Jindrich Lion "My Escape From Prague"

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Jindrich Lion, a noted journalist and author, takes us through his remarkable life--from interwar Czechoslovakia to Palestine, then back home to begin again--only to leave when the Soviets invaded his country in 1968.
Mr Lion shares with us his photo album, made in 1938 when he was sixteen years old-- a teenage witness to a history.

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PREWAR

The nation of Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918 when, following the end of the First World War, the historic regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia combined to create the Republic of Czechoslovakia.

When Jindrich’s brother František, was born in 1909, Prague was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia. The Empire was formed in 1867, however from the end of the eighteenth century, Prague had seen great popular interest in the Czech language, culture, and national identity. This period is often referred to as the Czech National Revival.

By the time Jindrich was born in 1922, Prague was the capital of the First Czechoslovak Republic under its first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Read a chronology of key events during Czechoslovakia's statehood (1918-1992) provided by the BBC.

Jindrich's mother came from Maschau (Czech: Mašt'ov), then part of the Sudetenland. "Sudetenland" is the German name (also found in English) used in the first half of the 20th century to refer to the western regions of Czechoslovakia inhabited mostly by ethnic Germans, specifically the border areas of Bohemia, Moravia, and those parts of Silesia associated with Bohemia.

Find a timeline of Prague’s twentieth century history here.

In 1938, England, France, Italy, and Germany signed the Munich Agreement. This Agreement ceded the Sudetenland to Germany. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a key figure in the negotiations, believed appeasing Adolf Hitler’s territorial ambitions was the most logical way to avoid another large-scale war. Read more about Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement here. The agreement was negotiated among Europe’s major powers without any Czechoslovakian representative- today’s Czechs and Slovakians often refer to the agreement as "the Munich dictate" or the "Munich betrayal". Read a transcript of the original text here.     

The Sudetenland was of immense strategic importance to Czechoslovakia, as most of its border defenses were situated there. As a result, the Agreement left Czechoslovakia vulnerable to German military power. On the 15th March 1939, Germany violated the Munich Agreement, invading and occupying the remaining provinces of the rump Czechoslovak state. To solidify this, Hitler proclaimed the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia from Prague Castle on the day of the invasion. Read a translation of the Protectorate here.

JEWISH LIFE IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA

When Jindrich was born, the Jewish community in Prague was one of the largest in Europe, at over 92,000. It was also home to a thriving literary-intellectual community, associated with such names as Franz Kafa, Max Brod, and Franz Werfel.

Jindrich's mother went to the Maisel Synagogue. The Maisel Synagogue was built in the 1590s, financed by Mordechai Maisel. The Maisels were an influential Bohemian family whose ties to Prague date back to the 1470s. Learn about the Maisel family here. The synagogue burned down at the end of the 17th century and was later rebuilt in the baroque style. Today it serves as the primary location of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

The Jewish quarter where Jindrich was born, Josefov, was once a ghetto. Defined as "a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure", many Jewish communities have been forced to live in these conditions throughout Europe's history.

Jindrich's father was a member of B'nai B'rith. Founded in 1843, the Independent Order of B'nai B'rith (meaning "Sons of the Covenant" in Hebrew) is the oldest continually-operating Jewish service organization in the world. The organization is engaged in a wide variety of community service and welfare activities, B'nai B'rith International being its' main body.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Zionist organisations were founded in European Jewish communities. Zionism, the movement to return the Jewish people to their homeland of Israel, was first popularised by Theodor Herzl's text Der Judenstaadt (in English, The Jewish State). Jindrich and his family moved to Palestine during the Aliyah Bet period, when the flow of immigration to British-mandated Palestine was restricted.

For a broader overview of Jewish life before the Holocaust, read this article.

The Czech Torah Network is an educational organization that promotes Jewish spiritual continuity by fostering connections between synagogues and religious institutions that have Czech Torah Scrolls. During the past 35 years, over 1,500 Czech Torahs have been rescued and distributed by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre of London, England. They are now on permanent loan throughout the world.

Jindrich  returned to Czechoslovakia in 1946. Though Czechoslovakia soon placed a ban on Jewish emigration to Palestine, it was one of the first countries to recognize Israel in the United Nations. In the years after 1948, relations between Czechoslovakia and Israel gradually soured, and diplomatic relations were severed completely following the 1967 Six Day War. During this time, the Jewish community of Czechoslovakia was forced to hide their Jewish affiliation- these circumstances were relatively common in Soviet controlled countries. In his interview with Centropa, Jirí Franek, a professor of Slavic studies who lectured at leading German universities and at Charles University Prague discusses this experience.

POSTWAR

The first elections held after the war in Czechoslovakia took place in 1946. It was a resounding victory for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, who in 1948 installed themselves as the nation's central governing party. To learn more about the 1948 takeover, commonly described as a coup d'etat, read this article from Radio Praha. Long-time party leader, Klement Gottwald, was the first head of the Czechoslovak communist state until his death in 1953.

Jindrich discusses the Prague Spring (5th January-21st August 1968), a period of political liberalisation in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. As a newspaper editor in the 1950s and 60s, Jindrich recalls feeling increasingly repressed by the stern communist government, the presence of spies in the office common knowledge among reporters, Jindrich's stories given governmental oversight. The Prague Spring was attempt to reform Czech-Soviet society from this invasive, oppressive atmosphere. This proved unsuccessful, Warsaw Pact troops invading Czechoslavakia in August 1968 and restoring the Soviet regime.

Charter 77 was an informal civic initiative in Czechoslovakia that lasted from 1977 to 1992. It was an attempt to solidify the human rights granted and assured to Soviet citizens during the Helsinki Conference, but were repeatedly violated or ignored. Many of the Charter's fouding members would play important roles in Czech and Slovak politics after the fall of communism, including Václav Havel who would become president in 1989.

With the Soviet system weakening, 1989 saw many countries assert their independence. This was, for the most part, a non-violent process, especially in Czechoslovakia where the break with communism happened so neatly that it has been named the Velvet Revolution. Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993 and now exists as two states: the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

Find here more information about the end of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Though Jindrich has lived in Vienna since the Prague Spring of 1968, he still visits Prague often, and in 1989 published a bilingual German-English tourist guide to Jewish Prague in the Mandelbaum Publishing House (website in German).

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