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OBJECT OF THE MONTH – March 2010


Wildt Atelier, “Oskar Baum at Work,” 1920s
Platinotype, 155 x 215 mm
JMP 13.685

Previously unpublished, this photograph is of Prague writer Oskar Baum (1/21/1883 – 3/20/1940), who Max Brod referred to as “the strongest, most resilient member of the Prague Circle” (Brod’s term for the community of Prague German writers) “whose abundant talent for storytelling was inexhaustible … it was his nature to constantly think up new plots and characters.”

Baum’s father was a prosperous dry goods merchant in Plzeň who had his shop on the “the beautifully large square opposite the church.” He lost the sight in one eye during childhood, and a scrape with Czech children who attacked him for “favoring German” (he was seen reading a German book) deprived him of his sight in the other. His parents sent him to a Jewish school for the blind in Vienna, Hohe Warte, for his education, and while there he also learned music (he took his state exams in piano and organ playing). After returning to Prague, he put this education to good use by finding work as a music teacher, an organist in a synagogue, and from 1922 as a music critic for Prager Presse. His prose is characterized by musicality and striking imagery that seems to have come from some inner, intuitive ability to see.

The Braille writer Baum is seen with in the photo was his constant companion, and he used it to take notes. In The Prague Circle, Max Brod recalls Baum’s method of perceiving the outer world and how he recorded it: “Blind, he saw with our eyes. Once, at a vantage point, we tried to convey to him the sensation of wide-open spaces, distant towns, and melding colors. We were sitting on a bench. Baum immediately fastened a thick paper to a small, two-part brass clip and began to nimbly work the needle, tapping on square holes in the metal surface.”

Baum was popular in Prague intellectual circles as a writer and for his incredible talent as a raconteur. He was also well liked because he was always ready to help his friends and colleagues in times of need. Brod writes: “Oskar Baum tirelessly helped everyone who turned to him. And from 1933 in particular his help took on an increasing urgency as more and more writers and journalists flooded into Prague from Germany. Often there was sheer desperation. But Baum showed outward calm, though he was blazing inside, and in his passion to lend a hand he was uncompromising, tireless, always knowing what was needed and always finding a way…”

Sadly, Baum found no way out for himself. His attempts to leave Prague foundered in the bureaucracy of the Protectorate even though he had obtained a visa to the United Kingdom. He was, however, saved from deportation. He died on March 20, 1940 in the Jewish hospital (today the headquarters of the Jewish Museum in Prague) from complications following an operation. This year marks the seventieth anniversary of his death.


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