- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008


By Peter Demetz

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, 274 pages, illus.


For many years the cornerstone of Yale’s distinguished Comparative Literature Department, Peter Demetz was a superb literary critic in the classroom and lecture hall and on paper. When, some years ago, he wrote “Prague in Black and Gold,” “a history of my hometown from the sixth to the early twentieth century,” he proved to be a superb cultural historian as well. In “Prague in Danger,” he focuses on a mere six years of its history when it fell under the iron heel of Nazi rule as part of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia within Hitler’s Third Reich.

And once again, he shows those twin qualities of punctiliousness and passion which are his hallmark as he explores many aspects of life in those terrible years: Artistic, political, social and, above all, personal. Because he was actually there in Prague as observer and sometimes as participant in the eddies and crosscurrents of that tumultuous time.

This intensely personal side to the book does not distract in the least from those sections which are detailed cultural history, beautifully and factually laid out. Indeed, Mr. Demetz’s intimate knowledge of some of the places describedand of the unique atmosphere of that period enhance every page. But the heart of the book — what makes it such a special and above all valuable document and testament — are those sections (printed in a different typeface) which are straight autobiography. So while it is fascinating to read how theater and moviemaking managed to continue even under the rigid Nazi occupation and other aspects of normal life persisted for so many in Prague, what one takes away in the final analysis are those first-person accounts.

In the complicated,insane world of Nazi Germany with its labyrinths of racial identity and identification, Demetz was a half-Jew, bad enough to put you in danger — eventually, once the Final Solution was put into effect enough to earmark you for extermination — but not as dire as being one of his maternal relatives. His mother would have been better off had his parents not long since divorced by the time she found herself living in a Nazi-occupied Prague; she might have survived with such protection instead of being deported to the so-called model camp of Terezin or Theresienstadt.

This rebarbative institution was set up as a show-ghetto for Jews for the benefit of the Red Cross, which to its eternal shame allowed itself to be fooled into giving the Nazis the cover they still craved at that time. In fact, it was so hideously overcrowded and disease-ridden that many of those lucky enough not to be among the multitudes deported from there to their deaths at Auschwitz perished there as a result of the conditions in this Nazi “paradise.” His mother was one of these and his description of the last time he saw her, as she left for this hell-hole, is as poignant as it is honest and devoid of pretense of any kind:

“In the course of the years I have tried many times to recall what she said and what I said then and there, but I do not remember much, if anything: the dark brown color of the sturdy valise, my mother’s hair streaked with a little gray, a few children running around, and some old people, all alone.”[173]

Less than a year later, she would be dead at fifty-one; her son was twenty and, sixty-five years later, this book is imbued with a sense of loss intensely personal although surrounded by so many echoes of others.

Fortunate enough to survive the war in a labor battalion after various other occupations and adventures across the Reich, all vividly described in “Prague in Danger” (which might well have been subtitled “Demetz in Danger”), the young Czech was able to return to his birthplace, eager at twenty three to begin his university studies. But after harrowing — but mercifully ultimately anodyne brief encounters with Auschwitz and with Gestapo interrogation, Mr. Demetz returned to a land increasingly haunted by the specter of a new totalitarian tyranny which was to hold sway over it for four decades.

A lifelong devotee of the interwar democratic Czechoslovakia founded by Thomas Masaryk, Demetz could still feel pity for his German-speaking fellow citizens subject to ethnic cleansing by his nation’s postwar government. Some of those now forced to leave their homes with a mere hundredweight of their belongings had indeed been those “Sudeten Germans” whose cause Hitler had championed in order to destroy Czechoslovakia and who had been on top of the world during the Nazi era.

But one of the virtues of Mr. Demetz’s book is his reminder that many of those German-speakers who maintained the city’s Germanophone cultural institutions were in fact anti-fascist, many, but not all of them by any means, Jews. “I became,” he writes with the principled integrity so evident throughout this book, “one of the exiles deploring the sad truth that Masaryk’s nation, with which I had identified politically for so long, had unfortunately accepted the Nazi idea of collective guilt as a guiding moral and political principle.” [242] What a fine man, what a fine book, we have here.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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