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7 Promised Lands: Zionism and Communism in Interwar Czechoslovakia

Tatjana Lichtenstein Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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

Tatjana Lichtenstein Indiana University Press ePub

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

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