This November marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Johannes Urzidil, the Prague-born writer, poet, historian and journalist. Urzidil was a member of the so-called Prague Circle, a group of mostly Jewish German-speaking authors who met regularly in the city’s cafes in the early part years of the 20th century. While not as well known obviously as his friend and fellow author Franz Kafka, Urzidil has a firm following, and some of them gathered in Prague recently to remember his life and work.
An evening dedicated to Johannes Urzidil at the Prager Literaturhaus, whose mission is to promote and preserve Prague’s German literary heritage. The evening brought together Urzidil scholars and ordinary readers to remember the author and also mark the publication of a new Urzidil collection, called 'HinterNational – Johannes Urzidil'.
The title – which translates roughly as ‘Beyond Nations’ - is a clear nod at Urzdil’s complex ethnic and cultural belonging. Klaus Johann, one of HinterNational’s two authors, explained his appeal:
“First of all I would say his language. He has a very rich and original language, very different from many other authors, and that’s what made me fascinated at first. What’s very important for me is that it’s simply a great pleasure to read him and to work on him. I think he is a very interesting figure too for his political and philosophical positions I think.”
Johannes Urzidil was born in Prague in 1896 to a German father and a Jewish mother, who’d converted to Catholicism before Johannes was born. However his mother died when he was just a child, and his father soon remarried. Johannes – technically a Jew – was raised a Catholic by a German nationalist father and Czech nationalist mother.
As a young man he tried his hand at Expressionist poetry, worked as a writer and editor of the monthly journal Der Mensch, and whiled away the hours in Prague cafes with the likes of Kafka, Franz Werfel and Max Brod.
During the first Czechoslovak Republic Urzidil worked at the German embassy, and was critical of Czechoslovakia's treatment of its large German minority. Yet after Hitler rose to power in 1933, his attitude changed, and he began vigorously defending Czechoslovak democracy, pointing out that Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia enjoyed far more rights than minorities in Nazi Germany.
In 1939, when the Nazis invaded Prague, he was at risk of deportation as a 'half-Jew' and was forced to flee his beloved city, first for England, then the United States. Gerhard Trapp, one of the world’s leading Urzidil scholars and someone who knew him personally, says Urzidil was never defeated by his fate:
“He was able to find the positive moments in exile. In London it was the same thing as the USA later on. So he didn’t resign. He was fighting. And in accepting the situation in America, at the same time he was critical towards some aspects of the American way of life, but in principle he accepted the situation. He didn’t deny it on principle. This is important.”
It was in America that he penned some of his most successful works, including The Lost Beloved (about Prague) and The Prague Triptych. He never returned to Prague. He may never be as famous as Kafka, but Johannes Urzidil was part of a unique Czech-German-Jewish cultural intermingling which was crushed by the cruelties of the 20th century, its authors transported to concentration camps or sent into exile. Here in Prague, however, their life and work is not forgotten.