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Havel and the Jews

Paul Berman on the late president and the Velvet Revolution

Marc Tracy
December 20, 2011
Havel waves to the crowd in Prague in December 1989.(Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images)
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.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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