A city of contrasts
Joe Schlesinger is a well-known retired veteran news reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Born in Vienna, he and his family moved to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia when Joe and his brother were young. In 1939 both young boys were sent out of the country by their parents to a school for Czechoslovakian refugees in Wales in order to escape the anti-semitism that was rampant in Europe. The boys were on the last train of such refugees leaving Prague. When Joe returned to Czechoslovakia at the end of the war, he discovered that his parents had been killed in the Holocaust. In his 1990 autobiography, Time Zones: a Journalist in the World he wrote, “The powerful write history; the powerless suffer it. History hurts.”
Because the city of Prague has endured momentous, painful, and transitional events in its history, it is a city in which you feel a deep sense of the passage of time — and of the sadness and poignancy of European history. It is however a magnificent city of art and architecture, of humanism and suffering, and a city in which hope and despair have often been juxtaposed. Prague has also been the setting for profound human drama; and a dénouement of resolute triumph.
The beauty of Prague
Prague is one of the most beautiful capital cities in Europe as well as one of the most photogenic. As you stroll through this pedestrian-friendly city, you will find yourself recording, either digitally or through your mind’s eye, unique scenes of a city that personifies steadfast self-assurance.
Initially the grand ambiance of Prague may strike you as sober or forbidding — understandable given its history — but if you look carefully you will see a whimsical side of the city; a subtle and confident sense of self. Despite its august tone, you will also catch a glimpse of private times and intimate spaces.
But Prague’s beauty is as much about imagery as it is about images. What you will find in this transcendent city is a kind of figurative visual language; a multidimensional narrative. At times this can be a “terrible beauty” — the citizens of Prague do not hesitate to express publicly what they have endured — but what is also at the core of the beauty of this city is its citizens’ enduring quest for self-determination and collective freedom.
The Eights, the Prague Spring, and the Velvet Revolution
When the First World War ended in 1918 the Czechs and Slovaks, who were once part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, became one nation — Czechoslovakia. At the time, Bohemia, the western two-thirds of the traditional Czech lands, was the home of three million German-speaking people. Now part of Czechoslovakia, they were also soon seduced by the dream of “a greater Germany.” When Hitler demanded and got the Sudetenland as a result of the infamous Munich agreement of 1938, the Czechs began to prepare for war. Over 275,000 Czech and Slovak Jews would eventually die in concentration camps, and the Nazis would wipe out most of the Czech underground. Combined military and civilian deaths of Czechs and Slovaks would number almost 70,000.
At the end of this second World War, the citizens of Prague rose up against the German forces on May 5, 1945, just as the Soviet Red Army was approaching the city from the east. What remained of the Czech resistance began pulling out on May 8. Prague was therefore liberated before the arrival of the Soviet troops the next day.
Re-constituted as an independent state, Czechoslovakia would become a Communist state when, in the elections of 1946, the Communists emerged as the largest party gaining 36 per cent of the popular vote. During the next decade, the citizens of Czechoslovakia, and Prague in particular, would experience severe and ruthless repression, and a serious economic decline; the Communist economic policies would nearly bankrupt the country. Many were imprisoned, and hundreds were executed or died in labour camps. Their sole “crime” was a belief in democracy.
In the 1960s, however, a new president, the former leader of the Slovak Party Alexander Dubcek, began his reforms and a gradual liberalization — “socialism with a human face,” which included an end to censorship, and the re-introduction of free speech and freedom of assembly.
This was the Prague Spring and a period of time of renewed hope.
Sadly, this significant moment in European history would be brief because the Soviet leaders who saw the threat to their Communist ideology and state control knew that if they permitted Dubcek’s policies of liberalization, their power structure would be severely undermined. Therefore on the night of August 20-21, 1968, Warsaw Pact troops invaded, crushing the short-lived Prague Spring. By the end of the next day 58 people had died. However, the Prague Spring had far-reaching effects and political implications.
Resistance to Soviet control continued however. More than 14,000 Communist party functionaries and 500,000 other members of the Party continued to push for “socialism with a human face.” But they were either expelled from the Party or lost their jobs. Totalitarian rule was re-established; arrests and imprisonment of dissidents continued. Despite strong resistance, within days of the invasion, a “protocol” was issued banning all political parties and any organization that “violated socialist principles.”
The nation would have to wait another 21 years for the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, at which time Czechoslovakia experienced its relatively peaceful “Velvet Revolution.” And then, three years later on January 1, 1993, the former Czechoslovakia became two separate nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Today the Czech Republic is a member of NATO (it joined in 1999), and also a member of the European Union which it joined in in 2004.
Prague’s Josefov (Old Jewish Quarter)
The juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy in Prague is especially apparent in the Old Jewish Quarter. It is also historically a part of Prague where the principles of justice and tolerance are embedded in the site. It was named Josefov in honour of Emperor Joseph II of the Austrian Empire who ruled over what is now the Czech Republic in the 18th century. He was considered an enlightened monarch in that he gave the Jews of Prague their civil rights in 1781 when he issued his Toleration Edict.
Prague’s Old Jewish Quarter is what is now left of the former Jewish ghetto and currently has a population of between 5000 and 6000 people. Many of the Jews who lived here either died in Nazi concentration camps or were forced by the Communist Party to leave the country. The area has some stunning and very distinctive architecture, historic and highly evocative synagogues and cemeteries, and was also the birth place of Franz Kafka (1883–1924). The Old Jewish Cemetery which is at the heart of the area was founded in 1478, and is Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery.
Resources and Canadian connections
Nova Vize (New Vision) is a cross-generational magazine-style program about Czech community life in Toronto, Canada, and throughout the province of Ontario. Each week the 30-minute program will follow the cultural traditions of the Czech nation in Canada, present new social and business activities, and feature interviews with interesting community members.
Introducing new television programming for Czechs and Slovaks boldly named TV Sedna. According to the producers, “This is a radically new and unique project that crosses the boundaries of conventional and tired thought in the same manner as the recent discovery of the 10th planet of our solar system, Sedna.”
Prague as a “hub” destination for exploring the Czech Republic
We especially recommend the following:
The Museum of Communism in Prague
Occupying a small space in a compact building in the old city, the Museum of Communism sits as a mournful reminder of Soviet times. The objects in the museum seem to have been arranged half-heartedly, as if out of a sense of duty to record the past, however painful. For many visitors, the exhibits may seem almost incongruous in contemporary Prague, but in light of the suffering that occurred during the Soviet time this museum is a small but important window to the legacy of totalitarianism in the Czech Republic.
To visit the museum’s website, click here.
To watch a slideshow of images and imagery of Prague, click here.