Zionists in Interwar Czechoslovakia: Minority Nationalism and the Politics of Belonging

Zionists in Interwar Czechoslovakia: Minority Nationalism and the Politics of Belonging

by Tatjana Lichtenstein


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This book presents an unconventional history of minority nationalism in interwar Eastern Europe. Focusing on an influential group of grassroots activists, Tatjana Lichtenstein uncovers Zionist projects intended to sustain the flourishing Jewish national life in Czechoslovakia.The book shows that Zionism was not an exit strategy for Jews, but as a ticket of admission to the societies they already called home.It explores how and why Zionists envisioned minority nationalism as a way to construct Jews’ belonging and civic equality in Czechoslovakia.By giving voice to the diversity of aspirations within interwar Zionism, the book offers a fresh view of minority nationalism and state building in Eastern Europe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253018670
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/21/2016
Series: The Modern Jewish Experience
Pages: 494
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Tatjana Lichtenstein is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Zionists in Interwar Czechoslovakia

Minority Nationalism and the Politics of Belonging

By Tatjana Lichtenstein

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Tatjana Lichtenstein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01872-4


The Jews of Czechoslovakia


ONE WINTER, SOMETIME IN THE 1930S, HANA SHAFAR, A YOUNG Jewish woman, traveled with her fiancé, Ivo Karajich, from Moravská Ostrava/Mährisch Ostrau, a bustling industrial center, eastward to Hana's home village Polana, deep in the valleys of Subcarpathian Rus'. Hana had been in the city for only a short time. She had moved there to join a newly established Zionist commune and prepare for emigration to Palestine. She, like so many others in Polana, had been mesmerized by the visiting young Zionist activists' fiery speeches about Palestine, work, prosperity, and freedom. But Hana also joined the commune to escape the bleak future awaiting a village girl with no dowry. Before long, the beautiful Hana attracted the attention of a salesman and atheist publicist, Ivo Karajich. Formerly known as Isaac Cohen, Karajich had renounced his Jewishness and changed his name, though he could neither escape his own physiognomy ("What a nose!") nor his attraction to the exotic yet familiar Jewish girl from Polana ("it is his blood calling him"). Within weeks, Ivo "liberated" Hana from factory work as well as from the Zionist commune by securing her a position at his journal The Free Thinker. It was as if a whirlwind carried Hana away from her village, from all the truths that she had hitherto known, from all that had been self-evident. She wondered, "Aren't there any Jews here in Ostrava? Are there only Jews in Polana and then a few in Košice and no more anywhere else? What is the truth, then? What sort of Jews do you call them if they haven't their own tongue and talk goy even to each other and dress like goyim and do not keep the Sabbath, if they eat treyfe food and don't pray and don't do any of the things that make a Jew a Jew?" Hana's confusion grew deeper when Ivo, in proposing to her, revealed, "I am not a Jew." Despite her reservations, Hana loved Ivo and agreed to marry him. Soon, the couple found themselves on the road through Slovakia to Subcarpathian Rus' and Polana to introduce him to her family.

As they traveled eastward, it was as if the changing landscape, the picturesque townships and villages, the vast forests, mountains, and valleys, signaled that this was a journey not only in space but also in time. While Ivo was excited by the exotic, dramatic landscape, as they neared her village, Hana's trepidation intensified. At first Hana's parents welcomed the couple. They had not recognized Karajich as a Jewish name and were relieved when they set eyes on Ivo's "great big nose, the like of which has never been seen in Ruthenia!" But their happiness soon turned to horror when they learned that Ivo, arrogantly confident in his cultural and intellectual superiority vis-à-vis the devout villagers, was an atheist. Not simply a converted Jew, which they would have understood, but a Jew who had "forsaken God." A drama unfolded, as the Shafars kidnapped their daughter, the village dignitaries attempted to convince Ivo to "return to Israel," and a village mob gathered to settle the affront. Both Ivo and the villagers alike demanded respect for their principle of faith. It was only with help of Czechoslovak gendarmes that Ivo managed to wrest Hana from her family and the village. By then, Hana was cast out of the community, dead both to her family and her people. As she left, walking through the village, Hana passed "one Jewish cottage after another, and in front of everyone the families were gathered and the men were wailing in a loud chorus, each mingling with the next: "You shall be pure and free of all defilement ... so the Lord purifies Israel." Hana, "the outcast[,] walked down the empty street with her impure lover by her side and two Czechoslovak policemen ten paces in front of her. She was as white as the path she trod, calling desperately to her aid the blood of her forebears, accustomed to shame and humiliation and suffering, she moved on through the terrible funeral prayers of her grandfather, her face set forward and her eyes fixed in a strange gleam on some far-off point." Although in mourning, the village was cleansed, the old order restored. Ivo got his bride, but Hana had changed; a grain of hardness had entered her wonderful, sorrowful eyes.

Yet, it was not only Hana who had sinned. It was all the Jews of Polana who had grown tired of waiting for the Messiah, lost faith in divine redemption, and allowed their youngsters to dabble in Zionism. Ever since the halutsim (pioneers, socialist Zionist youth) and the youngsters from Mizrahi (the most prominent religious Zionist movement) appeared in Polana, seducing the villagers with tales of the Promised Land, the righteous Pinches Yakubovich had pleaded with God to have mercy on the sinful, ungrateful villagers. Just prior to Hana and Ivo's arrival, an angel appeared before him demanding a sacrifice:

Thus speaketh the Lord unto you, in my words, lamet vav Pinches, son of Yankel! Your cries have reached Me and not passed unheard. I thought to break the Jewish congregation of Polana with an iron rod for their sins, like a potter's vessel, and scatter it like the sands of the desert. My wrath and anger have been turned aside by thy prayers, and I have taken pity upon them. Behold, there are no halutz and no mizrakhi wrongdoers anymore; I have swept them from the face of the earth as a thing unclean, and Polana will be one again as of old. But I demand a peace offering on behalf of the whole congregation. Only one, yet more terrible than any other. Death! Death! Death! Such a death as Polana has never seen, more terrible than the armed man, than fire or the grave, the death of all deaths. Tomorrow. Make this sacrifice without reluctance!

Thus, as Hana walked through the village, the Jews scorned and shamed her, unaware that she was the scapegoat for their sins. Only Pinches Yakubovich knew and,

as he gazed at the young girl going towards a death worse than the armed man, worse than fire and the grave, towards the death of all deaths, spiritual death, did not see what the rest of Polana saw. Behold the scapegoat of the Lord, that hath taken away the sins of Israel! She alone in the name of all! Behold the greatest sacrifice of all, laid upon the altar of the Lord as a solemn peace offering. Great, eternal, holy and unfathomable is God the Lord of Hosts. Praise be to his name!

As Hana is cast out, as she dies "the death of all deaths," the village is purified. The heresy of Zionism, its promise of revolution and redemption, is expunged. Yet, anyone looking on could see that a stain remained.

The tragedy of Hana Shafar was the fictional creation of Ivan Olbracht (1882–1952), a towering figure in interwar Czechoslovakia's literary circles and one of the most important Czech writers of the twentieth century. Born in Semily/Semil, a town in northern Bohemia, to the German-speaking Jewish Kamila Schönfeld and the Czech Catholic writer and lawyer Antal Stašek (1843–1931, whose real name was Antonín Zeman), Ivan Olbracht (Kamil Zeman) embarked on his literary and political career well before the First World War. Olbracht was not a Zionist. Rather, by the 1920s, he was a major figure in Prague's Communist milieu as the editor of the party organ Rudé Právo. Having split from the Communist Party in 1929, after which he lost his position as an editor, Olbracht began exploring Czechoslovakia's east. He spent much of the 1930s living in Subcarpathian Rus', the country's easternmost province, a region dominated by the Carpathian Mountains and known for its beauty, harshness, and the poverty of its people. Indeed, it was Olbracht's documentary essays, novels, and short stories about Subcarpathian Rus' that brought him much literary fame and popularity. More than nine hundred kilometers from Prague, for most of Olbracht's readers, Subcarpathian Rus' was a mysterious, unfamiliar, and exotic place, a different civilization, one that could be (safely) discovered through the writings of, among others, Ivan Olbracht.

Published in 1937 as part of the collection Golet v údolí (Exile in the Valley), "The Sorrowful Eyes of Hana Karajich" was one of three short stories set among Hasidic villagers in Subcarpathian Rus'. The story of Hana and Ivo is, on the one hand, a universal story about rebellion and loss of faith and family. On the other, Olbracht's tale is one particular to Jewish life in Czechoslovakia in the interwar years. This was a time of rapid social and cultural change, of momentous political and economic challenges. Olbracht's work brilliantly captured the restlessness of youth as well as the efforts of political activists to harness this impatience to their utopian visions. Because it symbolized the most radical and rapid ways Jewish life was changing in Czechoslovakia, it was no coincidence that Olbracht placed Zionism at the center of his Subcarpathian tale. Subcarpathian Rus', with its large, poor, and fiercely traditional Jewish society, was an important arena for Zionist activism in the 1920s and '30s. At that time, Zionists from the Bohemian Lands and Palestine, together with representatives from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, descended on the region seeking to lift its Jews out of poverty and "backwardness" by providing social welfare programs and education.

Unlike that of their American colleagues, the Zionists' intervention in the region was driven by political rather than humanitarian concerns. Indeed, the mobilization of Subcarpathian Jewry for the Zionist cause was a key step in their program for Jews' integration and equality in Czechoslovakia. On the one hand, Zionists from the Bohemian Lands imagined Subcarpathian Jews as constituting an authentic Jewish Volk that had remained untouched by decades of assimilation and denationalization policies that had eroded Jewish national life in Bohemia and Moravia. On the other, Zionists were taken aback by the poverty, religious traditionalism, and cultural foreignness of the Jews in the country's east. Zionist activists depended ideologically, politically, and demographically on the eastern Jews. Yet, the latter threatened to undermine Jews' broader social and cultural respectability that underpinned the Zionist project in Czechoslovakia. Zionists' vision for Jewish nationhood as a vehicle for Jews' social, economic, political, and cultural prosperity and participation in Czechoslovak society was, in some ways, a radical challenge to the assimilationist paradigm, which for more than a century had promised Jews emancipation in return for their social and cultural assimilation. But Zionists did not seek "to push Jews back into the ghetto," as some critics claimed. Rather, they pursued a program of simultaneous acculturation and nationalization that aimed to transform Jews into model citizen in the new multinational state.

In 1918, the Austrian provinces of Bohemia, Moravia, and part of Austrian Silesia (referred to here as the Bohemian Lands) and territories in the northern part of the Kingdom of Hungary (later known as Slovakia and Subcarpathian Rus') became provinces in Czechoslovakia. A complex country with great regional diversity, including at least six major languages and many more religious denominations, the landscape ranged from the highly industrialized towns and cities of Bohemia and Moravia to the fields worked by subsistence farmers below the Carpathian Mountains. Czechoslovakia's Jewish societies reflected the diversity of the country as a whole. In the Bohemian Lands, Jews constituted an acculturated German- and Czech-speaking middle-class community. In Slovakia, German, Hungarian, and Yiddish were the dominant languages among less prosperous middle-class Jews, many of whom considered their Orthodoxy a point of pride. In Subcarpathian Rus', most Jews lived in traditional Yiddish-speaking Hasidic village communities.

The Zionist project in Czechoslovakia was shaped in important ways by this diversity. Czechoslovakia's Jews spoke a multiplicity of languages but shared no one language. Jews' religious practice varied greatly, as did their class and national identifications. Yet, even though there were important differences among the country's Jewish societies, there were cultural and historical commonalities. In these newly amalgamated regions, Jews' shared a historical experience. It was an experience shaped, on the one hand, by their place within the larger Central and East European Ashkenazi Jewish world – a cultural network sustained by economic, kinship, and scholarly ties; and, on the other, by their belonging within the realm of the Habsburg Monarchy, a state that since the late eighteenth century offered Jews some degree of equality and protection in return for political loyalty and assimilation. Although Jews were treated by the state and by many non-Jewish observers as one, undifferentiated group, when Zionists set out to unite Jews under a Jewish nationalist banner, they were faced with what appeared as insurmountable cultural, social, and political divisions. It was a paradox shaped by the Habsburg legacy.


Before they became Habsburg possessions, Bohemia and Moravia, the so-called Crown Lands, had been part of the Central European realm ruled by the medieval Premysl dynasty. The regions that would become Slovakia and Subcarpathian Rus' were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. As in other parts of medieval Europe, Jews were considered "serfs of the royal chamber" (servi camerae regis). In return for their taxes and other financial services, the king granted Jews a charter stipulating their right of residence, communal autonomy, and royal protection. Jews were thus subjects of the royal court, not of the local authorities. Although it is impossible to say how many Jews lived in the Bohemian Lands in the Middle Ages, Jewish communities did exist in important trade centers such as Prague, Brno/Brünn, and Jihlava/Iglau. Further south, in the territories that would later become Slovakia, from the middle of the eleventh century on, Pressburg/Pozsony (later Bratislava), Nitra/Neutra/Nyitra, and Trnava/Tyrnau/Nagyszombat had substantial communities with charters similar to the ones granted Jews in the Bohemian Lands. As elsewhere in medieval Europe, moneylending, trades, and commerce formed the economic backbone of Jewish life.

By the fifteenth century, the weakening of royal authority vis-à-vis burghers and the nobility led to the expulsion of Jews from the royal towns and a dispersion of the bulk of the Jewish population into privately owned noble town and villages. Over time, in Bohemia and Moravia, Jews' settlement patterns shaped distinctive communal and cultural traditions that defined Jewish life in these regions well into the twentieth century. In Moravia, Jews lived in midsized, urban communities excluded from the region's cities. Living under the protection of noble magnates, they were part of the agricultural economy as moneylenders, merchants, peddlers, tradesmen, and leaseholders, as mediators between peasants and the nobility and between rural and urban areas. The Moravian communities, similar in size and political, economic, and religious stature, were able to develop a supra-communal authority, much like the one that emerged among Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This institution acted as a representative of the communities to the authorities, collaborated on fulfilling Jews' tax obligations, and sought to resolve intercommunal disputes and issues.

In Bohemia, things looked different. Here, the majority of Jews lived dispersed in small settlements ranging from a few families to a few hundred Jews. The important exception was the community in Prague, one of Central Europe's major Jewish religious, economic, and cultural centers. This imbalance in influence and prestige, which more often than not pitched rural and small-town Jews against Prague Jewry, frustrated the development of supra-communal institutions such as the ones that emerged in Moravia. The different settlement patterns helped shape traditions for unity and cooperation in Moravia and disunity and intercommunal competition in Bohemia. It was only in the interwar years that Jewish reformers, Zionists among them, succeeded in creating an institution that united the Jewish communities in Bohemia with the ones in Moravia.


The Bohemian Lands became part of the Habsburg Monarchy in 1526. The early modern Habsburg rulers' attitude toward the Jews in their realm moved on a spectrum marked at one end by acceptance and cooperation and at the other by hostility and exclusion. Thus, at times, individual Jews, mostly financiers and scholars, achieved unprecedented access to the royal court. In some years, however, the court would placate burghers, nobles, and church leaders and – with an eye to its own debt obligations to local Jews – expel entire Jewish communities from their hometowns.


Excerpted from Zionists in Interwar Czechoslovakia by Tatjana Lichtenstein. Copyright © 2016 Tatjana Lichtenstein. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Place Names
Introduction: Making Jews at Home
1. The Jews of Czechoslovakia—A Mosaic of Cultures
2. Jewish Power and Powerlessness: Zionists, Czechs and the Paris Peace Conference
3. Mapping Jews: Social Science and the Making of Czechoslovak Jewry
4. Conquering Communities: Zionists, Cultural Renewal, and the State
5. A Stateless Nation’s Territory: Zionists and the Jewish Schools
6. Making New Jews: Maccabi in Czechoslovakia
7. Promised Lands: Zionism and Communism in Interwar Czechoslovakia
Epilogue: "A Storm of Barbarism"

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Temple University - Harriet Pass Freidenreich

It has long been known that unlike elsewhere in East Central Europe, for census purposes, Jews in Czechoslovakia were recognized as a separate nationality as well as a religious group. Tatjana Lichtenstein explores the ramification of this distinction for Zionists and their interactions with this state in important study of Jewish nationalism.

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