Great-uncle Otto wrote a moving tribute in his memoir to his friend the Czech architect Jindřich (Heinrich) Blum, which didn’t make it into my book “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre”. He wrote it because, he said, “it is the duty of those who have been close to the wantonly murdered to bear witness.”
Blum was among the many Structuralist, or Bauhaus, architects, who made Brno such an exciting city in the inter-war years. Czechoslovakia was a new country eager to forget its links with the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was run by enlightened politicians and urban planners, and many of its architects admired the new style privileging function over form. Brno was briefly Europe’s centre of modernist architecture.
A long-faced man with dramatically Mephistophelean eyebrows, Blum was born in Brno in 1884 and like many students saw his studies interrupted by the First World War. On graduating, he joined Brno’s predominantly Jewish architects – Ernst Wiesner, Otto Eisler, André Steiner, Sigismund Kerekes – who were influenced by Vienna’s architect theorist Adolf Loos.
Blum’s life may have been brutally interrupted, but his buildings still survive: the Masaryk German-language school, which today houses the arts faculty and the Kunst café, the First Moravian Savings Bank (as a Jew, he was not allowed to work on the interior design), a social housing block and several private villas.
His most spectacular villa was designed for my father’s beloved great-aunt Friedrike and her fiery husband Johann Wittal, who owned a large clothing store. On a slope in Hroznova Street, then still a suburb, it has two round shapes like silos on either side, or like wind-filled sails.
Otto never saw Jindřich Blum after 1936, the year of his last trip to Vienna and Brno from London. He was to learn that, like so many friends from Brno and Vienna, Blum had died in a concentration camp. “For the first and last time,” Otto concluded in his memoir, “just before the doors closed for ever behind you, you asked me for help and I could not give it.”
“You were an orphan from your earliest childhood,” Otto recalls. “You had no relatives. You have hardly known love, and did not recognise it when it was offered to you. You were suspicious of friendship.You saw yourself as a pathetic figure and your work devoid of grace.
“You were one of the most honest men I ever met, in deed and word. Alas your faith was too strong. You believed in the strength of man’s character, in the infallibility of justice and order. You felt secure in what you regarded as the protective arms of your beloved nation. Escape to you meant treason.”
The poignancy of Otto’s homage to one man among “the many I loved who were slain by the Germans” is probably true of many of my relatives in Brno and Prague. They trusted in the new Czechoslovakia until it was too late to leave.
Little more is known about Jindřich Blum’s end. After March 1939, the Czechs were ruled under Nazi terror, with its relentless toll of executions and deportations. Blum married in November 1941 and by April of the following year he and his wife were deported to Theresienstadt, and then to Izbica transit camp in Poland. No more is known.