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Czechs recognize German-speaking legacy

Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud and Rainer Maria Rilke may have spoken German, but were born in what is now the Czech Republic. The Czechs haven't viewed them as fellow countrymen - until recently.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud spoke German, but wasn't German

Most people probably think of composer Gustav Mahler as an Austrian composer - after all, German was his first language. But the state he was born in has long since disappeared.

Mahler, the son of a Jewish coachman and innkeeper, was born in 1860 in what is now the Czech Republic, but then was the Bohemian region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He and his family would have called their little village Kalischt, though the Czechs now call it Kaliste.

Franz Kafka memorial in Prague

Franz Kafka has long been associated with Prague

Gustav Mahler is one of a dozen German-speaking personalities being profiled this month at an exhibition at the Prager Literaturhaus, a Czech institute that promotes the city's German literary heritage.

Language barrier

Other household names, like the world's most famous neurologist, have ties to the region and are included in the exhibition.

"Sigmund Freud stayed here for only three years, but he was so influenced by his surroundings where he grew up," the institute's director, Lucie Cernohousova, said of another well-known local. "His analysis and his work was influenced by his Czech, or Moravian roots."

The Moravian region now makes up the eastern portion of the Czech Republic, while Bohemia represents the western part of the country.

The exhibition, called "Born in Bohemia and Moravia - but forgotten by us?" suggests that many Czechs have little or no idea that people such as Mahler, Freud, automobile giant Ferdinand Porsche, and Holocaust hero Oskar Schindler were born in their country.

"Obviously, Franz Kafka is an item for the Prague tourist industry, and there are several museums devoted to his memory," said Petr Brod, a Prague-based journalist with a keen interest in Czech-German history. "With Freud, it's a bit more difficult, but people in Moravia probably know that he was born in [the Czech city of] Pribor."

With the others, few people outside of a small circle of Czech intellectuals would recognize them as fellow countryman, added Brod.

Changing attitude

The exhibition at the Prager Literaturhaus is the work of Wolfgang Schwarz, a historian who works for the Munich-based Adalbert Stifter Association, which was founded by some of the three million ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II. Adalbert Stifter himself is one of the 12 personalities honored in the exhibition.

Sudeten Germans refugees wait to board one of the trains at Klingenthal station in Czechoslovakia in September 1938

Many ethnic Germans left Czechoslovakia during or after World War II

Schwarz says the Czechs are becoming gradually more interested in the German speakers who were born in their lands.

"I think a lot's changed in the last few years," said Schwarz, who speaks Czech fluently. "You can see that by just visiting the towns where these people were born."

He explained that in Pribor, the birthplace of Sigmund Freud, the local authorities have named a street after him and erected a monument to him on the town square.

Author: Rob Cameron, Prague

Editor: Kate Bowen

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