The memories of Urzidil and Peroutka about interwar Prague sound comical, but the life of Johannes Urzidil was not comical.
The writer, translator, historian and diplomat Johannes Urzidil was one of the personalities who created its unique atmosphere in Prague between the two world wars.
He himself came from a Czech-German-Jewish family and combined everything that made multiethnic Prague so typical: inthe high bar set by intellectuals of the time, Fr.openness to Europe and the world, or an artificial receiver, and to transform the more diverse cultural stimuli that came to us from the outside.
In conversations he had in exile in the USA with his longtime friend Ferdinand Peroutka, he recalls, for example, a meeting at the Arco café.
German writers: Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Franz Werfel and Egon Erwin Kisch met here. He often told his incredible stories of a “furious reporter” to amuse his friends.
It is said that Kafka was mostly silent, but when he spoke, everyone listened to him with great respect. And it was Urzidil who said goodbye to Kafka at his funeral for the young generation of writers in 1924.
Everyone loved Milena Jesenská
With Ferdinand Peroutka, both old gentlemen remember memories of Kafka’s girlfriend and the translator of his works into Czech, Milena Jesenská. Little is known that her ancestors included the physician Jan Jesenius, one of the executed Czech lords in the Old Town Square in 1621.
Milena as a young, individual, vital and independent girl was admired by everyone. However, Peroutka also reminded how he changed her political attitudes under the influence of friends.
She was as radical a communist as she was later an anti-communist. And he didn’t miss her drug addiction, from which, however, we failed to prove enough. Finally, he mentioned its tragic end in a concentration camp during World War II.
Johannes Urzidil’s friends have included not only writers but also artists since his youth. He wrote his first reviews of their exhibitions as a student. He became especially close to Jan Zrzavý, who witnessed Urzidil’s wedding.
Urzidil also visited Zrzavý in Paris and was at one of the New Year’s celebrations, when the famous architect Adolf Loos unexpectedly visited the Red Studio. Urzidil’s memory of smuggling a kilo of Czech cumin to Zrzavý to Paris, which the painter needed for cooking, seems touching. Urzidil valued his work very much, even comparing Zrzavý to Leonardo da Vinci.
Difficult beginnings in exile and world recognition
The memories of Johannes Urzidil and Ferdinand Peroutka about interwar Prague sound comical at times, but Urzidil’s own life was certainly not comical.
Until 1933, he worked as a translator and press secretary at the German Embassy in Prague. However, as a half-Jew, he had to leave him due to Nuremberg laws. In 1939, he and his wife, the daughter of a Prague rabbi, managed to escape from Czechoslovakia.
He came to the United States, where he first made a living by binding books. It was not until the early 1950s that he got a job at the Voice of America to be released again as part of the McCarthy purges.
However, he was already the author of several award-winning books, so the company lectured, won literary awards and honorary professorships. He died in November 1970 in Rome, during one of his travels in Europe. He is buried on the left side of the church of St. Petra.
Listen to the entire show from the Archiv Plus cycle in an audio recording.