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 1939, 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 (Sascha) had joined them in March 1939, 14 days after Hitler’s tanks rolled into Prague. They lived in Fairfax Road, London, 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 Sascha 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, there was a wall of silence.
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 of my father’s cousin, Helen Stransky, on her way to a Kindertransport reunion, I felt I had to confront him with the truth about his Jewish origins.
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 his schoolboy memories, and had 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 also visited the site of his maternal grandfather’s factory where they made buttons and zips: according to his cousin Helen Stransky their grandparents were one of the richest families in Prague. We visited the Jewish quarter but he refused to acknowledge his Jewish heritage, or that his father was buried in a Jewish cemetary in Prague.
In the meantime I had been googling Hermann 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 while I still could.
The suitcase revealed some wonderful secrets – a 700 page PhD thesis by German scholar Dieter Sudhoff on my grandfather, with intricate details of his family in Boskovice, Moravia, traced back to 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, Stefan Zweig, 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 Branský, 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. As my German is not nearly good enough to understand its academic form, the first thing to do was to try and find a translator to unlock the missing world of 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 (banned by Goering) 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 the death camps, 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.
The publication of (the first half) Sudhoff’s Hermann Ungar: Leben, Werke und Wirking into English is the first step on the journey to bring my grandfather back to life. We have also created a website www.hermannungar.com, which contains photographs, notes to this work and a comprehensive chronology.
There is also a link to the forgotten world of the nineteenth-century Assimilated Jews in Moravia with the English translation of Mark Hengerer’s Tradition und Entfremdung: die Lebenserinnerungen des jüdischen Privatdozenten Max Ungar 1850-1930, the memoirs of Hermann’s Uncle Max Ungar. It records his struggles to escape the prescriptive life of Orthodoxy and to escape into the age of enlightenment as a professor of mathematics in Vienna, but he was thwarted by a variety of factors, anti-Semitism probably being the greatest. It is a fascinating document of a bygone era. It is available via the hermannungar.com website as an e-book.
Building on my research of the past ten years, my book The Boy from Boskovice: a father’s secret life (Unbound, January 2021) seeks to unravel my father’s complicated story and set him within his family context – was he a product of his genes or of his upbringing? Nature or nurture? There is a much-expanded overview of the life of Hermann Ungar and his world, including the fate of his relatives during the Holocaust.
You can also read about my various research visits to Prague and Boskovice on www.vickygoestravelling.com.
Heartfelt thanks to Angela Ladd who laboured through Sudhoff’s rather dense prose; 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, my ‘secret sister’ and to my husband Ross, who provided encouragement and support in keeping me going through the tough times.
Vicky Unwin, September 2012 (updated December 2020)