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Baum, Oskar

(1883–1941), prose writer and poet. The blind poet Oskar Baum was a member of the Prague Circle of German-speaking Jewish writers in the first decades of the twentieth century as well as a particularly close friend of Franz Kafka, to whom the author read his early drafts of “The Metamorphosis” and other manuscripts. As was the case with Kafka and the rest of this informal literary group, Baum was a German writer of Jewish background in a period of intense Czech nationalist challenge to German cultural hegemony.

The Czech–German national conflict was rarely violent, but it cost Baum his vision as a consequence of a fight with a Czech youth at age 11. More than one commentator noted the irony that Baum would lose his vision for an identity he would not have claimed: that of a German. Yet he became a fairly prominent man of German letters in that generation, and his blindness, his Jewishness, and the themes of social and national conflict were important elements of his contribution.

Born in Pilsen (Plzeň), another Bohemian city of mixed German, Czech, and Jewish population, Baum moved to Prague when he was still a child. His family adhered to Judaism in a more traditional way than most acculturated German Jews of his generation did in Prague, and he was well acquainted with religious practice. He was a talented musician, and continued his musical studies at a Jewish institute for the blind in Vienna from 1894 to 1902. Upon his return to Prague, he taught music after a stint as a synagogue organist.

Baum published numerous essays, stories, and poems as a young man, but continued to make his living in music instruction until well into the 1920s, when he was engaged full time by the daily Prager Presse. His first pieces appeared in the publications of the German Jewish Prague milieu of his generation, Willy Haas’s Herder-Blätter as well as Selbstwehr, Prague’s Jewish nationalist weekly, and after 1910 in Austrian and German journals associated with expressionism. His first independently published book, Uferdasein (Bank Existence; 1908) included three short stories; in the following year, his memoir, Das Leben im Dunkeln (Life in the Dark) was very well received. Many of his pieces dealt with issues of mediation: he presented both blindness and Jewishness (or at least Jewishness in the European national context) as liminal forms of existence from which a heightened experience was possible.

Baum identified from the start as a fully German writer and also a Jew who was opposed to assimilation. Indeed, he was attracted to the cultural Zionism that was dominant in Prague in his generation. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, however, he stood with other German-language writers in assessing the conflict as an attack by a soulless Western modernity on a more spiritual Central European culture. Gender and sexuality were also powerful common themes in Baum’s prose, and here too the question of mediation was central. Baum was a charismatic lecturer, and he had what could be described as a cult following of an enraptured female public. His wife was extremely dedicated to him and his work, which would not have been possible without her many hours of reading aloud to him, as well as her maintenance of his notetaking, dictation, and correspondence.

In the first Czechoslovak Republic as late as 1934, Baum served as chair of the Association of German Writers. After the Nazi occupation in 1938, he was forced to write for the official Jewish press. His attempts to immigrate to Britain failed, and he died in the Prague Jewish Hospital after complications following surgery.

Suggested Reading

Margarita Pazi, Fünf Autoren des Prager Kreises (Frankfurt am Main, 1978); Jürgen Serke, Böhmische Dörfer: Wanderungen durch eine verlassene literarische Landschaft (Vienna, 1987).