Jiří Franěk (Frischmann) (Nov. 24, 1922, Vysoké Mýto – December 30, 2007,
Prague) – Charles University professor, leading Czech literary scholar, Russian
studies specialist, publisher of literature and professional books, and the
greatest expert on the works of Bohumil Mathesius – can be considered from
various angles. In the English-German mutation of the journal Urban People,
we will concentrate on his relation to the Jewish minority, with whom his fate
was joined. It is in accordance with the main theoretical idea of this journal,
a theme which accentuates the mutual bond between the character of a city and
its inhabitants, and with the effort of postmodern anthropology to analyze the
complex structure of collective and individual identity.
Jiří Franěk helped shape the cultural face of Prague as editor of leading
Czech publishing houses (Svoboda [1949–1952], Odeon [1952–1954], Svět
sovětů/Lidové nakladatelství [from 1957]). For a short time, he also worked for
the journal Sputnik (from 1971). Besides all of that, however, he was also a distinguished
university teacher: from 1959 to 1971, when he was forced to leave,
and again from 1989 to 1992, he lectured at the Prague Philosophical Faculty,
a position he considered to be the most prestigious. Prague Jews recognized
him as a member of the Prague Jewish (religious) community, with whom he
was connected for several decades: from his return from the concentration
camps until his death, thus in the years of reconstruction, negotiations with the
regime, the hopeful period of the Prague Spring, normalization and re-restoration
after 1989. Against a background of the good and bad times of the Prague
kehillah, the no-less dramatic professionally political life of Jiří Franěk also
unwound: from 1945, he was a student at the Philosophical Faculty in Prague
and, later, “docent” (assistant professor) (1963). In 1990, he was made professor
and, meanwhile, worked his way up to the post of an exceptionally success
ful editor, but he also had to resign himself to employment as a signalman at
the Prague-Bubeneč railroad station. In order to be able to concentrate on his
work, he retired in 1978 on an invalid’s pension during the time of normalization
and, in 1979, he received a full pension. His political convictions also went
through reversals. During World War II in Theresienstadt (Terezín) he had
become a devout communist, but when he was in Auschwitz he was excluded
from the Czech Communist Party. During the period of the so-called Slánský
trials, he, like many other Jews, went through the painful process of disillusionment
and inner distance from the party. Then, in the era of normalization
(1970), the “hard core” of the Party, for the second time, excluded him from
its ranks, although he was just as a formal member. (He admitted that he had
stayed in the Party only because he did not want to harm his own family.) Probably
it was mainly Franěk’s successful working stay in the Federal German
Republic in the second half of the 1960s, thus, paradoxically, his service as
a Czech Russian studies specialist that was a thorn in their side.
However, the professor, who moved about in Jewish institutions, was
mainly known to people as a lecturer and sometimes no less as an avid listener,
because Jiří Franěk may have preferred discussing to being the only speaker.
This passion for lectures as a unique form of education was connected with his
role as an educator in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz during the war. In Theresienstadt
he also met the literarily and visually creative Petr Ginz (1928–Sept.
1944, Auschwitz), the editor of the journal Vedem in Auschwitz, where he was
transported, according to the Theresienstadt memorial book of Dec. 15, 1943,
This information, like the information concerning the course of Jiří Franěk’s employment,
his family background, the fate of his brother František, and the visit of the family to Auschwitz in
1972, comes from a half-structured interview (July 22, 2008) of Blanka Soukupová with Mgr. Zdeňka
Fraňková, the wife of Jiří Franěk, in his Holešovice apartment study. Data regarding his employment
were corrected according to transcribed (in a computer version) recorded recollections of Franěk from
January 29, 2000. – Other information, if not otherwise mentioned, was chosen from a half-structured
interview of J. Franěk with J. Dvořák, recorded on June 17, 2004.
Readers could make the acquaintance of Petr Ginz in recent times by means of the publication
of his two diaries written between September 1941 and January 1942. Pressburger, S. (2004) My
Diary. Prague: TRIGON. – Jiří Franěk could react to his talent circuitously: in 2006 he prepared
an editorial about the contents of the war and military diary of Petr’s father Oto (Otto) Ginz
from 1915 to 1924, understandably looking at Ginz’s relation to Šolochov, in whose family Oto Ginz
lived for a while as a captive of the Russians. Franěk, J. 2006. Ota Ginz. Prague. Association of former
prisoners of the Schwarzheide concentration camp.
(1995) Terezínská pamětní kniha Židovské oběti nacistických deportací z Čech a Moravy
1941–1945. (Theresienstadt Memorial Book. Jewish victims of Nazi deportations from Bohemia and
Moravia 1941–1945). Vol. II. Praha: Melantrich, p. 1066.
with the legendary educator, the German Zionist Fredy Hirsch (1916 Cáchy –
March 1944, Auschwitz).
The Holocaust theme indisputably became the basic focus of Franěk’s life.
His mother Hana (Nov. 13, 1896–Jan. 26, 1943), his brother František (Sept.
18, 1921–1943), his aunt Edita (Aug. 20, 1905–Jan. 26, 1943), his cousins
Petr (July 1, 1936–Jan. 26, 1943) and Jan (May 14, 1938–Jan. 26, 1943) and
his cousin Eva died in Auschwitz. Franěk himself apparently survived mainly
because of coincidences and the abilities he learned as a scout. In 1997, in a recording
of his lecture on the place of Jews in Czech literature and the relation
of Czech society and the literati to them, he added, “To survive the Holocaust
meant 99% luck… But of that one percent of the lucky ones, only every tenth survived
and each of those tenth had enough physical and spiritual strength.” He
felt that the possibility of concentrating on spiritual activity played an extraordinary
Jiří Franěk, however, was one of those who, after the Shoah, chose to lead
an active life rather than dwell on destructive memories of terrible experiences.
He explained his victory over bitter fate – which is not the same as forgetting
(even if statistics of the suicide of Czech survivors who could not derive benefit
from psychoanalysis before 1989 are non-existent, it can be presumed that very
few were so strong) – by his scouting education and his rapid postwar anchorage
in a new family that he “gained by marriage.” He met his wife – which was
typical for those times – during the May elections of 1946. Zdeňka, however,
with unusual openness admits that the Jewishness of her husband was not
important to her. With great self-criticism, she also judges her own outlook
as a young girl who, during the Second World War, did not link the obvious
facts together. Even if her school in Hradec Králové was closed for a short time
(it was the collection place for the Jewish population for transports to Theresienstadt)
and even if her teacher was disgraced in the anti-Semitic magazine
Aryan Combat, she had no idea of what was happening to the Jews, nor did she
ask. Jiří Franěk’s daughter later remembers the rare time when, as an elevenyear-
old girl, her father took her to Schwarzheide near Dresden, where he had
worked after the liquidation of the family camp in Auschwitz. Later he also
Theresienstadt …, p. 1060. – Franěk left on a transport to Theresienstadt. Cf – Pardubice, Dec.
5, 1942. Of those in this transport, 603 people did not survive the war; 45 people were liberated (two
fates were not ascertained). Terezín…, p 1058. – Franěk’s father had already died in 1931. His brother,
according to witnesses, succumbed to pneumonia, probably thus got through the selection.
Franěk, J. (1997). Asimilace. In Veber, V. Židé v novodobých dějinách. Praha: Karolinum, s. 41.
took her to visit Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp from
which, on April 20, 1945, he was liberated. Otherwise, however, she views her
father’s attendance at the Jewish Community in Prague on Rosh Hashanah, as
she remembers with humor, like a road to a secret land from which her father
brought back “Věstník“ (Gazette). Information conveyed by her two sons
about the Shoah was occasional and incomplete. Franěk’s fated closeness to his
father-in-law was probably also extremely important: during the Second World
War, the latter was sentenced for political reasons to six years in the Buchenwald
concentration camp and thus shared with his son-in-law a key life experience
which could not be communicated and shared with other members of the
family, even if they probably attempted to understand.
Perhaps one can, in this case, discuss a certain form of phenomenon that
the Bratislava ethnologist Peter Salner called a manifestation of endogamy of
common experience: when Jewish survivors sought out Jewish partners, was
it a question of Judaism or of finding a partner with the same life experience?
Here, probably, the father-in-law replaced a Jewish confidant. In the memories
of Franěk’s wife and daughter, the time in concentration camps of the husband
and father was reduced to comments about Auschwitz weather, the constantly
present stench and smoke from the high-power incinerators that swallowed
up the bodies of murdered people, and comments about the ever-present Auschwitz
mud. Even if these phenomena (wind, smoke, mud) were absolutely key,
in the oral-history interview recorded in 2004 by my diploma-student Tomáš
Dvořák, other aspects of Auschwitz also appear: initiations, a picture of the
children’s block. Franěk apparently, at least sub-consciously, tried to protect
his wife and children (daughter and son) from the cruel reality. In no case, however,
was it a question of concealment, which was described in scientific literature
as one of the post-Holocaust Jewish strategies. All of her life, his daughter
pointedly proclaimed her Jewishness; she joined the Jewish Liberal Union after
its founding (2000), and, after the introduction of special membership in the
Orthodox-administered Jewish Community of Prague (2003) she also accepted
this status as a non-halachic Jew. Franěk himself, then, in view of the possiThis
was a minority monthly. Interview with Mrs. Věra Dvořáková, July 22, 2008, in her father’s
study in Prague – Holešovice.
Salner, P. Židia na Slovensku medzi tradíciou a asimiláciou (Jews in Slovakia between tradition
and assimilation). Bratislava: ZING PRINT 2000, pp. 49-50.
In 1977, his son emigrated to Canada and probably thereby totally severed the line of handing
down of memory.
bilities of the times, tried to discuss the Shoah publicly. He also ascribed great
weight to symbolic places of memory. He and his daughter visited Theresienstadt
in the mid-1960s and, as his daughter remembers it, he got very angry
when their guide led the visitors only to the Small Fortress. After a September
6, 2002, visit to two stops on the death march from the Schwarzheide concentration
camp, which he and his co-prisoner Richard Svoboda went on as
members of a delegation of the Association of Former Prisoners of the Schwarzheide
Concentration Camp, he wrote, “…every public reminder of the tragedy of
the past has its importance.” During a stop in Česká Lípa, the former prisoners
discussed the erection of a new monument to the victims of the march.
Jiří Franěk the fighter was victorious over his own fate. However, he never
got the Auschwitz experience out of his system. His wife remembers the family
visit to Auschwitz in 1972 which resulted in her husband’s collapse. The
night before the visit, which Franěk characterized as a real Auschwitz night,
had already marked him: his whole body itched him after an alleged insect
attack. The next day, he went round the camp. He could allegedly open the barracks
doors; during “reprises” of the last part of the journey from the camp to
“work,” when the prisoners did not know whether they were going to the gas
chambers, he allegedly thought only about himself. And, to his wife’s surprise,
he finally set the table and ate all his food with zest. This situation, however,
is quite logical to anthropologists. Peter Salner, working on a project called
The fates of those who survived the Holocaust (1995–1996), described it as follows:
“Physically people were with us in the study, but spiritually they were in an
entirely other world.”10 It was also logical that, at the end, the former prisoner
had to suppress his hunger “of that time,” another distinct phenomenon of all
the memories of the Shoah survivors.
Jiří Franěk experienced his Judaism as one of the elements of his identity.
It seems, however, that it was even more meaningful than he himself admitted;
he had told his future wife he was a Jew at their first meeting. He was proud of
his family roots, of his famous ancestor Viktor Vohryzek; he went through the
harsh concentration “school.” He was not a religious Jew; he did not identify
with Jewish society, with the Jewish nation, or with the religion. He kept his
postwar membership in the kehillah allegedly only out of respect for his bond
with the Jewish community that was threatened with anti-Semitism. The family
Franěk, J., Svoboda, R. (2002). Památce obětí pochodu smrti (Memories of victims of the death
march). Roš chodeš, 11, p. 16.
10 Salner, P. (1997). Prežili holokaust (They survived the Holocaust). Bratislava: VEDA, p. 131.
he grew up in celebrated only the “main” Jewish holidays and then, after his
father’s death, only Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Christmas. Jiří Franěk
kept a considerable distance from Orthodoxy, for which faith is that abyss from
which everything else originates. He repeatedly blamed it because it discouraged
Czech Jews from joining the Community. He consequently also rejected
the new Czech spelling rule, the writing of “Jew” with a capital letter. For him,
Jewishness in the diaspora was not national Jewishness. In Franěk’s mind,
the nation was formed by Moses in ancient times11 and later lost this status as
a nation.12 Although he was brought up in Czech-Jewish tradition that rejected
Zionism as hidden Germanness, after the Shoah he regarded the state of Israel
and Zionism as a necessary reality, the only recourse for those Jews who could
not get used to their host nation, particularly German-speaking Jews after the
Second World War.13 But for him, home was the Czech lands.
Franěk’s concept of Jewishness was very modern; it was fundamentally
rooted in the thought of the Czech-Jewish movement. At the end of the 19th
century, the Czech-Jewish writer Vojtěch Rakous had already come out against
identification of Jewishness with Orthodoxy. According to the Czech-Jewish
weekly Rozvoj (Development), the basis of Jewishness was a realistic view of
the world and a specific ethic, not rituals. Viktor Vohryzek then leaned toward
the opinion that visible religious otherness is an easy target of modern anti-
Semitism. In contrast to his descendant, however, he considered the religious
question or, more precisely, reform, extraordinarily important.14 Rejection of
Orthodoxy did not mean rejection of faith. For the ideology of the Czech-Jewish
movement, the fight to implant Jewishness in the Czech soil was significant.
Not even Vohryzek, understandably without the experience of the Shoah, considered
Zionism as non-functional: he recognized it as a solution for Russian
and Romanian Jews. But he considered that the source of national Jewishness
11 Franěk, J. (2006). Osudová pospolitost – mé vyznání (A fated community – my confession).
Listy, XXXVI, 5, p. 6, pp. 1-2 and p. 4.
12 Ibid. p. 3.
13 “Even if I think that, in view of today’s situation, nobody (not only a Jew, but no decent person) has
the right to turn his back on Israel and thereby, whether or not he means it, on Zionism, I suppose that
just as nobody can actually take someone’s Czechness (Germanness, Americanness, etc.) at the end of
that person’s life, so right after the war I understood that people who were not Czech enough had no place
to go after the war and, for Jews of the German world, the only place left for them was Palestine,”Jiří
Franěk wrote me in a letter dated Prague, February 6, 2003.
14 Soukupová, B. (2004). Czech Jews: disillusion as an impulse for profiling the self-confidence
of Czech Judaism. Soukupová, B., Salner, P. Modernizace, identita, stereotyp, konflikt. Společnost po
hilsneriádě. Bratislava: ZING PRINT, pp. 56-57.
was in anti-Semitism, which should fade away;15 this was the optimistic idea of
the Czech-Jewish movement. Just like him, Jiří Franěk also considered Zionism
a certain form of assimilation in an effort to resemble “other” nations.16
Jiří and his brother, however, were brought up as Czechs and Czechoslovaks.
They respected T. G. Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president; both
exercised in Sokol; they were boy scouts; his brother acted in theater. Just
like representatives of the Czech-Jewish movement, Jiří Franěk also needed to
emphasize his contact with rural Czechness in his youth (in his heart, though,
this was a romantic construct of the Czech national movement with whose help
Jews allegedly assimilated into the Czech nation) However, it is most likely
that the inner Czech Jewishness of the family became fatal. That is to say,
the Frischmanns also underestimated the danger of Hitler’s fascism and, on
the other hand, overestimated the possibilities of the “Masaryk” First Republic.
Although Franěk’s brother had an opportunity to emigrate to France, the
family naively decided that he must graduate from high school first. Jiří also
gave priority to his future graduation from the Jewish Reform Academic High
School of Brno over a relatively safe escape.17 But Franěk wrote a provocative
appraisal of the phenomenon of Theresienstadt culture, which, after the Second
World War, had become a controlled sort of myth. The controversial thesis
of a basic work about Theresienstadt by sociologist and historian Hans Günther
Adler, who saw the primary value of its culture in the support of Nazi propaganda
about Theresienstadt, was officially rejected by Czechoslovak Jews.18
Franěk’s interpretation of Theresienstadt culture was only slightly respectful
of the legend. That is to say, in his view, the basic fact was that Theresienstadt
was a transitional stop on the way to physical liquidation. He also considered
toleration of the culture on the part of German Nazism was a means of pacification
of people condemned to death. It is also typical that, in his memoirs, he
wrote about his mother’s death in Auschwitz as if it were an execution. (But he
erroneously gave the year as 1942).
Another of Franěk’s Holocaust themes was musings about resistance and
survival. Similarly to Primo Levi, Jiří Franěk, who considered dignified survival
15 Ibid, p. 66.
16 Fateful…, p. 4.
17 This information comes from Franěk’s memories of January 28, 2000. Also from this same
source comes his evaluation of his mother’s death.
18 Soukupová, B. (2007). Židé na Moravě v padesátých letech 20. století (do zahájení destalinizace
roku 1956)(Jews in Moravia in the 1950s [to the start of de-Stalinization in 1956]). In Pálka, P. Židé
a Morava. XIII. Kroměříž: Muzeum Kroměřížska, p. 263.
a type of resistance, also supposed that each prisoner survived at the expense
of someone else. His position as a teacher was certainly also a better starting
point for survival than the position of a slave doing manual labor. It was, perhaps,
exactly for that reason that Jiří Franěk placed great emphasis on public
communication about the fate of survivors and on scientific processing of the
problem of active resistance in the concentration camps.19
Also quite unique was Franěk’s editorial interest in Karel Poláček and Jiří
Orten, with whom, thanks to his cousin Oto Reiner, who photographed his
friend Orten, he could even shake hands.20 This reference of Franěk’s, which
is another manifestation of his Jewishness, should be evaluated by a literary
historian. In our brief musings we have concentrated only on the role Judaism
played in the life of one brave, militant man who was born in the turbulent
20th century as a Jew.