Home Culture Travel Living in the sun, and on the run in southern France

Living in the sun, and on the run in southern France

Fishing boats dock in Sanary harbour. (Nancy Wigston photo)

Around two hours southeast of Marseilles, in France’s Var region, is the small city of Sanary-sur-Mer. Its cove-dotted coastline, sandy beaches, beautiful market and perfect scoop of harbour has seduced day-trippers, retirees and famous names like diver Jacques Cousteau and writer Aldous Huxley.

But Sanary – as the locals call it – is much more than a pretty town. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, this small port became the preferred destination of so many anti-Nazi writers, journalists, artists and thinkers, that it was ironically called the “capital of German literature.” The German-speakers thronging the portside cafés – Jews, anti-Nazis, communists, pacifists – were a disparate crew who sharing one thing in common: they all loathed the Reich.

Today, the town honours those intellectuals with a “memory trail” that marks the houses and cafés that were frequented by German and Austrian exiles. My guide on the memory trail, Ina, who was originally from Germany, tells me that German tourists smile when they recognize “Mack the Knife,” blasting cheerfully from the merry-go-round near the shore.

Yet few know that playwright Bertolt Brecht put the finishing touches on his Threepenny Opera (which featured the famous song) in nearby St-Cyr, working with singer Lotte Lenya and composer Kurt Weil. A frequent visitor to Sanary, Brecht visited his friend and mentor, German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger, in his “tranquil, white-stuccoed (Sanary) house (where) olive groves sloped down to a deep, azure sea.” Feuchtwanger wrote that he was very content in Sanary and had “no thoughts of leaving.”

After welcoming Germans and Austrians who were under threat, France’s borders suddenly tightened when the trickle of immigrants became a flood. After France fell to Germany in 1940, the exiles moved on – if they were lucky – walking over the Pyrenees mountains to Spain and then to Lisbon, often aided by Americans: Unitarians, diplomats and the Emergency Rescue Committee, which was headed by Varian Fry.

Photos from the 1930s show serious and often glamorous faces under palm trees and by the sea. Life by the Mediterranean could be not only pleasant, but productive – especially for those who had money. As Ludwig Marcuse wrote, “We were in paradise, against our will.”

Some Sanary exiles captured their displacement in memoirs. By far the most engaging accounts of expatriate life in 1930s Sanary were penned by Sybille Bedford, whose works of biographical fiction bring a vanished era to life. Born Sybille von Schoenebeck to a semi-impoverished German aristocrat and a half-Jewish mother, Bedford spent her teen and young adult years in Sanary with her mother and stepfather. Few writers capture the bohemian life more vividly, nor the dangers to that life that came to the fore after Hitler rose to power.

For most, exile was not a choice, but the question remains: why Sanary? In the ’30s, more than 500 German and Austrian exiles were scattered along the French Riviera, the majority living in Sanary, Bandol and Lavandou. Word spread quickly among the close-knit intelligentsias of Berlin and Vienna about the region’s sunshine, beauty and peace. Life in France was also inexpensive, which was a plus for those who had their houses and possessions stolen and their bank accounts frozen.

An exception was Nobel Prize-winning novelist Thomas Mann. Traveling outside Germany in 1933, Mann was contacted by his eldest children, Erika and Klaus. Both were passionate and public anti-fascists. Do not return to Germany, they told their father. Come to Sanary.

Bedford recounts the day she opened her door to the Mann offspring, who were asking for directions and looking for a villa for their parents. Klaus later started an anti-fascist journal, Die Sammlung, with contributions by notable writers like his uncle Heinrich and Aldous Huxley, both of whom were Sanary residents. Huxley, of Brave New World fame, had lived in a home overlooking a local beach since 1930.

Thomas Mann and his wife first stayed at the elegant Hotel de La Tour, which was named after the tower that has guarded Sanary since the Middle Ages. Soon, the portside cafés were bursting with German-speakers, who would read their works-in-progress, while exchanging ideas and the latest news.

Most restaurants and cafés from that era have been modernized, apart from Le Nautique, a bar that exudes the friendly, old-fashioned atmosphere of its first incarnation as Café Schwob.

Moving from the Hotel de la Tour into a rather posh villa, Thomas Mann assumed a prominent role in refugee life, as did novelist Lion Feuchtwanger. Exile or no exile, it seemed everyone was working. Feuchtwanger wrote an astonishing three books in Sanary and Thomas Mann finished the last of his trilogy. There were also many painters and photographers, all working feverishly.


Pausing on our walk, Ina and I gaze at the plaque where the Mann villa once stood, high on a hill overlooking the sea. It was replaced in 1944 with a German anti-aircraft battery. Other refugees who settled on this same road included writer Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler-Werfel, a composer and, more famously perhaps, the widow of Gustav Mahler. Their remarkable renovated water tower suited Werfel, who liked to write in the topmost rooms, despite Alma’s complaints about the lower rooms being rather cramped.

Ina tells me that neighbours reported Werfel to the authorities as a spy, assuming the lights from his tower studio were signals to the enemy. Helped by Varian Fry, the couple escaped over the Pyrenees into Portugal and Spain. After France fell in 1940, all exiles knew that their time on the French Riviera was limited.

Truth be told, not everyone loved the seaside life. In 1933, Bertolt Brecht grumpily called his stay in the south “boring.” And although Lion Feuchtwanger very much enjoyed living there before the Nazis invaded, The Devil in France: My Encounter with him in the Summer of 1940 tells the vivid tale of his fear and confusion during his internment under the Vichy regime. After four months, he was rescued and smuggled to Marseille disguised as an elderly Englishwoman. Ultimately taken by ship to New York, via Lisbon, his rescuers were an American Unitarian couple, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who were devoted to helping Jews and others escape.

Shoppers stroll the trendy streets. (Nancy Wigston photo)

Ironically, many of the Sanary crowd, including the Feuchtwangers, the Manns and the Huxleys, wound up in California and became neighbours once again. Yet memories of their “exile in paradise” remained strong: some returned to France (or Germany) after the war, but most looked back with great affection on this paradoxical period in their lives, when they were living in the sun, and on the run.