Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Olbracht, Ivan

(Kamil Zeman; 1882–1952), Czech novelist and journalist. Ivan Olbracht’s mother, Kamila Schonfeldová, came from a German-speaking Jewish family in northern Bohemia; his father, the writer Antal Stašek (originally Antonín Zeman), forced her to convert to Catholicism before he would marry her. (“For me,” he wrote to her in a letter, “departure from my church would be an excommunication from Czech society.”) Olbracht studied law in Berlin and Prague, but eventually left his studies to become a full-time journalist for a Czech Social Democratic paper in Vienna, where he worked from 1909 until 1916.

His first major works, written before and during World War I, were psychological stories and novels, but after the war he became more and more engaged with journalism, experimenting with mixtures of fiction and documentary realism. His politics also grew more radical. In 1920 he spent six months in the Soviet Union (publishing Obrazy ze soudobého Ruska [Pictures from Contemporary Russia]; 1920–1921), joined the Communist party, and became an editor of its paper Rudé právo. Always willing to court trouble, Olbracht was twice arrested for political agitation; his Zamřížované zrcadlo (Barred Mirror; 1930) is a report on his two-month jail stay in 1926.

In 1929 Olbracht was one of seven writers who signed a statement protesting the newly radicalized leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist party; he was subsequently expelled from the party and fired from his editorial job. This sudden change of circumstances inaugurated his most creative years. In 1931, he began traveling regularly to Podkarpatská Rus (Subcarpathian Rus’), the easternmost region of Czechoslovakia that had been acquired by the new state in 1918 and was inhabited mainly by Rusyn peasants and Jews. Olbracht’s experiences there inspired his best works. Nikola Šuhaj, loupežník (Nikola Šuhaj, Outlaw; 1933), based on a true story, told of a peasant outlaw, rumored to be invulnerable, who “took from the rich, gave to the poor, and never killed anyone, except in self-defense or rightful revenge.” This masterpiece, as much about the creation of a folk legend as it was about Šuhaj himself, won the state prize for literature.

In 1934, Olbracht collaborated on the screenplay and filming of Marijka nevěrnice (Marijka the Unfaithful), a story of revenge set in Šuhaj’s region. Hory a staletí (Mountains and Centuries; 1935) mixed political ethnography with attacks on the Czechoslovak government for its colonialist policies in Podkarpatská Rus. Finally, in 1937, Olbracht published Golet v údolí (Golet in the Valley; 1937), three interlocking stories about Orthodox Jews; the longest, Smutné oči Hany Karadžičové (The Sad Eyes of Hana Karadžičová), tells of a Jewish girl who is excommunicated from her village when she marries an atheist Jew. Olbracht’s works on Podkarpatská Rus’ were masterful combinations of documentary realism and fictional drama, showing the rationalist’s keen eye for how myths are born, as well as genuine sensitivity to their power and meaning.

During World War II, fearing persecution, Olbracht retreated to the small town of Stříbrec, where he eventually became involved in the Communist resistance and rejoined the party. After the war, he was a functionary in the ministry of information. His later works were primarily adaptations, including retellings of Bible stories for children (Biblické příběhy; 1939).

Suggested Reading

Petr Hanuška, “Komentář,” in Nikola Šuhaj loupežník: Golet v údolí, by Ivan Olbracht (Prague, 2001); Rudolf Havel and Jaroslava Olbrachtová, eds., Z rodinné korespondence Ivana Olbrachta (Prague, 1965); Jiří Opelík, “Ivan Olbracht,” in Dějiny české literatury IV: Literatura od konce 19. století do roku 1945, ed. Zdeněk Pešat and Eva Strohsová (Prague, 1995).