Zionists in Interwar Czechoslovakia: Minority Nationalism and the Politics of Belonging

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This book presents an unconventional history of minority nationalism in interwar Eastern Europe. Focusing on an influential group of grassroots activists, Tatjana Lichtenstein uncovers Zionist projects intended to sustain the flourishing Jewish national life in Czechoslovakia.The book shows that Zionism was not an exit strategy for Jews, but as a ticket of admission to the societies they already called home.It explores how and why Zionists envisioned minority nationalism as a way to construct Jews' belonging and civic equality in Czechoslovakia.By giving voice to the diversity of aspirations within interwar Zionism, the book offers a fresh view of minority nationalism and state building in Eastern Europe.

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Introduction: Minority Nationalism and Zionists’ Politics of Belonging

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IN TODAYS PRAGUE, TOURISTS AND LOCALS EAGER TO EXPLORE the city’s Jewish past trek through the streets of the old Jewish quarter, Josefov, in the inner city. Here a handful of synagogues, a sixteenth-century town hall, and a mysterious old cemetery wedged in between towering fin-de-siècle apartment buildings and glossy luxury stores embody what most visitors experience as Jewish Prague. Some also venture further afield to the Strašnice neighborhood to visit Franz Kafka’s grave in the New Jewish Cemetery. Across from the cemetery is an area known as Hagibor. It houses several tennis courts, the sports club TJ Bohemians, and the headquarters of Radio Free Europe. Besides a Jewish seniors’ home, little remains to suggest to the visitor that this was once a Jewish space.

The name Hagibor has insinuated itself into the city’s topography, all but divested of its Jewish origins. The fact that Hagibor is Hebrew for “the hero” escapes most, as does the Jewish history of the area. Toward the end of the Second World War, the sporting ground served as an internment camp and forced labor site for people of mixed ancestry, for Jews married to so-called “Aryans,” and for some non-Jews who resisted the pressures to divorce their Jewish spouses. Earlier in the war, it was used as a playground for Jewish children and youths excluded from the city’s public spaces by German racial laws. Yet, its origin as a Jewish space dates back before the war to the mid-1920s, when Hagibor was synonymous with the well-known Jewish sports club Hagibor Praha/Prag. The club was part of a network of Zionist institutions that emerged across Czechoslovakia, a testament to the significance of Zionism as a cultural and political force in Jewish life in the two decades between the World Wars.

 

1 The Jews of Czechoslovakia: A Mosaic of Cultures

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ONE WINTER, SOMETIME IN THE 1930S, HANA SHAFAR, A YOUNG Jewish woman, traveled with her fiancé, Ivo Karajich, from Moravská Ostrava/Mährisch Ostrau, a bustling industrial center, eastward to Hana’s home village Polana, deep in the valleys of Subcarpathian Rus’. Hana had been in the city for only a short time. She had moved there to join a newly established Zionist commune and prepare for emigration to Palestine. She, like so many others in Polana, had been mesmerized by the visiting young Zionist activists’ fiery speeches about Palestine, work, prosperity, and freedom. But Hana also joined the commune to escape the bleak future awaiting a village girl with no dowry.1 Before long, the beautiful Hana attracted the attention of a salesman and atheist publicist, Ivo Karajich. Formerly known as Isaac Cohen, Karajich had renounced his Jewishness and changed his name, though he could neither escape his own physiognomy (“What a nose!”) nor his attraction to the exotic yet familiar Jewish girl from Polana (“it is his blood calling him”).2 Within weeks, Ivo “liberated” Hana from factory work as well as from the Zionist commune by securing her a position at his journal The Free Thinker. It was as if a whirlwind carried Hana away from her village, from all the truths that she had hitherto known, from all that had been self-evident. She wondered, “Aren’t there any Jews here in Ostrava? Are there only Jews in Polana and then a few in Košice and no more anywhere else? What is the truth, then? What sort of Jews do you call them if they haven’t their own tongue and talk goy even to each other and dress like goyim and do not keep the Sabbath, if they eat treyfe food and don’t pray and don’t do any of the things that make a Jew a Jew?”3 Hana’s confusion grew deeper when Ivo, in proposing to her, revealed, “I am not a Jew.”4 Despite her reservations, Hana loved Ivo and agreed to marry him. Soon, the couple found themselves on the road through Slovakia to Subcarpathian Rus’ and Polana to introduce him to her family.

 

2 Jewish Power and Powerlessness: Zionists, Czechs, and the Paris Peace Conference

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IN OCTOBER 1940, THE LONDON-BASED NATIONAL COUNCIL OF Jews from Czechoslovakia published an illustrated, English-language pamphlet entitled Jews of Czechoslovakia.1 Its woodcuts depicting iconic Jewish sites in Czechoslovakia were accompanied by a text written by Viktor Fischl (1912–2006), a prominent young Zionist from Prague now in exile in London. Fischl’s narrative recalled the exceptional character of the Jewish experience in his native land since 1918. “In the Czechoslovak Republic” he wrote, “the Jews enjoyed all civic rights.” Touting the equality and minority protection extended to Jews “and other national entities” as a model for other states in Eastern Europe, Fischl’s text mourned the demise of Czechoslovakia as a uniquely tolerant and welcoming place for Jews. Reminding his readers of Jews’ “value to the state” and their exceptional loyalty to Czechoslovakia in times of crisis, he continued, “The country of Masaryk and those who followed in his political footsteps never deprived the Jews of Czechoslovakia of any of their rights which they retained in their entirety even when, in the neighboring countries the storm of barbarism broke over the reign of justice.” Pointing to the ways in which Czech leaders had distanced themselves from antisemitism in the past, Fischl observed, “So far [to] Czechoslovak statesmen, good relationship with the Jewish population was a matter of self-evidence.” But now, the “firm bonds” between Jews and Czechs were coming undone.2

 

3 Mapping Jews: Social Science and the Making of Czechoslovak Jewry

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IN THE SUMMER OF 1941, THE WELL-KNOWN CZECH DEMOGRAPHER Antonín Boháč (1882–1950) was asked by the leadership of the Czech resistance to compose a memorandum on the nationality question in postwar Czechoslovakia. Not surprisingly, his book-length treatise focused on the historical relationship between Germans and Czechs. At one point, when discussing the social scientific definition of nationhood, he noted about Jews:

Jews are an interesting example of a defective nation, one that used to be a nation in the full meaning of the term. Jews had their own state and territory, language and distinct culture. When they lost their political freedom and were dispersed across the world, [Jews] lost not only their homeland, but, in these foreign environments, also their national language. Yet even then, they preserved a sense of national difference, a strong emotional connection to the land of their ancestors and do therefore constitute a distinct nation. It is, however, an impaired one that does not live a full national life. Nevertheless, Jews do not stop being a nation, much like a person who goes blind or deaf is still a human being.1

 

4 Conquering Communities: Zionists, Cultural Renewal, and the State

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IN EARLY JANUARY 1919, AS THEY PREPARED FOR CZECHOSLOVAKIAS first Jewish Congress, the Jewish National Council published its program for a revolution in Jewish life. Paradoxically, the manifesto’s authors began not by looking to create new Zionist institutions, but by turning to the one social and cultural space that more than any other embodied Jewish tradition, declaring, “The Jewish community is the organic center of Jewish life.”1 In their quest for a national revolution, Zionists looked for continuity in the one institution that had historically provided Jews with a social, legal, economic, political, and cultural framework – indeed they argued, a national structure – in the absence of state institutions: the Jewish community. They immediately set out to transform the existing Kultusgemeinde, an institution with religious ritual obligations alone, into a Volksgemeinde, a community that served Jews as a people, with an extensive social welfare, educational, and cultural agenda. At stake was the very survival of the Jewish nation.

 

5 A Stateless Nation’s Territory: Zionists and the Jewish Schools

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IN MID-JUNE 1921, AS CZECH, GERMAN, AND JEWISH NATIONALISTS in the Bohemian Lands were getting ready for the annual campaigns to recruit children for their nation’s schools, František Friedmann reported on his recent visit to Prague’s new Jewish national school. Impressed with what he found, Friedmann noted that if only Jewish parents could see the happiness of these children, at ease with each other and their teachers, learning Hebrew through song and play, they “would no doubt care much more about Jewish schools.” At the end of his tour, the teacher invited little Frischmann and little Winternitzová to the class podium. From up there, they recited “proudly and straight from the heart”:

Born in Bohemia, I speak Czech

And I take pride in being of Bohemia

I am a Jew and I will remain a Jew

I shall not forget my nation

The one who is ashamed of his own nation

deserves to be scorned by all people

I will not be silent about my nation,

 

6 Making New Jews: Maccabi in Czechoslovakia

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IN THE MONTHS PRECEDING THE 1936 OLYMPICS IN BERLIN, debates raged in several European and North American countries about whether or not their athletes should be allowed to boycott the Games. No country pulled out of the event, but individual athletes did. Some Jewish athletes decided not to participate; others traveled to Berlin with their non-Jewish team members.1 In Czechoslovakia that summer, audiences followed the boycott debate with great interest. Months earlier the Czechoslovak Jewish sports organization Makabi ČSR (Maccabi Czechoslovakia) had announced that its members would not participate in the Berlin Games.2 This decision was met with support in Jewish and non-Jewish circles.3 It might have gone unnoticed had it not been the case that some of the country’s top swimmers and water polo players belonged to the Jewish clubs Hagibor Praha/Prag, Bar Kochba Bratislava, and Maccabi Brno/Brünn. In addition, several other Jewish athletes, who belonged to non-Jewish clubs, were also members of the Olympic swim and water polo teams.4 Sports commentators believed that the Czechoslovak teams had a good chance of bringing home medals from Berlin. They predicted that the Jewish athletes’ withdrawal would weaken the national teams considerably.

 

7 Promised Lands: Zionism and Communism in Interwar Czechoslovakia

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IN 1937, THE WELL-KNOWN COMMUNIST WRITER AND TRANSLATOR Jiří Weil (1900–1959) published his first novel Moskva-hranice (Moscow to the Border). A longtime left-wing activist, Weil had returned to his native Prague the previous year from the Soviet Union. He had spent the last three years there, first in Moscow, followed by a six-month “reeducation” exile in Soviet Central Asia. Critical of Stalinism, the novel was in part inspired by Weil’s experience in the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, it was received with scathing criticism from his Communist colleagues in Prague. Yet, in Moskva-hranice, the Soviet Union was not the only collectivist experiment the author scrutinized. Weil, who had grown up in a poor, observant Jewish family in the village of Praskolesy/Praskoles near Prague, was perhaps eager to preempt accusations of being a bourgeois-Zionist agent, so he began his account in Palestine.

In the novel’s opening chapters, the reader follows one of the main protagonists, Ri, a young Jewish woman from a small town in Moravia, and her ill-fated experience as a ḥaluts (a Zionist pioneer) in Palestine. Ri had been introduced to Zionism by a friend who jokingly invited her to a meeting with “some local lunatics, Zionists, who call themselves ḥalutsim.” Much to her surprise, Ri is swept off her feet by that evening’s speaker, the “Zionist agitator” Karel Geisinger, “this young man, strong, with broad shoulders, an energetic figure, with fair hair, he cannot possibly be a Jew.”1 Driven less by ideological conviction than emotional attraction, Ri joins the “self-confident and proud” Zionist youngsters in her town and soon finds herself at a training farm, a hakhsharah, in Slovakia. Before long Ri has left behind her middle-class life, her tennis lessons, pretty dresses, and coffee, for the unfamiliar, dirty, and exhausting physical labor on the farm. Once in Palestine, Ri and Karel, now a married couple, and their Zionist group join a kibbutz, an agricultural collectivist settlement.

 

Epilogue: “The Storm of Barbarism”

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ON MARCH 30, 1938, EMIL KAFKA (1880–1948), THE CHAIRMAN OF Prague’s oldest Jewish community, and the community board gathered for their regular monthly meetings in the Jewish town hall. In his opening address, the prominent lawyer and Czech-Jewish activist turned his attention to the darkening political skies. At the time, Austrian-Jewish refugees were crossing the border seeking safe haven in Czechoslovakia and bringing with them harrowing tales of persecution and public humiliation at the hands of their neighbors and the German invaders. The unease among Jews in the Bohemian Lands was palpable, but Kafka reassured his colleagues that here things would be different. Invoking the memory of the Swedish army threatening Prague in 1648, Kafka reminded his fellow board members that back then Jews and Christians rebuffed their enemy by standing together. He noted:

For more than one thousand years, Prague Jews have lived in this ancient place. Czech and Jews shared a common fate in good times and in bad ones. In this city, we have survived many dangers. The ancient symbol of the Prague Jewish community, the Swedish hat, remains a visible symbol of our unity in past defensive struggles. . . . We pledge that in this moment, we stand as one with the entire Czechoslovak nation, that we will devote all our strength to the grand task of ensuring peace, internal and external peace. . . . Without hesitation we will bring any sacrifice that is required of us.1

 

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