Thomas Wolfe in Nazi Concentration Camps

Article excerpt

Thomas Wolfe was present in Nazi concentration camps. (1) Yet he was not among the numerous tourists, journalists, and other visitors who at regular intervals were allowed to observe some of these notorious places. (2) Dachau, for instance, by the end of the 1930s was opening its gates several times each week to German guests as well as international delegations, and many camps were the subjects of newspaper and magazine articles--often including photographs--that appeared both at home and abroad (Wollenberg 38; Gellately 51-69). Nor was Wolfe, of course, ever an inmate in such a camp--even after his short story "I Have a Thing to Tell You" appeared in three consecutive issues of the New Republic (March 1937), and he realized that he probably wouldn't be able to "go back to the place where I'm liked best and have more friends than anywhere else in the world" ("To Elizabeth" 46). Had he tried to do so, he almost certainly would just have been turned away at the border rather than arrested and imprisoned (Stokes, "Translation and Reception" 172).

Instead, Wolfe was found in at least two (and possibly more) concentration camps in the same fashion and at the same time as he could be encountered in thousands of homes, bookshops, and libraries all across Hitler's Reich: namely, in the form of his fiction. Although it has long been known that books existed to a greater or lesser degree in most such camps and indeed that several possessed large and functioning libraries for the use of inmates, (3) only relatively recently have Thomas Wolfe's works been identified among those included in their collections and actually read by some prisoners. This fact is also not without a certain irony because following the appearance of "I Have a Thing to Tell You" its author was persona non grata to the regime's foremost literary critic, and his publications may even have been briefly banned in the country (Stokes, "Translation and Reception" 170-71). Hence it is conceivable that for a while it may have been easier to obtain Wolfe's books in a concentration camp than elsewhere in Germany! Be that as it may, the story of Thomas Wolfe's presence in what were the archetypical sites of Nazi persecution and repression provides a curious footnote to the account of his multifarious connections to the Germans and their land.

On 4 March 1933, two full years after Wolfe's agent, Madeleine Boyd, had signed a contract with publisher Ernst Rowohlt to produce a German edition of Look Homeward, Angel, its brilliant translation by Darmstadt poet Hans Schiebelhuth was finally available to purchase in stores (Pusey 132). Only two weeks later the recently appointed chief of police for the city of Munich and head of the black-uniformed SS, Heinrich Himmler, announced at a press conference the imminent opening of a concentration camp for political prisoners who would be housed in the vacant buildings of a derelict gunpowder and munitions factory located near the suburban town of Dachau (Zamecnik 233). This first Nazi institution of its type was followed by dozens of others, most of them short lived. But the Dachau camp served as a model for the handful that continued to operate prior to and then following the outbreak of war in September 1939. How did it and similar extra-judicial penal establishments come to include libraries among their facilities and acquire, for at least some of these, novels by Thomas Wolfe? Moreover, what if any discernible effect did these books have upon the inmates who read them?

Originally, the only books in Dachau were ones that individual prisoners happened to bring with them when they were incarcerated. However, in the fall of 1933 an inmate who was a Bavarian publisher persuaded the commandant that a camp library would provide a useful means of occupying the minds of the prisoners, who at that point were mostly still not otherwise employed. The publisher was allowed to collect money among his fellow inmates for that purpose and also to solicit his acquaintances in the book trade to contribute some of their titles. …