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Havel and the Jews

Paul Berman on the late president and the Velvet Revolution

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Havel waves to the crowd in Prague in December 1989.(Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images)

The Czech playwright, revolutionary, and ex-president Václav Havel was not Jewish, but when a brave left-wing Eastern European dissident dies and you are a daily magazine of Jewish life and culture, you figure there must be something special for you to say about him. With that in mind, I called up the writer Paul Berman, whose book A Tale of Two Utopias casts the Czechoslovakian “Velvet Revolution,” which Havel helmed, as of a piece with the liberal cultural revolutions that began in the late 1960s. Berman spoke about how the Jews and Israel influenced the Velvet Revolution and several Jewish figures in Havel’s camp. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

What part did the Jewish question play in the Velvet Revolution?
Czechoslovakia, which existed until 1993 [it then split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia], was of course an old industrial powerhouse, and one of its specialties was chemicals. Czechoslovakia produced, among others, Semtex, which is the crucial component for certain kinds of explosives, which were then made use of by the Warsaw Pact secret services and ended up in the hands of various Palestinian and Arab terrorists. So Czechoslovakia, along with the East German Stasi, played a significant role in anti-Israeli terrorism. The revolution began in November 1989, and early in January I arrived, and was there for a few weeks, and I talked to huge numbers of people at all levels of society. I know, from what quite a few people told me, that people in Prague were entirely aware that Czechoslovakia had played this role, and were ashamed of it. And you can understand their shame just by looking back over the history, because after all the place had been overtaken by the Nazis, and then in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union came out against Israel, again they began playing this role, as a violent enemy of the Jewish people. There had been a concentration camp, Theresienstadt, which is where a great many Czech Jews were sent, and probably Slovakian Jews, too. They were sent to many places, but Theresienstadt in particular. So Czechoslovakia had played a horrendous role.

I spoke about this at length to classical musicians–classical music plays a tremendous role in Czech culture. Czech nationalism is partly defined by classical music, like Smetana, a 19th-century nationalist revolutionary who wrote “Má vlast,” “My Country,” a nationalist, symphonic poem on Czech themes, from which comes, by the way, “Hatikvah.”

No kidding!
It had to come from somewhere! And I spoke to quite a few of the musicians who’d been secretly conspiring with Havel, and they were very concerned about their relation to Jewish musicians, and that great Jewish violinists would not come to play with them, and they felt this keenly. All of this was part of the revolution: the revolution was particularly marked by a yearning on the part of the intelligentsia to feel that they had been restored to the grandeurs of European culture. And among those grandeurs were the Jewish grandeurs.

Was this a cause for Havel?
Havel himself did not address this directly to my knowledge. But the same impulse that led people to admire a world renowned playwright and to look to theater people and musicians as leaders of the revolution also led them to regret Czechoslovakia’s role in regard to Israel. This would have been of course, in some vague way, the same kind of thinking that entered into the very early decision by Havel, who was by then president but not very powerful, to lead Czechoslovakia into the coalition fighting against Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, a very remarkable thing. Czechoslovakia sent a military unit to participate in the war. The unit that went were chemical specialists, who went in case Hussein used poison gas, because they knew all about poison gas.

Incredible. Besides Lou Reed, of the Velvet Underground, who has already posted a nice statement on his Website, who was Havel’s best Jewish friend?
He had a series of Jewish friends. His spokesman, or one of them, was Michael Zantovsky. He writes a very intelligent blog now. At the time, he was described to me as someone who’d written an essay or a book about Woody Allen. He became the Czech ambassador to the United Nations. [Also the first Czechoslovak ambassador.]

Rita Klímová. She played a crucial role in the revolution, because she was the translator for the revolution’s leaders into English. All people in the Czech Republic, the educated class, had formally spoken German. Then after it went Communist, everyone was taught Russian. So English was not widely spoken. She was Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to the United States under Havel.

Her father was a leading Czech Communist—Jewish—who fell out with the other comrades and as a result during the late ‘30s ended up in New York as opposed to probably what most of the others would have done, which was either remain underground or go to the Soviet Union. They lived on Riverside Drive. She grew up speaking Czech and English—with a very distinctive, cultured, New York Jewish accent that you don’t hear much anymore. She reminded me a little of Diana Trilling. In 1948, the Communists came to power, and she and her family—the father had somehow reconciled—returned to make the revolution. She married another young Communist idealist. He rose high in the party as an economist, and he figured out in 1963 that Communism, for all its flaws, until that moment, was working, and whatever objections there might have been, they were not economic. But he and a group of people with the title “Economic Prognosticators” understood that this had changed and Communism was no longer working, so they became the faction that was behind Alexander Dubček. He really wanted to reform.

Sort of a proto-Gorbachev?
Exactly. It seemed like Communism was going to be reformed. They knew that it wasn’t working, and that it had worked. Then the Warsaw Pact invaded, and Mrs. Klímová and her husband and their circle realized that reform Communism was not going to happen, so there was no alternative but to be against Communism.

And in addition to translating did she play a role in the revolution?
She was also an adviser, a big adviser, an important adviser. In January 1990, as the revolution was occurring, she had to go to Havel and the guys—and most of them were guys—and they were small-b bohemians in the middle of big-B Bohemia, and she told them they had to dress differently, that as far as the people knew they were staging a revolution for the right to wear dirty shirts. That they had to wear jackets and ties. And they didn’t like that, she had to fight them, but they did. And she was right. She boasted to me of having given that advice.

I remember, her house in Prague, in the fashionable neighborhood, was filled with English-language novels. And on the coffee table was displayed Commentary magazine. She was still this Jewish woman from Riverside Drive.

Czechs’ Dissident Conscience, Turned President [NYT]

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Beautiful piece!

MCFisher says:

Thank you for including an article about Havel. It is somewhat interesting mainly thanks to nice anecdotes about Rita Klimova, but unbelievably lacking as far as outlining Czechoslovakia’s relationship to Israel. It is very simplistic to say that Czechoslovakia played a horrendous role because of Semtex and Terezin (which was set up by Germans during the Nazi occupation of the country). You are forgetting that Czechoslovakia was among very few states that supplied arms to Israel before 1948 and stopped only because of the imposed official political line of the Soviets. If you want to mention Havel’s Jewish friends, you could also remember that he co-founded Forum 2000 with Elie Wiesel. All in all, disappointingly incomplete article. I guess speed was what you were shooting for, but the result is a half-baked piece of writing not worthy of your good intention to honor Vaclav Havel.

Wayne Grand says:

Lou Reed, a supporter of the OWS movement writes on his website: “I would so much have loved to bring him (Havel) up to date on the Occupy.”
I highly doubt that Vaclav Havel would have had anything nice to say about the Occupy movement, if anything he would have seen them for what they really are: a bunch of socialist dimwits who have learned nothing from history.

Harry Lipschitz says:

Ditto MCFisher’s comments; this is a silly and ultimately pointless article and does nothing to mention the role the Czechs played in supplying arms to an isolated state of Israel in 1948. And to blame the Czechs for Thereisenstadt is plain silly. Czech Jews flourished in the prewar days and Czechs have, on the whole, been good to the Jews living in the Czech lands. Better to write nothing than a half-baked piece on Havel, whose greatness speaks for itself.

I hate to spoil the Havel and the Jews festival in the wake of his demise, but I feel that it is important to point out a terrible mistake Havel made which directly relates to Jewish affairs. I am referring to his signing the Prague Declaration of June 3, 2008 (along with 39 other East European politicians and intellectuals), which basically equates Communist crimes with those of the Nazis, and seeks to deny the Holocaust its deserved status as a unique case of genocide.The Declaration calls for a joint memorial day for ALL victims of totalitarian regimes to be observed on August 23 (the day of the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact) and for a rewriting of history textbooks in the spirit of equality between the Nazis and Communists. It also calls for the establishment of an “Institute of European Memory and Conscience” which will operate on that basis.
While it is certainly true that Communist crimes have been under-commemorated and prosecuted, the real reason behind this initiative is the hope of the post-Communist countries, whose nationals were active participants in the mass murder of Jews during the Shoa, to deflect attention and blame from their crimes and focus on their suffering. Havel, whose Czechs do not fit this description, unfortunately agreed to lend his prominence and prestige to this very problematic initiative led by the Balts, whose Holocaust crimes are legendary.

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Havel and the Jews

Paul Berman on the late president and the Velvet Revolution

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