Meditations on Exile and Home   /   Fall 2005   /    Articles

A Confiscated Past

Jean Améry on Home and Exile

Thomas Brudholm

Railroad to Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp. Photo by Lubomir Rosenstein (2017). Via Wikimedia Commons.

And me? I was not even
home. When I was
at home

—Paul Celan11xPaul Celan wrote this in his copy of Jean Améry’s Beyond Guilt and Atonement. The German use of two words for home plays with the difference between the meaning of “home” as a location and the sense of being “at home” somewhere: “Heimat / Und ich? Ich war nicht einmal / Zuhause. Als ich daheim / (zuhause) war” (quoted from Jean Améry: Werke, vol. 2, ed. G. Scheitert (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2002) 662. In southern German ears, “zuhause” may connote “feeling at home” whereas “daheim” refers to the place where one lives or comes from. 

In this essay I examine the reflections of Jean Améry on the loss of home that he suffered due to his forced exile by the Third Reich. Améry not only brings to our attention a depth of loss and a kind of homesickness that are important to consider if we want to understand the condition of people who have fled genocide and other forms of mass atrocity. His work is also a thought-provoking addendum to current laudations of the homeless mind and a valuable contribution to current attempts to rethink the meaning of genocide from the perspective of the harm done to the victims. This essay introduces Améry, discusses his essay on home and exile in the collection Beyond Guilt and Atonement,22xThe English translation from which I quote is entitled At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (London: Granta, 1999). Further references to this work will be made parenthetically in the essay. and highlights the significance of Améry’s reflections for today.


Jean Amery


If every thought, as Hannah Arendt once put it, is an afterthought, then clearly the reflections of Jean Améry on the significance of home, exile, and the homesickness of the exile must qualify as authentic thinking. His examination of these topics was based on his experiences and situation as someone who was forced into exile by the Third Reich. Améry was born in Vienna as Hans Maier in 1912. His father was an assimilated Jew, and his mother a Catholic. With the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, a hitherto more or less unrecognized (by Améry himself) Jewish ancestry became politically and existentially fatal, and in December 1938, Améry fled with his Jewish wife to Antwerpen in the neutral Belgium. Améry describes the last part of the flight as follows:

The road led through the wintry night in the Eifel, on smugglers’ routes to Belgium, whose custom officials and policemen would have refused us a legal crossing of the border, for we were coming into the country as refugees, without passport and visa, without any valid national identity…. After we had arrived so “safely” in Antwerp and had confirmed this in a cable to the members of our family who had remained at home, we exchanged the rest of our money, altogether fifteen marks and fifty pfennigs, if I recall correctly. That was the wealth with which we were to begin a new life, as it is said. The old one had forsaken us. For always? For always. But that I only know now, almost twenty-seven years later. (41–2) 

In May 1940, Belgium was occupied by the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich. Améry was ironically interned as an “enemy alien” twice—and fled both times. Situated in Brussels, he joined the resistance, but was caught and tortured by the Gestapo in 1943. Soon identified as a Jew, Améry was sent to a number of concentration camps including Auschwitz. Upon liberation from Bergen-Belsen by British troops in April 1945, Améry returned to Brussels and learned that his wife had died—“the only person,” as Améry writes, “for whose sake I had held on to life for two years” (43). 

In 1955, he began publishing under the French anagram Jean Améry; he wrote several novels, philosophical papers, journalistic articles, and brief biographies for various European newspapers and journals. Traveling through Germany and other Central European countries, he became a well-known essayist and public intellectual and earned significant literary prizes. In all of his books, Améry used his own life and experiences as the object of literary experimentation or philosophical elucidation. What accounts for the special tone and appeal of Améry’s writings is not only the serious and probing nature of his topics and thought, but also the authentic combination of the concrete with the philosophical and the common with the personal. Among his later writings one finds several works on suicide, and the proximity between life and works is, sadly, also evident here: on 17 October 1978, at age sixty-six, Améry took his own life in a hotel room in Salzburg.33xFor the life and works of Jean Améry, see the first comprehensive biography, Jean Améry: Revolte in der Resignation by Irene Heidelberger-Leonard (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2004). In English, there are a number of brief articles and entries in encyclopedias. A good example is Susan Neiman, “October 1978: Jean Améry takes his life,” ed. S. L. Gilman and J. Zipes, Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture 1096–1996 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997) 775–82. 

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