What Czech Has Taught Me about Knowledge by Ivy Helman

20151004_161012Stalé mám žlutou knihu tak neumím slova.  (I’m still in the yellow book, so I don’t know the words).  Mluvíš o něčem ale nevím co říkáš.  (You are talking to me about something I don’t know what you are saying).  Neznám jí.  (I don’t know her).

The Czech language has three verbs that express knowledge.  The first umět expresses one’s ability.  Literally, one doesn’t know because one lacks the skill or hasn’t been taught how to do something.  The second vedět captures more the idea of stating facts or events.  It almost always requires a connecting word like “that, what, which, etc.”  One can’t use this verb with a direct object with one exception: to vím (I know (it)).  The third verb znát signals familiarity and it can only be used with a direct object.  So, if you want to ask if someone knows someone else, you use znát, if someone knows when the movie starts, vedět, and if someone knows how to play the piano, umět.

So in other words, the three sentences above are better translated as follows: I’m still in the yellow book so I haven’t learned the words; you are talking to me about something but I don’t understand what you are saying; I’m not familiar with her.

*   *   *

Last week, I took students to Terezin which was a concentration/transit camp during World War II.  It was also Hitler’s propaganda ghetto.  The Red Cross visited there to check on the war-time conditions of its Jewish inhabitants.  In preparation for the visit, the beautification of the ghetto took months, and it included planting flowers, making false store fronts and stocking them with food that promptly disappeared, and even many transports of Jews to Auschwitz to relieve the ghetto’s overcrowded conditions.  In addition, a tour route was laid ou,t and the delegation did not stray from the path.  There was even a propaganda film made of the ghetto which showed well-fed, flourishing smiley people attending concerts and plays, as well as eating at white tablecloth restaurants and cheerfully growing their own food.  It was never screened at the event.

Author's photo from the Prayer Room at Terezin.
Author’s photo from the Prayer Room at Terezin.

The officials of the ghetto shaped the experience of the Red Cross delegates in such a way that they left feeling quite confident that they understood the conditions of life in Terezin.  Aime Bonifas explains the situation thus, “The mystery lies in the question of whether the commission that visited Theresienstadt [Terezin] was really duped or only pretended to be duped. Perhaps, quite simply, an extermination so carefully programmed, systematized, coldly executed by a civilized nation, continued to seem incredible until the final revelations. Since the end of the war, the Red Cross has been greatly reproached for its silence. To have been less prudent, to have spoken out, to have acted as the conscience of the world in accordance with the organization’s ideal of helping all victims would have been preferable.” (pages 816-817 in “A ‘Paradisical’ Ghetto of Theresienstadt: The Impossible Mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross,” in Journal of Church and State, Autumn, 1992.)  In other words, is it believable that something like this could be happening?  How much did the world know?  If we are aware of the horrendous conditions, are we required to respond?

Reminds me of Rwanda.  Reminds me of Syria, Ukraine, Dafur, Iraq, China, North Korea, Tibet and so many other places around the world.

*  *   *

Patriarchy structures and creates knowledge.  So too do patriarchal forms of religion, politics, economics, science and education (at the very least).  In addition, patriarchy’s -isms, like racism, sexism, speciesism, heterosexism, classism, ageism,  ableism, etc., not only question the knowledge, capacity and familiarity of “others,” but also the authority and credibility of their experiences and means of imparting that knowledge.  As a result, people become less willing and less able to speak about their experiences, which contain their knowledge of what is happening.  This, then, perpetuates uncertainty and disbelief because it undermines the credibility of those willing to speak out when so many aren’t.

Are we so naive to think that patriarchal power, authority and control actually create reliable forms of knowledge?  I hope not.

*   *   *

Returning to the three Czech verbs I started off this blog with may help us construct a better definition of knowledge.  What English captures in one verb, Czech requires three.  Knowledge isn’t just facts and events, but it is also ability (skill), education and familiarity (experience).  With this as our yardstick, we could shape forms of knowledge that are: first, more responsive; second, better at listening; third, more trusting; and fourth, better at empowering.  Statements like the following would no longer work: how much do we really know; how believable is their story; do we have to respond?

In other words, knowledge can’t just be something we have or gain.  Just forms of knowledge respond, listen, trust and empower.  In this way, knowledge births a more just world.


Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.  She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department.  In addition to teaching and research, Ivy spends considerable amounts of time learning Czech, painting, drawing, creating new kosher delicacies and playing with her dog, Mini, and cat, Gabbi.

Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

3 thoughts on “What Czech Has Taught Me about Knowledge by Ivy Helman”

  1. Excellent connection between patriarchy and the structuring of language. Your final paragraph should be embossed on the cover of every book ever printed. Thanks for writing this blog.


  2. Excellent post! Breadth and depth. Spanish and French distinguish between knowing a fact and knowing a person, not, so far as I know, knowing a skill. How interesting that English lacks such distinctions. Also timely and historic to ponder what we choose to know and not know about what is happening all around us.


  3. Great post, Ivey! German has 3 forms of knowing: to know a person (kennen) and to know a skill (können), and to have knowledge about (wissen). But it’s still a patriarchal language, just like English.

    What really blows me away is your conclusion about what knowledge can do when it’s just knowledge, namely respond, listen, trust, and empower. That’s my philosophy of education in a nutshell!


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