Geschichten aus sieben ghettos (Stories from Seven Ghettos) by Egon Erwin Kisch. (Amsterdam: Allert de Lange Verlag, 1934). Illustrated by P. L. Urban. (YIVO)

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Kisch, Egon Erwin

(1885–1948), journalist, writer, and political activist. The twentieth-century image of the reporter as adventurer-hero is deeply indebted to the self-fashioning of the “roving reporter,” as Kisch called himself in the title of one of his many reportage collections. Kisch was from a prosperous, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, in the same generation as Franz Kafka. He was a youth in a period of intense social and political conflict between Czechs and Germans in his home country, with the Jews in between; he was a young man during World War I and through the period of intense ideological conflict that followed. Both of these conflicts made powerful impressions on his image of himself and on his creative and political work. He was an innovator of the genre of reportage, a leader of the Communist uprising and brief takeover in Vienna after World War I, a tireless investigator and master of the exposé, and a leftist activist.

Kisch’s self-image as well as his work was infused with deep identification with the locality of Prague and its rich Jewish history, although he renounced religious belief as such. He claimed descent from the legendary Rabbi Yehudah Leib (Löw; Maharal of Prague), as well as other famous Prague Jews connected with both rabbinical learning and secular Enlightenment. He kept files of materials on Prague’s Jewish past and present, as he relished all local peculiarity and idiosyncrasy. He was similarly attracted to the Czech life of the city, and although he did not claim direct Czech ancestry, he defined it to himself as the heritage of all Praguers. He was especially identified with the Prague underworld of criminality, sexuality, and poverty, and for his pathbreaking reportage work often worked his way into this world and reported as an observer-participant. His early collections, Aus Prager Gassen und Nächten (From Prague Streets and Nights; 1912) and Prager Kinder (Children of Prague; 1913), dealt with these themes, as did his only novel, the naturalist tale of a Prague procurer, Der Mädchenhirt (The Shepherd of Girls; 1914).

Kisch had ambitions to be a writer of some sort from a young age, and even had a volume of poetry published (at his family’s expense) while still a teenager. In college he was attracted to the German national fraternities and had a strong German liberal affiliation, but his sympathy with the Prague underclasses was apparent very early as well. His first reporting was for the German daily Prager Tagblatt, and he eventually gained a permanent position with the German-liberal Bohemia, in 1906. Among his most famous reports was an exposé of the so-called Redl affair, involving the homosexuality and espionage of a Habsburg colonel.

Kisch served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, and although briefly imprisoned for a critical report from the front, he also wrote propaganda for the War Press Bureau. Radicalized by his war experience, he rose to a leadership position in the Red Guard (socialist soldier insurgency) in Vienna, and joined the Communist Party in 1919. He volunteered for the republican forces during the Spanish Civil War and worked as an antifascist journalist in Berlin through most of the 1920s and early 1930s, until leaving Germany after being arrested and released by the Nazis. Thereafter, in part due to political exile, Kisch’s travels were international, and his reportage continued. He visited Jewish communities around the world and wrote pieces on them, some of which were published in English as Stories from Seven Ghettos (1934). His exile (to Mexico via the United States) may have spared him from perishing in the Holocaust, and he returned to Prague thereafter, dying however before the Communist state in Czechoslovakia was off the ground.

Suggested Reading

Dieter Schlenstedt, Egon Erwin Kisch: Leben und Werk (Berlin, 1985); Harold B. Segel, comp., Egon Erwin Kisch, The Raging Reporter: A Bio-Anthology (West Lafayette, Ind., 1997); Scott Spector, Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka’s Fin de Siècle (Berkeley, 2000).