One of Prague’s best known German-language authors was Egon Erwin Kisch, who was born in the Czech capital 125 years ago this Thursday. His excellent style and original choice of stories, together with his dramatic life, earned him a reputation of the ‘Raging Reporter’ that is still very much alive today.
Egon Erwin Kisch searched for the legendary Golem in the Old New Synagogue and reported on the lives of prostitutes and petty criminals. He wrote about the achievements of the Soviet Union, and described the execution of war criminal Karl Hermann Frank. The scope of his writing and the style he developed made him one of the most popular German-language authors of Prague, although he spent just about half of his life abroad. His leftist views, and membership in the communist party, ensured his works came out in Czech even under the communist regime and was perhaps the most read Prague German-language writer with Czech readers.
Egon Erwin Kisch grew up in the multi-lingual environment of Prague which, with its Czech and German communities, produced a number of original artists, such as Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel, Paul Leppin and others. Veronika Tuckerová teaches literature at New York University in Prague.
“From our contemporary perspective, the Prague German authors, and perhaps their Czech contemporaries as well, developed a certain distinct vein of modernism, which is what we value today. The question is how much their particular situation of a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic circumstances and conditions contributed to the development of this modern style.”
Kisch’s writing developed over the first decades of the 20th century from the fashionable neo-romanticism of the period to his original style of reporting. A popular saying has it that nothing is as old as yesterday’s newspapers but Kisch’s ‘reportages’ are still read today. Viera Glosíková is the head of the German studies department at the Pedagogical Faculty of Charles University, and a member of the Prager Literaturhaus, an organization devoted to the legacy of the city’s German literature.
“Kisch always knew that information alone is not enough. He realized he had to grab the readers’ attention and amuse them. He applied literary means, lyrical touches, dialogues, descriptions, and a lot of tension. He would follow a story and only disclose its essence at the very end.”
Born in Prague on April 29, 1885, Egon Erwin Kisch grew up in a German-speaking middle-class Jewish family. After studies at the city’s German university, and after a brief stint at a local newspaper, he went to study journalism in Berlin. When he returned to Prague, he joined a liberal German-language paper, Bohemia.
“There he worked from 1906 to 1913. He started off as a local reporter, that is, he reported on local Prague events, and he was very successful. He focused on the low classes, on everyday life, on criminal affairs. His articles came out in the paper’s Saturday supplement, and they were so successful and so distinct that he later published them in a book”.
The book, Abenteuer in Prag, or Adventures in Prague, came out in Leipzig in 1916 when Kisch was already fighting for the Kaiser on the battlefields of the First World War. When it ended, their old country was gone, replaced by the newly-established Czechoslovakia. Germans were no longer the dominant community in Bohemia and Moravia, and many writers, including Franz Werfel and Rainer Maria Rilke, did not identify themselves with the new country. Viera Glosíková again.
“They must have considered many things in the new country as hostile. The anti-German sentiments, sometimes even anti-Semitism, all this must have been difficult for them. The old world no longer existed, and they had to adapt to the new situation. But I think Kisch had no problem with that, and his Czechoslovak passport in fact saved his life.”
In the mid 1920s Egon Erwin Kisch moved to Berlin, where he worked for local papers and was also the German correspondent for the Czech daily, Lidové noviny. By then, he was a well-known communist, and when the Nazis took over in 1933, he was arrested in connection with the fire of the German Parliament building. He was only released after Prague intervened, and moved to Paris after that.
In the 1920s and 30s, Kisch toured many parts of the world, including the Soviet Union, China and Australia. There the authorities would not allow him to enter the country because of his communist views, and he famously jumped off the ship onto the pier, breaking his leg. He described his experiences in another of his books, Landfall in Australia.
Kisch joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia shortly after it was established in 1922. Although he defied the authorities and manifested no ideological tendencies in his writing, he failed to reflect the truth about the Soviet Union which he visited in the 1920s. Some Czech communist intellectuals showed less loyalty to Russia’s communist regime, most notably Jiří Weil, who was even expelled from the party over one of his Russian-themed novels. Viera Glosíková says Kisch’s motivation for not reflecting the reality of communism was a mystery even to his friends.
“I have to say I have thought about this many times, and I even talked about it with Lenka Reinerová who knew Kisch personally, and she could offer no explanation either. Kisch was there in the early 1930s, and even if he did not know the whole truth, there were enough signs of what was really going on there. Why he never published this, whether he thought that negative reporting might hurt what he considered the positive things about the social experiment… I can’t really answer this.”
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Kisch escaped to the United States, but his reputation as a communist made his life difficult once again. After some 9 months of internment at Ellis Island, he eventually arrived in Mexico, where he stayed until the end of the war.
Egon Erwin Kisch returned to Prague in 1946, but was already ill, and died two years later, just weeks after the communists took over. The new regime highlighted his socially-minded reporting, and until the re-discovery of Franz Kafka in the 1960s, Kisch was the most popular and best known of all the German language Prague writers. NYU’s Veronika Tuckerová again.
“It contributed to his popularity that in East Germany, his selected works were put out by a prominent publisher. But he was also quite popular in the 1930s and 40s in English speaking countries, even in the 1990s, his work was published in the US. So, had he lived and experienced the Stalinist regime, would he have maintained his communist ideas? I think he would be in some kind of clash with the dogma.”
One of Kisch’s most famous ‘reportages’ describes his quest of the Golem of Prague. He was the first to enter the attic of the Old New Synagogue in search of the mythical creature, and although he didn’t find the clay monster, Kisch’s stories have become part of the same extinct world as the Golem itself.