Tekst van de katerlezing die Roth-biograaf Keiron Pim gaf op 7 mei 2023 in Ieper

Joseph Roth talk in Ieper


Thanks for inviting me to speak – it is such a pleasure to be here and to have had the opportunity to bring my family to this special and important place.

One of the pleasures of writing nonfiction is the people you meet during your research. One of the best things about working on this book was getting to know Els Snick, Femke Foppema and Ilse Josepha Lazaroms, all of whom were a great help to me in varying ways...

So before I go further I would like to express my gratitude to the Genootschap for inviting me – I’m most grateful to be here.

I have given several talks about my biography of Joseph Roth to people who don’t know many details of his life, and it is refreshing to speak for the first time to an audience of Joseph Roth enthusiasts. I am assuming that I don’t need to do what I usually do for an uninitiated audience and set out the basic biographical details of Roth’s life. I think we can start with a good level of assumed knowledge and focus on the finer details.

I am also going to assume that your English is excellent, as it always seems to be among Dutch and Belgian people, but please do let me know if anything I say is unclear – whether you’d like anything repeated or clarified.

So I’m going to focus on two aspects. First I’ll talk about how I wrote the book, then I’m going to talk about an aspect of Roth’s life that seems appropriate in this context – the First World War.

How did I write this book? Like any non-fiction work that demands substantial research, with a lot of help from other people – again, I must mention Els here as someone whose assistance was invaluable when I came to write about Roth’s times in the Netherlands and Belgium.

How did I research Roth’s life? I’ll mention the main aspects in brief firstly, then expand on them...

  • Visiting locations in person
  • Interviewing people
  • Reading around his life – the previous biographies, the critical studies of his texts – as well as reading his own works
  • Archival research


I’ll say a bit more now about each of these:

  • Footstepping – walking the streets on foot, getting out into a location so you can write about it with all your senses. Not just to picture it but to be within it – you know its sounds, its smells, its atmosphere, which can be so evocative and transporting for the reader. In 2019 I had a week in Ukraine, when I based myself in Lviv, formerly Lemberg, and also spent a day in Brody. This was invaluable in giving me a feel for the town where he grew up. With a tour guide, I walked along Goldgasse, the street where he lived with his mother and grandfather, I went to the Crown Prince Rudolf gymnasium Roth attended, I looked at the ruins of the synagogue, and the old cemetery on the edge of town with its extraordinary tall, richly engraved tombstones.
  • Even just flying into Lviv was helpful because it gave me a sense of the landscape, the bigger picture: as I write in the book, The view from a Lviv-bound aeroplane descending over western Ukraine reveals the terrain that shaped these people’s lives. It is the land that Joseph Roth describes in his finest novel, Radetzkymarsch, one of great fertile levels scattered with small cruciform towns that abut vast forests, which from the plane window look like drapes of green crushed velvet, stroked and scuffed.
  • You start to understand how this world provided the pastoral motifs we see in Roth’s later novels: the skylarks, the crickets, the marshes full of frogs, the forests, the starry night skies.
  • I also went to Sigmund Grubel’s family’s apartment block, on Hofmanstrasse, where Roth lived while he briefly attended the university of Lemberg. It’s an atmospheric building with lots of old period features. A tour guide I’d booked managed to talk our way into the apartment building so we could look around. In the book I describe it:
  • The ceiling above the stairwell is painted with scrolls of flowers and foliage in faded grey, jade and primrose-yellow. The chipped wooden handrail is supported by an art nouveau balustrade, and as you tread the wide, worn steps they croak like marshland frogs. After two flights comes a landing, and the door to Flat 5 is on the left. Dust drifts through the shafts of light from the window, and grey shadows of the staircase’s looping ironwork stretch across the matt parquet floor.
  • So getting out there into the scene pays dividends, you can feel the particular quality and energy of a place and try to convey that in your writing.
  • On my way back from Ukraine I had a quick stopover in Vienna when I had a wander around Leopoldstadt, where Roth lived for a time, and where my maternal grandparents grew up. I was booked to return for a proper research trip in 2021, then I had to cancel it because they went back into lockdown, and it was never possible to reschedule.
  • But as travel restrictions eased at the end of that year, I got to Paris for a few days – I stayed in the Hotel de la Place de l’Odeon, which was the first hotel Roth stayed in when he moved to Paris. Another tour guide got us into the apartment block on the rue Tournon that used to be the Hotel de la Poste where Roth lived in his last months, which really brought home to me how small that hotel was... certainly a step down from the Foyot, where he lived previously until its demolition.
  • Although the Café Tournon was closed for renovation while I was there, I took dinner every night in the Au Petit Suisse bistro where Roth also drank, and wrote up my notes from the day while having a brandy, as he would have done (though just the one, so not exactly like him). I went to the church of St Sulpice, and the chapel at Latour Maubourg, where he is thought to have worshipped, I went to the Hopital Necker where he died, and I went to the cemetery where he is buried.
  • Finally I visited Amsterdam and Ostend. In Amsterdam, Femke Foppema and Ilse Josepha Lazaroms showed me around, and we found the former Hotel Eden where Roth stayed, and which he describes in Confession of a Murderer.
  • In Ostend, Els kindly let me stay at her apartment and showed me various sites, including the seafront bar where Roth and Stefan Zweig were photographed together in 1936.
  • Interviewing: to name just a few people, as well as Els I spoke to the Roth scholars Helen Chambers and Jon Hughes; translator Michael Hofmann; military historian Steve Pope with reference to the First World War; neuropsychiatrist Anthony David, for insight into Friedl’s condition; Oxford professor David Rechter, a historian of Jewish life under the Habsburgs; Robbie Aitken, a historian with an interest in the black communities of 1930s Germany, in connection with Roth’s relationship with Andrea Manga Bell; Sabine Wieber, a historian interested in the care of psychiatric patients in Vienna; Darcy Buerkle, a historian with an interest in Jewish women’s mental health in Vienna... and so on.
  • But the most amazing conversation I had was with Dan Morgenstern, the son of Roth’s friend Soma Morgenstern. When I began my research, some people told me that there was no one left alive who had met Roth... but Dan did. He is 93 now, and he shared with me his vivid memories of meeting Roth in Paris in October 1938, when he was nine years old. As far as I know, Dan is the last living person who met Roth, and it was magical to speak to someone with a direct connection to him.
  • Archival research – A couple of things to mention:
  • When I started I thought I would need to go to NYC to look through the Joseph Roth Collection at the Leo Baeck Institute, but it is all digitised so I spent a lot of time looking through that online at home. As you may know, as well as manuscripts and correspondence, it contains some of Roth’s personal effects... as I put it in the book:
  • Calling cards in his and Friedl’s names that hint at their happier years in France. Yiddish theatre programmes from his time in Russia and Ukraine, the great journey that sundered their marriage and diverted them into separate abysses. Photographs of them together that he kept safe in his suitcase long after their separation. Receipts and notepaper from hotels, traces of temporary homes, remnants of a life lived in endless flight.
  • The archive that produced the most exciting information for me was the Ukraine National Archive. I knew from previous books on Roth that he grew up in premises on Goldgasse that his grandfather rented from a tailor named Kalmon Ballon, but no one had previously known the exact address. Alex and Natalie Dunai, researchers based in Lviv, undertook research on my behalf in the Ukraine National Archives, and identified for the first time where Roth grew up.
  • They checked Galician business directories and found the tailoring business’s address: 18-20 Goldgasse. The house in the courtyard behind it does not exist anymore... but the tailor’s buildings are still there, as is the alleyway that the young Moses Joseph Roth would have passed through to get out on to Goldgasse.
  • Picture archives – the Wiener Holocaust Library in London and the Leo Baeck Institute in NYC, both have an online image library that was of great help
  • Also online film archives – ones such as Pathé News, Critical Past, Huntley Film Archive are great resources, as are the more obvious ones like Google Videos and YouTube.
  • I spent a lot of time watching grainy black and white footage of Emperor Franz Joseph’s funeral, to see if Roth was telling the truth when he said he formed part of the military guard on the streets of Vienna.... I tried to make out Roth’s face among all the soldiers who were lining the streets, but the film quality was too poor to tell. I also watched lots of footage of street scenes in Vienna and Berlin and Paris during the times he was there – partly in the hope I might spot him, but mostly to see the fashions, the street traders, the traffic, the way the trams and horse and carriages cut across each other, all the details that let you describe a place accurately.


So that’s a bit about how I wrote the book. Now to focus on part of the story itself: Roth and the First World War.

Of course, when I say that, I don’t just mean his involvement in the literal events that took place from 1914-18. Anyone who knows anything of Roth’s life and work will know that it shaped the rest of his life. WW1 for him was a cataclysm that destroyed the world he grew up in, and changed his life irrevocably.

By way of introduction to Roth’s war, I thought we could look at the difference between his description of his experiences in a well-known letter, written in 1932 to Professor Otto Forst de Battaglia, and the truth. These lines indicate why the war was quite such a powerful experience for him.

Roth claims he ‘volunteered for the front in 1916, and from 1917 to 1918 fought on the eastern front’. The latter assertion is almost certainly untrue.

He says: ‘I was made lieutenant and decorated with the Silver Cross, the Merit Cross, and the Karl Truppen Cross.’

Again, not true. His acquaintance Géza von Cziffra claimed once to have seen him showing off a silver medal, but their mutual friend Egon Erwin Kisch later explained how Roth acquired it: ‘Bought it at a junk dealer!’

‘My service was initially with the 21st Jaegers, then the 24th Land Reserve.’ Half true – there seems to be no record of him transferring to the Land Reserve.

And he says: ‘The most powerful experience of my life was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one I have ever had: the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. To this date I am a patriotic Austrian and love what is left of my homeland as a sort of relic.’

Among the truest words he ever wrote: the war collapsed his world and the emperor’s death midway through the war was a pivotal moment. It removed the first and greatest of the replacement father figures in his life. And while he had grown infuriated by the ailing empire’s maladministration, what followed the collapse of the empire left him in no doubt as to the flawed institution’s value in holding Europe together.

Then he returns to the realm of fantasy: ‘I spent six months in a Russian prisoner of war camp, fled, and fought for two months in the Red Army, then two months’ flight and return home.’ Roth’s name is nowhere to be found in the Austrian War Ministry’s records of prisoners of war.

In truth, during early 1918, the period when he later claimed to have been held captive in Russia, he wrote a letter to his cousin Paula Grübel from Vienna, where he had apparently attended a poetry reading, a theatre show and a violin recital.

On 19 April he obtained a military travel ticket for the Imperial Royal Austrian State Railways in Lemberg. It seems safe to say he was not a prisoner of war in Russia, let alone that he mounted a daring escape from a PoW camp.

So what did he do?

To begin with, he was at university in Vienna when war broke out.

He had to abandon his studies, and after a couple of years as socialist pacifists, angry that the ruling class had sent a generation of young men off to their deaths, Roth and his friend Jozef Wittlin, whom he met at university, decide to volunteer for the army. The military doctor who assessed them said their feeble physiques meant they were unfit for active service, and he suggested they enlist for clerical work. They were adamant they had to fight, as Wittlin later explained: ‘We were of the opinion that the only appropriate place for a poet in wartime was in service in the “front line”. For there one can gain acquaintance with life and death, even as a pacifist.’

They wanted experience as material for their writing. They certainly got it. Wittlin was an aspiring writer too, and would later be nominated for the Nobel Prize for his novel Salt of the Earth, which drew from his and Roth’s wartime experiences.

The army records show that ‘Roth, Moses Josef, b. 1894 in Brody’ had a ‘medical examination in Vienna 31.5.1916. Number 1264 passed suitable for territorial reserve, reported for duty 28.8.1916.’

But despite their aspiration to fight, as I’ve mentioned there is no evidence that they did. After his training ended in early 1917 it seems Roth was stationed first in Moravia, then spent most of the war in Lemberg or elsewhere in Galicia, censoring letters and working for a military newspaper, the Illustrierte Kriegs-Zeitung.

The Austrian War Archive corroborates that ‘Joseph Roth, as a voluntary recruit in the area of the 32nd Division of the Infantry, was put to work in 1917 in the press section. The 32nd Division at that time was under the Böhm-Ermolli army group in the Lemberg district.’

On 24 August 1917, he wrote letters to his cousins Resia and Paula Grübel, who still lived in the city, that shed light on his activities and feelings. In the letter to Resia, who had been depressed, he gives sympathetic advice and says he can empathise: ‘I too am not floating over the earth as you imagine, at the very most I’m swimming, and that in Galician bogs.’

He adds: ‘You are right. It was fine when we were free and without a care. What did we know of life? This cruel war has silenced our youth. If we survive it, we will be mature individuals. But the youth that one has within is strong, even if one lives to be 80.’

His address is given as ‘Field Post 632’, which he only describes in the letter as ‘some Augean shtetl in East Galicia’.

Austrian archival records reveal that this field post was in Plesniany, a shtetl forty miles south of Brody. ‘Grey filth, harbouring one or two Jewish businesses,’ he notes.

‘Everything’s awash when it rains, and when the sun comes out it starts to stink. But the location has one great advantage: it’s about six miles behind the lines. Reserve encampment. Materially, I’m not so well off as I used to be. Our newspaper is failing, and once the aura of reporter has faded away, there’ll be nothing left of me but a one-year volunteer. And I’ll be treated accordingly. But for the likes of me that doesn’t really matter. The main thing is experience, intensity of feeling, tunnelling into events. I have experienced frightful moments of grim beauty.’

In a Frankfurter Zeitung article seven years later he expanded on this: ‘We have seen mass graves, mouldy hands protruding out of filled-in pits, thighs on barbed wire and burnt-out skulls besides latrines.’

Even though there is no evidence that he participated in fighting, he saw the aftermath and that was traumatic enough. It also fulfilled his desire for experience that would give him literary material. As he stated in the letter above, ‘The main thing is experience, intensity of feeling, tunnelling into events.’

His and Wittlin’s wish was granted. They saw things they could never forget. Roth saw enough to traumatise him, both in the war and its aftermath, when every European city had its population of horribly maimed and injured ex-soldiers. For years afterwards Roth’s books would explore the prospects of men who had seen such things reintegrating into post-war civilian life.

But the first signs of the war’s impact on his psyche came in the articles and poems he wrote during the war and immediately afterwards.

During 1917 he wrote the most striking of his early poems, titled ‘Mothers’. It opens with a train carrying grieving mothers to the battlefields, where they search ‘for the skeletons of the dead sons they wanted to kiss’.

Roth also had poems published in the Prager Tagblatt this year – for instance a description of a shell-shock victim (‘Nervenchok’) and another that captures his and other soldiers’ weariness and Heimweh at the close of the war:

They all have this tired strange look in their pale faces: In their eyes trembles a shy, staggering foreboding of home and peace . . . They all carry on their tired feet the dust of wandering years: They have travelled through many countries and have not yet found their way home . . .

That theme that will recur through Roth’s writing, the search for home. Of course, in Roth’s world, sometimes people think they have come home, but find that it has changed in their absence such that it is no longer home. Home is a mirage, it vanishes just as you think you’ve found it. In his post-war articles he often sketches the subject of ex-soldiers’ difficult return to civilian life that would dominate his first novels. In one he writes of a general who returns to Vienna after the war:

‘At pains to see into the future, he sees the past . . . He was a general, in the framework of the brigade. He was “complete” when others saluted him. He was never an individual. Always a constituent part. Like a head, a rifle butt, a kit bag, a waterproof jacket. He found completion in the obedience of the others. Now he is a leftover, a fragment, a brigadier without a brigade . . .’

In an article in the Prager Tagblatt he described a war-wounded man whose ‘gait is a zigzag . . . the symbol of a present that staggers with a broken back between revolutions, world views and social orders’.

In another, published in Der Neue Tag on 1 August 1919, he finds a microcosm of post-war Viennese life in a poignant, absurd image he observed in the city centre.

‘To the many scenes of war misery in Vienna a new one was added, a few days ago. A man returned from the war in the form of a hinge – invalid with shattered spine – moves almost inexplicably through Kärntner Strasse, selling newspapers. A dog sits on his back. A clever, well-trained dog, riding on his own master, and making sure he doesn’t lose a single paper . . . Once there were sheepdogs who watched herds of sheep, and guard-dogs that guarded houses. Today there are mandogs who watch invalids, mandogs the logical consequence of submissive men . . . The human race has lost, all hail to the animal. We have been through the war that was the last hurrah of cavalry, and at the end of it dogs ride around on men.’

So, the war ended and he left his final military posting, which was probably still in Galicia, for Vienna. His place of birth was now in Poland and, against his will, he was given Polish nationality. He considered himself an Austrian, not a Pole, and began trying to apply for Austrian nationality. The war defined his future in another respect: it enriched the Austrian persona he would play in civilian life. Having assumed the guise of a Viennese gentleman before the war, he progressed to claiming that he left the Austro-Hungarian Army as an officer, though there is no evidence to suggest this.

Regardless, in the post-war period he adopted the appropriate style of dress and courtly manner, and played the role convincingly. Later he peppered his speech with military sayings, a couple of favourites being: ‘You have to know who you can lie in the trenches with’ and, to those he wished to compliment, ‘I’d be happy to be on guard duty with you.’ When trying to impress the recipients of his letters, he would even sign off: ‘Joseph Roth, Lieutenant of the Imperial and Royal Army, retired.’

Roth was trying to create a new version of himself for a new world – a disordered world he barely recognised, in which he was impoverished and lonely without family to fall back on. He wanted to carve out a new life in Vienna, not wanting to return to Brody, but knowing too that it wouldn’t be safe even if he were to try. Brody would receive another battering in the Polish-Soviet War that followed the First World War. The little town faced an onslaught of repeated assaults, as Isaac Babel recorded in his diary in July 1920. His terse notes sketch the ruination to desolate effect:

The Ukraine in flames . . . This morning Brody was taken, again the surrounded enemy managed to get out . . . Brody at dawn, all this is horrifying: barbed wire everywhere, burned-out chimneys, a bloodless city, drab houses, word has it there are goods to be had, our men won’t hold back, there were factories here, a Russian military cemetery, and, judging by the nameless lonely crosses on the graves, these were Russian soldiers . . . The town is destroyed, looted. A town of great interest. Polish culture. An old, rich, distinctive, Jewish population . . . Trenches, destroyed factories . . . The high road, barbed wire, cutdown forests, and dejection, boundless dejection.

Not only had the war ended the Habsburg Empire and brought his childhood to an abrupt and traumatic end, it also devastated his hometown – and as ambivalent as he felt about Brody, he was traumatised by the damage it suffered. As you will know, Roth spent the final decade of his life recreating that lost world of his childhood in his imagination and his fiction.

It was one of a series of defining losses in his life. He’d lost his father before he was born, a substitute father in the Emperor, and now his fatherland... he emerged from the war quite desolate, rootless, and set upon a lifetime quest for a new home.

In my book I describe Roth as like a trauma victim, compelled to replay the same horrific experience over and again in his head. We see it again and again in his novels, from the Heimkehrerromane novels such as The Spider’s Web and Rebellion in the 1920s through to The Emperor’s Tomb near the end – he keeps writing stories of men whose lives were heading in one direction and then the war comes along to ruin everything.

His writing in the mid-Twenties shows how affected he was by the brutality of the war, and how it caused him to question the value of a god who seems so indifferent to human misery... this god who waits behind the stars, in that image we see time and again in Roth’s novels, refusing to enact a miracle and improve people’s lives.

I often think the opening lines of Job indicate the size of the rupture that the war represented for Roth. The book’s first words tell us that Mendel Singer lived ‘Many years ago’, but we soon gather that the story only begins around twenty years before Roth wrote it. What he means is ‘before the First World War’, the chasmic temporal rift that divided him from a remote era.

The trauma lasted to the very end. Right to the last in Roth’s oeuvre, the war reliably arrives in almost every novel to disrupt plans and ruin lives. Roth could not stop replaying the moment that aborted his adolescence and rerouted his life, repeatedly working it through in hope of making sense of it. Whether he witnessed bloodshed in person is irrelevant – he was horrified by the cataclysm that obliterated his homeland and, because of his great empathy and sensitivity, by the hell unleashed on other people who were less fortunate. He never again trusted the world.

In fact The Emperor’s Tomb, the last novel he saw published, provides a line that summarises best of all the effect the war had on him. He wrote that ‘people call [it] the “World War”, and in my view rightly, and not for the usual reason, that the whole world was involved in it, but rather because as a result of it we lost a whole world, our world . . .’.

He mourned that loss to the very end of his life.

We’re here in Ieper, and Roth’s wartime experiences were spent over towards the Eastern Front, but he did come to the former Western Front a few years after the war. In 1926, he travelled to Saint-Quentin, Peronne and Maisonette, near the Somme, to write an article about the visitors the former battlefields had begun to attract – some of them people who wanted to pay their respects, some former veterans seeking the graves of their comrades.

I thought that an extract from that article would be a good way to close this talk. This was translated into English by Michael Hofmann.

In the morning, as promised, it rains.

I want to drive from Saint-Quentin to Peronne, the site of the great battle of the Somme. The road is good, wide and inviting. In spite of the rain, I’m going to get out at Bovincourt and walk the rest of the way. I must. Does one drive from one grave to the next? Does one drive through cemeteries?

Because these are cemeteries, even where there are no crosses to be seen. The soil is nourished by corpses. It’s still ripped and scored, covered with thick lesions, from which a thin covering of grass has begun to sprout, like a growth of beard on a ravaged face. The trenches are slowly beginning to heal over. Gradually rusted shells decay. But deep in the ground there are still unexploded projectiles. Sometimes they come to the surface. By the side of the road there are bits of metal equipment, bowls, buckets, bullets and fragments of bullets. The scorched trees are stuck with shrapnel. 

There are no more horrifying monuments than these trees – these black, riven stumps, scorched at the top, with their roots still in the ground but now devoid of function, rotting and splintering, each one a devastated world, each stump a kind of inverse tree, each one its own gallows tree, riddled or studded with bullets, each one with rags of bark hanging off it, home for insects and lead, still smelling of fire and gas. These stumps are the particular crop that has taken here.

Some, already, are going green. Way down, just above the roots, there are little green shoots, new leaves and flowers. They are already getting into their peacetime uniform. Already they have forgotten. What a powerful thing life is!

Here is the cemetery full of iron crosses, not the ones that are pinned on chests, but the real ones that stand over burial grounds. This is the German cemetery at Bovincourt, the final resting place of 40,000 soldiers. Veterans are forever coming to look for missing comrades. The French warden goes around, makes a point of shaking hands with every German he meets, and asks: 'Comrade, what was it all for?' The inevitable question of all those tending war cemeteries. The presence of 40,000 unidentified dead soldiers inclines one towards pacifism.