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Intellectual Fellowship Continues at Villa Aurora

Intellectual Fellowship Continues at Villa Aurora
Curt Lowens and Nina Franoszek perform a dramatized exchange of letters between Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger during Lion's imprisonment in Nazi-occupied France.

On Oct. 26, USC students attended a special tour and performance at Villa Aurora, the former house of the exiled Jewish-German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta.

“Enemy Number One: Tour and Performance at Villa Aurora” was presented by the USC Libraries in conjunction with USC Visions and Voices, to commemorate the recent publication of The Devil in France, Feuchtwanger’s memoir about his internment and escape from Nazi-occupied France.

Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger moved to Southern California after fleeing France in 1940. They were two of at least 10,000 Germans who escaped war and persecution in Europe for the safety of Los Angeles. Among their fellow exiles were some of Europe’s most prominent intellectuals and artists, including writer Thomas Mann, film director Billy Wilder and composer Hanns Eisler.

Upon arriving in Southern California, the Feuchtwangers heard of a sprawling 6,000 square-foot house in Pacific Palisades that had fallen into disrepair. Built in 1928 as the Los Angeles Times Demonstration Home, the house was meant to demonstrate not only the latest innovations in household design, but also the attraction of living far from the city’s urban core.

Ironically, it was that very isolation that had undercut the house’s value – it and others in the neighborhood were seen as too distant from basic amenities such as schools and medical care. The Feuchtwangers bought the estate for only $9,000, renovated the property and promptly filled the house with books.

Villa Aurora, as they called the house, soon became a hub of cultural fellowship among the émigré community. The Feuchtwangers were generous hosts and frequently welcomed their fellow exiles, along with American artists and intellectuals, for readings from upcoming works, discussions about art and culture, and to share the latest news from Germany.

Recreating that intellectual atmosphere was a priority for the event organizers, according to senior associate dean Marje Schuetze-Coburn, exile studies librarian Michaela Ullmann of the USC Libraries and director Imogen von Tannenberg of Villa Aurora.

“We wanted to emulate as much as possible the hospitality that the Feuchtwangers provided and the importance of bringing people together in conversations,” said Schuetze-Coburn, who is also Feuchtwanger Librarian at USC.

The tour also highlighted Feuchtwanger’s passion for book collecting. Although 8,000 of the oldest and rarest volumes in his personal library are now housed at the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library at USC, some 22,000 books remain at Villa Aurora.

Feuchtwanger’s immense book collection, Schuetze-Coburn said, is central to Villa Aurora’s atmosphere of intellectual investigation.

“We’re going away from the time that people collect books the way they used to,” she said. “So walking into a house that has so many old and clearly valuable books collected in a personal library, I think that is an astonishing experience.”

Without the ability we have today to access vast amounts of information on a computer or cellphone, Feuchtwanger instead surrounded himself with books.

“He wanted to have the ability to pick up the novel or the poem or play of an author he loved and have [it] at his fingertips,” she said. “With the Internet, we really do have that kind of access in a way that 20 years ago was impossible to think of. Just the encyclopedias, the most basic of sources that a scholar would have wanted to have in his home, we can just jump on the Web and get it.”

The tour was followed by a performance that dramatized the correspondence between Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger during Lion’s imprisonment in France. The readings were performed by veteran character actors Nina Franoszek and Curt Lowens, himself a Holocaust survivor who escaped from Auschwitz and joined the resistance movement against the Nazis.

Drawing on the text of The Devil in France and from personal letters and diary entries, Ullmann assembled a dialogue that highlighted the fears and familial concerns of the husband and wife.

“It made it very personal,” Schuetze-Coburn said. “That was the idea. We had designed this inside their house, in a place where they ended up spending the rest of their lives, having them speak to the students using their own words. The Devil in France is a personal book, but we thought we could make it even more personal.”

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