Rudolf Jašík, St. Elizabeth’s Square, trans. Margot Schierl (Prague: Artia, 1964).
I ordered this book as a matter of course, simply because it’s another Slovak novel in English. But as soon as it arrived, I became even more intrigued by the circumstances of its publication than its plot. Because this novel, which first came out in 1958 in Slovak, was translated and printed in English in 1964 by a publisher in Prague. In other words, during the severe censorship of the immediate post-Stalinist era, this book was selected not only for public consumption in Czechoslovakia but to send a message to the hostile outside capitalist world of English speakers. How and why did this happen?
My suspicions, of course, were that author Rudolf Jašík must have been a true believer in the Communist cause, and from what I can find out about him (thank you, Slovak Wikipedia, and also this blog post from the Martinus bookstore chain) my suspicions were correct. After five months imprisoned by the Nazis for distributing Communist leaflets in 1940, Jašík came out more convinced than ever of the evils of fascism and the righteousness of the Reds. He fought in the Slovak puppet state’s army on the side of the Axis but sabotaged his own regiment, for which he was again imprisoned. Jašík didn’t waste either bout in prison but worked on his Russian and even tried to join the Soviet army at one point. After his second release from jail, he joined the partisans in the Slovak National Uprising. This most revered moment in Slovak national history actually failed, but it put Jašík in good stead with the regime change of 1948. He held prominent jobs in industry and the arts, organized study groups in Marxist-Leninist thought, and was allowed to publish his handful of novels and poetry.
I came to this, his most famous novel, expecting a work of pious and overt propaganda. In fact, it is considerably more subtle than that, expressing the convictions of a believer rather than an ideologue. It’s hard to infer too much from a single novel, but Jašík’s political orientation seems to be more anti-fascist than it is pro-communist. In St. Elizabeth’s Square only one character, Maguš, is an avowed communist—a declaration that bursts out of him in a moment of surprise, almost like a conversion experience—but he is a minor figure. Maguš appears again at the very end of the story to prevent protagonist Igor from committing suicide, inviting the despairing youth to join him in distributing communist leaflets because “The night was not yet over…” It’s a light touch, a whisper of promise for better things, hope in the darkest night. If anything, it reminded me of a good religious novel.
The comparison to religion arises out of the novel itself, not just my own tendency to impose theological meaning on everything. The title itself is religious, in its reference to a saint. A number of the chapter titles are equally overt in their allusions: “In the Slim Church Tower,” “The Unsaintly John the Baptist” (referring to a Catholic priest who’ll baptize Igor’s Jewish girlfriend Eva if paid the astronomical sum of ten thousand crowns), “The Eye of God” (fascist surveillance of the Jewish population), “The Christian Students’ Celebration” (a horrific episode of taunting Jews), “The Last Supper” (a Jewish family committing suicide to avoid capture), and lastly “The Lover with the Face of Satan” (Igor hellbent on revenge after Eva’s murder). As these brief plot summaries indicate, the religious imagery is used ironically, to illustrate horrors quite the opposite of religious hope, which itself cannot save—most of all the Church of St. Elizabeth failing to protect the love of the two young people in the face of fascist power. Throughout the book the prose, too, is threaded with religious allusion, but religion itself is impotent. Yet this contrast is only suggested, not baldly asserted, as befits a work of art.
The meat of the novel, however, is its pointilist depiction of a poor neighborhood in a provincial Slovak city, where Jews and Christians are joined by their common struggle to survive, and love between them is accepted, until the arbitrary hatred of the Nazis (more often simply “Germans”) comes along to divide the community into victims and collaborators. The plot tracks not only the star-crossed lovers Igor and Eva but also the ambitious “Yellow Dodo” and Flórik, who bear no ill-well against Semites but willingly betray them to advance their own prospects. The traitors’ self-disgust right alongside their inability to resist collusion is the most striking part of the novel, as you see how participation in mass evil is not the work of moral monsters but self-interested individuals trying to get ahead. It’s astounding what our consciences will excuse on those grounds.
As a work of anti-anti-Semitism, St. Elizabeth’s Square deserves a place on the shelf with more famous works like Schindler’s List and The Diary of Anne Frank. But it is not without complications, one smaller and one considerably greater.
The first difficulty is that Jews are not portrayed in a flattering light in the novel. This may well have been strategic: even unattractive people deserve better than chains, camps, and genocide. There is no reason to make every victim into a hero. But there are just enough of the old stereotypes about the Jews—servility, greed, offputting habits of dress, and so forth—to confirm rather than deny the ancient distaste.
Far more serious, in my mind, however, is the implicit assignment of anti-Semitism to German fascists alone. In the same decade that Jašík wrote his magnum opus, Stalin condemned Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party Secretary Rudolf Slánský in a show trial, along with eleven other Czechoslovak Communist leaders—all but one of whom were Jews, and all of whom were executed. The truth is that Stalin and the Soviet leadership despised Jews just as much Hitler did and found countless ways to execute and exile them. Jews continued to be accused of “nationalism” and other “bourgeois” crimes all the way through to the end of the communist regime. If executions slowed down, it was mainly because Czechoslovakia had so few Jews left.
Jašík’s novel is an impassioned outcry against the arbitrary cruelty of anti-Semitism. But did he see it at work among his own? Was he trying, in some way, to name and combat it? Or did he buy into the myth that Communism got right what Nazism got wrong?