Map of Pilsen from 1881. The red dots on the map mark the house of the Baum family (A), the house on the corner of Prešovská Street and ul. B. Smetana, where the Baum family probably lived from 1897 and where Baum's father had a shop (B), and the German grammar school (C), where Baum studied.

Young Baum and Pilsen

Oskar Baum was born in Pilsen on January 21, 1883. At that time, his family was living in house no. 132 on today's Republic Square (Náměstí Republiky). Baum commented on his birth and childhood in Pilsen as follows:

When I was born in the middle of winter, my father had a haberdashery shop in Pilsen on a beautiful, large square opposite the church. Following in the footsteps of his role model Fried Ellmann, the son of a bookseller from 'Little František Street', I would have excelled in the first grade of the grammar school if I hadn't lost my sight one beautiful day in July due to a few brawlers” (cited in Pick 1927: 171).

It was a time of rapid changes. Pilsen was turning into a significant industrial center offering a wide range of job opportunities, and people from the surrounding countryside began to move to the city in search of work. This was made possible mainly by the abolition of serfdom in 1848, which allowed for greater mobility of the population in the Austrian monarchy at the time, including migration from rural areas to cities. In 1850, Pilsen had 10,392 inhabitants, but by 1880, three years before Oskar Baum was born, there were already nearly 40,000 people living in Pilsen (Schiebl 1911).

This resulted in the demographic transformation of Pilsen’s population, which also affected the Jewish community. Jews began to appear in Pilsen in the late 18th and early 19th century and were allowed to stay if they engaged in some kind of trade or profession. Thanks to deepening industrialization and the city's development, Pilsen attracted more and more immigrants. In the year 1820, when six Jewish families arrived in Pilsen, the city's inhabitants protested against their arrival. However, in 1853, the Jewish community was reestablished with 41 families, obtaining permission to build a synagogue and a school (Bernhardt 2016: 123; Krčmář 2016: 284). By 1880, there were already 2,251 predominantly German-speaking Jewish inhabitants living in Pilsen (Schiebl 1911).


When Oskar Baum's father sought assistance or advertised information about his shop, the advertisements were published in German-language newspapers.

Advertisement announced by Baum's father Jakob in the Prager Tagblatt of 3 December 1893. Seven months later, Oskar Baum lost his eyesight.

The number of inhabitants of Jewish origin in Pilsen led the dissatisfied critics of the time to remark that for Pilsen, then, the concept of Jew and German is almost identical (Hubka 1899: 29). German was spoken in offices, schools and cultural institutions. As late as the 1870s, German was the official language of the town hall, and the main sources of information were German newspapers. Czech-language newspapers were practically non-existent in Pilsen at that time. It can be said that for the inhabitants of that time, belonging to the community, i.e. Pilsen, was more important than nationality. This disregard for the importance of nationality, guaranteed by the Constitution of 1848, posed a problem for the nation-builders of the time. The ambivalence of the time is well captured in Hugo Karlík's extensive letter. He begins by describing the transformation of the city:

"But if you ever come to see this Plzen, famous for its miserable Bavarians, you will not recognize it in some of its sides. The old walls covering the butcher's shops are there, the new wall was built there; a new brewery has been built at the manor mill, the parcan at the Franciscans' has been filled in and beautiful parks have been planted there; the Franciscans' street has been levelled, the facade of the Franciscans' has been rebuilt and rearranged for the sake of equality of ranks, all nicely and tastefully done. Our little church has been whitewashed, the altars are being rebuilt, the Church of All Saints has been repaired and restored both inside and out, the houses next to the barracks have been demolished so that this tasteless building stands alone, and in addition a new steam mill has been built not far behind Stelcro's inn, in a word, Pilsen is indeed the new Pilsen" (cited in Volf 1934: 2-3).

And in his letter below, he complains about the narrow-mindedness of the Pilseners, who in his case are synonymous with Germans, and contrasts them with the poor Czech inhabitants of Pilsen. 

Do you know those arrogant Pilsen locals with empty bellies, who have no concerns other than beer and expensive prices, getting fat on the blood and sweat of others? Let me not even mention their disgusting snobbishness, which looks down on us poor Czechs with raised eyebrows, and with all their rudeness and shallowness, I don't know how they consider themselves educated and learned“ (cited in Volf 1934: 4).

Even in the 1860s, nationality was more a matter of choice than the fate of Pilsen’s inhabitants. It was possible to find descendants of German-speaking families who started identifying as Czech, while individuals from clearly Czech families (such as František Pankraz, Emil Škoda or František Hýra) began identifying as German. The 1870s marked a period of national division in Pilsen. Nationality became a significant political issue, which also affected the results of local elections. While the predominantly urban nobility in the First District was under the control of German candidates, the Second and Third Districts were administered by Czech candidates (Schiebl 1911).


The German grammar school in a contemporary photograph taken by J. Böttinger in 1872. (Source: Pilsen City Archive)

The politicization of the national question was most evident in the field of education. Initially, there was an attempt to Czech-ify the Pilsen Grammar School (now the main building of the Education and Research Libray of Pilsener Region). This did not however take place – instead, a “Realschule” (German grammar school) was established, where Czech became the language of instruction only in 1866. Czech-German disputes escalated into mutual rivalry and animosity (Bernhardt 2016: 118-123).

The Jews stood amidst all of this. They mostly spoke the German language, mainly as an expression of loyalty to the Austrian monarchy, which guaranteed their religious freedom. Only a minority of Pilsen’s Jews identified with their own Jewish nationality (cf. Bernhardt 2016: 123; Krčmář, Schiebl 1911). Declaring their nationality was difficult for them. They rather identified with the locality than with nationality, and if they had to choose, they leaned towards either the Czech or German nationality based on circumstances. The choice was not easy, closely tied to national animosity (cf. e.g. Bernhardt, Peřinová 2016: 207-208).

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