Sailing to Bohemia: Utopia, Memory, and the Holocaust in Postwar Austrian and German Writing

Alfred Thomas

in Prague Palimpsest

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print October 2010 | ISBN: 9780226795409
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226795416 | DOI:
Sailing to Bohemia: Utopia, Memory, and the Holocaust in Postwar Austrian and German Writing

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Turning from interwar French responses to Prague, this chapter examines the elegiac treatment of the city as a site of nostalgia in postwar German and Austrian literature. Writers who represented this treatment include the Holocaust survivor Paul Celan; the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who left her native Austria and finally settled in Italy; and the German novelist W. G. Sebald, who spent most of his career in England. Enforced or self-imposed exiles from their origins, all these writers envision Prague as a second Heimat. Their experience of Prague is therefore nostalgic, an act of identification with a lost Heimat. In highlighting Prague's function as a space of the imagination, they tacitly acknowledge that the city is above all else a site of writing in which the fulfillment of desire is constantly postponed and therefore a permanent source of utopian hope. In part this was a response to the fact that Prague was one of the few central European cities to survive the destruction of World War II. But insofar as its Jewish population did not and its German inhabitants were expelled soon afterward, the city also becomes a site of memory and mourning, in particular for Celan, whose mother had fled to Bohemia from a Russian pogrom in 1915 and who was murdered by the Nazis.

Keywords: Prague; central Europe; France; postwar German literature; postwar Austrian literature; Holocaust; Paul Celan; Ingeborg Bachmann; W. G. Sebald; Heimat

Chapter.  12226 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Literature

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