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Czechoslovak Literature

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 to Czech literature was out of all proportion to the small minority of Jews in the country's population as a whole. It was during this period also that Jews first began writing in the Slovak language. The Jewish writers who succeeded in escaping from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia contributed to Czech literature while they were in exile, and those who returned after the end of World War II went on to play an important part in the cultural life of the country.

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.

Biblical Influences

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.

Literary Antisemitism

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, showed a more kindly attitude toward their Jewish characters, but none of them was of major literary importance.

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.

Objective Treatment

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.


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).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.