Born in Bohemia…but forgotten by Czechs?

Gustav Mahler

What do Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Ferdinand Porsche have in common? Most of us would assume that these well-known personalities were all born in Germany or Austria, but all of them, in fact, started life in what is now the Czech Republic. You won't find that much written about them in Czech schoolbooks however - they're not really regarded by Czechs as ' one of us'. But a new exhibition in Prague is trying to change that.

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 was immortalised in the 1971 film Death in Venice, starring Dirk Bogarde. Most of us, if asked, would probably describe Mahler as a ‘German’ composer, and we’d be half right - German was after all his mother tongue.

But he wasn’t born in Germany or even in what is now Austria. Mahler, the son of a Jewish coachman and innkeeper, was born here in the Czech Republic, in a little village he would have called Kalischt, but what is now called ‘Kaliště’. So what was Mahler? Czech, German or Jewish? Petr Brod is a journalist with a keen interest in Czech-German history:

“Many people in this country could not really declare themselves unilaterally, so to speak, or specifically to be either Czechs or Germans or Jews. For many, these identities intermingled. They were immersed both in German and in Czech culture and they just couldn’t decide for themselves whether they were Germans or Czechs.”

Gustav Mahler is one of twelve German-speaking personalities currently being profiled in a new exhibition at the Prager Literaturhaus, a Czech institute that promotes Prague’s German literary heritage. The exhibition is called “Born in Bohemia and Moravia – but Forgotten by Us?” – a clue that many Czechs have little or no idea that Mahler, Freud, Kafka, Porsche, even Oskar Schindler – he of Schindler’s List fame - were born just a few hours’ drive from their door. Lucie Černohousová is the institute’s director:

“We Czechs should be proud of these personalities, but maybe if you would ask somebody who doesn’t deal with German heritage, he might answer a bit different, or he might be surprised that these people even were born here. It is the goal to represent [them], even if it’s only twelve personalities, because these names are famous abroad, but not in Czech Republic.”

The exhibition is the work of Dr Wolfgang Schwarz, a historian working for the Adalbert Stifter Association in Munich, founded by some of the three million ethnic Germans expelled by Czechoslovakia after the war.

Mahler himself – a German-speaking Jew who began life amongst Czechs in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire – went on to become one of the world’s most celebrated composers, before dying in Vienna in 1911, long before the tumultuous events of the 20th century. But throughout his life he never shrugged off the sense of being a stranger in a strange land. “Always an intruder,” he wrote, “never welcome.”