60 Years OeAD: The Franz Werfel Scholarship Programme

22. April 2021 ScholarshipResearcherOeAD60
Foto von Franz Werfel, umkreist von einer Collage mit Gesichtern.
Scholarship holders tell us about Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler's deceptively closed eyes, Doderer's purple dressing gown and a stalled elephant search.

In the wake of this year's Franz Werfel scholarship holders’ annual conference on 16 and 17 April I was asked to write about the Franz Werfel Scholarship on the occasion of the OeAD’s 60th anniversary. A very nice but also very challenging task. There is a lot to say about the Franz Werfel Scholarship, from sober facts and figures – what is the Werfel Scholarship, who can apply, what are the requirements – to what is so special about the Werfel scholarship programme. Or as Gabor Kerekes, a Werfelian from Hungary, says: “It is difficult to write briefly about the Werfel Scholarship because so many different aspects come to mind: professional and private ones, rational and emotional ones ...”

Everything that can be said about the Werfel Scholarship is important, maybe motivates those interested in it look into it more closely, gives insights into the diversity of the programme but does not let us look at the people behind it, at those who have made the Werfel programme what it is today in the 29 years of its existence – the Werfelians. This is why they too shall have their say here.

The Franz Werfel Scholarship for the Promotion of Research and Teaching of Austrian Literature is intended for university lecturers from all over the world who focus on Austrian literature. Professional meetings at regular intervals during their fellowship period in Austria and the annual Werfel Conference for graduates as part of follow-up support have created an international network of committed specialists in German studies. Numerous jointly organised conferences and publications bear witness to the close academic and personal exchange within the Werfel community.

The Franz Werfel Scholarship was established in 1992, and the then Minister of Science Erhard Busek decided that “Werfel would be best” when considering the name, as can also be read in the founding act. The programme’s first and most influential academic director was the unforgettable Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, followed after his untimely death by Konstanze Fliedl, who was succeeded by Werner Michler in 2020. The OeAD has been responsible for the management of the programme from the very beginning. At present there are more than 70 Werfelians from all over the world in the follow-up programme and some 140 scholarship holders in total so far.

In 2021 the already 17th Werfel Conference and the 12th Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler Reading took place. Since the unexpected passing of the great Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler in 2008 the reading has been a fixed part of the conference since 2009. As part of the the Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler Reading Austrian writers read from their works and Werfel fellows translate passages from them into their respective national languages, which can often be a challenge. When Frederike Mayröcker recited from her poems in 2010 the translator from Cameroon faced the challenge of translating the word “snow” into a language that does not know this word.

On the occasion of the programme’s 25th anniversary in 2017 my colleague Eva Müllner and I published a book about the Werfel programme. Three Werfelians featuring in this publication will now speak as examples of the diversity and special nature of this programme:

Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler’s deceptively closed eyes during the seminars, Konstanze Fliedl’s drawing skills and accurate critical remarks, Michael Rohrwasser’s cleverly humming commentary voice – without them the Werfel Scholarship and the annual conferences would be unimaginable. ... Hardly any other academic exchange programme has been able to establish such a committed international community of literary scholars and to secure their cooperation in the long term. The annual meetings with their topics chosen democratically and at grassroots level show again and again what rich input comes from the very heterogeneous cultures of knowledge and what synergies – also relevant in terms of science policy – arise from this ...
(Katalin Teller, Hungary)

In the two years of my Werfel fellowship I discovered the library as a place that welcomes me, that allows a retreat. Once familiar with the rituals of the Austrian National Library and the Vienna University Library I soon ventured into more exotic regions. The research on Viennese actionism led me to smaller libraries of the University of Vienna’s departments (Theatre Studies was one of my favourites because of its location – in the heart of the Hofburg) but also to collections of the Ludwig Museum and the Museum of Applied Arts Vienna (MAK). To the Austrian Literary Archive we – the Werfel fellows – often went anyway because of the monthly meetings with Professor Schmidt-Dengler. There, Doderer’s dressing gown hung in his office, and maybe it was this purple accessory from the poet's intimate existence that strengthened in me the feeling of security in the context of the library ...
(Kalina Kupczynska, Poland)

Now, when I look back on the last crucial years of my work and research everything becomes a blur. I studied, received the Franz Werfel Scholarship and thus the opportunity to do a doctorate, took part in two calls for proposals and now teach in Tunis. These are the words I usually use to summarise my career hitherto. The vita is supposed to contain the most important stages without falling into narrative. I look at it and am always amazed at how little it has in common with my life and my experiences. How much is lost in the process.

My first email to Prof. Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, and to the ambassador at the time. They all begin desperately. Alongside them, bizarre stories that I hardly remember anymore. For example, I discovered an e-mail in my archive, entitled: "Elephant search stalled" and indeed I had once tried to find an elephant for a German production company in Tunis, unsuccessfully, but still ... the fact that I tried it at all would be worth a story. Then: arriving in Vienna for the first time, construction workers barging into an exam, my awkwardness during my first consultation.

None of this appears in my vita; it is garbled beyond recognition. One should therefore invent some new headings and declare them obligatory. In addition to “career” the sections “odyssey”, “encounter with the foreign”, “alienation” and “highlights” should always be filled in with individual information. Anyone who cannot give at least fragmentary, sporadic, stuttering information about this has nothing to tell and should at least come up with a few good stories.
(Chiheb Mehtelli, Tunisia)

I would like to reserve the final word for myself: I was in charge of the Werfel programme at the OeAD for twelve years, during which time I became more and more integrated into the community, got to know more and more Werfelians in person and to appreciate them. I experienced so much gratitude, so many positive things, so many personal things from the Werfelians and was able to accompany full of pride and admiration the development of individuals from their first Werfel scholarship to their acceptance into the follow-up programme, their academic careers and professional advancement.

Unfortunately, setbacks and circumstances also happen that do not allow for an academic career. Even though I no longer supervise the programme myself, I still feel very closely connected to the programme and the people and I am proud to be a Werfelian.

Author: Lydia Skarits, Department for International Cooperation in Higher Education, Head of Mobility Programmes, Bilateral and Multilateral Cooperation