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

Tatjana Lichtenstein Indiana University Press ePub

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

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

Tatjana Lichtenstein Indiana University Press ePub

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,

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6 Making New Jews: Maccabi in Czechoslovakia

Tatjana Lichtenstein Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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

Tatjana Lichtenstein Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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Epilogue: “The Storm of Barbarism”

Tatjana Lichtenstein Indiana University Press ePub

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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