Remembering Viktor Fischl, a writer and diplomat with the gift of seeing things from the other's point of view

Viktor Fischl

On Sunday the sad news reached the Czech Republic that the poet, novelist, translator and diplomat, Viktor Fischl, had died in Jerusalem at the age of 94. He was one of those twentieth century figures whose biography could run to many volumes, and still remain gripping. David Vaughan looks back at an extraordinary life.

Viktor Fischl was born in Eastern Bohemia in 1912, and began his career as a diplomat just before the Second World War. In 1939 he had an adventurous escape to London, and soon became active in the Czechoslovak government in exile, working closely with the Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk. It was in London that he wrote his influential poem The Dead Village, responding to the Nazi destruction of Lidice in June1942.

Viktor Fischl returned with Masaryk to Czechoslovakia after the war, but with the Communist take-over and Masaryk's mysterious death, he emigrated to Israel. As a translator, today well known in the Czech Republic for his modern Czech translations of the Psalms, he used to laugh that his new Hebrew surname, Dagan, was in fact a mistranslation of Fischl, a diminutive of the German word for fish.

He continued his diplomatic career and when Israel reestablished official ties with Austria, he became his adopted homeland's first ambassador in Vienna.

Alongside his work as a diplomat, Fischl continued to write in his native Czech. Perhaps his most famous book is Dvorni sasci - Court Jesters - which has been translated into many languages, and has sometimes been described as one of the best novels of the Holocaust to be written by someone who himself never went through the camps; in fact Fischl lost many members of his family, and his brother survived Auschwitz. This gift of understanding others was perhaps Fischl's greatest strength, and he spoke about it in an interview for Radio Prague during one of his many visits to Prague in recent years:

"As long as I was a diplomat I always tried to think myself into the way of thinking of the man on the other side of the table. Then, when I wrote novels I tried to feel myself into the figures growing under my pen. Then, when I translated poetry, I saw again the necessity of an absolute identification between the author and the translator. The common denominator of all this was that if you can think yourself into somebody, feel yourself into somebody, if you can try to live the life of somebody else, if you could do that in the world, our lives would be much easier and much better."

This is a philosophy that runs like a thread through Viktor Fischl's life. After leaving Israel's diplomatic service in the late 1970s, he focused again on his writing, although he was not able to come back to his native land until the fall of communism in 1989. Since then he has been warmly embraced by Czech readers, most of whom had not had the chance to read his work for more than 40 years.