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Kompert, Leopold

(1822–1886), novelist, poet, and journalist. The son of a struggling wool merchant in Münchengrätz (Mnichovo Hradiště), Leopold Kompert owed much of his interest in Judaism to his mother and his grandfather, a rabbi. He wrote during a time of great change: Jews in Bohemia were finally allowed to move and settle wherever they wished.

Kompert was convinced that Jews should adopt “productive” occupations, and he recommended that they become blacksmiths, roofers, and especially farmers. His bitterness over antisemitic disturbances that accompanied the revolution of 1848 also led him to publish an appeal urging Jews to immigrate to America. However, he was actually quite optimistic, believing that Jews and Germans, with their shared sense of justice, were kindred spirits. It is noteworthy that while none of the characters in his fiction is identified as German, Czechs are distinguished as Czechs, with their often tragic history depicted as similar to that of Jews.

Following a brief period as a philosophy student at the university in Prague, Kompert worked as a tutor in Vienna. Moving to Bratislava (Pressburg) in 1840, he made the acquaintance of Adolf Neustadt, editor of the Pressburger Zeitung and its supplement, Pannonia. Neustadt soon published Kompert’s story collection Pusstabilder (Scenes from the Hungarian Prairie), which he had written in Hungary. Kompert also forged an important contact with his countryman Ludwig August Frankl (editor of Die Sonntagsblätter in Vienna), who published Kompert’s first story devoted to Jewish society, “Die Schnorrer” (The Spongers) in 1846. Kompert himself moved to Vienna in 1847.

Although Kompert wrote and published in a variety of genres—including poems, theatrical reviews, and novellas—he devoted himself largely to writing stories about the people in the Judengass (Jewish Street) that he had known in his childhood. Aus dem Ghetto: Geschichten (From the Ghetto: Stories) appeared in 1848, followed by Böhmische Juden: Geschichten (Bohemian Jews: Stories) in 1851. His novel Am Pflug (Behind the Plow; 1855) urged Jews to work in agriculture; its Hebrew translation had a considerable impact on East European Jews at the turn of the twentieth century. Neue Geschichten aus dem Ghetto (New Stories from the Ghetto), which appeared in 1860, was his last volume of stories on the theme for which he became famous.

Many of Kompert’s stories describe Jews converting to Christianity—or being tempted to do so. In addition to his novel Zwischen Ruinen (Among Ruins; 1875), several stories reflect Kompert’s tolerance of intermarriage. On this subject as well as others, Kompert’s women are more open-minded than his men. Similarly, Bohemia, not Palestine, is portrayed as the home of the Jews; on this point Kompert disagreed with his character Mendel, the Polish schnorrer and pre-Herzlian Zionist. Kompert’s stories reflect his own willingness to accept change and compromise.

Kompert achieved an international reputation, and a number of his books were translated into English and other languages. In Vienna he was a prominent civic activist who served on the city council. He also held important positions in the Viennese Jewish community, including the vice presidency of the Israelitischer Waisenverein (Jewish Orphans Society).

Suggested Reading

Paul Amann, Leopold Komperts literarische Anfänge (Prague, 1907; rpt. Hildesheim, Ger., 1975); Wilma Iggers, “Leopold Kompert: Romancier of the Bohemian Ghetto,” Modern Austrian Literature 6.3–4 (1973): 117–138; Ruth Kestenberg-Gladstein, “Jews between Czechs and Germans in the Historical Lands, 1848–1918,” in The Jews of Czechoslovakia: Historical Studies and Surveys, vol. l, pp. 21–71 (Philadelphia, 1968); Hillel J. Kieval, Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands (Berkeley, 2000), pp. 65–94.