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A Distant Echo

Felix J. Weil and the Question of Belonging

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On 11 March 1943, while proposals for reforming the income tax system were being discussed in the United States, an unusual letter to the editor in support of the reform appeared in The New York Times. It was written by an Argentine statesman who spoke out and confidently described the advantages of Argentina’s tax system by comparison to the great power of the north, a system which in his words »already contain[s] all those features which seem so new to the American public.« This was the heyday of Pan-Americanism, a political movement that originated in the nineteenth century and that now, in the face of the fascist threat, fostered close cooperation between the American nations while aiming to overcome the politics of dominance pursued by the USA. The attitude of the letter reflects this well, for example when the author reports on mechanisms to prevent tax avoidance by foreign shareholders, as US capital had gained more and more influence in Argentina since the turn of the century. Indeed, Felix J. Weil (1898–1975), the author of that letter, an Argentine citizen who ten years earlier had been significantly involved in the implementation of the Argentine income tax law, had since 1939 advocated the ideas of Pan-Americanism both as a scholar and public intellectual.

By the time the letter appeared, Weil was no longer living in Argentina but in the USA. Nonetheless, he took on the role of an outside observer, based in New York but still writing of »our tax system« and »our congress« by reference to Argentina. Perhaps it was for strategic reasons that he foregrounded his role as an Argentine statesman, which in this case endowed him with more authority. Yet it seems that apart from his obvious intentions, some remote events found a distant echo in this unassuming letter to the editor. This echo manifests itself in the very last words written by the author: For the first time in a text intended for a broader audience, he no longer signed his name as »Felix Weil,« but as »Felix J. Weil,« a gesture with implications that only become clear in view of his life theretofore.

Felix J. Weil, Argentina Has a Tax Plan. Country on Pay-as-You-Go Basis Which Seems to Work Satisfactorily, in: The New York Times, 12 March 1943.
Felix J. Weil, Argentina Has a Tax Plan. Country on Pay-as-You-Go Basis Which Seems to Work Satisfactorily, in: The New York Times, 12 March 1943.
Felix J. Weil, Argentina Has a Tax Plan. Country on Pay-as-You-Go Basis Which Seems to Work Satisfactorily, in: The New York Times, 12 March 1943.
Felix J. Weil, Argentina Has a Tax Plan. Country on Pay-as-You-Go Basis Which Seems to Work Satisfactorily, in: The New York Times, 12 March 1943.
Felix J. Weil, Argentina Has a Tax Plan. Country on Pay-as-You-Go Basis Which Seems to Work Satisfactorily, in: The New York Times, 12 March 1943.
Felix J. Weil, Argentina Has a Tax Plan. Country on Pay-as-You-Go Basis Which Seems to Work Satisfactorily, in: The New York Times, 12 March 1943.

Felix José Lucius Weil, to cite his full name, had been born in Buenos Aires, where his father, the German-Jewish merchant Hermann Weil, had made a fortune trading in grain. Felix was sent to study in Germany, turned to socialism during the November Revolution in Frankfurt, and became friends with like-minded, mostly Jewish students such as Friedrich Pollock and Max Horkheimer. With Weil’s money, the three friends founded the Institut für Sozialforschung in 1923. Weil returned to Argentina in 1930, from where he observed the Nazis’ rise to power and the flight of his friends to New York. The reestablished institute and Weil himself, who moved to New York in the mid-1930s, played a major role in providing aid and support for German refugees as the situation in Europe became increasingly threatening.

During the pogroms of November 1938, the Nazis desecrated the grave of Weil’s parents in Waibstadt in southern Germany and, after the beginning of World War II in September 1939, rapidly continued their military conquests while initiating the systematic murder of European Jews. Meanwhile, Felix Weil was suffering a deep crisis, personal problems mixing with deep horror and paralyzing fear in the face of the events unfolding in Europe. On 3 March 1942, he wrote to Max Horkheimer that »we will be sitting in the concentration camp in three years anyway.« On March 11, he wrote: »You are right, we must not let ourselves be carried away by defeatist solutions. There is still time to commit suicide when the time comes. I am just overwhelmed now and then by an abysmal despair […].« With regard to their intellectual work, he remarked: »Just when the books will be ready, they will have to be taken straight from the printing press to the stake.«Archive of the Goethe University Frankfurt a. M., Na 1 (Max Horkheimer papers), no. 87, 178–179 as well as 190a, (Germ.).

But Weil overcame this crisis. In 1944 and 1945, he published a book and numerous papers on economics and politics in Argentina, held lectures throughout the country, and participated in radio discussions on several occasions. Unlike in his earlier writings, Weil now also dealt with the origins and danger of antisemitism, a topic that remained highly important for his works in the years to come. And in all these texts, he used the spelling of his name with which he had signed his letter to The New York Times in March 1943: Felix J. Weil.

What was the meaning of this changed signature? The US public probably understood this »J.« as a middle initial, and Weil certainly aimed to adapt his signature to the typical style of the country. However, it seems strange that the first time he did so was in that letter to the editor, in which he emphasized his Argentinean belonging. Those who knew Weil better might have associated the »J.« with two additional meanings. It stood for José, a name that reflected Weil’s Argentine background and which he had never used outside of Argentina (where the there common forename was a sign of belonging) until then. But José was also the Hispanic form of Joseph, a name given to him in memory of his grandfather, an orthodox Jew who had lived not far from Waibstadt. It is therefore possible that he and his closest circle also recognized in this »J.« a commitment to German Jewry at the moment of its almost complete annihilation. Which of these meanings moved him, and to what degree, when he wrote that letter to the editor to The New York Times is unclear. But from that March 11, 1943 until the end of his life, he would sign each of his texts as Felix J. Weil.

Alexander Valerius is writing a PhD thesis on transnational aspects in the works of Felix J. Weil at the Department for Transcultural History of Judaism at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He is an associate member at the Selma Stern Center for Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg | alexander.valerius(at)hu-berlin.de

The cover picture is part of the cover of Felix J. Weil’s book Argentine Riddle (New York: The John Day Company 1944).

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