Vol 1, No 14
27 September 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
Women of Prague: Ethnic Diversity and Social Change from the Eighteenth Century to the Present
By Wilma A. Iggers
Providence, RI & Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1995
Judging from the title, the reader might expect a ponderous social study. Far from it: this is a book one can hardly put down and one that will be of interest to those who have no special knowledge of the Czech lands or of Central Europe. At the same time, it will also be useful to those studying the history or culture of the region, as is Wilma Iggers' earlier publication, The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: A Historical Reader (1992).
Like Iggers' earlier work, Women of Prague actually presents a collection of documents translated into English. These documents, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, biographies and autobiographies, have been selected and edited in such a way as to create portraits of the women on whom Iggers focuses her attention. One might object that such an edited selection can only present simplified versions of the lives of these women. Iggers, however, in her selection of materials, has managed to present fascinating and novel sketches of her subjects.
This is true even when the woman in question is well-known outside the Czech context, for example, Milena Jesenska (1896 to 1944), perhaps most famous as one of Franz Kafka's loves. And it is true even of the portrait of the 19th century Czech writer Bozena Nemcova (1817? [sic] to 1862), now a cultural icon. Needless to say, Iggers' portrait of Nemcova does not correspond to the image of Nemcova nurtured by the cult that developed around her after her death. Instead, it offers a glimpse of the suffering she endured on account of her marriage, the poverty in which she lived and the shame that her adulterous affairs brought upon her. For example, we read in a letter from 21 November 1861:
"...You probably wonder why this Bozena is not publishing The Grandmother [a new edition of her book first published in 1855, ed]... On the way [to Litomysl] I already felt I was hemorrhaging... When I was alone in my room, I took out my own sheet and waxed cloth, spread them on the sofa and prepared a clean bandage... Since my husband has contributed nothing toward financing Jarous's [her son's, ed] trip to Munich [to study art], I told him that he didn't have to know [how I managed it]. For that... he beat me so hard that he smashed the comb on my head, and if Dora had not come, he might have killed me in his anger. The next day... I went to the police commissioner and showed him the blue marks on my head and told him that I would rent an apartment for myself. He told me that nobody could prevent me from doing that." (p 83)
After reading the account of the hardships and anxieties which plagued Nemcova, the reader is sickened by the description of the elaborate funeral arranged for her by her admirers. (pp 84-5)
Iggers also focuses on several other famous women: the 19th-century Czech patriot, best known for the cookbook she compiled, Magdalena Dobromila Rettigova (1785 to 1845); Berta Fanta (1866 to 1918), well-known for the cultural salon she hosted at the turn of the century in Prague; and Milada Horakova (1901 to 1950), the woman who was executed in the Stalinist-style show trials in Czechoslovakia (Innocent of the preposterous crimes of which she was accused - as were all the victims in those Czechoslovak trials - she was executed despite the fact that prominent international figures, including Einstein, Russell, Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt, pleaded on her behalf. p 301). The chapters treating Jesenska and Horakova successfully convey the extraordinary personalities and courage of these people.
The final chapter is a portrait of Jirina Siklova (born 1935), who is well known as a former dissident, as a sociologist and feminist and, after the changes in 1989, as founder of the Prague Gender Studies Centre. Iggers took a chance in choosing Siklova as one of her subjects; being included in such a work must be akin to having a street named after one while one is still alive. However, Iggers manages to avoid sentimentalizing or glorifying this contemporary figure. Certain aspects of Siklova's description of life during and after the period of Normalization, the loss of her job and career, imprisonment, the harassment to which she was subjected by the authorities, doubts about the direction of events after 1989, are familiar from the accounts of other dissidents. And yet, presented in Siklova's own voice, the account is engaging and even humorous. Post-November 1989, she writes:
"... Last Wednesday I got a telephone after 14 years. I had threatened with a newspaper article... The next day the Water Works informed me that they have to report me to the Criminal Police, because I no longer work for them and still have their stamp in my ID. Then, a man came to the door who asked me to become a member of the Federal National Assembly. I hardly got rid of him when another came who asked me at least to become a delegate for the Czech National Council... All that time my 88-year-old mother kept asking which day of the month it was, when the children were coming home from school... and when we are going to Prague... she thinks that we are at the cottage." (p 356)
The other women treated in this work were not famous, but they were not ordinary either, and their portraits are equally fascinating. Until the Second World War and its aftermath, the expulsion of the Germans and then the Communist takeover in 1948 - Prague, and the Czech lands in general, had significant German and Jewish minorities. However, these ethnic groups, as we now perceive them, did not have clearly defined or exclusive identities throughout the 19th century. Rather, these identities hardened towards the end of the 19th century (the two standard works on this subject, focusing on the Czech lands, are: Gary B Cohen, The Politics of Ethnic Survival: Germans in Prague,1861-1914, ; and Hillel J Kieval, The Making of Czech Jewry: National Conflict and Jewish Society in Bohemia, 1870-1918, ). True to the promise of the title of Igger's work, the portraits of the more obscure women included in this collection offer insight into the ethnic conflicts and confusions (sometimes within the same individual) which came to trouble the region increasingly. In this context, the chapters on Ossip Schubin (1854 to 1930), Hermine Hanel (1874 to 1944), Gisa Pickova-Saudkova (1883 to 1944), Ruth Klinger (1906 to 1989) and Grete Fischer (1893 to 1977) are relevant.
The Prague-based German writer Ossip Schubin touches on the multiple identities that sometimes co-existed within a single family. For example, she writes of her father:
"His father was a bailiff, born in Karlsbad, his mother's maiden name was Miksovska, a real Slav. My father took after her, and despite his strict loyalty [to the Habsburgs], took the side of the Slavs (as did my mother), although he was German and studied in Vienna." (p 118)
Hermine Hanel's autobiography offers insight into relations between Jews and non-Jews in Prague. Hermine's mother was Jewish and her father Catholic; their union, Hanel writes, caused "an immense sensation because it was the first interdenominational marriage in Prague" (p 167 - her mother did not convert but was declared without denomination).
The portrait of Gisa Pickova-Saudkova treats relations between Czechs and Jews at the turn of the century. The chapter on Ruth Klinger is of particular interest in that it presents an account of a woman who lived on the fringes of "respectable" society, performing in a Yiddish theatre troupe in the period between the wars.
As with many of the others, the chapter on the Prague German Jew, Grete Fischer, leaves one wishing one could find more material on this intelligent, independent, modest woman who once made oatmeal soup for the refugee (and playwright) Bertolt Brecht, "because he had a stomach ache and was afraid" (p 242), yet resisted his attempts to convert her to Communism. Her account presents Prague, and life in Prague, from a perspective one usually encounters only in history books. For example, she writes of her childhood milieu:
"Children of my generation first learned to pray for the good Emperor Francis Josef, then learned the history and the glory of the empire along with a foolish contempt for all other nations... In my world Czechs were servants, small tradesmen, Papa's laborers, but not office employees." (p 231)
She writes of her surprise on encountering Jewish refugees from Galicia during World War I: "The Russian invasion of Galicia had made hundreds [sic] homeless. I was shocked to find that the women and girls were working, while the men and boys were studying the Talmud." (p 238)
Her comments on language and on her Jewish identity are also revealing and interesting, in particular when one thinks of her contemporary Franz Kafka and his attitude to his Jewish identity and to language:
"What was most striking about me was my language. From the age of two on I spoke clearly and used well-chosen expressions compulsively. Words fascinated me... Both parents spoke the careful Prague High German more or less without any accent, and considered it very important... 'Fischer is affected' said the girls in school. 'Can't you speak naturally?' said aunts and teachers. But what was called 'natural' was either the dialect from the Lesser Side, the hard Sudeten German with its confusion of B and P, and G and K and the unaspirated Slavic K, or it was the jargon, mixed with Jewish expressions... The children from 'better' families tried for pure umlauts. These language problems were typical of Prague, that city of two languages which was always embroiled in battles about their use. By the way, we were made to avoid 'Jewish jargon'..." (p 230)
There are some small problems with this edition. For example, sometimes it is not clear to the reader what source he/she is reading. I found this to be especially confusing when reading the chapter on Milena Jesenska. Sometimes bibliographical details of sources are missing. For example, Iggers cites Julius Fucik's criticism of Rettigova without indicating where this criticism appears (pp 46-7). There are also a number of typos that careful proofreading would correct.
The introduction provides a useful overview of women's activities in Prague and the gradual progress towards emancipation in the 19th century. Here too, however, one sometimes wishes that Iggers would give more information about her sources (for example, when she states - on p 7 - that in 1846 in Prague there were 66,046 inhabitants who considered themselves German and 36,687 who considered themselves Czech)
These criticisms, however, are minor. The portraits of the women of Prague provide entertaining reading, as well as information about the social history of a city over a period of two centuries.
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