The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel

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Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal

Kindness of Strangers

There are times when an autobiography by someone you’ve never heard of just slots into your current reading stream. Such was the case when New York Review of Books released a new edition of Salka Viertel’s The Kindness of Strangers. With the #germanlitmonth readalong of Roth’s Radetzky March on the horizon, the life of a Jewess born in Galicia (the same remote province as Roth, now Ukraine) ticked a box. That her career as an actress then took her to Berlin, Prague and Vienna, where she met the likes of Kafka, Rilke and Musil ticked even more. Hers was indeed an interesting life for a reader with a main interest in the overlap with German literary history. But also a life with many surprises. Film buffs may laugh at my ignorance, but I was surprised to discover that Salka Viertel spent years script-writing for Greta Garbo.

This autobiography covers Viertel’s life up until her retirement.  It includes:

  1. An idyllic childhood and early adulthood as an aspiring actress (avoiding the casting couch!)
  2. World War I and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
  3. Life during the Weimar Republic establishing herself as a leading actress of the time whilst married to a leading theatre director and bearing three sons
  4. Emigration to the USA in 1928 , career making in Hollywood, her husband directing, she script-writing, her friendship with Garbo
  5. Separation and eventual divorce, difficulties during the McCarthy Era
  6. Leaving the USA to retire in Switzerland

She lived through momentous political times but Viertel has no room for polemic, focusing instead on the realities of everyday life. So for instance in 1917, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was crumbling, she was falling in love and getting married. As the value of the Mark collapsed during the Weimar Republic, she found herself stranded at a railway station, unable to afford a connecting ticket. She had to accept a gift from an unknown fan. Yet even though she was well away from the catastrophe of Nazi Germany, her parents and her siblings were not, and she documents her worries and concerns, hoping that their location in a remote region on the border with Russia would keep them safe.

In America she had opportunity to imitate the kindness of the stranger at the railway station, by helping many Jewish artists obtain the necessary paperwork to flee the Hitler regime. She found herself at the centre of the German-Jewish emigré community which included the brothers Thomas and Heinrich Mann. Parties and anecdotes abound, and perhaps my favourite is of the long laudatory speeches the Manns made of the other’s work. Apparently they did this every ten years. And there was I thinking they were permanently daggers drawn!

Her generosity to strangers – even those she never met – was to lead to her downfall. One such donation was to a man named Trotsky in Mexico. You can imagine how that went down during the McCarthy era, and she was duly blacklisted.

Salka Viertel  comes across as a matter-of-fact, caring and generous individual, who never forgot family. Her mother may have survived Nazi Germany, only to be trapped behind the Iron Curtain in Stalinist Russia. Viertel fought tirelessly to bring her mother to the USA, and the story of her mother’s journey across Russia is one of the book’s highlights.  She is very open, but not gossipy. Her relationship with Berthold Viertel is genuinely touching. The divorce was the biggest regret of her life, but, when her husband decided to move to the East Coast to resume work in the theatre, she was contractually bound to MGM and could not follow. Thereafter, their separate lives became a habit, the divorce many years later inevitable. Finally when her children had flown the nest, her long-time lover left to marry a younger woman and her mother had died, she was sad, alone but not yet defeated. That she chose to end this autobiography just after moving to Klosters in Switzerland to care for her grandchild, a time when she had found new purpose, says much for her personality. The final three words, which incidentally became the title for the German language edition, say it all.  Hers was, indeed, “an incorrigible heart”.

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Lizzy blogs at where she recently co-hosted a readalong of The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth.

Salka Viertel, The Kindness of Strangers (NYRB, 2019).978-1681372747, 368pp., paperback.

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