Lenka Reinerova: German writer in pre-war Prague

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The Independent Online

Lenka Reinerova was one of that remarkable group of German-speaking writers which included Max Brod, Egon Kisch, Franz Werfel, Rainer Maria Rilke and, above all, Franz Kafka, who lived in Prague before the Second World War. Prague was then the capital of Czechoslovakia, established in 1918, and was an exciting place in turbulent times. As well as Czechs and Slovaks, it had large German and Jewish populations, who contributed to its thriving intellectual life. There were also the German émigrés who had fled after Hitler's takeover of Germany in 1933. German was also widely spoken in the republic.

Reinerova was born in 1916, the daughter of an ethnic German mother from Bohemia and a Czech father, a Prague ironware dealer. After studying at Prague's German high school, she began working in 1936 as a journalist for the German-Communist émigré paper Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung ("Workers' Illustrated Newpaper"). She had joined the Communist Party, which sold itself as anti-Fascist, anti-racist and for the democratic republic.

The German takeover of the rump Czech state in March 1939, brought an end to this thriving literary scene and Jews, liberals and leftists sought refuge abroad. Reinerova, in Romania at the time, joined the exodus travelling to France where, after war broke out, she was interned. She later managed to get passage to Casablanca and then to Mexico, where she spent the remainder of the war. Mexico was a hotbed of Communist activity at that time having given sanctuary to such notables as Anna Seghers, Egon Erwin Kisch and Ludwig Renn.

In 1945, with her Yugoslav writer husband, Theodor Balk, she went first to Belgrade and then, in 1948, to Prague just as the Communists were taking full control. There she discovered she was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. She was soon a victim of Stalin's anti- "Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist" campaign which swept through the Soviet bloc in the early 1950s. She spent 15 months in prison, most of it in solitary confinement, in Prague's infamous Ruzyne prison, from where she was released when Stalin died in 1953. She recalled this experience in one of her novels, Alle Farben der Sonne und der Nacht ("All the Colours of the Sun and the Night", 2003).

For a time, she worked as editor-in-chief of the magazine Im Herzen Europas ("In the Heart of Europe") and some of her work was published in neighbouring East Germany, including Grenze geschlossen ("Frontier Closed", 1958). However, after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, which crushed the democratic Prague Spring, she was not allowed to publish and worked instead as a translator.

Only after the fall of the Communist régime in 1990 was she was able to enjoy the full fruits of her literary efforts. In Das Traumcafé einer Pragerin ("Dreamcafé of a Prague Woman", 1996) she recalled childhood and youth experiences in Prague and included an imaginary encounter with Kafka. Her Zu Hause in Prag – manchmal auch anderswo ("At Home in Prague – and Sometimes Elsewhere", 2000) also processed her experiences of exile as well as her impressions of Prague past and present. The stories in Mandelduft ("The Scent of Almonds", 1998) were also autobiographical. In fact, she regarded her own importance to lie in her role as a witness of her times. Despite her attachment to Prague she commented that she loved London, where her daughter lives, and Paris.

Reinerova received many cultural and literary prizes both in Germany and the Czech Republic including the Czech Order of Merit (2001), Freedom of the City of Prague (2002), the Goethe Medal (2003) and the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz (2006).

In her last years, Reinerova worked to revive the tradition of German-language literature in Prague.

David Childs

Lenka Reinerova, writer: born Prague 17 May 1916; married 1943 Theodor Balk (one daughter); died Prague 27 June 2008.