Surviving Survival

Kaffee und Kuchen mit Lenka Reinerová, the last German-language writer in Prague

Every upheaval or so, the truth becomes more and more apparent: Humanity aggressively pursues its own extinction. What saves us is anyone’s faith. An interesting outgrowth of this reckless self-sabotage is humanity’s obsession with The Last. The last of anything is imbued with an ineffable quality. It is marked: the Last Mohican, the Last Supper, the Last Temptation. Endangered species, the Lasts of the future, abound: the panda, the spotted owl, the Kurds. The Last as a prefix is a direct assault on death. The only German-language writer left in Prague is Lenka Reinerová, who is very much alive and writing. She is most definitely the last writer to have firsthand knowledge of the unique German vernacular of the city. She is endangered in every way; she is also a writer of superlative quality. Reinerová is the heir, literally and literarily, to the tradition of Max Brod, Franz Kafka, Egon Erwin Kisch, Hermann Ungar, Franz Werfel and handfuls of names that the present has mostly forgotten. At 87, her mind is a Wunderkammer of erudition and memory. For that reason, as well as for her wrenchingly straightforward prose poetry, she was awarded the prestigious Goethe Medal on March 22, the anniversary of the death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Over the past decade or so, Reinerová has been rather sentimentally discovered. In the process, she has evolved into an interesting, endangered subspecies of a writer: She is a memoirist, though her work does not present itself as such. The strangest and most fulfilling aspect of memoirs, for a reader and for a writer, is that after a few books in that vein, the past becomes slowly rewritten. That old arch-Germanist Thomas Carlyle had a humorous notion that someone should write a biography of Michelangelo but omit all mention of him as an artist. One chapter would be Michelangelo as a lover, another Michelangelo as a sleeper, another Michelangelo as a walker, an eater, a defecator. The question Carlyle raises is: After all of Michelangelo’s activities and attributes are defined, would we realize that he was also an artist? Reinerová’s multi-volume “memoirs,” read in sequence, reveal preoccupations and details: a shade of orange, a doorway, a marble-topped table, a name, a promise. In these ephemeral things, amassing almost against their will, we find the history of a dying world. No significant dates are named. No despots or political intrigues or statistics are invoked. At the end, we are presented with an incredible picture of what it meant to live through the Middle European century. “When writing,” she says across a table at Café Slavia (her selection), “I learned to think about my future leaders.” She grew up in a German-speaking Jewish family, her mother a German-Bohemian from Saaz (Žatec) and her father a dealer in ironware from Prague. Prior to the second death of the West, she worked as a translator, an interpreter, and an editor for the Arbeiter-Illustrierten-Zeitung. Pure luck or masquerading fate saved her from the Nazis. In Mexico with the journalist and writer Egon Erwin Kisch in March of 1939, she was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. Returning after the war, she worked at Radio Prague, though she was soon arrested on unspecified allegations. She spent 15 months in prison, experiences recorded in her most moving work, Alle Farben der Sonne und der Nacht, a newly revised German version of the only book she wrote in Czech, Barva slunce a noci (written in the mid-’50s, published in 1969). “When you have a scandal in the family, you write about it in the language of the family,” she says of the choice. “And I have now changed color [Barva] to colors [Farben]. That is only one of the changes. There are more colors now. I wrote it differently, almost as a different person.” After her release she published sporadically. After 1968 she was not allowed to publish at all. And now, in the much lesser prison of her small fame, the venerable Goethe Institute has honored her with a medal. With her Schiller Prize, her Czech National Medal for Life Work, and her Honorary Citizenship of the City of Prague, she’ll need an expanded mantle, or a steel-reinforced necklace. Questions remain, though: Was Reinerová honored for her writings, or for her life? And are the two inseparable? “They say these awards are for my life’s work,” she says, sipping a cappuccino in the former literary café, now verging on a tourist trap. Despite the presence of a large Italian tour group, she is absolutely in her element. “If I was a better cook, would I be awarded for that? The truth is, I’m not sure what these awards are for. I’ve lived such a long life without them.” She asks the follow-up question herself: “Why these awards now? It’s good now to find someone Czech, German and Jewish. I’m of the moment.” The Goethe Medal is presented annually to two writers deemed by the Goethe Institute to “have helped further intercultural exchange and promote the German language abroad.” The work of 2003 honorees Reinerová and Spanish filmmaker and author Jorge Semprun demonstrate “that we Germans have been able to build a relationship of understanding and mutual respect with our neighbors,” said the president of the Goethe Institute Inter Nationes. If Reinerová’s works foster such an understanding, then it has been achieved at a terrible personal price. “But the most precious award I received,” she said, “was being made an Honorary Citizen in Prague. I was number 92. They have you sign the Golden Book, a very large book. And written in the book, above where I was to sign, it was written that I was honored for my ‘enrichment of the Czech/German/Jewish culture of Prague.’ This is the first time that this culture was acknowledged officially. Once and forever, it is there.” Such is Reinerová’s faith in the permanency of books. Her writings derive from an irretrievable aesthetic, from a decadently educated past. They were born in the womb of Austro-Hungarian Jewry. They received instruction from the ideals of the First Republic. They were tempered by Nazism and Socialism. They were released into a free market. And now she has lived to witness the rise of another empire. Asked about the EU, the future unification of all Europe, she laughs. “We will finally be part of Europe? Well, where have we been all this time? Prague is the middle of Europe, where everything meets.” Lenka Reinerová has most definitely survived. That she will survive survival is an immense testament to the power of her writing.

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