During World War II, a generation of great German writers including Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, and Bertolt Brecht became exiles, fleeing abroad * to escape the Nazis. So many left, in fact, that “Exilliteratur” became its own genre, shaped by intellectuals writing about a rapidly mutating Germany from afar. But after the war, these writers still had homelands they could return to. For the exiled German-Bohemian writer Johannes Urzidil, his relationship with his birthplace was more complicated: His Bohemia was, in many ways, destroyed by World War II.
Urzidil, who died in 1970 and spent the last three decades of his life in America, once wrote, “My homeland is my writing”—a not entirely metaphorical idea that encapsulates his literary career. Shortly after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia at the dawn of World War II, the Jewish Urzidil fled his birth city of Prague, formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Though it became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Bohemia was an ethnically diverse region with a complex past—one that would inform Urzidil’s work long after he settled in America in 1941.
This week, five of Urzidil’s Bohemian tales have been published stateside for the first time, in English, as the collection The Last Bell. And like so much of his work, these stories all center—sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly—on a single question: How can a writer reclaim and find meaning in a homeland that no longer really exists? Urzidil’s stories reflect his feelings about Bohemia’s knotty history, as well as the encroaching forces of nationalism and communism that transformed the region in the 20th century.