Shoa in Czech Literature

Jiří Holý, Petr Málek, Michael Špirit, Filip Tomáš, Šoa v české literatuře a kulturní paměti. Praha: Filip Tomáš – Akropolis, 2011

Towards the beginning of the book, one of its principal authors, Jiří Holý, asserts that the “Theme of Shoa is not as intense here as for example in the Hebrew, German, or Polish literatures.” (Holý, 11) This is an intriguing assertion, as this very anthology, rich in examples from Czech literary works and film on the Holocaust, seems to intrinsically contradict this claim. In the 1960s, as Holý writes, “Shoa became one of the main topic of prose (…) and film.” (Holý, 11) The author does not explain the perceived lacuna; the problematic nature of the very question of adequate quantity or intensity in regards to representation of the Holocaust, notwithstanding. Rather than literature and film on the subject, what is lacking is the critical reception of the theme. This book contains seven essays by four authors and attempts to fill in the gap. The essays are of diverse length, scope, quality, and methodology. While some of the essays give a historical overview, other focus on a particular author (Josef Škvorecký and Arnošt Lustig) or theme (Shoa from the point of view of the second generation, Shoa from the perspective of the perpetrators).

The book includes important material and some good analysis. The essays by Jiří Holý are useful tool for a basic orientation in the literature about the Holocaust. Holý adheres to the standard periodization in Czech literature from the immediate post WW II years, to Stalinism, 1960s, and post 1989 (e.g. the novels by Jáchym Topol, Magdalena Platzová, Irena Dousková or Radka Denemarková). Holý sets Czech works in broader international context, referring mainly to Slovak, Polish, Hungarian, Italian and French authors. Curiously, Israel is almost completely lacking in his overview. Holý’s “catalogue” of Czech works on the topic includes some fascinating claims, which would benefit from further elaboration and analysis. For example, Holý points out that since the end of the 1960s, the theme of Shoa did not play an important role in Czech and Slovak literature as before, while by contrast, it then came to the fore in Western Europe and USA, as a “universal symbol of evil and human suffering.” (Holý, 44) Why these disparate developments? Holý states that in the Czech context Shoa became equated with totalitarianism as such, but a more in-depth analysis to the effect of such identification in particular works, could be more useful than such large claims. Holý also articulates “two distinct tendencies” in Czech depictions of the Holocaust: an attempt at authentic representation and metaphoric stylization (obrazná stylizace).

Holý’s text includes some contradictions, for example when he summarily surmises that for Czechs, aggressive anti-Semitism (as in Poland and Hungary) is not typical, but rather “indifference towards the Jewish cohabitants” (12). Holý limits these phenomena to marginal extremist groups and skinheads, without clearly distinguishing different periods. Yet further on, he rightly mentions Stalinist anti-Semitism, for example the Slánský trial. Similarly also Špirit writes about “lukewarm post 1948 anti-Semitism in Czech society.” Are these claims insufficiently analyzed clichés in the Czech self-perception? Can literary history such as this one avoid references to current historical literature?

Holý pays considerable attention to Jiří Weil and his novel Život s hvězdou, written during the war and published in 1949, and to his other two works, Žalozpěv za 77,297 obětí a Na střeše je Mendelssohn, and further to works by Ladislav Fuks, Arnošt Lustig and a great number of other, lesser known authors. Weil’s Život s hvězdou stands out in its modernism; the novel reappears as a main reference point in essays by other authors, and is clearly among the best and most important works on the topic in Czech literature. Holý quotes from a manuscript of an early version of the novel, written during the war, and highlights the references to Kafka’s Castle. Holý sets the novel against the contemporary “standard depictions of Shoa” (he also later uses the term “martyrological literature” for similar writing in Poland, Holý 171). These standard “conventional works about concentration camps” were aligned with Marxism and depicted war as class struggle, suppressing the fate of the Jews. Holý assumes that current readers would understand the brief references to these conventional novels. A more informative characterization of these works would be useful, especially as Holý alludes to their schematic structure on the one hand, but also writes, more intriguingly, that these works used variations on the Biblical motifs such as “sacrifice,” “salvation,” “betrayal”, and “metamorphosis.” (Holý 21)

In relation to the post 1948 period, Holý notes that “repression of the Jewish suffering from historical memory became, similarly to the brutal expulsion of Germans (…) one of the first steps of the new totalitarianism”. In his extensive and rich study, Petr Málek explores how novels and films with holocaust themes partake in the cultural memory of the holocaust. Málek quotes a section from an early version of Weil’s Život s hvězdou (used also by Holý) with a motif of a typewriter and direct reference to Kafka’s Castle. (This passage did not appear in the final, published version of the novel.) Málek points out that the film director Alfréd Radok, author of Daleká cesta, the first Czechoslovak film on the topic, recognized Kafka in Weil’s novel, although he could not know the earlier version of the novel with the Kafka reference. In his 1949 film, Radok used the motif of a typewriter, emblematic of the bureaucratic machinery of the holocaust. (Málek, 109)

Málek informs that Weil removed from his novel references to specific places, and the novel thus takes place in “no-man land” (108), which, however, according to the scholar Urs Heftrich, bears the name “world literature”, as the protagonist travels from Shakespeare to Komenský, Kant, Dostojevsky, and Kafka to Thomas Mann. (Málek 108)

Complex situations of allusions and intertextuality are the topic of Málek’s rich essay. Málek analyzes several works of fiction—Jiří Weil, Ladislav Fuks, Jáchym Topol, and films by Alfréd Radok, Zdeněk Brynych and Jan Němec— to illuminate their intertextual interconnections through recurrence of certain figures, topoi, images and conceits. The essay starts by exploring how the title Daleká cesta, the first Czechoslovak film on the holocaust theme, alludes to “daleká” in the prolog to Mácha’s Máj, (“Dalekáť cesta má! Marné volání!“) and further moves to other powerful topoi of music, cemetery/grave, tree, train and traffic. Málek constructs the space of “cultural memory”, in which various works with Holocaust theme are connected through these topoi, but also to much older, Biblical and Judaic traditions (the Judaic appeal to commemorate catastrophes such as holocaust/shoa in Hebrew), as well as to older Czech literary texts such as Mácha’s Máj.

Writing is “an act of remembering” (108). The figure of cultural memory, theorized mainly by the German scholars Jan and Aleida Assman and Renate Lachmann, is the main theoretical concept in Málek’s essay. In addition to theories of cultural memory, Málek amply quotes from Benjamin, Derrida, Lyotard, and Adorno, inscribing Czech texts and films with Holocaust theme within a broader philosophical and literary discourse. Málek interweaves smoothly and elegantly theoretical writings with his Czech texts; perhaps too smoothly, as these philosophical texts are complex and ambiguous, and by applying them uncritically (e.g. in Málek’s reading, Adorno and Lyotard’s philosophical reflections are “confirmed” for example by Jean Améry, 114), Málek risks the reduction of their often paradoxical thought.

Michael Špirit agrees with Holý’s claim about the suppression of the topic following the onset of Communism after 1948. In 1957 (the year when Škvorecký edited the manuscript of Zbabělci for publication), the war theme was present in Czech literature, but not the lives or rather the ending there of Jews (Špirit 236). Jiří Weil was an exception; his Život s hvězdou appeared much earlier than most 1960s works with a Holocaust theme. Similarly, Škvorecký included Jewish characters already in his earliest works, written after 1945 but published much later. Škvorecký’s texts with Jewish themes (Zbabělci, 1958; Sedmiramenný svícen, 1957–1963) predate the wave of literary fiction on the topic by ten to twelve years.

Špirit’s notes about Sedmiramenný svícen (the gap and discrepancy between the year it was written and when it was published still generates confusions in Czech literary historiography) and about Škvorecký’s elimination of Jewish elements while editing the novel Cowards in 1957, remind us how seemingly basic or almost trivial facts and discoveries can open up the most fruitful questions. They best inform the (unwritten) “master narrative” of the topic or rewrite some widely spread assumptions. When did the theme of Shoa become relevant in Czech literature and why? What narrative tendencies were dominant? What was the role of censorship and self-censorship? A study of an individual author such as Škvorecký might be as productive as more extensive, interdisciplinary approaches.

Špirit provides a typology of Jewish figures in Škvorecký’s prose, and analyzes narratological strategies used by the author to include the theme of Jews and Holocaust within the complex fabric of his characters’ fictional worlds. Špirit proposes and then persuasively shows how “almost in every of his works, Holocaust forms substantial element of the plot or the narrative structure.” (227) Significantly, Holocaust is not a theme in Škvorecký’s fiction, but rather becomes “textual reality, which is one of the integral elements of the life of his characters.” The Holocaust nevertheless becomes ubiquitous in their fictional worlds. Špirit describes in detail how this functions in various Škvorecký’s texts, and concludes that the “Holocaust theme is never a subject of their [the characters’, VT] narrative constructions or reminiscences, sometimes it is present only in its absence, in an incomplete sentence, in silence about an event, and so it becomes an ordinary part of their lives. The bitterly-ironic dimension of Škvorecký’s prose is thus even more emphasized.” (249)

We can read Špirit’s conclusion as an implicit polemic with other, unspecified literary works in which Holocaust functions as an external, nonliterary legitimization/justification of a prosaic work (Filip Tomáš criticizes the Czech biographical reception of Arnošt Lustig’s prose on precisely those terms.). “The choice of the Nazi genocide as an artistic theme does not mean anything on its own,” writes Špirit boldly, and persuasively argues that “literature takes as its inspiration anything”. (Špirit, 250)

Špirit’s writing is at its best when he concretely analyses the workings of Škvorecký’s fiction, and draws conclusions from this material. Špirit is uncharacteristically vague when he ventures into an implicit polemic with the unspecified “opinion that fictionalization of the Nazi genocide of the Jews is unacceptable, because it is always distortive and reductive”. (250) The reference is obviously to Adorno’s well known sentence from his 1949 essay “Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft”, or rather to its various popularizations, which often serve as a mere “decorative” element in writing about the Holocaust. Špirit was apparently compelled to engage at least marginally in a discussion, which underlies some other parts of the anthology, where Adorno’s idea is presented less reductively (e.g. Holý’s on pp. 169–174) But this is just a minor and truly marginal fault in Špirit’s essay.

The book Shoa in Czech Literature and Cultural Memory is an important contribution to the topic. A good introduction or conclusion would be useful, which would more thoroughly and systematically engage with the issues recurring throughout the essays. The authors often refer to the same primary texts, but not to each other, although their discussion at points overlap. Better editing would contribute to a greater coherence of the volume.

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