The Czech jewishness of Professor Jiří Franěk, Outstanding Personality in Prague’s Scientific and Cultural Life

Soukupová - Fraňková - Dvořáková

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

Brother’s

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

role.

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.


Soukupová - Fraňková - Dvořáková


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