Until the middle of the 20th century, the territory of today’s Czech Republic had always been bilingual and the country has a huge German literary legacy. Adalbert Stifter, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Werfel, Max Brod and Franz Kafka are just a few of the best known writers, but there are hundreds of others, many undeservedly neglected or even quite forgotten. David Vaughan looks at an initiative to kindle interest in this country’s German literature and to revive Czech-German literary ties.
In the 1960s, the Prague writer Lenka Reinerová began to look for a way to commemorate Bohemia and Moravia’s rich vein of writing in German, a legacy that was all but lost after 1945. Born in 1916 into a family that was Czech, German and Jewish, Reinerová carried the pre-war multilingual, cosmopolitan Prague with her all her life, and she continued to write in German right up to her death five years ago. In 2004, at the age of 88, she managed to fulfil her dream when, with a group of fellow enthusiasts, she set up the Prague Literature House – “Pražský literární dům” or “Prager Literaturhaus”. Now almost a decade into its existence, the Literature House is thriving and it does a great deal more than just commemorate a lost literary world. I went along to talk to its director, David Stecher at the Literature House’s headquarters in Ječná Street.
“The Prague Literature House was established in 2004 and we’ve been in this place since 2008. That is especially thanks to the mayor of Prague 2, Mrs Jana Černochová, because she did us the favour of letting us be here. Since 2008 we have been carrying out renovation work, but it is not finished yet.”
It’s a great place, right in the centre of Prague, just off Charles Square. It is a low building in the courtyard of one of the many apartment blocks here from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. You have three rooms here. In one of the rooms you can hold events, here in the middle is a room where you can sit and talk, as we are now, and there’s a library behind you and then there are the offices next door.
“It’s great. But I’d like to make one little correction. We have even more. We opened an exhibition in September last year, 2012. You might call it a ‘Literature Cabinet’.”
… And we’ve now walked into this exhibition space, designed in the form of bookshelves – which is no coincidence…
You have a combination of books by Prague writers who wrote in German and information about them, arranged chronologically…
“You’re absolutely right. Here we have all the writers from A to Z. Here, when you open this drawer, you have A to C. Here you see, for example, Max Brod, Oskar Baum…”
And it’s interesting that it’s a mixture of writers who are very well-known, like Max Brod, but, if you look again, there are other writers… Now we have reached “J”. There’s Franz Janowitz who is a writer I have not heard of, and then there’s Egon Erwin Kisch…
“And Franz Kafka, but also there’s a Georg Kafka, for example.”
Who is Georg Kafka?
“If we open this, here we see… ‘Georg Kafka… he perished in the Terezín ghetto… he was 23 years old…”
And he was a poet… and a distant relative of Franz Kafka, it says at the bottom.
And until the fall of communism, the German-speaking legacy in Prague was more or less completely ignored.
“Yes. In 1963 there was some conference about Kafka in Liblice. Lenka Reinerová was also part of that conference.”
But that thaw came to an end with the Soviet-led invasion of 1968…
“Yes. A lot of people who then got power from the communist leaders said: ‘This counter-revolution started in 1963 in Liblice with the conference about Kafka’.”
Blaming Kafka for the Prague Spring!
“When you really think about this idea, it’s unbelievable.”
There’s also an element of anti-Semitism there, isn’t there?
“Absolutely. I am of the same opinion as you.”
And you’re just about to open another drawer…
“This is a book by Gustav Meyrink, signed by the author: ‘Prague, 6th July 1903’…”
And here’s one by Max Brod: “Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt” – the woman one longs for – and it’s signed by Max Brod himself: “To the successful editor of my novel, Dr Rychnovský. We’ll remain friends for short and long” [in the original German there is a pun on the words “edit” and “short”].
“This is a new discovery. I’ve seen this for the first time. You see, we are still in a developing story here.”
Who actually comes to visit the Prague Literature House?
And you organize an annual competition for schoolchildren as well.
“Yes, because one important part of our work is to support the German language, because our border with German speaking countries – Austria and Germany – is very long. It’s more than 810 kilometres, I think. That’s why this competition was founded.”
It’s a competition in reciting…
“Yes. We were starting with four categories and now we’ve seven. This year there was even a music category. They were singing! There was a young schoolboy, 12 years old, and he was singing ‘Der Erlkönig’…”
… the famous poem by Goethe that was put to music by Schubert.
“His mother on the piano and he was singing the Erlkönig!”…
… which takes quite a lot of courage for a 12-year-old.
“Absolutely. That’s why I mention it.”
You talk about encouraging the German language. The history of Czechs and Germans living together in Bohemia goes back a very long way, but it is also very difficult. There is so much trauma: the Second World War, the Holocaust, the expulsion of Germans after the war. Does that make your work harder to do – even politically – in terms of promoting the German language in the Czech Republic, and is there sometimes opposition to the work that you are doing?
“It’s important to speak about what happened in the past, but for our generation – the middle aged and younger generation – it is more important what is happening now and in the future. I think we are part of a bridge between Czech and German speaking people. I think that now the relationship really is very good. We cooperate without problems with the German Embassy, with the Austrian Embassy, with the Goethe Institut and the Austrian Cultural Forum.”
One thing that interests me is the fact that there are a lot of younger Czech writers who seem fascinated by Germany. An example is Jaroslav Rudiš who has spent time living in Berlin and has written a lot about the city. There are also writers, such as Radka Denemarková and Kateřina Tučková, who have written about some of the more difficult aspects of Czech-German relations in the 20th century.
“We have cooperation with some ‘literature houses ‘ and archives in Germany and also in Austria, and Radka Denemarková was one of our first people who got a scholarship for one month to Germany, and from Germany we also have German writers coming here. I think we are the only institution in the Czech Republic which gives this kind of scholarship every year.”
So you always have writers actually staying here at the centre…
“Yes, because we have a small flat, which we pay for every month and when a visitor comes – for example there was a very famous German woman writer, Tanja Dückers. She stayed here last autumn and now she has written us an email, and we plan that she will be staying in this flat for a week, if possible, and she will be planning some readings.”