Small exhibition on great 19th century Slovak poet

Jan Kollar

A small exhibition opened last week at the National Museum in Prague featuring the work of Jan Kollar, an outstanding figure of the 19th century Slovak national revival. Jan Kollar had rich contacts with nationalists in the Czech lands at a time when both nations were part of the Austrian empire.

Born in the Slovak town of Mosovce in 1793, Jan Kollar loved books from his very childhood. But his father wanted him to become a butcher and so Jan left home at the age of 16. The current exhibition at the National Museum maps out his steps from his young years till the end of his life, and although the space is quite small, one learns a lot about this great Slovak man.

The exhibition is organized to mark the 150th anniversary of Kollar's death, and I spoke with its curator, Jana Sachlova:

"It's a literary exhibition, so the books on display from the National Museum library are not books meant to be read. Over the years they have become kind of historical objects, and I prepared the exhibition with the aim of reminding people of Kollar, to make them read at least one of his books and to brush-up their knowledge of this great poet and preacher we learned about at school."

Kollar studied at a university in the German town of Jena which back in the early 19th century was a town of a free spirit and a new way of thinking. All this influenced young Jan so much that he became firmly resolved to start working for the benefit of his own nation, to teach and educate his countrymen.

Not even his big love for Frederika Schmidt, a daughter of an evangelical pastor with Slavonic predecessors, prevented him from going to Pesc in Hungary where he lived and worked for almost all his life. He met Frederika 16 years later, married her and took her to Hungary, where he worked as an evangelical preacher.

Kollar's most famous poetic work is called 'Slava's Daughter'. It contains patriotic and Slav-related songs and it also features an ideal lover, Mina, who acts as the daughter of the Slavonic goddess Slava. The work is interesting from many points of view, the main one being that it came into existence gradually: to a few of basic poems Kollar used to add more and more, and so Slava's Daughter had three different editions in 1832, 1845 and 1852.

As a preacher, Kollar also wrote hundreds of sermons which were published in a book. He was also an ardent promoter of the idea of the broad co-operation of all the Slavonic nations. This is something that was misused a hundred years later, in the 1950s, when Kollar scholars stressed his love for Russia and tried to make it the most important feature of Kollar's personality at a time, when the Communist grip in Czechoslovakia was at its peak.