Lenka Reinerova - a writer who keeps the rich tradition of Prague German literature alive

Lenka Reinerova

There must be few writers anywhere in the world who have led quite such fascinating lives as Lenka Reinerova. Now an energetic 88-year-old with a glint in her eye and a charisma that give her the look of someone at least 15 years younger, she has lived through many of the dramas of the 20th century. Today she is settled in Prague, the city where she grew up in a middle-class Jewish family before the war. With the rise of fascism, like many of her generation, she embraced communism, in the hope of resisting the menace that was coming from Germany, and she came to know some of the extraordinary literary figures of Prague at the time, including Franz Kafka's friend, Max Brod, and the famous "roving reporter" Egon Erwin Kisch.

Lenka Reinerova
Her adventures continued. Early in the war she was interned in France, before managing to get out by ship to Casablanca and then to Mexico, returning in 1945 with her Yugoslav husband to Belgrade and eventually back to Prague, where she was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. In the fifties she was put in jail again, this time by Czechoslovakia's Stalinist authorities, and right up to the fall of communism she was unable to publish any of her writings in her native land.

A few days ago I went to visit Lenka Reinerova at her small Prague flat, and our conversation began with a topic that always comes up when journalists visit her: she writes in German and today is almost certainly the only (or perhaps I should say the last) Prague writer to do so.

"The little possibility I had to study was in German, but this is not the main reason. The main reason is that my mother came from a West Bohemian town called Zatec - in German Saatz - and this town was maybe 80 maybe 90% German. So she spoke German and also Czech - Czech fluently but with mistakes. With my father, who came from Prague, it was the opposite. So I grew up with those two languages, but you know how it is - the main voice you hear in the family is the mother. So we were at home mostly talking German, and in those years, the late twenties and early thirties of the last century, it was not so very extraordinary in Prague. It was more or less normal."

It was normal then, but today for a person to write in German in Prague is extraordinary. People say that you're probably the only person writing in Prague in German today.

"Today, but there is a very well-known Prague circle, which means Kafka, Werfel, Kisch and many others, which is something which exists until today in all the literary studies etc, and they wrote in German. At the same time naturally there were Czech writers who wrote in Czech and there was one of those famous cafes in Prague, the Arco, where the Czech and German writers usually came together, had discussions, and had very friendly contact."

And in fact one of your books is called Traumcafe einer Pragerin - Dream Café of a Prague Woman - is that about this café culture?

"It's not exactly about the Café Arco. It's about a café that exists only in my fantasy. The Czech title of the same book is "A Café over Prague", which is a dream café, and probably because Prague is changing so much, which is good naturally - of course this is a time when everything is changing - I am missing some things here, a certain atmosphere, a certain personal contact which used to be. Anyway, for me it is something that I'm missing, and missing that, I constructed my own café, in which I put all kind of personalities, whom I met personally. And also there is another thing. It was somehow in my life that I was in contact with groups of people, who were mostly, let's say, half a generation older than me. So naturally, they aren't here any more, and I'm still here, and I'm missing this contact."

"Somewhere, in the veil-like, blue-green mist over the verdigris domes of Prague, there is a café with many tables, and from each one of them, you can look down over our town."

People always come back to you and say, 'What do you remember about Max Brod, about Egon Erwin Kisch?' Do you mind having that role as a kind of bridge to that pre-war, German-speaking, partly Jewish generation of writers?

"This is a phenomenon of the last years. Before that, as you can imagine, it was completely different, and during the last few years - from the time when Vaclav Havel became President, I became some kind of an institution, I would say. People come and say, 'You must remember.' Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, but people insist that I should remember. The very funny thing is that I am frequently asked about Kafka. Well, I was eight years old when Kafka died. Once a woman professor from Germany was here, and I told her, 'I was eight years old when he died,' and she said, 'All right, but which impression did you have of him?' This is sometimes really a little bit funny, but on the other hand I am glad and very happy when I can say what I know. I can't say anything that I don't know!"

And in your writings you turn again and again to the past. Is it something you feel that you need to keep working out in your mind and in your memory?

"As I am the only member of my family who was not murdered in the Holocaust, as I am still here - rather old already - I can remember many things and I can remember persons, not only personalities, so I have somehow the feeling, I feel the necessity, as long as I can give some kind of witness, tell some kind of testimony, telling - naturally very subjectively, as I felt, as I experienced things - I'm glad to do it."

Your writing has a very strong sense of place, of the topography of places, the details of places. Specific places seem in your work to be very closely entwined with thought and memory. Why do you think that is?

"It's difficult to say. I don't know, but I know that I'm very frequently asked how come I am optimistic in spite of all the things that happened to me, I mean, I was in prison during the war, I was in prison during the communist regime, I'm not a very healthy woman, I lost all my family, etc, etc, I think probably I'm positive, I have a positive attitude towards life, and this means also that I am able, and I'm very happy about that, to take pleasure in very small things - I can also have pleasure from big things, but I am observing and looking at events and people, and I go with the tram somewhere in Prague, and I come home, and I am full of adventures. I saw many things and I liked things, or I found things funny, and I prefer to laugh than to weep."

A lot of what you write about seems to be on the subject of belonging or not belonging, of being at home or not being at home. Today, in your late 80s in Prague, do you feel that you've found your home?

"Absolutely, and I think the older I am, the more I feel that: like something which belongs to me, that is something which no-one can prohibit to me. There were too many things which I was not allowed to do, but this is my own choice. I was born here, I grew up here. For quite a long time I didn't feel at home here, not only when it was physically not possible to be here, but when I came finally back, to the town where I used to live and I had no family any more, and also many friends weren't here any more, that was at the beginning a rather hard time, but that is already in the past, and I think it is a joy for me to be in a place, which I know so intimately. I am very frequently in London, and I love London, and I love Paris and other towns, but at home I'm in Prague, and I also love in Prague that it's a 'small, big town' and there is some kind of intimacy in this town. Everything is here and I feel a certain continuity here, in spite of all the very bad events which also happened here."

"I have a certain special feeling, when I walk through Prague and an Italian-blue sky illuminates not just the gilded crosses atop the church towers and the freshly restored stucco on the house facades, but also penetrates deeply into memory of what was - yesterday or long ago - into what is closed forever or remains open, into what you have done in your life, but also into what has been done to you."

Lenka Reinerova's work has never been translated into English. The short extracts in this programme were translated by me and come from "Dream Café of a Prague Woman," "At Home in Prague and Sometimes Elsewhere" and "The Scent of Almonds".

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.