On December 22, 1933, a few days after moving into a thatched-roof house just outside the Danish town of Svendborg, Bertolt Brecht wrote his friend Walter Benjamin with instructions for sending Benjamin's library ahead to Denmark so that it would be waiting for him when he arrived for a visit. Brecht's plan to have Benjamin ship the books in advance showed a subtle and sympathetic understanding of his friend. Taking into account Benjamin's hesitations about leaving Paris and his deep, almost mystical attachment to his library, Brecht's plan was pitched to encourage Benjamin to make the journey, and offered convenience, consolation, and productivity once he got there. Brecht included his wife Helene Weigel's assessment of how little money one needed to get by in Svendborg, and praised the town library for its ability to “get you any book.” Moreover, he wrote coaxingly, “We have radio, newspapers, playing cards, your books soon, stoves, small cafés and an uncommonly easy language.” Perhaps most importantly of all, “the world is expiring more quietly here.” Benjamin should send the books in care of Maria Lazar, Brecht wrote, and gave the address: Skovsbostrand per Svendborg.
Brecht's list of Svendborg's assets is characteristically concrete. But it represents abstractions: access to information, leisure, diversions, material comforts, and a small, reliable, and localized network of intimate intellectual comrades. These plain but vital attributes, Brecht seemed to say, were the basics required for personal and intellectual survival in exile. They would underpin the sense of security and refuge that developed in and around Brecht and Weigel's house at Skovsbostrand 8, and they were at the heart of the community that strove to alleviate the anxiety and profound dismay that accompanied the flight from Germany and marked its aftermath.
This article investigates the period between 1933 and 1939, when a small society of German-speaking, exiled Mitarbeiter (coworkers) made a home for themselves in Denmark. This group included Brecht, Benjamin, Weigel, and the German dramaturg, Margarete Steffin, and was anchored in Svendborg by the Danish novelist Karin Michaëlis. It was frequently filled out by other visiting or local colleagues, including, to a significant degree, the actress and photographer Ruth Berlau, also Danish.