A celebration of the lost world of Prague’s rich but doomed German-language literary life.
On September 7, Prague Literary House (Prager Literatur Haus) opened the exhibition “The Cabinet of Prague German Writers,” devoted to the Czech capital’s rich and widely unknown German-language literary milieu, dating from the end of the 19th century and reaching to the Holocaust and postwar expulsion of the country’s German minority that brought its history to a definitive end.
To say that Prague German writing is barely known seems strange. After all, sports announcers and politicians (i.e. idiots) commonly reference a Prague German writer to describe a weird moment or bureaucratic snafu though I doubt most of them could come up with the name of a single Dutch, Czech or Japanese writer if their lives depended on it. Everyone knows who Kafka is. Some people have even read his books.
Yet Kafka is part of the problem, his often context-free fame obscuring a wealth and diversity of writing, much of which has never been translated into English.
File under K
How do you exhibit a lost world such as Prague’s now extinct German-Jewish culture? And when the focus is literary doesn’t the challenge become that much more daunting?
Tucked away in the small literary museum’s courtyard in the center of Prague, the cabinet exhibition is set in a single book-lined room. The room is equipped with numerous drawers and cupboards. One wall houses file cabinets full of informative files on writers ranging from the highly acclaimed and (formerly) famous such as Franz Werfel, Egon Erwin Kisch and Gustav Meyrink to the obscure and unknown like Paul Leppin, Leo Perutz and Hugo Salus.
Another drawer contains copies of the Kafka family’s census forms from 1900 and 1910, with the author documented not as Franz, but František, the Czech form of the name. Oddly, in the 1900 census the entire family is listed as of Czech nationality, whereas in 1910 the author’s nationality alone among his family is listed as German.
There is also a map of the city’s former significant German sites — cafés, the German theater and school. The overall effect of providing a space to read and imagine goes a long way towards evoking a fascinating yet distant world.
Prague’s Last German writer
As faraway as Prague’s German-Jewish culture seems, it is surprising to realize that one if its prominent representatives lived in Prague until her death in 2008. The exhibition features a documentary film about Lenka Reinerová, a German-speaking Jewish journalist and writer before the war. In the film, she mentions getting a veiled warning over the phone from her sister that led her to stay abroad in Bucharest when the German invasion reached Prague. She was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust and was often approached (and wrestled herself) with the question of why she continued to write in German instead of Czech (in which she was fluent) in spite of what had happened.
She went on to be imprisoned during the last years of Stalinism, was unable to work as a journalist, then after returning to writing was banned again after the Soviet invasion of 1968. During the Prague Spring though, before the Russian tanks rolled in, she said that the euphoria of the times led her to the idea of commemorating the Prague circle of German writers she had been a part of, and not only just Kafka and Werfel.
After 1989, when it became possible to think about a literary-historical project like this again, Reinerová said she looked around to see who else could participate and realized that she was the only one left. Nevertheless, with Václav Havel as president she found that she had allies and the current exhibition is the latest attempt to belatedly introduce writers that were unjustly murdered, banned and forgotten.
Reinerová’s most successful book is Das Traumcafe einer Pragerin (Dream Café of a Prague Woman) and has been translated into Czech and French (but not English). In her last years Reinerová was crucial in the founding of Prague Literary House, with its mission to acknowledge and celebrate the city’s German literary heritage.
Literary treasure trove
The unquestionable highlight of the exhibition for anyone who can read German (though worth a leisurely browse even for those who don’t) are the beautifully reprinted, hard-to-find Prague German literary anthologies.
Beginning with magazines such as Wir (We) and Frühling (Spring) and editions containing Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry from the 1890s, as the 20th century gets started you can see the aesthetic changes underway. The magazines and anthologies seem less like refined art objects harking back to the Classical and German masters and, as the exhibition notes indicate, the local writers begin to open their eyes to their Czech surroundings and emerging Czech writers and artists. More expressionist-style journals came in the decade that followed, featuring the younger generation of German-Jewish writers like Werfel, Max Brod and Kafka as well as the occasional Czech writer such as symbolist Otakar Březina. There is even an anthology of (I assume, patriotic) Prague German war poetry (Kriegslieder) from 1916 that includes work by surprising saber rattlers such as Brod and Rilke.
In the 1920s the anthologies take on the air of a project aimed at fully displaying Prague’s multidimensional modern literary life. The main means of achieving this at the time — as it still is today, incidentally — was translation, and a contingent of bilingual German-Jewish writers brought Czech work to a much wider German public. This not only included the poetry of Jaroslav Vrchlický and plays like R.U.R. by Karel Čapek, but Leoš Janáček’s great modern opera Jenůfa.
The exhibition information points out that this effort was largely one-sided and that there was little effort to translate Prague’s German-language writers into Czech, except when some of these bilingual writers were able to do it themselves. It is further noted that some of their work remains untranslated into Czech today.
Besides all the local writers these anthologies published, they are full of German-language writers with Czech roots and connections such as Karl Kraus, Georg Trakl and Robert Musil as well as modern French writers such as Apollinaire. One magazine is a presentation of German culture in Prague with, among many interesting articles, Czech-Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann writing on German music in the city. To see the enthusiasm Ullmann calls forth in expressing the singular cultural moment he was living through, and yet to know he would soon go on to die at Auschwitz is to enter into the paradox of three ethnic groups — Germans, Czechs and Jews — that will never be able to celebrate their shared cultural achievements without brushing up against some of humanity’s harshest brutality.
This was also the era that saw the beginning of the nostalgia for old Prague that is a veritable industry today. From today’s perspective it seems odd, considering that the 1920s seem just as worth being nostalgic about as the decades which preceded them, but perhaps these books and articles were less a look back than a look forward, a dark premonition that in a matter of ten to fifteen years it would all be gone forever.
This text by Michael Stein is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.