Foreword to book

In May 2009 my father called me into his study. He was dying from Parkinson’s  and felt it was time to reveal some family secrets. He showed me a suitcase which, he said, contained books and files relating to my grandfather, Hermann Ungar, the little-known Czech writer.

When I returned home from that visit to my father I decided to try and find out as much as possible about my father’s history. The family mythology was simple: my father had come to England in 1938, sent by his mother from Prague to join his older half-brother John Weiss/West, who had fled Prague with Rudi, her first husband. She and her younger son, Alex (Sasha) had joined them in 1939; they lived in Fairfax Road, then moved to Wells in Somerset as part of the evacuation. The young Tomy found work in a factory in Wells, his mother cooked for the night shift and Sasha managed to get a scholarship to Bembridge in the Isle of Wight.

There had never been any mention of any Jewish link to their flight from Europe just before the war; in fact it was vehemently denied: the family were intellectuals who had fled on principle and out of fear of persecution under the suppression of freedom of speech that accompanied the rise of Hitler. My grandfather Hermann Ungar had been a well-known and controversial Czech writer, who died of peritonitis as a result of his hypochondria, at the age of 36 in 1929. But strangely his life and work were uncelebrated in our family, so that when I, as a young publisher and German-speaker, grew curious about him and started asking questions, this drew blanks.

Staring at the famous photograph of my grandfather in my father’s study, it dawned on me how Jewish-looking he was and, spurred on by the surprise arrival on my doorstep in Belsize Park in the 1990s - ironically just around the corner from Fairfax road - of his cousin Helen Stransky on her way to a Kindertransport reunion, I felt I had to confront him with the truth.

With my father’s deterioration from Parkinson’s it became critical to find out as much as possible about this past before he died. I had taken the family to Prague for his 79th birthday; we had walked the streets, my father full of schoolboy memories - ‘Look this is the statue [on Charles Bridge of three snooty looking men looking as if they are experiencing a bad smell] we called it somebody’s farted’ and so on -  and even found the apartment he grew up in after his father’s death, still occupied by the collaborators who had taken it over from them; we found his maternal grandfather’s factory where they made buttons and zips: according to his cousin Helen [Stransky] their grand-parents were one of the richest families in Prague. We visited the Jewish quarter but he never told us that his father was buried in the Malvazinka. What a missed opportunity!

In the meantime I had been googling grandfather Ungar and had tracked down three of his books in translation into English – two novels, The Class and The Maimed and a collection of short stories, Boys and Murderers. I had also been using a fantastic resource called JewishGen, which helps researchers with family trees, traces holocaust victims and survivors and puts people in touch with each other globally. I began to build a family tree of Ungars, Stranskys and Kohns and discover relations I did not know existed.

I went down to Somerset to open the suitcase and to record my father’s memories of his early childhood, his time in England, and his wartime experiences in the Navy.

The suitcase revealed some wonderful secrets – a 700 page PhD thesis by German scholar Dieter Sudhoff on my grandfather, with over 200 pages of Leben, with intricate details of his family in Boskovice, Moravia, traced through the earliest recorded Ungar in the early 1800s; his marriage to Margarete Stransky and information about her side of the family, as well as diaries, letters and notebooks not only written by Ungar but also by his close friends and fellow literary circle members, for instance Thomas Mann, Camill Hoffman (who had been his best man) Max Brod and so on. And another two volumes of literary criticism by a Czech Professor from Boskovice, Jaroslav Bransky, as well as yet another tome by Jurgen Serke on the vanished Jewish towns of Bohemia and their heroes. All of these volumes contained interviews with my father and photographs supplied by him; yet he had never said a word. Sadly as my German is no way near good enough to understand what are very complex grammatical records, the first thing to do was to try and find a translator to unlock the missing world of the genius that was Hermann Ungar, forgotten almost entirely since his death,  apart from a few German and French translations, but unnoticed in the great literary cannon of the interwar years. Unnoticed largely due to his untimely death, his proscription by the Nazis, but most of all because, apart from Dieter Sudhoff, who also died young, he had no champion. Kafka had Max Brod, who admired Ungar hugely while he lived, but turned against him after his death.

I decided then and there to make it my mission to recover and record my grandfather’s reputation, to trace the lost relatives even if only to re-confirm that most had died in Auschwitz, but above all to celebrate one of the great lost talents of the 20th century.

Sadly my father died on 29 May 2012, before the work was complete. With him dies the last living memory of Hermann Ungar.

This publication is the first step on the journey to bring Ungar back to life. The second stage is the website www.hermannungar.com, which contains photographs, the notes to this work (in German I am afraid), and more recent posthumous reviews.

The aim is to encourage others to read his work, to revel in his modernity of style and content and to celebrate his great talent. And also to pay tribute to some of the other great artists, as well as my family, lost to the Holocaust.

Acknowledgements:

Heartfelt thanks to Angela Ladd who laboured through the rather dense prose of the PhD thesis; to the estate of Dieter Sudhoff for supplying the raw material; to Professor Jaroslav Bránský; to my late daughter Louise, to whom this work is dedicated – she was thrilled about her ‘secret history’; to Bonnie Fogel and to my husband Ross, who provided encouragement and support in keeping me going through the tough times.

Vicky Unwin, September 2012