Historie – Otázky – Problémy

The negative stereotypes of Jews in Czech prose at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries


Abstract: This article deals with the stereotypes of Jews in Czech novels. Little attention has previously been paid to the images of Jews in Czech literature. One of the reasons was the marginalization of Jewish topics during the communist regime. On the other hand, the study of anti-Jewish stereotypes in literature was not frequent in other countries either. The situation began to change some decades ago, within the context of discussions on post-colonialism and gender-studies. This brought about a new reading and interpretation of some authors and works of the literary canon. The economic and civil status of Jews in the Czech lands changed as a result of reforms during the 19th century. Jews achieved equality with other ethnic groups. At the end of the 19th century, most of them accepted Czechness. But at the same time, Czech political nationalism was radicalized. The Czech politicians combated German nationalism with anti-semitic rhetoric with economic competition in the background. Anti-Semitism peaked around the time of the trial of Leopold Hilsner who was accused of a ritual murder, and later in the anti-Jewish attacks at the end of the First World War. This examination of Jewish stereotypes in literary works is not meant to discuss these concrete historical events. They have been documented in specific literary techniques such as narrative strategies, representations of characters, configurations of style and metaphors (for example, comparing the figures of Jews with animals). Here the novels of Czech authors Václav Kosmák (1843–1898), Antal Stašek (1843–1931), Alois and Vilém Mrštík (1861–1925; 1863–1912), Josef Holeček (1853–1929), Jindřich Šimon Baar (1869–1925), and Božena Benešová (1873–1936) will be the focus. Resistance against the Jews can be labelled as religious (Jew versus Catholic; V. Kosmák, J. Š. Baar), nationalist (Jew versus Czech; V. Kosmák, J. Holeček), anti-capitalist (Jew versus working man; A. and V. Mrštík, A. Stašek), moralistic (Jew versus moral man; all authors, mainly B. Benešová). Some stereotypes of Jews include their physiognomy (big nose, lips turned down, ugliness), language (mutilation of Czech, preference for German and Yiddish), deceit and depravity (immoral enrichment at the expense of other), lust and sexual depravity (on the one hand, a Jew as a seducer of young girls, on the other hand, spoiled young Jewish girls). The image of the Jewish conspiracy to rule the world (A. Stašek) rarely appears. It is usually reserved for more inferior literature. All of these stereotypes are partly related to the older anti-Judaism, which begat the racial anti-Semitism of the 20th century.

Keywords: stereotypes of Jews; Czech novels at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries; anti-Semitism

Prof. PhDr. Jiří Holý je profesorem české literatury na Filozofické fakultě Univerzity Karlovy, ředitelem Centra pro studium holokaustu a židovské literatury při Ústavu české literatury a literární vědy FF UK a spoluzakladatelem Pražského centra židovských studií na FF UK ( jiri.holy@ff.cuni.cz).