Demetz, Hana 1928-1993
Demetz, Hana 1928-1993
PERSONAL: Born July 19, 1928, in Usti, Czechoslovakia; immigrated to United States; died 1993.
AWARDS, HONORS: Hadassah Literary Prize, 1981.
Meine Amerikanische Töchter, D.V.A. (Stuttgart, West Germany), 1964, published as Töchter aus Amerika: Nach Europa mit Koffer und Kind, Wilhelm Goldmann (Munich, West Germany), 1965.
Ein Haus in Böhmen, Ullstein (Berlin, West Germany), 1970, translation by author published as The House on Prague Street, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1980.
Europa kann nicht schaden: Roman (novel), Ullstein (Berlin, West Germany), 1976.
The Journey from Prague Street, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1990.
SIDELIGHTS: "I still have dreams about the old house," begins The House on Prague Street, Hana Demetz's widely reviewed novel about the coming of the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia. Demetz, who became a professor of Czech language at Yale University, wrote from experience. Born in 1928, she was a child when Adolf Hitler was rising to power and a teenager when World War II ended. Like the central character of Demetz's novel, her father was German and her mother was a Czech Jew. Though Demetz never spent time in a concentration camp, her idyllic childhood was shattered by Nazism and the persecution of the Jews. The House on Prague Street, which first appeared in German in 1970 and which the author herself translated into English, relates events that occurred in Demetz's own life and is composed as a memoir of a young girl called Helenka Richter.
As related in The House on Prague Street, each summer Helenka, along with her parents and an assortment of aunts and uncles, visits her grandfather's house on Prague Street in a small Bohemian town where her mother's prosperous family has lived for generations. Unlike the grown-ups around her, Helenka is heedless of the portentous events in Europe that seem to be robbing her family of its gaiety. In time, however, those events press on her: her Jewish mother must wear the yellow star and accept smaller rations; her father is forced out of his civil service job because he is married to a Jew; her Jewish grandfather is forbidden from entering the park he donated to the town; and much of her mother's family is taken to a place called Theresienstadt. Helenka and her parents move to the city of Prague, where Helenka is later expelled from her school because she is half Jewish. She is, nonetheless, drawn to the German community, choosing German girlfriends, admiring German film stars, and falling in love with a young German officer on leave—a decent man who continues to love her after she reveals that she is part Jewish.
Events shift when the officer is killed in battle and Helenka's mother also dies. Helenka is forced to work in a munitions factory; meanwhile, her father is killed by a mob. When the Russians occupy Prague at the end of the war, one form of terror is replaced by another, and Helenka begins to learn the truth about the deported Jews. In the novel's final scene, she returns to the house on Prague Street to find it occupied by silent men wearing black, concentration camp survivors, who tell her to go away: "You don't know, you haven't seen."
The House on Prague Street was well received by critics. Newsweek correspondent Jean Strouse, for example, admired the "sympathetic dispassion" with which Demetz related the events in Helenka's life. Marilyn Hall, writing in the Los Angeles Times, especially praised the book's final scene, finding it "a most poignant, moving encounter." Calling Demetz a "gifted writer," Helen Epstein concluded in the Washington Post Book World that the volume is "artfully constructed" and with "only a few allusions to public figures or events, the reader is made to feel and understand the comprehensive and corrosive power of Nazi Germany."
The Journey from Prague Street is a sequel to The House on Prague Street. Written as a diary, the book is an account of the exodus from Prague in the late 1940s, as its protagonists, Helene and Paul, escape the city's bleak postwar future. The eventually make it to the United States, where Paul becomes a Harvard scholar. Helene is aware, though, that Paul is a philanderer, and she slowly asserts herself to become a teacher and writer. When Paul leaves her for another woman, Helene draws on her own resources to realize fully her inner strength and embarks confidently on a second marriage to a loving man.
Los Angeles Times reviewer Elaine Kendall found The Journey from Prague Street "appealing" and described it as a book that "lingers in the mind." Its significance, Kendall wrote, is that Helene is "every woman brought up to be a patient and self-effacing wife, only to find herself dislodged by rapidly changing manners and mores." And in the end, added Kendall, Helene learns the lessons of the "moral revolution" that her life is now part of in much the same way as she had absorbed the "political upheaval of her youth."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Demetz, Hana, The House on Prague Street, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Los Angeles Times December 16, 1980, Marilyn Hall, "House of Poignant Holocaust Memories," p. 16; April 4, 1990, Elaine Kendall, "A Fortuitously Timed Twentieth-Century Odyssey."
New Statesman, October 3, 1980, Brian Martin, "A Taste of Drains," 24.
Newsweek, September 8, 1980, Jean Strouse, "A House Divided," pp. 77-78.
New Yorker, September 1, 1980, review of The House on Prague Street, pp. 89-90.
New York Review of Books, June 12, 1980, Neal Ascherson, review of The House on Prague Street, p. 34.
Publishers Weekly, February 9, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Journey from Prague Street, p. 45.
Washington Post Book World, August 3, 1980, Helen Epstein, "Living at the Fringe of Nightmare," pp. 1, 14.