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Twisted Spoon Press

PO Box 21 - Preslova 12, 150 21 Prague 5, Czech Republic

 
 
Hermann Ungar


Dieter S├╝dhoff's dissertation on Ungar
here


  hermann ungar

Hermann Ungar was born on April 20, 1893 to a comfortable Jewish family in the small Moravian town of Boskovice, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Formerly the Jewish ghetto, the Jewish Town of Boskovice had the unusual distinction of having been established as its own municipality in 1848 (one of only two such instances, this status lasted until 1919) after the Habsburg's emancipation of the Jews in the Czech Lands. The newly founded town thus had its own mayor, police and fire department. Ungar's grandfather, Herrmann [sic], was the Jewish Town's de facto first mayor (as representative of Count Mensdorff-Pouilly), and his father Emil, who took over the family's distilling business, served as mayor from 1903 to 1905. Though Boskovice was largely Catholic, Jews made up approximately one-third of the total population at the beginning of the twentieth century.

It was Herrmann who expanded the family business and built the family home (known as Kaiser-Haus) where his grandchildren were born. The Ungars became one of the most prominent families in the town and were known for their strict observance of Jewish tradition. Ungar grew up speaking German and Czech, but was educated solely in the former, considered at the time more useful for achieving higher social status. Though registered at the German Jewish school, he and his younger brother, Felix, and sister, Gertrude, were largely schooled at home by a private tutor; all three later graduated from the German Gymnasium in Brno, where Hermann was top of his class. Ungar was known as an all-around student, excelling both at soccer and piano; it was also at this time that he began dabbling in literature by writing plays. Having literary ambitions himself, his father supported these efforts.

Ungar was said to have played a significant role in Czech Zionism through his skills as an organizer and the force of his personality. While at school in Brno he was a member of the Jewish student's club Veritas, and was also a member of a similar club in Boskovice called Latitia. His involvement in these groups likely helped him to confront the Catholic bigotry (largely anti-Semitic) prevalent in the Moravian countryside. Such attitudes often found expression in deep-seated superstitions such as the "blood libel," and they also found their way into his writing (in The Maimed, Franz Polzer serves as a repository for all the superstitions Ungar associated with his native region). During Ungar's adolescence the Hilsner trial was still fresh in people's minds (Leopold Hilsner, wrongly accused of ritually murdering a Czech girl, was later defended by Tomas G. Masaryk, first president of Czechoslovakia), and the attacks on Jewish shops and homes in the countryside it precipitated. And then in 1918, right at war's end, a pogrom erupted in Holesov (also in Moravia) during which two Jews were killed.

The Veritas group would meet to discuss Jewish history and the Zionist movement and read Jewish newspapers, which inspired Ungar to begin intensive study of the Old Testament as well as Hebrew and Arabic at Friedrich Wilhelm University (now Humboldt) in Berlin from 1911 to 1912. While in Berlin, he became a member of another Zionist student's group, Hasmonaa, and continued to write stories and novels. These early literary efforts have been lost.

In 1912 Ungar transferred to the university in Munich to study law, ultimately continuing at the Law Faculty in Prague. The Great War came, and Ungar volunteered for service in an artillery unit of the Austro-Hungarian army. Finding himself on the Russian front, he was wounded and in 1916 was back in Brno in the hospital with a Silver Medal of Valor. After convalescing, he returned to Prague to finish his studies, earning his Doctor of Law in 1918. No longer interested in Zionism, his allegiance was now to the democratic ideals of Masaryk's Czechoslovak Republic. Subsequent time in 1918 as a clerk in a Prague law firm led him to realize he did not want to be either a lawyer or a judge, so in 1919 he accepted a position as dramaturge and actor in the Municipal Theater of Cheb, the far western outpost of the new republic.

Ungar's writing career officially began in 1920 with the publication of Boys & Murderers, a book that not only caught the attention of Thomas Mann, but was also highly praised by the director Berthold Viertel. In the meantime, he had become a clerk at a German trade bank in Prague, a post he resigned in 1921 to become foreign trade attache at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Berlin. Here he became friends with the press attache Camill Hoffmann, who in his younger days had been a Decadent poet associated with Paul Leppin's group Jung Prag. In 1922 he married Margaret Weiss (Hoffmann was his best man), who was from a Prague Jewish family, and in 1923 their first son, Michael, was born.

In 1922 the first chapter of The Maimed appeared under the title "The Bank Clerk" in Otto Pick's anthology Deutsche Erzahler aus der Tschechoslowakei [German Writers from Czechoslovakia]. The book was under consideration by Kurt Wolff, Franz Kafka's publisher, who though he admired the novel was afraid of being brought up on obscenity charges if he published it. Ungar also had his doubts, but in the end he withdrew The Maimed from Wolff and gave it to Ernst Rowohlt, who brought it out in 1923. This was followed by a slim work of reportage, Die Ermordung des Hauptmanns Hanika [The Murder of Captain Hanik; 1925], and the publication of his only other novel, The Class, in 1927. The following year he was transferred back to Prague where he was given the position of "ministerial commissar." In 1929 his second son, Alexander, was born, and Ungar resigned his post due to failing health and a desire to end his "double life" by devoting himself entirely to his writing.

At the time of his illness, Ungar had been planning a trip to Palestine to visit his sister, who had emigrated in 1926 and was working as a doctor in Tel Aviv. The trip never came off as his condition forced him into the hospital with acute appendicitis. Having the operation too late — Ungar was a notorious hypochondriac and apparently the doctors did not take his complaints seriously — he died at the age of thirty-six on October 28, 1929. He is buried in the small Jewish section of Prague's Malvazinka Cemetery.

His wife and two sons immigrated to England before Nazi Germany occupied the country. His father died in Boskovice in 1941 and is buried in the town's Jewish cemetery in an unmarked grave. According to Jewish custom, a gravestone is not unveiled until after one year has passed, and by that time Boskovice's Jews had been deported. Ungar's mother and brother and his brother's entire family died in the concentration camps. His sister in Palestine committed suicide in 1946 when she learned of their fate.

Two of Ungar's works appeared posthumously. In December 1929 his play Die Gartenlaube [The Arbor] was performed at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin. It was published the following year by Ernst Rowohlt, as was the short-story collection Colbert's Journey, which Thomas Mann called a "minor masterpiece" in his preface to the book. During Ungar's life his two novels and some shorter prose were published in Czech translation, something to which he attached great importance, writing one of his translators, Jan Grmel: "A Czech translation means more for me than for any other non-Czech author, because when I write I have the feeling that I would like to and should write in Czech." And in 1928 Gallimard published a French translation of The Maimed (and later Boys & Murderers). Yet despite this attention, one of the Czech dailies was justified in writing in 1932: "One of the most talented young German authors (from Moravia) died not too long ago. Hermann Ungar hasn't had much luck here. Prague publishers have put out his books in editions that hardly anyone knows about and are soon forgotten." Indeed, Ungar's work was then forgotten for decades.

New interest was briefly sparked by the now legendary Kafka conferences in 1963 and 1965 at Liblice Castle north of Prague where Ungar was included as a member of the "Prague circle." Johannes Urzidil made numerous mentions of Ungar along with Ernst Weiss and Ludwig Winder as three Moravian Jewish writers who made their own particular contributions to Prague German literature. And in addition to Camill Hoffman and Weiss, Ungar counted among his friends some of Prague's most famous German-Jewish writers: Paul Kornfeld, Franz Werfel, and Egon Erwin Kisch. Even so, Max Brod, who canonized the list of writers associated with the Prague circle, mentions Ungar only in passing with the excuse that he really couldn't remember much about him. Brod's lapse of memory is curious in that he admits to having likely encountered Ungar at the Prager Tagblatt's editorial offices and that Ungar even dedicated his first book to him, a work he thought "banal." But what also seems to have escaped his memory is that he actually wrote a eulogy to Ungar that associated him with the Prague circle. The fact remains, however, that Ungar and Kafka never met, and for Brod the "circle" was defined by its center.

Any effort to resurrect Ungar's work ended after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the institution of a neo-Stalinist regime that brought an end to any form of independent culture. But in Germany and Austria new editions began to appear in the 1980s, and German television aired dramatizations of The Class and The Arbor. The past fifteen years have seen the most activity with new reprints as well as translations in a number of languages appearing. Dieter Sudhoff published his major monograph on Ungar in 1990 and edited the three volumes of his collected work (published 2001-2002). Importantly, in Ungar's native land two volumes of his complete works have finally been published in Czech.

   

published by TSP:
The Maimed
Boys & Murderers


also by the author:
The Class


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