Baum and the Prague Circle

Oskar Baum moved to Prague in 1902 after having completed his education in Vienna. At the time, the city itself had about 210,000 inhabitants, but the total population was around 600,000 including nearby settlements such as Smíchov, Žižkov and Vinohrady.

This transformation also affected the local Jewish population. Especially after 1859, when freedom of movement was allowed, Prague's Jews tried to escape from the former ghetto located in Josefstadt. In 1843, 95% of the Jewish population lived there (5,929 residents); in 1880, this number decreased to 45% (4,798 residents), and in 1900, two years before the arrival of Oscar Baum in Prague, only 24% remained there (2,198 residents). At that time, wealthy Jews began to move to new bourgeois neighborhoods, particularly Královské Vinohrady (Königliche Weinberge), which became the center of Jewish social, commercial and religious life (Frankl et al. 2021: 126-129).

The cover of the book Bestia triumphans (in Latin: Victory Monster), published in 1897 by Vilém Mrštík. It was written as a critique of the course and extent of the redevelopment of the historic parts of Prague that had been underway since 1893. It mainly concerned Josefov and part of the Old Town. The redevelopment plan was then gradually extended to the area of the Old Town and the Lesser Town. A number of historians and writers, led by Mrštík, rebelled against this practice. In his text, Mrštík pointed to the barbaric destruction of monuments in the interests of the construction and investment groups of the time. What is interesting about this criticism is that it was directed at the demolition of monuments in the Old Town and the Lesser Town, not at the Jewish Josefov.

It was here that Oskar Baum found his home. It was still a part of the Austrian Empire, plagued by national antagonism between the German-speaking population and Czechs. Amidst it all were the Jews, who were continually confronted with pervasive anti-Semitism. Insisting on an identity more closely tied to a place rather than a nationality was not at all easy, but for Baum or his future friend Kafka, it was natural.

Baum got to know Kafka (1883-1924) through Max Brod (1884-1968), who introduced Baum to Kafka through a mutual friend. Brod writes about this acquaintance in the afterword to Baum's Czech translation of the novella "Fateful Love":

Baum was introduced to me by our mutual friend, one of my dearest. At that time, I only knew a few things about Oskar Baum: that he had unfortunately lost his sight in his early youth, that he was raised in a Viennese institute for the blind, where he caught the attention of his teachers with his extraordinary literary and musical talent, and that he had become a leader among his fellow residents, a role seemingly destined for him. I was prepared to meet an intriguing personality. I had envisioned him quite differently: not as direct, cheerful, and utterly reconciled, not possessing such a powerful soul that constantly sought to draw more and more objects into its realm, tirelessly creating its own world” (Brod 1931: 53).

Baum also writes about meeting Kafka, who politely bowed when greeting him. Kafka was the first, Baum writes, to treat him like any other person (Baum 1929). It didn't matter to him that Baum was blind. 

In Prague, Baum made a living as a piano teacher and an organist in the Jubilee Synagogue. His first book was published in 1908, entitled "Uferdasein" (Life at the Shore); the second came out a year later, entitled "Das Leben im Dunkeln" (Life in the Dark). Both books deal with the life of the blind and have partly self-biographical traits. 

Baum was a lifelong advocate for the blind and was known for keeping his optimism despite the daily struggle with his blindness. He wrote much for magazines and newspapers. One of the many stories deals with a young woman who, after a successful operation, retained her sight. The story was called "Das Leben im Licht" (Life in the Light), an allusion to his former novel.

In 1913, Baum published a novel on the relevant topic of nationalism and Zionism. The book entitled "Die Böse Unschuld" (Evil Innocence) deals with life in a small Bohemian town, which was probably inspired by his own experience from Pilsen. 

After World War I, Baum also wrote for the "Prager Presse", a German newspaper founded by the President of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš G. Masaryk (1850-1937). The German-speaking portion of the population made up 23 percent of the population of Czechoslovakia at the time, which was presumably greater than in the Slovak part of the state. Baum wrote in German and strongly identified with German culture, but he was not a German in the nationalist sense of the word. He was a devoted advocate of Czechoslovak democracy and identified with the humanism of its first president.

Baum also established himself as a highly respected music critic. He published several essays and pieces of writing on composers and the culture that surrounded them. Some of these essays were later re-published.  


Title page of the manuscript Das Volk des harten Schlafs. (Source: Archive of the Jewish Museum in Prague)

As the political conditions surrounding Czechoslovakia worsened – not least with its growing anti-Semitism – Baum published the book "Das Volk des harten Schlafs" (The People of Hard Sleep). It concerns the Khazars of southern Russia, where the ruler and many of his people converted to Judaism around 740. More than just a historical novel, it is also a tale of hope and tolerant Judaism, which was no coincidence. Brod, Weltsch and Kafka were closely connected to the activities of Prague Zionism, and Kafka himself, while already battling tuberculosis, toyed with the idea of emigrating to Palestine.

Baum became publicly active and, in 1934, he took the position of chairman of the Association of German Writers in Czechoslovakia and signed the manifesto of the League for Human Rights for the protection of the lives and security of emigrants. A year later, in 1935, he co-organized the Congress Against the Destruction of Culture and Human Rights in Germany. In 1938, due to his Jewish heritage, he was dismissed from Prager Presse, and after the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, his books were banned. Baum attempted to emigrate to Palestine but was unsuccessful. In 1941, he fell ill and passed away in the Prague Jewish hospital after undergoing surgery.

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