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The Oracle of Prague

Just a few hours before I visited Lenka Reinerova in her Prague apartment, the Czech writer had gone through experimental radiation therapy for a cancer she has been battling since the 1940s. Reinerova lives alone, her only daughter hundreds of miles away in London, and I could imagine her feebly propping up her tiny 93-year-old frame against the tram time-table. Then, as I contemplated the sad image, she broke the melancholy, rhapsodizing about her particular tram line.

“I have the No. 9 here, which is the best in Prague, because it goes the most frequent. It goes every four minutes,” she explained. “It happened to me once that here came the 9, I went in, and I thought, ‘This is funny, where are they going now?’ And I found out I was taking the 4.”

She finished with a chuckle and noted that she should probably start wearing her reading glasses on the street.

I made my visit to Reinerova’s apartment because I was hoping to capture a bit of the tale that she has told in her dozen or so books that have been published in German. Taken together, her works constitute one of the most vivid accounts of the 20th-century Central European Jewish experience. Despite having won Germany’s highest literary awards, her story has remained off-limits to English readers due to a lack of translations. When I entered her little apartment, though, I received more than a story, I got a jolt. After three weeks of traveling that had taken me through the darkness of Eastern Europe and my own lonely mind, I was moved by something that pervades both her work and her person. It came out in that tale of the tram, when Reinerova found such a quick, deft path from the darkness of chemotherapy to the light of a well-scheduled train. Soon enough I was floating in this orbit with her.

Looking at her work, it’s not hard to see how Reinerova would have needed her gift to survive. During her 93 years she has seen some of the worst that humanity has to offer. The problems began when the Nazis invaded her home city and deported her family while she was on a reporting trip in Romania. She returned home after the war to find her entire family had been killed. Soon thereafter, she learned that she had cancer. The treatment was cut off when the new communist government jailed her for two years — much of it in solitary confinement — accusing her of being a Zionist spy, despite the fact that she had devoted her early life to fighting for the communist cause. She began writing books after she was released, but they were banned — a restriction that remained in place for most of her life. Now, in old age, the works are being published, but most of the people she has loved are gone, and the cancer has returned.

Still, when I showed up on her doorstep, I was the grumpy one. I had been traveling every day for three weeks, and my train to Prague had come in late. Prague has never been a favorite of mine — too many touristy crystal shops — and the currency exchange at the station only took small bills, which I didn’t have. Then the signs led me to the wrong tram. All of which left me sweating and cursing as I trundled up the rickety elevator to Reinerova’s fourth-floor apartment.

When I stepped out into a dark hallway, I heard a disembodied voice say, “Here I am,” and looked right to see her in the doorway like some serene oracle — her big eyes glowing in her tiny frame. A coffee pot and small plate of cookies awaited us under a checkered warmer on her living room table.

When we first sat down, I pushed her to talk about all that history. I had a list of questions about Prague’s prewar community of German-speaking Jews, a remnant of the Hapsburg Empire that produced artists like Franz Kafka and Max Brod. Reinerova is one of the last living links to this world, and I wanted to hear all about it.

She wanted none of this abstract talk. She reminded me that she was 2 years old when Kafka died. She knew Brod a bit but didn’t seem all that interested in talking about her memories. She was much more interested in telling me about a recent trip she had taken to Senegal.

When she boarded the plane, an incredulous stewardess asked, “You are flying alone?”

“I said to her, ‘I’m hope I’m not flying — that’s the pilot,’” pointing toward the front of the plane.

At this point, I was still testy from the travels. I could feel the sweat drying and was acutely aware that my subject wasn’t delivering up the anecdotal goods that every journalist is after. This provoked a bunch of anxious scribbles on my note pad. When I asked her about her Jewish history, she told me that it was not something she could really talk about.

“How do I formulate that I have dark eyes?” she said. “I simply have dark eyes.”

Facing her starchy resolve, I thought back to a moment in her book memoir, “All the Colors of the Sun and the Night,” when she recounts two years spent in jail after returning to Prague in the 1940s. During one interrogation, she is asked, “Since when were you a Zionist?”

“I was never a Zionist,” she shouts. The interrogator responded with no hesitation: “All Jews are Zionists.”

Eventually, I succeeded in leading her into a conversation about some of her favorite works, almost all of which are based on real-life events. She told me about one short story in which she wrote about a visit, alone, to the concentration camp where her sister was killed. On the way home, on the train, she was seated in the same compartment as a woman carrying a goose. The ensuing commotion captivated her.

At some point soon thereafter it began to grow dark outside. I could barely see my notes, and I stopped writing. She walked over to turn on the light switch, and when she returned, she threw her spindly little legs over the chair, in the jaunty fashion of a 25-year-old. The socks that peeped out were a fresh fluorescent green. I looked down at my notebook and grinned to myself. When I looked up, she grinned back without saying a word.

I left a little after dark. I headed for the tram, but then I noticed the cool air, and I decided to walk down to the river — following the path Reinerova had told me about. When I arrived at the Charles Bridge, I was immediately hit by the squeal of a clap-trap violinist. Then I walked a few steps farther and noticed the thick wooden beams that buttress the bridge. They were speckled with white and, as I looked closer to investigate, the violinist played a forte note and the white speckles burst into the air. I saw they were pigeons, and as I caught my breath I heard Lenka Reinerova’s voice telling this very story.

Nathaniel Popper is the news editor at the Forward.

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