Selma Steinerová: A Life Among Books

My dear friend Selma Steinerová (27. 11. 1925 – 28. 8. 2010), who passed away last Saturday, will be fondly remembered by scores of locals as well as those who visited Bratislava since the 1990s.

They will remember her smiling, advising and sometimes admonishing her visitors (never mere customers) in the revived Antikvariát Steiner in Ventúrska Street, the last station in her long and thorny journey through life.

This sunny period was preceded by years of struggle and suffering.  Yet in 1925 it seemed that she was born under a lucky star, into an affluent, harmonious, educated and genuinely religious Jewish family, which since 1847 had been running a bookshop specializing in old and often rare books, sometimes also publishing books on Pressburg (Bratislava) and Slovakia. Young Selma was raised trilingually – in German, Slovak and Hungarian –  as was usual in her circles; she took piano and ballet lessons and together with her numerous cousins climbed trees in the family garden on the Slavín Hill, the very spot that now boasts a monument to the Soviet liberators.

This idyll came to an end before Selma turned 13, the Slovak state demoting her and her entire family to citizens of the lowest racial underclass and later deporting them across the border to face almost certain death.  Neither Selma’’s parents, nor her two beloved brothers, whom until the end of her life she could not recall without tears in her eyes, managed to escape this fate. Selma herself somehow survived the following years, in hiding and on false papers, and was not captured until a few months before the war ended. She was sent to Terezín (Theresienstadt), as by then Auschwitz had already been evacuated.


On her return to Bratislava, weakened by typhoid, she learned that only a few members of her family, the youngest generation, survived the war.  Most of them, save for two cousins, soon emigrated to Israel, following their pre-war Zionist sympathies. For Selma, though, this time marked the beginning of a new and unexpectedly happy phase in post-war Prague, where she rubbed shoulders with the rebellious young intellectual elite to whom she was introduced by her cousin Móric Mittelmann-Dedinský, a writer and critic she had admired since she was a young girl. The young men who wooed the charming Zelmíra (the nickname reflected the somewhat exotic impression the girl from Bratislava must have made on them) included Karel Kraus, the future dramaturge of the Prague National Theatre as well as Jan Grossman, who went on to found the famous Theatre on the Balustrade (later associated with Václav Havel), the young novelist Josef Nesvadba and the slightly mysterious poet Listopad. However, another change in the political climate put an abrupt end to this happy interlude. In the grim transition to the Stalinist fifties and in the atmosphere of the first political show trials the carefree Prague group fell apart: some emigrated, some were imprisoned, while others withdrew into a cowed expectation of better days.


Selma again returned to Bratislava, this time branded as a person with a bourgeois background. Being Jewish did not help, either.  Yet it was precisely her background that came to the rescue, making her aware of her deep roots in the world of books. She found a job in Kniha, the state-run bookselling enterprise, in the department for old and foreign language books, which were by then no longer being thrown away, as had been the custom after the war.  Selma would spend long months and years assessing, cataloguing, sorting and carrying heavy, dusty tomes in a basement in Dunajská Street.  To supplement her meagre salary, she gave German lessons to children of friends (she did it brilliantly, as my grateful daughter can testify), and translated ever more difficult texts into German.  What impressed me was her ability to retain her charm, her sense of humour, her style and flair, even though she struggled with periods of deep depression.  I believe that what kept her going – apart from the interest in her unglamorous, seemingly unattractive job – was the fact that she was always surrounded by loyal friends and faithful admirers such as the musicologist and polymath Hansi Albrecht, one of the few who still remembered the old days, her nephew Jakub Mittelmann and his wife Jarka and their young contemporaries, her vivacious female colleagues and leading artists and musicians, including those who were not particularly in favour with the regime.


As a result of the years she spent working with books Selma Steinerová became – almost without anyone around her noticing – a key expert in her field. By the 1960s she had gained the respect and appreciation of renowned specialists in rare books from Vienna and Munich as well as bibliophiles all over Czechoslovakia.  After the fall of communism this experience (and the encouragement from her long-standing companion, a respected Hungarian economist)gave Selma the courage to embark on a business venture: jointly with her equally well-qualified colleague Dagmar Ložeková she threw herself into reviving the family bookshop. And suddenly, in her mid-sixties, Selma Steinerová blossomed, proving herself not only a successful businesswoman but also epitomizing the continuity of the tolerant Bratislava of old. She spoke confidently before cameras from all over Europe, adamantly defended her opinions in media interviews, made witty contributions to public debate and gave impromptu speeches on various occasions. What was especially striking in this successful late period of her life was the spontaneous and natural generosity she showed to various institutions as well as the discreet support she offered to those in difficulty.


This makes the words of appreciation by Michal Hvorecký, a writer several generations her junior, as well as the responses from Selma Steinerová’’s anonymous admirers on his blog, all the more touching. Perhaps it is a sign that electronic media will not completely displace the beautiful old books to which our dear Selma dedicated the best years of her life.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

The Slovak original of this article appeared  on 4. 9. 2010 in the weekend supplement of the daily SME.