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Rakous, Vojtěch

(1862–1935), pseudonym of Adalbert Östreicher, writer and journalist. Vojtěch Rakous attended school in a Czech village and at age 12 spent a year at a Jewish school in Brandýs nad Labem. At 13 he left for Prague and worked as an apprentice for a haberdashery; he also began to learn German. After nine years of vocational training, he returned to his native Brandýs area and lived in the village of Mrátín, working as a peddler and a grain merchant. In 1895 he went back to Prague, where he and his brother founded a footwear company; his brother operated the head office while Vojtěch took charge of the Libeň branch. Rakous was recognized by his contemporaries as a solid tradesman, but he apparently had a rough demeanor. Ultimately his business failed when a rival company entered the market.

At the Czech Jewish prayer house Or Tomid, Rakous was married by Rabbi Filip Bondy to Emilia Neumannova. Neumannova was the model for the character of Rézi in Rakous’s short-story cycle Modche a Rézi (published posthumously in 1938). Beginning in the mid-1880s, Rakous became active in the Czech Jewish assimilationist movement and ultimately, in 1920, was elected as an honorary member of the Kapper Academic Society. Until the middle part of that decade, when he contracted tuberculosis, Rakous traveled to Cheb as a Czech Jewish minority official, seeking to spread the influence of the Czech Jewish movement to that community.

Rakous’s contribution to Czech literature is apparent in his fictitious depictions of impoverished rural Czech Jews. He brilliantly captured the lives of several generations who had settled in the Czech countryside and small towns, and he created realistic, psychologically rich characters. Nor did he shy away from examining confrontational situations, including pogroms. In 1885, Jan Herben brought Rakous to the attention of Karel Fischer, the editor of the Českožidovský kalendářu (Czech Jewish Almanac), who asked Rakous to contribute stories with patriotic themes. Rakous wrote two such stories but distanced himself from them for the rest of his life, though he never ceased writing for the journal.

Rakous’s first collection of short stories, Doma (At Home; 1897) was not a popular success. He was praised, however, in 1910 when Czech Jewish academics published his collection of stories Vojkovičtí a přespolní (The People of Vojkovice and Its Environs). An expanded edition was issued in 1920, and in 1926 a three-volume selection of his writings was published under the same title; that edition remains the largest and most complete edition of Rakous’s work to date. The collection Modche a Rézi was published three years after his death. Much of Rakous’s work, which appeared in various newspapers and periodicals, remains uncollected.

The grouping of stories into cycles, a hallmark of Rakous’s style, signaled his attempt to treat crucial subjects in a complex manner and on different levels. The most celebrated cycles, in addition to Modche a Rézi, were Císlerův Lojza (Lojzo of the Císler Family) and Dědeček a babička (Granddad and Granny). None of these, however, was published in its entirety in book form. Social issues are the subject of the cycle Židé a židovky (Jews and Jewesses), and also relatively well known is Ještě jednou doma (Back Home Again; from which the longest story, “Na roczestí” [At the Crossroads] was published separately in 1914). Another cycle was titled Povídky a črty židovské a nežidovské (Jewish and Non-Jewish Stories and Sketches); followed by Když přišla válka (When the War Came), from which only two stories, on the Jews of Galicia, were later issued as part of a larger book. Completely unread today is Soused Isidor Goldstein vypravuje (Neighbor Isidor Goldstein Relates), a cycle interesting for its grasp of historical events.

Rakous’s ninth and final cycle was Kolem českožidovství (Concerning Czech Jewry), which he rewrote with substantial changes after 1918 when he grew critical of Czech Jewish assimilationists. For Rakous, assimilation did not entail a simple and unproblematic inclination toward an alien nationality with retention of Jewish religious traditions. Instead, he viewed nationality in a far more comprehensive sense, from a civil rather than a narrowly nationalistic perspective. For him Judaism constituted incomparably more than a formal badge of identification. He experienced it as a profound, truly authentic relationship and a vital anchorage. He passionately rejected the concept of leaving one’s religious community behind and remained a Jewish believer to the end—not in the sense of superficial religiosity but rather as one who retained “religious feeling.”

Suggested Reading

Oskar Donath, Židé a židovství v české literatuře 19. století, vol. 2, pp. 219–222 (Brno, Czech., 1930); Vladimír Forst, ed., “Rakous Vojtěch,” in Lexikon české literatury, vol. 3, pp. 1209–1211 (Prague, 2000); Helena Krejčová, “Vojtěch Rakous,” in Čeští a židovští spisovatelé v literatuře 20. století, pp. 10–25 (Prague, 2000); Alexej Mikulášek, Viera Glosíková, and Antonín B. Schulz, Literatura s hvězdou Davidovou (Prague, 1998), pp. 297–300.



Translated from Czech by Martin Ward