Daily Archives: 3 February 2005

Vaclav Havel on EU Policy toward Cuba

Speaking of uncategorizable Czechs, here’s a bit of what Vaclav Havel had to say about the European Union’s policy toward Cuba.

Coexistence with dictators

It is suicidal for the EU to draw on Europe’s worst political traditions, the common denominator of which is the idea that evil must be appeased and that the best way to achieve peace is through indifference to the freedom of others.

Just the opposite is true: Such policies expose an indifference to one’s own freedom and pave the way for war. After all, Europe is uniting to defend its freedom and values, not to sacrifice them to the ideal of harmonious coexistence with dictators and thus risk gradual infiltration of its soul by the anti-democratic mind-set.

I firmly believe that the new members of the EU will not forget their experience of totalitarianism and nonviolent opposition to evil, and that that experience will be reflected in how they behave in EU bodies. Indeed, this could be the best contribution that they can make to the common spiritual, moral and political foundations of a united Europe.

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Was Kafka Czech, German, or Jewish?

Early in his acquaintance with Milena, who was living at the time with her (Jewish) first husband Ernst Pollak in Vienna, Kafka writes: “Of course I understand Czech. I’ve meant to ask you several times already why you never write in Czech…. I wanted to read you in Czech because, after all, you do belong to that language, because only there can Milena be found in her entirety … whereas here there is only the Milena from Vienna…. So Czech, please.” He continues in the same vein the following month: “I have never lived among Germans. German is my mother tongue and as such more natural to me, but I consider Czech much more affectionate, which is why your letter removes several uncertainties; I see you more clearly, the movements of your body, your hands, so quick, so resolute, it’s almost like a meeting.” Kafka’s reference here to German as his “mother tongue” is quite literal. His mother Julie, née Lowy, who came from a prosperous bourgeois family in Podebrady, preferred to speak German. He himself, however, never felt wholly at home in that mother tongue of which he is one of this century’s greatest prose writers….

“Mutter” is peculiarly German for the Jew, it unconsciously contains together with the Christian splendor Christian coldness also, the Jewish woman who is called “Mutter” therefore becomes not only comic but strange.

Kafka’s father Herman, on the other hand, was happier in Czech. He was the son of a kosher butcher in the entirely Czech-speaking little village of Osek in southern Bohemia. Franz’s own Czech seems to have been fluent. The family member to whom he was closest, his youngest sister Ottla, married a Czech Catholic … Josef David, against her parents’ opposition and with her brother’s wholehearted support. His sister Valli was involved in founding the first Jewish public elementary school in Prague in 1920, whose language of instruction was Czech.

Was Kafka then a Czech or a German? Or both? Or neither? To what language did he belong, where could he be found in his entirety? Assuredly he was Jewish, but what that meant in relation to nationality was no clearer at the time. When in the first Czechoslovak state census of 1921 people were for the first time allowed to declare “Jewish” as their nationality, barely a fifth (5,900) of those in Prague who listed their religious faith as Judaism chose to do so. A quarter (7,426) described their nationality as “German,” more than half as “Czechoslovak” (16,342) [emphasis added]. Twenty years later, all three of Kafka’s sisters were to perish in the Holocaust at the hands of occupying Germans for whom it was quite clear that Jewish and German were mutually exclusive identities. Before she was transported to Terezin (which is better known by its German name of Theresienstadt), and thence to Auschwitz, Ottla Davidova had to divorce her husband Josef in order to protect their daughters Vera and Helena. Mercifully perhaps, Franz himself did not live to see his family massacred on the altar of “racial purity.” He died of tuberculosis in 1924 and is buried in Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery. He was not reclaimed for the national memory after 1945. For much of the latter part of this century his name was obliterated and his books banned in the “national state of Czechs and Slovaks” that rose from the ashes of World War II. When he was recalled at all–occasional moments of “thaw” aside–it was briefly and dismissively as “a Prague Jewish author writing in German”–a double exclusion. As for Milena Jesenska, we shall meet her again. She had a life, and a death, of her own, beyond being “mistress to Kafka.”

SOURCE: The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, by Derek Sayer (Princeton U. Press, 1998), pp. 116-118

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