Fischl = Dagan: For whom the cock crows

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At 80, with one gray-green eye lost to glaucoma and the other clouded by a cataract, his stare is still keen and penetrating, his stride along a cobblestoned street in Mala Strana is brisk and confident, and the words that flow in English, Czech, and occasionally Hebrew are precise and witty.

Compact but warrior-like, my old friend from mid-1970s Vienna seems much more Avigdor Dagan, the name by which he is famous in Israel, than Viktor Fischl, the name he was born with in East Bohemia and under which he is now a bestselling author in his native land after 40 years in the desert.

'The first time I was sent abroad as an Israeli diplomat,' he explains with a chuckle, 'was in 1955 as first secretary of the legation in Tokyo. [Prime Minister Moshe] Sharett didn't think someone representing Israel should have a Germanic name, so I was told to take a Hebrew name. The first name was easy. Avigdor is close to Viktor, though it means something a little different; it means my father was a strong man. Fischl means Little Fish in German, so I started out with the Hebrew word for fish, dag, and then looked around for a diminutive. First I tried Dagon, but that meant a Philistine idol in Hebrew, so I settled for Dagan. Later, I learned that Dagan means corn-which is not so bad a name, even for a writer.'

 

As the author of Conversations with Jan Masaryk (whose right-hand man he was in wartime London) and several novels, Dagan, who still writes in Czech, has paid five visits to Prague since the revolution. The last four (including the latest last month for book signings) have been as Viktor Fischl, but the first, in early 1990, was as Dagan. That was when Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens asked the retired ambassador (to Poland, Yugoslavia, Norway, and Austria) to accompany him for the reopening of diplomatic relations, which communist Czechoslovakia broke during 1967's Six Day War.

'Jiri Dienstbier, who was the Foreign Minister then, gave a dinner in the Cernin Palace and invited me to visit an apartment there that I knew very well'-the one with the bathroom from which Foreign Minister Masaryk fell, jumped, or was pushed in March 1948 during the first fortnight of communist Czechoslovakia. Fischl had visited his old friend's apartment two days before his death and found Masaryk troubled by the supplicants waiting in his anteroom. 'They all think I can help them,' he told Fischl, 'but I can't even help myself.'

Dagan elaborates: 'He was so very low that I feared suicide. After all, his mother died in an asylum, his brother committed suicide, and he spoke fairly often about how there were in his family several cases of depression around age 60. He had stayed in [Klement] Gottwald's [new communist] government because he thought he could help his friends who would be in trouble. But his friends in the West reacted as though he had betrayed his country and, in Prague, he felt himself helpless.'

For the first two editions of his Conversations with Masaryk (first published in Czech in Israel in 1951 and later in German, but never in English), Fischl-Dagan subscribed to the suicide theory, but over the years he noted with concern how almost everybody connected with the Masaryk case disappeared or died mysteriously. During 1968's Prague Spring, the investigation was reopened and it focused on the role of Major Augustin Schramm, a Czech agent of the Soviet secret police (NKVD) who used to have a street named after him in Prague 6. With August's invasion, however, one of the first lids to be clamped down was on the Masaryk affair. Late in 1969, when an official report was issued noting 'Masaryk's established habit of sitting in the open [bathroom] window with crossed legs' just before he plunged into the courtyard, Dagan smelled a rat-or else a bureaucratic Svejk revealing the truth by means of a patently absurd lie.

'I knew this window sill. I knew this bathroom. I knew how high this window was: just to climb up there would take a great sportsman. Above all, I knew Masaryk believed in neither yoga nor exercise. He was rather tall, but very fat and flabby. Why, he weighed over 100 kilos [220 pounds]. There is no way he could have got up there alone,' Ambassador Dagan assured me in Vienna in 1975. 'So now I knew there was foul play and I said so in my third edition.'

Most obstacles grow in memory, but upon revisiting that bathroom in 1990 for the first time in more than 40 years, Fischl-Dagan was 'surprised to find that window was even higher than I remembered.'He turned to his host, Dienstbier, and said: 'Suicide and Jan Masaryk don't rhyme.'

That's an appropriate trope. Viktor Fischl-a lifelong Zionist born in Hradec Kralove-was a promising poet back in 1936, when his volume of verse, Hebrew Melodies, won the Melantrich Prize, the nation's top poetry award. While still studying law and political science at Charles University, he also edited a Zionist weekly, Zidovske zpravy, and was a high official of the Jewish Party, which had two seats in the Czechoslovak Parliament in the First Republic founded by President T.G. Masaryk, Jan's father.

At the Cafe Aschermann, a Zionist coffeehouse on Dlouha trida, he met Stella Berger, a descendant of the Jelinek slivovitz dynasty in Moravia. She was teaching Czech in a Jewish school in Prague. They married in the critical year of 1938, in which Fischl also received his degree to practice law in a land betrayed and dismembered at Munich that autumn. He kept so busy helping Sudetenland Jews escape that he didn't provide an exit for himself.

Taken by surprise when the Nazis entered Prague on March 15, 1939, he scrambled for credentials. His brother, who was representing Skoda in Thailand, sent him letters of accreditation from two Bangkok newspapers as their foreign correspondent and he took the letters to the Cedok travel agency, where 'they issued me tickets and papers to get to England, presumably on my way to Bangkok.' He arrived in London on March 30: one day before visa-free entry ended.

His young bride might have been able to go with him, but she was sure the Nazis were an aberration that would soon be over-and, besides, their curtains were still at the cleaners. In London, her Viktor set about finding guarantors and sponsors for 70 Jewish leaders still in Prague-plus Stella. By the time all 71 visas were in hand, the curtains were done, but Stella wouldn't leave Prague unless their furniture left with her. Fearing that delay might mean curtains for her, Viktor nagged her to hurry. By agreeing to leave all their money behind, she obtained clearance from the Nazis and, just six weeks after her husband, she landed in London with all their furniture and her trousseau, too.

'We took a house in Golders Green,' he recalls. 'We must have been the only Czech refugees who moved in fully-furnished. Stella had qualified to become a diplomat's wife.' Mrs. Dagan, just as stubborn and feisty more than half a century later, nods her agreement and adds that her mother, who stayed behind to take care of her grandmother, perished in Auschwitz, but Grandmother Jelinek survived the war and died in Israel. (The Dagans have two sons: Daniel, born in Kingston-upon-Thames during the blitz of London, and Gabriel, 'conceived in London and born in Prague after the war.')

The Czechoslovak ambassador to England when the nation disappeared had been Jan Masaryk. Working together on behalf of refugees, Fischl and Masaryk hit it off the minute they met: 'He said he knew me because he knew my poems. He was the warmest, most straightforward person I have ever met. He had a fantastic way of expressing the most complicated thought in a simple way that everybody could understand. After my first conversation with him, I went home and tried to put down everything he said in his own words.'

With the fall of France in 1940, the Czechoslovak government-in-exile moved to London, where Jan Masaryk became its foreign minister. Fischl helped script Masaryk's inspirational British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcasts in Czech to their occupied homeland (listening to him here was a 'crime' punishable by death). Later, Fischl was named Masaryk's first secretary.

The Fischls had planned to emigrate to Palestine after the war, but Masaryk persuaded him to come back to Prague and put him in charge of drafting a peace treaty between Czechoslovakia and Germany (it was never negotiated). When Masaryk died, Fischl went to the new communist foreign minister, Vladimir Clementis, and told him that, with the new state of Israel about to be born, 'I want to go there, where I should have been already a long time.' Clementis told him to finish his work on the German treaty and then he would let the Fischls go to Israel.

Clementis kept his word. The Fischls left in October 1949: almost the last legal emigrants from communist Czechoslovakia for many years. By 1950, Clementis was under arrest in the Slansky trials. One of the many 'crimes' for which Clementis went to the gallows in 1952 was 'helping the Zionist Fischl escape' to a new life in Israel, where Sharett, then foreign minister, knew Viktor from wartime negotiations in London and put him to work as a German expert. Though Fischl didn't yet know Hebrew and did all his work in English, he takes credit for persuading Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to negotiate with West Germany on reparations, which became a lifeline for their struggling state.

After second-in-command stints in Japan and Burma, his ambassadorial career took him back to this part of the world. While Warsaw in the early 1960s meant a chance to transit Czechoslovakia with his diplomatic credentials and visit a few friends and relatives on his way to Vienna, Poland was 'not so much a return to Eastern Europe as a visit to the graveyard of European Jewry,' including his mother-in-law. And he was stationed in Belgrade when the Six Day War erupted and Tito broke relations with Israel. It took Avigdor and Stella Dagan six days to shut down Israel's legation. Only then could they come to Vienna, where lines of communication were open, and learn that their sons, both in the Israeli army, were alive and well.

Dagan's final post was in Vienna from 1974 until he retired at 65 in 1977 and 'began a second life as a novelist.' Film director Milos Forman has bought the rights to Dagan's recent novel of Jewish life, The Court Jester.

Having served all over the world (including a couple of years in New York as a member of his country's United Nations delegation), Dagan was struck by 'the infinite variety of symbolic meanings attached to the rooster in practically every culture and art: pride, freedom, fighting spirit and virility.' Small wonder that his most universal and lyrical novel, Cock's Cry (just published here as Kuropeni), features a talking rooster named Pedro who even dispenses some of Jan Masaryk's prescriptions for life, such as, 'If you are unhappy about something, pretend it's a month later and, if that doesn't work, a year later.'

Dagan is also a collector of cocks-some 400 made of straw, bamboo, wood, metal, glass, canvas, and other materials; he even owns a ceramic cock by Picasso. If you ask him, with or without a straight face, why he collects cocks, you are handed a hand-written poem:

 

A Sonnet for Admirers of

My Collection of Cocks

Please do not ask me why cocks.

Why not stamps, why not buttons or rocks?

Why not butterflies, china, old clocks?

Why, of all God's creatures, just cocks?

Why not matchboxes, carpets, old lutes?

Why not pictures of horses or nudes?

Why not horns of some beast that one shoots?

Why not Chippendale's tables and chairs?

Why not elephants, tigers or bears?

Why not coins or-better still-shares?

Just one thing I'd like to avoid:

Don't think it's connected with Freud.

It's simpler than a wheel of a bike:

Cocks are just what I happen to like.

 

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