer afternoon in 1914. It was a Sunday; I was a student at the time. In the afternoon a girl came round. Girls wore plaits in those days. She was carrying a large yellow straw hat in her hand, it was like summer coming to call…”
The Russian Revolution sends its émigrés fleeing and Roth runs into them in Paris: “The émigrés saw themselves as the only rightful representatives of Russia. What grew to significance in Russia following the Revolution was decried as ‘un-Russian’ or ‘Jewish’ or ‘cosmopolitan.’”
Once the 1920s are in full swing, Roth’s material is ripe and varied. Emigrants crowd into ships heading for the unknown. On a ship called the USS Pittsburgh, leaving Bremerhaven, he spies “people from the east, mainly Jews, lucky to have escaped the Europe of pogroms; also Russian peasants and young Ukrainian women, with colourful headscarves like summer meadows…”
In Germany, political and economic crises throw up a vicious struggle between Marxists and German nationalist parties that include the Nazis. Strolling in wintertime Berlin in 1923, Roth encounters two “high-school kids” walking “arm in arm, like a pair of drunks, and singing: Down, down, down with the Jewish republic, Filthy Yids, Filthy Yids!”
Lurking in the background of all this, and especially difficult for Roth to accept, is the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the relatively safe home it presented to Jews under the rule of Emperor Franz Josef. “There was once an emperor,” he writes nostalgically. “A great part of my childhood and youth happened under the often merciless lustre of His Majesty, which I am entitled to write about today because I was so vehemently opposed to it then.” It is the “shock” of the emperor’s death years before that Roth recalls for his readers in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1928. “The chilly sun of the Hapsburgs was being extinguished, but it had at least been a sun.”
The writer of such sharp-eyed commentary spent the ’20s on the road, in hotels, wandering strange city streets and countrysides. Hotels became his haven. A section of The Hotel Years traces his travels, with attention to lobbies, cafés, window views, and the people met along the way. In one hotel, Roth takes account of “commercial travellers… the traveller in soaps… The paper seller… The man with the fountain pens…”
He recalls receptionists, cooks, waiters and figures who appear now in movies as running gags: “the night porter comes along, and lights the evening. Fresh, youthful, shaved and powdered, in blue and gold livery, he rises like a second morning when the world has evening.” The night porter and his comrades oversee Roth’s magic land of “exotic” visitors who waft “through the glass wings of the revolving doors into the lobby.”
Roth’s life and work deteriorated in the 1930s as his alcoholism worsened. In 1936, he wrote to his friend and supporter Stefan Zweig, another chronicler of Jewish Mitteleuropa: “Journalism. Revolting work. Humiliation. Sixteen books. Success. And in the last five years, associated with personal unhappiness and therefore invalidated.” Zweig struggled to save Roth from financial and personal collapse, but he was dead in 1939, at age 44.
It is as if Roth’s writerly life was too tightly linked to the events he covered in his dispatches to newspapers in European capitals. As Europe headed toward its greatest disaster, the continent’s eminent chronicler ran out of options.
Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.