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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