A Jew from Prague who fled the Aunschluss in 1938, Franz Werfel was also a playwright noted for his satirical plays about the Nazis (written before 1938). He and his wife Alma (the widow of Gustav Mahler) fled to Paris, where they were safe until the Nazi invasion of France in 1940 – when they fled once more, going into hiding and eventually reaching Portugal, from whence they took ship to New York. It was during this period, sheltered by assorted sympathisers, that Werfel learned the story of St Bernadette Soubirous, who had reported 18 separate visions of the Virgin Mary while at Lourdes. Some of this was told to him by people who had actually met Bernadette, although it is likely that their accounts were somewhat embroidered.
Werfel wrote the saint’s story largely as a tribute and thanks to the people who had helped them in France, Spain and Portugal (something he had promised them while fleeing the Nazis), and it was published in 1942 and spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list, including 13 weeks at the top of it. In 1943, it was adapted as a film which was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 4 of them.