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Poláček, Karel

(1892–1945), Czech journalist and novelist. Poláček was born to a Czech-speaking Jewish family in the small Bohemian town of Rychnov nad Kněžnou. Although he failed at the local gymnasium, he finished his studies in Prague in 1912; after a short period in law school he was drafted and served on the Russian and Serbian fronts. In Serbia he crossed over into “voluntary captivity” and spent the last two months of the war as a prisoner. On his return to Prague, he launched his career as a journalist, specializing in both short, humorous essays (sloupky) and court reports (soudničky); he wrote hundreds of each in his career. He also wrote two plays, a number of film scripts, and several volumes of short stories, establishing himself by the end of the 1920s as one of the republic’s wittiest writers. Poláček directed his sharp satires at extremism on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as at the complacent banality of the middle classes; he was particularly sensitive to clichés, empty phrases, and the abuse of language. His barbed Žurnalistický slovník (Journalistic Dictionary; 1934) mocked the stereotyped thinking of the political press.

Poláček was a brilliant journalist, but he is equally remembered for his novels. He was a master of the short form and even his longer works (many of which first appeared as daily installments in newspapers) are composed of short scenes. Although Poláček had formally left the Jewish community in 1919, many of his characters are Jewish; he even published the collection Povídky izraelského vyznání (Stories of the Israelite Faith; 1926), an anthology of Jewish jokes, and the popular novel Muži v offsidu (Men Offside; 1931), in which the passions of soccer fans temporarily eclipse their religious differences. More generally, however, his fiction took aim at the petty vices, self-importance, and limited horizons of the middle classes. Walking a fine line between savage satire and sympathetic humor, Poláček here raised his attack on clichés to an existential level: aided by his brilliant ear for dialogue, he portrayed his characters as trapped in a world shaped more by the received truths of newspapers and polite conversation than by their own thoughts. This vision, both dark and humorous, culminated in two masterpieces: the cycle of novels beginning with Okresní město (District Town; 1936), a panorama of a small Czech town before, during, and after World War I; and the tour de force Bylo nás pět (There Were Five of Us; published posthumously in 1946), one of the most beloved novels of Czech literature. It is narrated by a small-town boy whose language and perceptions hilariously mix the originality of a child’s imagination with attempts to sound formal and adult.

Poláček was fired from his job after the Nazi invasion in 1939 and found work for the Prague Jewish council until he was sent to Terezín in July 1943. He participated in Terezín’s cultural life with a number of satirical lectures probing the absurdities of the camp’s life and language. He was transported to Auschwitz in October 1944 and was last seen on the death march in January 1945.

Suggested Reading

Jaroslav Kolár, ed., O Karlu Poláčkovi a o jiných (Boskovice, 1995); Jan Lopatka, ed., Ptáci vítají jitro zpěvem, poddůstojníci řvaním (Prague and Rychnov nad Kněžnou, 1992); Zdeněk K. Slabý, “Poláčkovské kalendárium 1882 [sic]–2002,” in Spisy Karla Poláčka, vol. 20, Karel Poláček a divadlo (Prague, 2002); Spisy Karla Poláčka, 22 vols. (Prague, 1994–2002).