Lenka Reinerova: reviving Prague's German literary legacy

In recent years Lenka Reinerova has acquired almost legendary status as Prague's last living writer in the German language. Her novels, stories and essays, many of which are strongly autobiographical, are widely read both in Germany and the Czech Republic. She is currently at the centre of a fascinating literary project. Prague has always been a city of two languages, Czech and German, but after the trauma of World War Two, the German language disappeared almost completely. A huge literary tradition was lost, in which Prague's most famous literary son, Franz Kafka, had been just the tip of the iceberg.

At 91, Lenka Reinerova can still remember the days before the war, when Prague's German-speaking literary life was thriving. Despite losing nearly all her family in the Holocaust, she is determined to foster interest in this German literary tradition, and to do so, she is working to set up what she calls a "Literary House" devoted to Prague's German literary legacy. We met to talk about the project, and she began by telling me that the idea has a long history.

"During the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, the whole situation changed completely - the atmosphere changed. A group of intellectuals decided in this atmosphere to do something to prevent many very good Bohemian writers in the German language from being completely forgotten.

"Kafka is a well-known name worldwide, and there are a few others, like Rilke, Werfel or Egon Erwin Kisch, but we knew that there is a great number of very good authors, who are somehow forgotten. In this situation, we thought it might be nice to make some kind of museum in Prague of those German-writing Prague authors.

"Then came the Soviet invasion of August 1968 and none of those plans could be realized. Then came another revolution in 1989. All of a sudden I saw that of this group that had had this idea in 1968, little by little I was the only one still around, as I had been much younger than the others.

"I had the idea of trying to find people who would realize this plan now that the possibility was given. It took me at least three years - I had to find people who would do it with me. I found people who decided that it is a good idea. We thought that it should not be a museum, because a museum is somehow turned to the past. If we founded a new organization or institution, it should be open to the future.

"There are many things in Prague, but a literary house doesn't exist here, so we decided to call it the 'Prague Literary House' of German-writing authors."

The term "Literary House" implies that you have a building...

"We exist already. We are registered with the Ministry of Interior and so on. The only thing we don't have is a house."

So you are a house without a house!

"The Literary House has no house. The organization Bruecke-Most, which is an organization between the Czech Republic and Germany, gave us offices, and then sometimes things happen which you can't expect. I was talking about this plan whenever I had the possibility and the occasion - frequently in Germany, because my books are coming out in Germany and I'm quite frequently there. One day I got a letter from a woman, whom I didn't know. She wrote that she had heard about this plan to found this Prague Literary House, and she has a library of about 700-800 books written in German by Czech authors, and she has about 200 books by Czech authors translated into German, and she would be happy if that could be the basis of the library for the literary house. I wrote to her, thanking her very much. In the meantime we have those 1,000 books here - we have a library with those books.

"Recently there was a conference in Germany about German cultural institutions - the Goethe Institutes and all those things. The German foreign minister and our foreign minister were there, and I got a personal letter from Dr Steinmeier, the German minister, telling me that they had talked about what I am trying to realize and that they think it is a good thing and they should support it. They have now even named one person in the German government and one person in the Czech government, who should be responsible for helping us. So it has finally come to another level.

"We have had a few public events. The last one was this week: Alena Wagnerova, a Czech writer living in Germany, talked about Libuse Monikova, a Czech writer who also lived and died in Germany. And we also asked her to talk about Czech literary emigration after 1968 in Germany. I am really happy that after so much effort this institution finally exists. Of course I am not so young any more, and I can't do so much, so a good old friend of mine, Frantisek Cerny, who used to be our ambassador in Germany, he is now the greatest help, and I hope that he will continue to do this."

You are from a Prague Jewish family. Nazi Germany killed most of your family, and yet you have remained loyal to the German language, as your mother tongue, and you have also done a lot to try to rebuild the bridges between Czechs and Germans, and between the Czech Republic and Germany. Why is it so important to you?

"Because I think people should know each other. I am afraid of the future. In this world, after two big world wars, there are still wars going on, and I think people should know each other better. It is interesting that for a long time I was looked on as being a little bit odd - a German Jewish person from Prague, who lost her whole family in the Holocaust, and she continues to write her books in German. That was looked on as a little strange.

"All of a sudden it changed completely, and now one of my highest qualities is that I continue as the last one to write in German. For me this is no problem, because I think language is an instrument - especially if you write. It is not important in which language you write, it is important what you write. I really don't know why I should have something against the language of Goethe, Thomas Mann and Brecht, Böll and Günter Grass - all those really good German authors. Language is an instrument and the question is what you do with it.

"A few years ago, all of a sudden, it became something very positive, that I was continuing in this tradition. There was a very well-known literary expression, the 'Prager literarische Kreis' [Prague literary circle]. Those were people who wrote in German - not only Kafka, not only Max Brod, but all those others. It makes this town even richer if we have another culture here."

And I do have the feeling generally that Czech-German tensions are easing, that the complexes and tensions of the past do gradually seem to be falling away. Do you have that impression as well?

"Well, in this Literary House we plan, for instance, that we could take young German people here for a certain time, so that they could study the history etc, and our young people should have the possibility to live for some time in Germany. As I already mentioned, people should know each other better. That seems to me the only possibility to save all of us."