By force of historic circumstances, Jews in the Czech lands – Bohemia and Moravia – before World War I tended on the whole to identify themselves with the culture of the ruling Austrians, while Jews in Slovakia mostly absorbed Hungarian culture. Most of the internationally famous Jewish writers of Prague – Franz *Kafka, Franz *Werfel, Max *Brod, Egon Erwin *Kisch – to cite just a few examples – wrote in German. Jewish writers nevertheless also played an important part in Czech literature. It is true that a gap of 400 years separates the colorful 15th-century convert Pavel *Žídek from Siegfried *Kapper, the first modern Jewish author of significance to write in the Czech language. It must be remembered, however, that for three centuries the Czechs and Slovaks had been deprived of their national independence and that not until the 19th century was there a real revival of Czech nationalism and a consequent renaissance of Czech literature.
Long before the Czechs regained political independence Jewish writers were active in Czech cultural life, and in the period between the two World Wars the Jewish contribution
There is a marked difference in the treatment of Jewish themes in Czech and Slovak literature before and after World War II. Before the war, gentile writers were almost invariably biased and antisemitic, and anyone who created an authentic Jewish character nearly always proved to be of Jewish stock himself. One result of the Holocaust was the large number of openly pro-Jewish literary works produced by non-Jewish Czech and Slovak writers. In many cases this went hand-in-hand with expressions of sympathy for the State of Israel.
The proportion of writers attracted in one way or another by the Jew's fate, his behavior, and his place in the life of the nation was much greater in Czech literature than in the literature of most other countries. Surprisingly few biblical themes, however, were used by Czech authors, and these occur mainly in the works of Jewish writers. With the exception of Karel Čapek's play Adam stvořitel (1927; "Adam the Creator," 1929), Stanislav Lom's drama about Moses, Vůdce (1916; "The Leader," 1917), and some poems by Svatopluk Čech, J.S. Machar, and G.R. Opočenský, hardly a single work inspired by the Old Testament can be found in the writings of Czech non-Jews. Practically all the significant imaginative literature based on the Bible has come from the pens of two leading writers of mixed origin – Jaroslav *Vrchlický and Julius *Zeyer. J. Vrchlický, the most prolific Czech poet, wrote more than 100 poems on Jewish themes, at least half of them biblical, including the dramatic epic Bar Kochba (1897). Zeyer published a biblical drama, Sulamit (1883), a short story about Joseph in Egypt entitled Asenat (1895), and poems about Moses and about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
The Figure of the Jews and Jewish Themes
Several factors lend a distinctive character to the treatment of Jewish themes by Czech authors. One is that modern Czech literature developed at a time when the Czechs themselves did not have a state of their own. Hence, the many allusions to the homeless Jew longing for a country of his own, whose tragedy symbolized the Czech longing for statehood. An instance of this is the romantic, Byronesque poem Cikáni ("Gypsies," 1835) by the greatest of the early 19th-century Czech poets, Karel Hynek Mácha (1810–1836).
Another phenomenon is the extraordinary number of writers who concerned themselves with the question of whether or not a Jew could also be a loyal Czech. The first to discuss this problem publicly was Václav Bolemír Nebeský (1818–1882), who made Czech-Jewish assimilation the theme of several of his short stories. His view, expressed in a number of essays, was that Jews who had long been settled in the Czech lands should be regarded as Czechs of the Jewish faith and that they could be just as good patriots as Czechs of any other religion. Nebeský's thesis was repudiated by the great poet, journalist, and patriot Karel Havlíček-Borovský (1821–1856), who held that the Jews belonged not merely to a different religion but that their Semitic bond was much stronger than the one that bound them to the land of their birth. Nevertheless, Havlíček-Borovský was a supporter of Jewish emancipation and repeatedly explained to his readers that the Jews were not to be blamed for their shortcomings. This did not prevent him from writing a number of epigrams in which he accused them of crimes for which, on his own showing, they could scarcely be held responsible. Josef Jiří Kolár (1812–1896) posed the question of assimilation in dramatic form in his popular historical play, Pražský žid ("The Jew of Prague"), which remained in the repertoire of Czech theaters for more than 50 years after its première in 1871. The central character in this play about the historic battle on the White Mountain in 1620 is a dignified Jew who is at the same time a Czech patriot.
On the other hand, the contribution made to this discussion by Jan Neruda (1834–1891), possibly the best Czech poet of the 19th century, could hardly be called constructive. Although he was greatly influenced by some of the German-Jewish poets, especially Heinrich *Heine, and although he was originally inclined to be sympathetic toward the Jews, Neruda became an active antisemite. In 1869 he published a pamphlet entitled Pro strach židovský ("The Jewish Danger"), in which he excused his prejudice on the grounds that the Jews generally sided with the Germans and were intent on world domination. Far from emancipating the Jews, he said, what the Czechs needed was to emancipate themselves from Jewish control. Similar ideas are to be found in a number of Neruda's articles and epigrams, and this author of some of the most beautiful love poetry in all Czech literature even went so far as to express his regret when in 1881 the antisemitic riots in Berlin came to an end.
The case of another great 19th-century poet, Svatopluk Čech (1846–1908), is more complicated. When he dealt with historical figures – as in the collection of verse, Sny palestýnské ("Palestine Dreams," 1872), in his first long poem, Adamité ("The Adamites," 1873), and in several of the poems in Modlitby k Neznámému ("Prayers to the Unknown," 1896) – he was full of respect and sympathy. As soon as he turned to the contemporary scene, however, Čech's Jew invariably became a repulsive usurer, exploiter, or villain, whose only object was to enrich himself at the expense of his Slav hosts. Examples of such figures can be found in his novels Jabloň ("The Apple-tree," 1878), Kandidát nesmrtelnosti ("Candidate for Immortality," 1879), and Člověk se zlatníkem v tobolce ("The Man with a Gold Coin in his Purse," 1883). A few other Czech writers, notably A.E. Mužík, Bohdan Kaminský, and F.X. Svoboda,
It is another peculiarity of Czech literature that its expression of antisemitism was at least in part motivated by nationalist considerations. The fact that Jews in the Czech lands were traditionally closer to German than to Czech culture laid them open to the charge that they supported Austrian oppression of the Czechs. This is probably the first instance in literature of antisemitism being based on nationalism, whether from honest conviction or merely as an excuse for prejudice. Sometimes the two types of antisemitism – the social and the nationalist – appear together. For example, Viktor Dyk (1877–1931) wrote a poem about two Jews, the wealthy Kohn and the poor Bloch. As long as Kohn is rich, he speaks German; but when he loses all his money he begins to speak Czech, as the poor Bloch always did.
For the leading Czech social poet, Petr Bezruč (pseudonym of Vladimír Vašek, 1867–1958), the Jew was also the national as well as the social enemy. In his famous Slezské písně ("Silesian Songs," 1909), hatred of the Germans is repeatedly coupled with hatred of the Jews, whom he charged with committing every crime in the calendar in their dealings with the poor. Bezruč was probably the most bitter and most programmatic antisemite among the leading Czech poets, but he was certainly not the only one. The great symbolist Antonín Sova (1864–1928) wrote at least two openly antisemitic poems and the mystic poet Otakar Březina (1868–1929), who is generally regarded as the greatest of all Czech poets, made no secret in his published correspondence of his hatred of the Jews.
As far as the drama is concerned, the Jewish characters in the plays of Ladislav Stroupežnický (1850–1892), Jaroslav Hilbert (1871–1936), and F.F. Šamberk (1839–1904) are all either unpleasant or ridiculous. The rustic novel might be said to have an antisemitic tradition, originated by a Catholic priest, František Pravda (1817–1904), whose short stories are full of Jewish swindlers and opportunists battening on the Czech people. His example was followed by far more significant authors such as Alois Mrštík (1861–1925), who drew a whole series of unsympathetic Jewish portraits in his classic novel, Rok na vsi ("Year in a Village," 1904). Alois' brother, Vilém Mrštík (1863–1912), gave vent to anti-Jewish feelings of an even cruder sort in his short stories. It would almost seem that no Czech novel about village life could be complete without its Jewish villain, and he is to be found in such classics as Naši ("Our People") by Josef Holeček (1853–1929) and Jan Cimbura by Jindřich Š. Baar (1869–1925). Even Thomas Masaryk's close friend Ivan Herben (1857–1936) introduced a Jewish villain as a matter of course in his Do třetího a čtvrtého pokolení ("To the Third and Fourth Generation"). One of the most virulent antisemites in the annals of Czech literature was Rudolf Medek (1890–1940), a former general who wrote popular novels about World War I. The anti-Jewish tirades in his Ohnivý drak ("The Fiery Dragon," 1921) were unmatched by any other Czech author.
Hardly any figure recurs in Czech prose as often as that of the wicked Jew. The villain in the novel Sup ("Vulture," 1920) by Emil Vachek (1889–1964) is the old familiar stereotype; but Vachek at least appeared to realize that the Jew's faults might be attributable to his Diaspora environment. Even such important progressive social novelists as Antal Stašek (1843–1931) and Anna Maria Tilschová (1873–1957) were not above depicting negative Jewish characters in their novels.
Although he was attracted by the Jew, the Czech writer in general had too little knowledge of Jewish life and character to draw him as anything but a caricature. The few Czech writers with a wider outlook, such as Jaroslav Hašek (1883–1923) and the brothers Karel Čapek (1890–1938) and Josef Čapek (1887–1945), created Jewish characters without attempting to discuss problems affecting the Jews.
There were Czech authors, nevertheless, who created sympathetic Jewish characters. Among them must be included Alois Jirásek (1851–1928), Karel Klostermann (1848–1923), Karel Matěj Čapek-Chod (1860–1927), Gabriela Preissová (1862–1946), Josef Svatopluk Machar (1864–1942), Marie Majerová (1882–1958), Eduard Bass (1888–1946), and Benjamin Klička (1897–1943). On the whole, however, if the works of Jewish or partly Jewish authors are excluded, objective treatment was quite exceptional in Czech literature before 1945.
In Slovak literature, too, as in the realistic village novels of Martin Kukučín (1860–1928) and Jozef Gregor Tajovský (1874–1940), the Jew was most often depicted as the innkeeper and usurer who exploits the poor Slovak peasant and serves the Hungarian overlord. This generally hostile treatment of the Jews in Slovak literature virtually ceased in the democratic period between the two World Wars, but even then no Slovak author of distinction portrayed a sympathetic Jewish character. The omission was only remedied during World War II, when a leading Slovak writer, Janko Jesenský (1874–1945), in his short story Strach ("Fear"), and the then young author Margita Figuli (1909–1995) in her four-volume novel Babylon, expressed their horror at anti-Jewish persecution and their pity for the victims. Both works, of course, had to wait for publication until the war was over.
After World War II, in the years 1956–69, some Czech non-Jewish writers published stories and novels with Jewish themes and characters and wrote about Jews in a very positive way. Jan Otčenášek (1924–1979) in his short story "Romeo, Julie a tma" ("Romeo, Juliet and the Darkness," 1958) depicted a tragic love story between a Czech boy and a Jewish girl (made into a movie by the Jewish director Jiří *Weiss). Hana Bělohradská (1929– ) later made her debut with the short story "Bez krásy bez límce" ("Without Beauty Without Collar," 1962) about a Jewish physician waiting for a summons to a concentration camp, which was made into a movie …a pátý jezdec je strach ("…and the Fifth Rider is Fear") by Zdeněk Brynych. Ladislav Fuks (1923–1994) published his novels and
The Jewish Contribution to Czech and Slovak Literature
A long list of Czech Jewish writers appears already in the second half of the 19th century including Siegfried *Kapper and publicists and authors connected with the Czech-Jewish assimilation movement. Linked to its ideas is Vojtěch *Rakous, a writer who described the life of Jews in the country in a masterly fashion. The following generation included František *Gellner, an anarchist poet, one of the first victims of World War I, Otokar *Fischer, Pavel *Eisner, and many others whose critical, literary, and public activities developed freely during the two decades of Masaryk's First Republic (1918–38). Some of them, Fischer, Eisner, Otto Pick, and Rudolf Fuchs, became famous as translators and mediators between the Czech and German cultures. Jewish writers, journalists, and editors also played an important role in the press of the First Republic, promulgating Masaryk's and Beneš' so-called "Castle" policy in the public at large. Jan and Jaroslav *Stránský, Gustav *Winter, Alfred *Fuchs, Josef Kodíček, František *Langer, Richard *Weiner, Karel *Poláček and others held decisive positions in many publishing houses (for example Orbis) and newspapers such as Národní osvobození, České slovo, Prager Tagblatt, Prager Presse, Tribuna, Lidové noviny, and Přítomnost, or regularly contributed to them. The only prominent Jewish journalist and editor who opposed the "Castle" policy was Lev Borský (in 1944 he perished in a concentration camp). There was an informal "Castle" institution called Pátečníci ("Friday visitors") which met regularly in the years 1924–37 in the presence of Tomáš G. *Masaryk and Edvard *Beneš. A quarter of them were Jews such as Julius *Firt, Otokar Fischer, Alfred Fuchs, Camil Hoffmann, Josef Kodíček, František Langer, Arne Laurin, and Karel Poláček. Poláček, in his stories and novels, portrayed the life of people in a district town before and during World War I. Fischer and Weiner laid foundations for Czech Jewish poets who were to follow, such as František *Gottlieb and Avigdor *Dagan, who were then succeeded by Ivo Fleischmann (1921–1997), Hanuš *Bonn, and Jiří *Orten.
[Milos Pojar (2nd ed.)]
The Jewish contribution to Slovak literature was less important than to Czech literature. The only Jewish author of any significance was Gejza Vámoš (1901–1956), a gifted writer of psychological short stories, the best of which were collected in Editino očko a iné novely ("Edith's Eye and Other Stories," 1925). His novel Odlomená haluz ("The Severed Branch," 1934), about Slovak-Jewish symbiosis, was at once a protest against antisemitism and an equally vehement criticism of the bigotry, exclusiveness, and materialism of the Jewish community in which he was raised. The few remaining Jewish writers in Slovakia before 1939 were of lesser importance, but both their number and their significance increased considerably after World War II. At least some of them deserve mention. Emil *Knieža, Juraj *Spitzer, and Ladislav *Grosman won distinction with their books on Jewish suffering during the Nazi occupation, Hela Volanská (1912–1996) and Leopold Lahola (1918–1998) were held in a labor camp in Nováky during World War II; Volanská was persecuted after 1968, Lahola went to Israel and died when he returned to Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s. Scriptwriter and writer of non-fiction literature Ján Ladislav Kalina (1913–1981) died in exile in Munich, Germany.
Another notable Jewish contribution to Czech and Slovak letters has been in the field of literary criticism. Those prominent in this sphere include Josef Kodíček (1892–1954), formerly the director of one of Prague's leading theaters, Pavel *Fraenkl (1904–1985), who settled in Norway, and Eduard *Goldstuecker. Jews, furthermore, played an important part in popularizing the works of Czech authors abroad and in translating the great foreign classics into Czech, thus enriching the literary life of Czechoslovakia. Max *Brod, Pavel Eisner, Paul Selver (a Londoner who translated Čapek and Hašek into English), Gustav *Winter, Otto Pick, Willy *Haas, Rudolf Fuchs, Emil and Erik Saudek, Bedřich Adler, Edmund Gruen, Arnošt Mandler, Jan Urzidil, and, not least, Otokar *Fischer, who was both a poet of the first rank and an important drama critic – the list is a long one, and yet these are only a few of the many gifted Jews who helped to spread a knowledge of Czechoslovak culture throughout the civilized world.
[Avigdor Dagan /
Milos Pojar (2nd ed.)]
World War II brought immense losses to the ranks of Czech Jewish writers, authors, and journalists. Some perished in the Holocaust: Alfred Fuchs, Karel Poláček, Hanuš Bonn, Camil Hoffmann (from a German Jewish family); Jiří Orten was killed in 1941; many went into exile: František Langer, Pavel *Tigrid, Josef Kodíček, Julius Firt, Arne Laurin, the prominent novelist Egon *Hostovský, Viktor Fischl (later Avigdor Dagan), František Gottlieb, Eduard *Goldstuecker and Jiří Langer, who died in 1943 in Palestine. Some who returned to Czechoslovakia after World War II, went into exile
The 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and political events in Poland and Hungary in 1956 opened the gates for a more liberal period in Czechoslovakia in the field of culture, which lasted until the Soviet occupation in 1968. The Second Congress of the Union of Czechoslovak writers and its critical course, articles which appeared in Literární noviny, and works of young Czech and Slovak writers published in 1955–59 in the literary monthly Květen made it possible to start publishing "Jewish themes" again. In particular, another literary monthly, Plamen (1959–69), gave space to Czech and Slovak writers, publicists, translators, journalists, etc., both Jewish and non-Jewish, to publish their own stories, critical pieces, and translations pertaining to Czech-Jewish literature, the Holocaust, Jewish humor and extracts from the works of Jewish writers (Julian *Tuwim, Lion *Feuchtwanger, Isaac *Babel, Ilja *Erenburg, Franz *Kafka), philosophers, sociologists, psychoanalysts, etc. (Ernst *Fischer, Erich *Fromm, Lucien *Goldmann, Sigmund *Freud, and others). Similarly, a new bimonthly, Světová literatura (from 1956) started publishing works of world literature, especially those of American and Western writers, including Jews. In 1958, Pavel Eisner's translation of Kafka's Proces ("The Trial") appeared on the book market, followed by translations of Lion Feuchtwanger, Alberto *Moravia, Isaac Babel, Herman *Broch, and many others. In the growing liberal atmosphere of the late 1950s and 1960s (with many setbacks for new trends) Jewish writers also profited. In the beginning, they either published (from 1945) in Věstník židovské náboženské obce v Praze ("Gazette of the Jewish Religious Community in Prague"; from 1968 Věstník židovských náboženských obcí v Československu, "Gazette of Jewish Religious Communities in Czechoslovakia"), from 1991 in Roš chodeš or from 1954 in Židovská ročenka ("Jewish Yearbook") or in Judaica Bohemiae. Slowly, they started to publish their books, too. Ludvík *Aškenazy, F.R. *Kraus, Norbert Frýd, J.R. Pick and Jiří Weil, who could publish even in the 1940s and 1950s, were joined in the 1960s by Arnošt Lustig, Ivan *Klíma, Josef *Bor, František Kafka, František Langer, Ota Pavel, František Gottlieb, Ladislav *Grosman, Gabriel *Laub, and Efraim K. *Sidon. In these years works of deceased authors also appeared – František Gellner, Ivan *Olbracht (a staunch supporter of the Communist regime), Jiří Orten (already in 1958), Karel Poláček, and Richard Weiner. In 1963 and 1965 two international literary conferences were held in Liblice near Prague, co-organized by Eduard *Goldstuecker and others, on Franz Kafka and on Prague German literature, attended, for instance, by Anna *Seghers, Ernst *Fischer, Roger Garaudy, etc., followed by an edition of Franz Kafka aus Prager Sicht (1966) and Welt freunde. Konferenz ueber die Prager deutsche Literatur (1967). Kafka and his work ceased to be taboo in Czechoslovakia (until 1968). In 1964 Max Brod visited Prague after 25 years. In 1963–1964 an open dialogue between Marxists and Christians came into being at the Faculty of Philosophy in Prague. It ran until 1968 and brought to Prague, among others Erich Fromm, Theodor *Adorno, Roger Garaudy. Allen *Ginsberg, J.P. Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. J.A. Jevtuschenko, Edward Albee, and John Steinbeck visited Prague, too. Eichmann's trial in Israel in 1961–62 and trials of German war criminals from Auschwitz in 1965 in Frankfurt were described in detail by Ladislav Mňačko and Erich *Kulka who took part in these trials, which attracted wide attention in the Czech public, including Jewish themes in general. The official Czechoslovak policy toward Israel in 1967 and after the Six-Day War brought on open criticism of Ladislav Mňačko and of some Czech writers at the Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak writers. Three of them (Ludvík Vaculík, Milan Kundera, and Ivan Klíma) lost their membership in the Communist Party. "The Prague Spring" in 1968 lasted a mere eight months. A special board of the Czechoslovak Writers' Union discussed persecution cases of 168 authors discriminated against after 1948. Josefa Slánská (1967), Eugen Löbl, (1968), Artur London (1969), and Heda Margoliová-Kovályová (1973, from exile) published their testimonies about the *Slánský trial. Eduard Goldstuecker was elected president of the Czechoslovak Writers' Union. Censorship was abolished, books of exiled authors (for instance Egon Hostovský) were allowed to be published. Czech and Slovak writers took an active part in the process of the so-called "democratization" of the whole society. The mass media became free and the weekly edition of Literární listy (issued by the Czechoslovak Writers' Union) reached 300,000 copies. "The Prague Spring" was crushed by Soviet tanks in August and a process of liquidation of all the freedoms which had been achieved started and culture was not an exception. This period of "normalization" lasted 20 years with all its disastrous consequences also for Jews. An official state and party antisemitism (under the guise of anti-Zionism) emerged. The Czechoslovak Writers' Union was decimated, split into the Czech and Slovak unions, and a majority of important writers stayed outside. The ban on publication hit those who did not approve of the occupation of the country. Dozens of writers, publicists, journalists, editors, etc., went into exile, among them Ludvík Aškenazy, Ladislav Grosman, Eduard Goldstuecker, Gabriel Laub, Arnošt Lustig, Erich Kulka, and later Karol E. Sidon. Czech literature split into three sections: an official one, an underground (samizdat), and an exile literature published either in Czech exile publishing houses and smuggled back into Czechoslovakia or in translations in foreign languages. Some Czech Jewish authors stayed in the country and published abroad or in samizdat (Ivan Klíma, or Milan *Uhde); some of them (Arnošt *Goldflam, Zeno *Dostál, or Ota Pavel)
The return of freedom to Czechoslovakia after 1989 physically brought back some Czech Jewish authors from exile (Goldstücker, Lustig, Sidon). In the 1990s Czech Jewish writers started to be published again. This trend continued into the 2000s.
[Milos Pojar (2nd ed.)]
O. Donath, Židé a židovství v české literatuře 19. století (1923); idem, Židé a židovství v české literatuře 19. a 20. století (1930); P. Váša and A. Gregor, Katechismus dějin české literatury (1925); L. Páleníček, Rukovět dějin československé literatury od roku 1918 (1961); Dagan and Hostovský, in: Jews in Czechoslovakia, 1 (1967); Lagus, in: Judaica Bohemiae, 3 (1967), 61; 4 (1968), 91; P. Eisner, in: Jewish Studies in honour of Gustav Sicher (1955), 50–61; Dagan and Lustig in Gesher, 59–60 (1969), 227–41. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Českožidovští spisovatelé v literatuře 20. století (2000); IV. Sjezd Svazu československých spisovatelů (Protokol) Praha 27.–29. června 1967 (1968); J. Čulík, Knihy za ohradou. Česká literatura v exilových nakladatelstvích 1971–1989 (n.d.); P. Kubíková and P. Kotyk, Čeští spisovatelé (1999); J. Lehár et al., Česká literatura od počátků k dnešku (1998); V. Menclová et al., Slovník českých spisovatelů (2000); V. Mikula et al., Slovník slovenských spisovatelů (1999); A. Mikulášek et al., Literatura s hvězdou Davidovou, 1 (1998), II (2002); Slovník českých spisovatelů (Toronto, 1982); V. Sůva, Jewish Literature in Bohemia (2001); Slovník zakázaných autorů (1991).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.