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Lecture on Stransky

Fritz Stransky: The Several Worlds of a Jewish Lawyer in Early Twentieth Century Bohemia

Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum,  December 2, 2001

I am pleased to be here today to talk about a lost world which produced the wonderful collection of bookplates from the early twentieth century that has been on display for the last several months here in the Weisman Museum.   The book plates in the collection display a cultivated artistic sensibility–and a remarkably wide-ranging artistic taste that spans most of the major artistic styles present in Europe between 1890 and 1930.  Represented here are the romantic historical and neoclassical styles favored by the academies and middle-class consumers of art in Europe during the middle decades of the nineteenth century along with art nouveau and Jugendstil from around 1900, early expressionism, futurism, and a little art deco.  The gentleman who collected them surely had a good eye, but he was also a man with a broad classical European education and good bourgeois upbringing who had a considerable familiarity with the cultural trends of Western and Central Europe in his time.   That collector, however, was a lawyer of Bohemian Jewish origin who worked for much of his professional life in a mining and industrial town which had only 35,000 people in 1930, the northern Bohemian community called Most in Czech and Brüx in German.   In fairness, I should explain that Stransky grew up before World War I in a much larger city, Prague, the capital of Bohemia, which had the Bohemian National Museum, art galleries, a university and technical college, and several opera houses.  There he was a part of a Jewish population whose recorded presence was nearly as old as the city itself, dating back to the earliest written records of the city in the tenth and eleventh centuries.  

Fritz Stransky, who was born in 1888, died in the Holocaust, like some 90 percent of the 120,000 Jews who lived in the Czech lands in the 1930s.  The Nazis forced Stransky, his wife, and son to leave Most after they annexed northern Bohemia in the autumn of 1938, and the family resettled in Prague.   From Prague, the family was deported to Terezin (Theresienstadt), the collection point for the Jews of the Czech lands and some from Austria.  Fritz Stransky was ultimately transported to Auschwitz, where he died.

Fritz Stransky and his family belonged to a unique but now lost social and cultural milieu, the Bohemian branch of modern Central European Jewry.  I want to stress today the Central European character of Stransky's life  and education, because that is the best way to understand him and those like him among the Jews in the Czech lands during the early twentieth century.   That is a world that is somewhat hard for Americans to place in proper perspective due to the destruction wrought by the Nazis and World War II, but also because of the dominant images which Americans have of European Jews and the Cold War influence on our notions of where to divide Western and Eastern Europe.   For most Americans, European Jews in the early twentieth century are perceived as either the small numbers of very prosperous, well educated, and highly assimilated Jews of Britain, France, the Low Countries, and Germany, or the much more numerous, generally much poorer, less educated, and more traditional Jews of Eastern Europe–Poland, Russia, and Romania.    The 185,000 Jews of the Austrian Republic during the interwar period are viewed either as a branch or cousins of the educated, Westernized German Jews except for the Galizianer, recently immigrated to poor housing in Vienna from southern Poland and Bukovina, who were appendages of the poor, traditional Ostjuden. 

For most Americans, whether Jews or Christians, Czech and Slovak or Hungarian Jews can be an enigma.  Jews from Central Europe, broadly defined, predominated among the Jewish population of the United States from the 1830s to the 1880s; but after that, the more traditional, initially Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from the Polish lands and the Tsarist Empire overwhelmed the much smaller numbers of American Jews of Central European origin.   In Israel, too, Jews from Germany, Austria, and the Czech lands played an important role in establishing the educational and cultural institutions and contributed much to commercial development in the early decades of modern Jewish settlement in Palestine.  For many decades now, though, Jews whose families originated in Eastern Europe or the Islamic lands of the Mediterranean and Middle East have comprised the great majority of Israel's Jewish population. 

The Slavic or Magyar speech of Jews from the Czech lands, Slovakia, and Hungary and the old Iron Curtain division leads of us to conceive of Jews from there as East European in cultural and social profile.  That might be a fair designation for many Jews of Eastern Slovakia or northeastern Hungary in 1930, but it would not work for the great majority of Jews in the major cities of Prague, Pilsen, Brno, and Ostrava in the Czech lands or Bratislava, Slovakia, and Budapest, Debrecen, and Szeged in Hungary.  In occupations, social position, general culture, and education, these were Central European Jews, who shared much more with the Jews of Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, and Jews in the respectable neighborhoods of Vienna near the Ringstrasse and the Mariahilferstrasse than with the poor traditional Jews from the East.    One should always remember in this regard, that Prague is northwest of Vienna as the crow flies; and the favorite old train route from Vienna to Berlin passed through Prague and Dresden on the way.

Fritz Stransky grew up in Prague during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth.  About seven percent of the city's population was Jewish at the time; around ninety percent Catholic.  Many of the Jews spoke both Czech and German; after the 1850s few, if any Prague Jews spoke the old western Yiddish dialect of the Bohemian lands any more.   Stransky, like the great majority of Jewish youth in Prague up to World War I, attended the German-language schools which served the German minority population in the city.  He graduated from a German state gymnasium, where he had a classical education including years of Latin and probably some Greek; and then he attended the law faculty of Prague's German university. 

The centuries-old Prague university had been divided into separate Czech and German institutions after 1882.   The Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Upper Silesia had been fully incorporated into the Habsburg Monarchy after 1526.   Jews had already begun to attend the Austrian universities at the end of the eighteenth century.  The final emancipation of the Monarchy's Jews in the 1840s and 1850s made it possible for Jews to attend any and all state secondary schools, universities, and technical colleges without any restrictions or quotas whatsoever–except of course the Catholic and Orthodox Christian theology faculties. 

As in parts of Germany, Vienna and Alpine Austria, and Hungary, a very substantial Jewish professional class arose in Bohemia and Moravia.  In 1910, Jews in the Austrian half of the Monarchy attended university at more than four times the rate of Catholics and twice the rate of Protestants.  17.5 percent of all Austrian university students in 1909-10 were Jewish, compared to only 4.6 percent of the total population. Jewish students in old Austrian favored medicine and law most strongly.  In the late 1880s, nearly two-thirds of all Jewish students in the Austrian universities studied medicine, compared to only one- third of the Catholic university students.   Jews still faced discrimination in state employment and the teaching professions.  As a result, only 29 percent of the Jewish university students in the late 1880s studied law and only 6 percent in the philosophical faculties.  In contrast, 40 percent of the Catholic university students studied in the law faculties, and 13 percent in the philosophical faculties. 

The strong preference of Jewish students for medicine in the last decades of the century made for some interesting anomalies in the Vienna and Prague universities.   In 1885, for example, more than 60 percent of the students in the Vienna medical faculty were Jewish; over 40 percent of students in the German medical faculty in Prague were Jews in the same period.  

We should not exaggerate the size of the educated professional element among the Prague Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century.   Of the 12,500 self-employed Jews in Prague and its inner suburbs in 1900, 47 percent were engaged in some area of commerce, 22 percent in manufacture, and 31 percent were in professions, government employment, or independent.   Throughout Bohemia, about half of all Jews at the turn of the century still worked in various areas of commerce.

Fritz Stransky grew up in Prague in a situation of at least some material comfort, if not prosperity, and high levels of education.  The total Jewish population of Prague and its inner suburbs numbered around 26,000 in 1900, compared to a total population of 394,000.  Among all self-supporting Jews in the city and inner suburbs  in 1900 (regardless of language), 52 percent were self-employed or independent, 27 percent qualified employees, and only 21 percent workers and day-laborers. The German speaking element in Prague declined steadily at the end of the nineteenth century as the Czech majority grew.  The 1900 census reported German-speakers in Prague at less than 8 percent of the citizenry, and around half of those reported as German-speaking were Jewish.  Still, Prague had both Czech and German public schools up through university, Czech and German newspapers and theatres, and a rich musical and artistic life.   

There had always been considerable prejudice and discrimination against Jews in Austrian and the Bohemian lands, and the last economic restrictions on Jews fell only as late as 1859.   By the middle and late 1880s, a new racially based political anti-Semitism was beginning to stir among radicalized students, white-collar employees, and some farmers, both among the  ethnic Germans and Czechs in the Czech lands and the Austria's Alpine provinces.   Political anti-Semitism grew nasty at times such as the riots in Prague of 1897 and the infamous ritual murder trial of Leopold Hilsner several years later in a nearby provincial town.   Still, the Habsburg authorities and more liberal Czech politicians such as Tomáš Masaryk upheld principles of equal rights and justice and opposed crude demagoguery.   The anti-Semitism of some Czech radical nationalists was more obviously instrumental than that of the Pan-German fanatics such as Georg von Schönerer, from whom Hitler took so much.

Growing up and being educated in German in Prague then, Fritz Stransky enjoyed a milieu of enlightened, modern, often well-educated and prosperous Jews like himself.   For many it was typically a comfortable and fairly secure life in the years before World War I.   By 1900 many Prague Jews had given up most of their traditional religious observance; many of them went to a synagogue at most four days a year (two days for the New Year, the Day of Atonement, and the emperor's birthday).   Before World War I, however, only a handful of Jews in Prague each year formally converted to Christianity.  

In Prague's everyday life beyond the home and family relationships, there were considerable economic and professional contacts among Jews, Czech Christians and German Christians.  After around 1880 many Czech and German political leaders in Bohemia urged their followers to give national preference in hiring and trading and to boycott the businesses of their national opponents; but journalists and politicians had to admit that considerable crossing of national lines continued in commerce and employment practices in Prague.  Many of the local Jewish shopowners were bilingual, and few pro-German or pro-Czech proprietors, Jewish or Christian, were eager to do without customers of the other nationality.  In larger businesses and offices, German-speaking employees who might not know enough Czech to deal with Czech customers could often turn to Czech colleagues.  Higher on the occupational scale, there was some ethnic segmentation of activities which might have separate Czech and German clienteles.  German-speaking lawyers, professors, and banking and insurance executives, around half or more of them Jewish in Prague, had something like protected niches, for in law, higher education, and some areas of finance the choice of language and the providers' national identity came to matter for clients.  German financial executives, lawyers, and professors could depend on clients or students from Prague's German-speaking community or Bohemia's German districts. 

Social, intellectual, and artistic life in Prague from the 1860s to the 1930s was, according to Czech and German nationalists, strictly divided along national lines.   The famous leftist Jewish journalist Egon Erwin Kisch (1885-1948) later reminisced:'

    Das deutsche Prag!  Das waren fast auschließlich Großbürger, Besitzer der Braunkohlengruben, Verwaltungsräte der Montanunternehmungen und der Skodaschen Waffenfabrik, Hopfenhändler, die zwischen Saaz und Nordamerika hin- und herführen, Zucker-, Textil- und Papierfabrikanten sowie Bankdirektoren; in ihrem Kreis verkehrten Professoren, höhere Offiziere und Staatsbeamte.  Ein deutsches Proletariat gab es nicht. . . 

    Mit der halben Million Tschechen der Stadt pflog der Deutsche keinen außergeschäftlichen Verkehr. Niemals zündete er sich mit einem Streichholz des Tschechischen Schulengründungs-Vereins seine Zigarre an, ebensowenig ein Tscheche die seinige mit einem Streichholz aus einem Schächtelchen des Deutschen Schulvereins.  Kein Deutscher erschien jemals im tschechischen Bürgerklub, kein Tscheche im Deutschen Kasino.  Selbst die Instrumentalkonzerte waren einsprachig, einsprachig die Schwimmanstalten, die Parks, die Spielplätze, die meisten Restaurants, Kaffeehäuser und Geschäfte.  Korso der Tschechen war die Ferdinandstraße, Korso der Deutschen der "Graben." . . . . Kein tschechischer Bürger besuchte jemals das deutsche Theater und vice versa.

While the Czech-German divisions in public life went deep, there was, in fact, some significant crossing of lines here and there, particularly in artistic affairs as well as many business relationships.  Czechs, Germans, and Jews alike would attend the important art exhibits and major concerts.  If there was an important premiere at the Czech or German opera, people who cared about music and theatre went to whichever theatre.   Many Jews who were bilingual felt little inhibition about this, particularly after 1918. 

Concerns about the national conflict between Czechs and Germans also did not cut off the artists and intellectuals in each camp from new trends elsewhere in Europe, whether in Vienna, Berlin, or Paris.   Czech intellectuals ostentatiously cultivated ties to Parisian intellectual life and developed their own symbolist and later decadent poets.  A major show of Rodin sculptures set Czech audiences in Prague agog in 1902.  Still, the Czech artists and intellectuals kept in touch with Vienna and even Berlin, as well, as did the German Catholic and Jewish intellectuals in Prague and the other cities of Bohemia and Moravia.  There may have been strong French influences on Czech painters, but Viennese architecture had the greatest influence on Czech architects before World War I.  Someone with an artistic sensibility such as Fritz Stransky who grew up in Prague would have been readily exposed to nearly all the major new trends in Europe of his time without having to leave his home city.  If he wanted to go see the sights, one could easily take the train to Dresden or Vienna in less than a day's time.

While many Jews in Prague around 1900 lived in relative comfort and security, it was also the city of the young Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Hugo Bergmann, Franz Werfel, and the brothers Felix and Robert Weltsch.  Those young Jewish intellectuals of Prague were deeply concerned by the rising strength of nationalist loyalties and nationalist politics around them, the decline of the older, more tolerant liberal politics, and what they saw as the increasingly problematic, if not endangered position of Jews in Prague, Bohemia, and Austria as a whole.  Martin Buber came to Prague several times before World War I and gave an important series of lectures there in 1909 on the essence and meaning of Judaism and traditional Jewish culture.  

Jews' political loyalties began to shift after 1890.  >From the 1850s to the early 1880s, most politically engaged Jews in the Bohemian lands, like their counterparts in Vienna, supported the German liberal political cause.   After 1890, a pro-Czech Jewish movement began to develop, although many Czechs still expressed resentment over the Jews' longtime German loyalties; and Bohemian and Moravian Jews still overwhelmingly sent their children to the German schools.   At the end of the 1890s, a small Zionist movement began to emerge among some Jewish university students and young intellectuals in Prague, who argued that neither a German nor a Czech national loyalty was possible or appropriate for Jews in the long run.   Neither the Czech Jewish nor the Zionist political movements attracted strong support among the general Jewish population in Bohemia and Moravia before World War I, and the same German-speaking Jewish notables who led the religious community council, most of the synagogues, and the major Jewish charities right up to 1914 typically also enjoyed high positions in Prague's German liberal organizations. Clearly, though, the place of Jews in the ethnic and national geometry of the society was increasingly in question even before World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy and birth of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918.

Czechoslovakia was very much the republic of the Czechs and Slovaks, with even the Slovaks treated as junior partners compared to the more numerous and more economically advanced Czechs.   After 1918 far fewer Jews in Prague or Bohemia as a whole than before felt they could affirm German loyalties anymore; and the new government now recognized a Jewish national loyalty as a possibility alongside the Czech and German options in the post 1918 censuses.  Under the Czechoslovak Republic, the Czech Jews and Jewish nationalists became formidable political forces although a number of Jewish professionals and entrepreneurs in the biggest cities still retained German loyalties.  In the 1930 census, 51 per cent of the Prague Jews indicated Czechoslovak nationality, 23 per cent Jewish nationality, and 23 per cent German.  

After World War I, Fritz Stransky settled in the old predominantly German mining town of Most (Brüx) in northern Bohemia and developed a law practice there.   Most was in a traditionally German district near the border with Saxony, which had had few Jews before the 1850s.  In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the coal mines and industrial concerns of the town began to attract growing numbers of Czechs, who worked as laborers in the mines and other concerns or eventually in commerce and services.  The government of the Czechoslovak Republic eventually opened Czech primary and secondary schools in the district in addition to the German public schools which continued after 1918.   In the Stransky family, one child chose the Czech schools and the other, the German, a not uncommon phenomenon among Bohemian Jewish families that had been bilingual to a great extent. 

Much of the ethnic German population of Bohemia and Moravia deeply resented being made citizens of Czechoslovakia in 1918; many would have preferred to be part of the new Austrian Republic.  The majority of the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia, however, behaved as loyal citizens during the 1920s.  The depression in the 1930s hit hard the already weak economy of the German-inhabited border areas of Bohemia, including Most.  The bad economic conditions and the rise of the Nazi movement to power in Germany contributed to the meteoric growth of the Sudeten German Party among Bohemian German voters after the mid-1930s.   By 1938 the Sudeten German Party and its leader Konrad Henlein were functioning as a fifth-column inside the country, following the orders of Nazi government in Berlin to subvert the Czechoslovak government.  The Stransky family witnessed all this, but there was no threat to Jews under the Czechoslovak government and no reason to leave until after the Munich agreement in early autumn  1938.   The city of Most lay within the Sudeten German zone in northern Bohemian which was annexed to Germany as a result of the Munich agreement in early autumn 1938.  After October 1938, Most was no place for a Jewish lawyer from Prague to be.   Stransky, his wife, and son went to Prague, which was still government by the Czechoslovak government.  Hitler's guarantees for the continued territorial integrity and independence of what remained of Czechoslovakia proved false in March 1939, when he used a flimsy pretext to move Nazi troops into the rest of Bohemia and Moravia and recognized Slovakia as an independent state.   This came with little real warning, and few Czech Jews escaped before the Nazi occupation was consolidated. 

The Nazi occupation, World War II, and then the communist takeover after 1948 saw not only the demise of significant Jewish settlement and culture in Prague.  It killed much of the cultural traditions of the Czech, German, and Jewish educated bourgeoisie there.  The opera houses, concert halls, art galleries, universities, and libraries remained, but they functioned more as museums for old traditions than vital centers of creativity for most of the communist era.  There was some revitalization in the reform era of the 1960s, and some remaining Jewish intellectuals like Eduard Goldstücker played an important part.    There has been some intellectual and cultural revival all over the former communist countries since 1989, and here and there a few Jewish or part-Jewish intellectuals appear; but their role in artistic, intellectual, and professional life is nothing like what it was in all these countries before 1938.

- Gary B. Cohen, University of Minnesota