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Veza Canetti: 'The Tortoises'

Stefan Dege cmb
October 8, 2018

Loss of homeland often comes with loss of language, and for writers this can be like losing one's soul. With clear words Canetti describes this pain in her autobiographical novel of exile from Nazi-occupied Austria.

Hitler does the Nazi salute from a car while Nazi flags hang in the background in Vienna
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Austria, 1938: Nazi troops have already marched into Germany's next-door neighbor, and the Jewish population is beginning to be hunted down. The writer Andreas Kain lives with his wife Eva in an elegant house in Vienna. Pressure to emigrate grows, but that alone is not enough. A life-saving visa from England is needed, and it can take some time to obtain it.

Fear of what could come begins to creep over Kain:

"The language is his soul, the characters he creates are his body. He can draw breath only where his language is alive, and where he no longer understands and is not understood his life is extinguished."

Vienna's sudden transformation

'The Tortoises' by Veza Canetti

Kain is an empathetic man. At one point he protects a tortoise from having a swastika branded into its shell. The wood-carver in Kain's town is selling the animals in his stall as a memento from the "happiest city in Central Europe," an honorary title that pre-war Vienna actually bore with pride.

The tortoises are symbolic characters in Canetti's book. They're considered to be tough animals, but even they disappear, just like the Jews, little by little from the Viennese scene.

In the meantime, Kain will only leave the country if his brother does too. But Werner, a geologist, is too attached to the rocks of his homeland. The situation comes to a head: Jews are dispossessed, their houses are plundered, and their temple is set on fire. Their homeland becomes foreign to them. Eva suffers and urges Kain ever more desperately to depart:

"Anyone lying on the ground is admitting defeat. One has nothing more to bear, if one is lying prone. No pride is left, and there is no load to carry either. One is relieved of any burdens." 

Stories of flight and expulsion

Hilde, the financier's daughter from next door, hashes out a plan to flee: An airplane organized by a Nazi paramilitary official is supposed to take the friends out of the country. But the plan fails, and the couple has to move into Werner's small apartment. Kain's brother is picked up by Nazi SS officials and dies in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Only then do Kain and Eva manage to flee through the help of a trick.

The couple sits in a train having crossed the border into safety:

"He wanted to know whether he had any currency in his case, or gold or silver. Kain said he had not, and looked out of the window. The official turned his cold eyes on Eva and asked if she had any valuables in her case. Her lips trembled. 'We have one object of value. Yes. The ashes of our brother!'"

Hitler and young women in dirndls exhange Nazi salutes with the Melk monastery in the background
Austrians greeted Hitler as he made his way to Vienna in car after the German takeover of the country in 1938Image: picture-alliance/Keystone/Photopress-Archive

Canetti's novel deals with the bitterness of saying goodbye. With clear words the author describes what human baseness is capable of, and how those who face this very baseness can maintain their humanity, dignity and self-respect, even in times of great hardship.

Veza Canetti was not as renowned as her husband, Literature Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti. She wrote her book under the pseudonym Veza Magd in 1938, after she and her husband, both Jewish, had fled Nazi terror in Austria for England. However, her book was only published in 1999. The Tortoises is an impressive work of German-language exile literature.


Veza Canetti: The Tortoises, New Directions (German title: Die Schildkröten, 1999). English translation: Ian Mitchell.

Veza Canetti, born Venetiana Tauber-Calderon, was born in Vienna in 1897 to a Sephardi mother and Jewish-Hungarian father. She died in London in May 1963. Following World War I, she worked as an English teacher until meeting her future husband, the writer Elias Canetti. She served as his muse and his literary assistant, while also writing and translating, frequently under the name Vera Magd. Her novels went unpublished during her lifetime. Some of her known manuscripts have disappeared. The Tortoises is an autobiographical work based on her flight to England.