"This book is the fulfilment of my vow" | Franz Werfel | The preface to "The Song of Bernadette" "This book is the fulfilment of my vow" | Franz Werfel | The preface to The Song of Bernadette


In the last days of June 1940, in flight from our mortal enemies after the collapse of France, we reached the city of Lourdes. The two of us, my wife and I, had hoped to be able to elude them in time to cross the Spanish frontier to Portugal. But since the consuls unanimously refused the requisite visas, we had no alternative but to flee back with great difficulty to the interior of France on the very night on which the National Socialist troops occupied the border town of Hendaye. The Pyrenean dˇpartements had turned into a phantasmagoria--a very camp of chaos. The millions of this strange migration of peoples wandered about on the roads and obstructed the towns and villages: Frenchmen, Belgians, Dutchmen, Poles, Czechs, Austrians, exiled Germans, and, mingled with these, soldiers of the defeated armies. There was barely food enough to still the extreme pangs of hunger. There was no shelter to be had at all. Anyone who had obtained possession of an upholstered chair for his night's rest was an object of envy. In endless lines stood the cars of the fugitives, piled mountain-high with household gear, with mattresses and beds; there was no gasoline to be had. In Pau a family settled there told us that Lourdes was the one place where, if luck were kind, one might still find a roof. Since the famous city was but thirty kilometers distant, we were advised to make the attempt and knock at its gates. We followed this advice and were sheltered at last.

It was in this manner that Providence brought me to Lourdes, of the miraculous history of which I had hitherto had but the most superficial knowledge. We hid for several weeks in the Pyrenean city. It was a time of great dread. The British radio announced that I had been murdered by the National Socialists. Nor did I doubt that such would be my fate were I to fall into the hands of the enemy. An article of the Armistice provided that France turn over certain civilians to the National Socialists. Who could these civilians be but those who had fought the modern pestilence in the days of its modest beginnings? In my friends' eyes I read the same conviction, although their words sought to calm me. A few of the initiated pretended to know the number of those who were to be turned over and the very order of their documented names. At such moments the boundary between rumor and fact is obliterated. The most stubborn reports predicted again and again the conqueror's occupation of the Pyrenees on the following day. Each morning when I woke up it was in ignorance as to whether I was still a free man or a prisoner condemned to death.

It was, I repeat, a time of great dread. But it was also a time of great significance for me, for I became acquainted with the wondrous history of the girl Bernadette Soubirous and also with the wondrous facts concerning the healings of Lourdes. One day in my great distress I made a vow. I vowed that if I escaped from this desperate situation and reached the saving shores of America, I would put off all other tasks and sing, as best I could, the song of Bernadette.

This book is the fulfilment of my vow. In our epoch an epic poem can take no form but that of a novel. The Song of Bernadette is a novel but not a fictive work. In face of the events here delineated, the sceptical reader will ask with better right than in the case of most historical epic narratives: "What is true? What is invented?" My answer is: All the memorable happenings that constitute the substance of this book took place in the world of reality. Since their beginning dates back no longer than eighty years, [1] there beats upon them the bright light of modern history and their truth has been confirmed by friend and foe and by cool observers through faithful testimonies. My story makes no changes in this body of truth.

I exercised my right of creative freedom only where the work, as a work of art, demanded certain chronological condensations or where there was need of striking the spark of life from the hardened substance.

I have dared to sing the song of Bernadette, although I am not a Catholic but a Jew; and I drew courage for this undertaking from a far older and far more unconscious vow of mine. Even in the days when I wrote my first verses I vowed that I would evermore and everywhere in all I wrote magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of man--careless of a period that has turned away with scorn and rage and indifference from these ultimate values of our mortal lot.

Los Angeles, May 1941

[1] Now 145 years. -- Ed.

This is the classic work that tells the true story surrounding the miraculous visions of St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, France in 1858. Werfel, a highly respected anti-Nazi writer from Vienna, became a Jewish refugee who barely escaped death in 1940, and wrote this moving story to fulfill a promise he made to God. While hiding in the little village of Lourdes, Werfel felt the Nazi noose tightening, and realizing that he and his wife might well be caught and executed, he made a promise to God to write about the "song of Bernadette" that he had been inspired by during his clandestine stay in Lourdes. Though Werfel was Jewish, he was so deeply impressed by both Bernadette and the happenings at Lourdes, that his writing has a profound sense of Catholic understanding.

"On re-reading the Song, what struck me most about Werfel's craft was how deeply this Jewish writer, who had long been interested in Catholicism but who had never converted, had entered into Catholicism's sacramental imagination. For all its unsparing depiction of the poverty of the French Pyrenees, the pettiness of local officialdom, the skepticism and institutional-mindedness of local churchmen, The Song of Bernadette is shot through with a sense of the extraordinary that lies on the far side of the ordinary, revealing itself through the simplest things." -- George Weigel, from the Foreword

Related Links and Articles:

The Relevance of Holiness | Patricia A. McEachern
Ignatius Press page for "The Passion of Bernadette"
Interview with Sydney Penny, star of the movie, "Bernadette"
"Holy Visions" | An article about Dr. McEachern and A Holy Life on the Drury University website.
Participate in the premiere of "The Passion of Bernadette"

Franz Werfel (1890-1945) was a Czech-bor poet, playwright and novelist whose most famous works are the Forty Days of Musa Dagh, an acclaimed historical novel that portrays the Armenian resistance to the fierce onslaught of the Turks during World War I, and The Song of Bernadette.

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