Hans Sahl: A Profile

by
Karina von Tippelskirch


 

H

ans Sahl (1902-1993) masterfully balances the personal and the historical. “If not you,” runs the question that spurred his Memoirs of a Moralist (1989), “who else is still alive who can report how Brecht spat and Thomas Mann cleared his throat? If not you, who, then, can claim he was present before Nineveh fell, and Berlin was not yet a legend, but a city?”

Born into a wealthy and assimilated Jewish family in 1902, and raised in Berlin, Hans Sahl quickly became one of Weimar Germany’s most successful young critics. His pioneering film criticism ranks with that of Siegfried Kracauer (From Caligari to Hitler].  In his literary essays, he was the early promoter of Thornton Wilder and Ernest Hemingway. But when the Nazis seized power, Sahl fled Germany. Via Czechoslovakia and Switzerland, he arrived in France where he was interned for a time with Walter Benjamin.  In Marseilles, Sahl assisted Varian Fry, the young American classicist known as “the artists’ Schindler” who rescued thousands from the Nazis including Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler-Werfel, Heinrich Mann and Wanda Landowska.

Hans Sahl himself escaped to the United States in 1942.  In New York City, he started a second career as an outstanding translator, bringing Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams to German audiences. 

Told with sharp-eyed humor, Sahl’s Memoirs of a Moralist narrates the adventures, romantic and literary, of a young man in the heady whirl of Weimar Germany, against the backdrop of the final efflorescence of German Jewry.