Thou shalt dwell in houses thou hast not builded
German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger writes to the new occupants of his house
In January of 1933, as he toured the US giving lectures, influential German-Jewish novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger received word that Adolf Hitler, a man whose beliefs he had been publicly lambasting for the past decade, had risen to power back in Germany, his home and place of birth. To return now would almost certainly result in imprisonment or even death for both him and his wife, Marta; so instead they travelled from the US to France to live in exile while their German home was looted by Hitler’s men, their books burnt and banned. Two years later, Feuchtwanger wrote a letter to the new owner of his house and saw that it was printed in the Pariser Tageblatt, a newspaper written by and for the countless Germans exiled since the Nazi Party’s rule. As it happens, the Feuchtwangers never saw their home again. They lived most of their remaining years in California.
To the occupant of my house on Mahlstrasse in Berlin
I do not know your name or how you came into possession of my house. I only know that two years ago the police of the Third Reich seized all my property, personal and real, and handed it over to the stock company formed by the Reich for the confiscation of the properties of political adversaries (chairman of the board: Minister Goering). I learned this through a letter from the mortgagees. They explained to me that under the laws of the Third Reich confiscations of property belonging to political opponents concern themselves only with credit balances. Although my house and my bank deposits, which had also been confiscated, greatly exceeded in value the amount of the mortgage, I would be obliged to continue the payment of interests on the mortgage, as well as my German taxes, from whatever money I might earn abroad. Be that as it may, one thing is certain—you, Mr. X, are occupying my house and I, in the opinion of the German judges, must pay the costs.
How do you like my house, Mr. X? Do you find it pleasant to live in? Did the silver-grey carpeting in the upper rooms suffer while the SA-men were looting? My concierge sought safety in these upper rooms, as, I being in America at the time, the gentlemen had decided to take it out on him. The carpet is very delicate, and red is a strong colour, hard to clean out. The rubber tiling in the stairway was also not primarily designed with the boots of SA-men in mind. Should it have suffered too badly, I recommend you contact the Baake company; the flooring is the same as on the staircases of the “Europa” and the “Bremen”, and this is the company which delivered it.
Have you any notion why I had the semi-enclosed roof terrace built? Mrs. Feuchtwanger and I used it for our morning exercise. Would you mind seeing to it that the pipes of the shower don’t freeze?
I wonder to what use you have put the two rooms which formerly contained my library. I have been told, Mr. X, that books are not very popular in the Reich in which you live, and whoever shows interest in them is likely to get into difficulties. I, for instance, read your “Führer’s” book and guilelessly remarked that his 140,000 words were 140,000 offences against the spirit of the German language. The result of this remark is that you are now living in my house. Sometimes I wonder to what uses bookcases can be put in the Third Reich. In case you should decide to have them ripped out, be careful not to damage the wall. And did they rip out the round bench which was built into the library’s window loggia? One thing is for certain, Mr. X, there is a lot to rebuild and repair in the house. May I suggest you contact the architect Slobotka for this purpose? I doubt whether this gentleman is allowed to practice in Berlin though since there aren’t many architects who know how to build in the city, yet there are many party members who want to build. Please, your connections permitting, do not hire a party member but rather a professional. It would be a pity about the house.
I would like to know what is going on with the buzz saw in the Grunewald forestry. Its noise has sometimes spoiled my enjoyment of the house, and it was only with great effort that I managed to achieve the removal of this nuisance. These days of course, noise will hardly be considered a disturbance in Berlin. However, it would be nice of you if you didn’t simply give up my hard won victory.
And what have you done with my terrarium which stood at one of the windows of my study? Did they actually kill my turtles and my lizards because their owner was of an “alien race”? And were the flower beds and the rock garden much damaged when the SA-men, shooting as they ran, pursued my sorely beaten concierge across the garden while he fled into the woods?
Doesn’t it sometimes seem odd to you that you should be living in my house? Your “Führer” is not generally considered a friend of Jewish literature. Isn’t it, therefore, astounding that he should have such a strong predilection for the Old Testament? I myself have heard him quote with much fervour, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ (by which he may have meant ‘A confiscation of property for literary criticism’). And now, through you, he has fulfilled a prophecy of the Old Testament—the saying, ‘Thou shalt dwell in houses thou hast not builded.’
Don’t let my house get into a mess, Mr. X. Building and furnishing it has taken Mrs. Feuchtwanger and myself a lot of effort. Running and maintaining it won’t take a lot of effort. Please take care of it a little. I’m also saying this in your own interest. Your “Führer” has promised that his rule will last a thousand years: thus I’m assuming that you will soon be in the position of negotiating the houses’ return with me.
With many good wishes for our house,