Jan Richter - historian at the regional museum in Mikulov


In this week's One on One my guest is Jan Richter, who is the historian at the regional museum in the south Moravian town of Mikulov. Mikulov, known in German as Nikolsburg, was for centuries one of the most important Jewish centres in the region. Jan Richter and I also discussed how Czechs view their history, and the former German influence in this part of the world, but we first spoke about a subject he specialises in, Mikulov's rich Jewish history.

"The first mention of a Jew residing in Mikulov comes from 1369, but there was probably not yet a whole community there. Jewish populations tended to be concentrated in bigger towns and in cities like Vienna and Brno.

"But in about the middle of the 15th century they got expelled from all the royal cities like Vienna and Brno, so they were looking for places outside these two cities, so they could still go there for trade.

"And Mikulov happened to be situated very...suitably because it's only about 70 km from Vienna and 50 from Brno, so they could actually make a one-day trip there and come back without violating the rule that prevented them from staying there."

At what time was the Jewish community in Mikulov at its biggest?

"The beginning of the 19th century, because there was this Familiengesetz, or familienten law, introduced that limited the number of Jewish families in the Bohemian crown lands.

"But the aristocratic family that owned Mikulov saw the Jewish community as very good for the economy of the estate, so they actually managed to increase the number of these families there.

"And in 1848 and then later with the new constitution in 1886 all these limits and limitations were abolished and Jews spread all over the place and went to Vienna mostly."

Mikulov is very, very near the Austrian border, it's around 50 km from Vienna - how closely was the fate of Jews in Mikulov tied to the fate of Jews in Austria?

"First of all Jews in Austria is in fact Jews in Vienna, because there were not many Jews living outside Vienna. And of course there were all related...there was this big fire, I think the biggest fire in Mikulov happened in 1719, and the Jews in Vienna had a collection to help to rebuild the community in Mikulov. So trade-wise and family-wise they were very closely connected."

Has your job brought you close to Judaism? Have you developed a strong interest in it?

"Yes, very much so. All the research and all the publication were going on very well before the Second World War, but then it was interrupted of course by the war, and they all died or left or went to Israel. So you kind of build on what they did.

"Also when you read bibliographies of their work you find you have to speak Hebrew, or read Hebrew at least, to access the sources that they had. So yes, it brought me very close to the philosophy of it and the language and the culture."

Jan, you're a historian - how well would you say Czechs know their history?

"I'm not sure about that. Of course many people are ignorant about history just as they're ignorant about other things. But I think in general that the basic awareness of Czech history among Czechs is fairly good.

"But the thing is that for about 50 years different interpretations and values were inserted into the study of history, so of course many people now are trying to see whether, for example, the Hussite movement is really as it was retold and interpreted by communist historiographers."

What was the communist understanding of the Hussites?

"They thought it was the first revolutionary appearance of the working class, or peasants or whatever, against the ruling classes. But of course they to a great extent ignored the whole religious part of it."

Would you say people's understanding of history is distorted a bit by communism? Despite themselves...people sat in communist classrooms.

"Sure, and I don't think it's just communism, because all the National Revival in the 19th century, which was...prolonged into the First Republic as well, in the search for some kind of national idea, or the idea of the Czechoslovak state.

"The thing is that history was used by the communists, but also by some historians before the communist era, to prove or establish or some facts...they wanted it to serve some purpose rather than some objective study of the past. So yes, it was distorted."

Would you say this country's German and Jewish history has been written out of history to some extent, because of the need to create a nation and all that kind of thing?

"Oh, very much so, yes definitely. It came as a shock when I was 15 or 16 to discover that there were more Germans living in Czechoslovakia before the war than there were Slovaks.

"So they were trying to present the Czechs, or Czechoslovakia at that time, as some kind of solid nation within its borders, but nobody said it was not so...with Jews it's a little bit different, but one third of the population was German and you can't ignore that.

"I think the history of Czechs is more in the interaction with the outside world, rather than, you know, in their own."

Would you say that Czechs have lost something through, to some extent, ignoring that German history?

"Well, I'm not sure about that, but they definitely lost something by driving all those Germans out of the country, because of course...the more stimuli, so to speak, the more different angles of looking at one thing you have, the richer you are."

Franz Kafka, the author, is famously not regarded as being Czech by Czechs. But are there some elements of German history here that have been "Czechicised" and taken on by the Czechs, and now they are proud of those elements?

"Yes, not so much in Moravia but the whole Prague...environment, the whole mystical elements that people are looking for in Prague - that was at least half German, if qualifying it makes any sense.

"In Bohemia it was a bit different, because the central area of Bohemia was of course Czech and the border areas were German.

"But in Moravia there were Germans living in most of the major towns and cities. Brno was half German, Olomouc not very much so, but then Prostejov...it was almost German cities."