Czechoslovakia’s History Under Communism

While we were in Prague, we visited the Communist Museum. Czechs seem to have put their post-communist energy into looking (and moving) forward and not looking back at communism. Even so, signs of their time under communist rule are unescapable.
In the 1946 elections, communists got more votes than any other party and their chairman, Klement Gottwald, became Prime Minister. He was an alcoholic, syphilitic, anti-democratic and more than happy to take orders from Stalin.
In 1948, 12 non-communist government leaders resigned as a protest, believing their resignations would not be accepted. They were.  Communists took complete control of the government and Czechoslovakia fell under the strong influence of Moscow.
There was forced collectivisation of industries and the government carried out a currency reform that rendered savings worthless.  The Czechoslovakian secret police’s repression was powerful.  People fled the country, were imprisoned and/or executed.
As you can see from the poster, Czechoslovakia supported North Korea.
This translates to “Watch Border Zone Entry Only Allowed”.
In 1968, there was a battle between hard-line communists as a group wanted liberalization to a less strict version of communism. Reforms for the end of citizen’s surveillance by the secret police, the end of censorship freedom of assembly and expression ensued.  It is known as the Prague Spring.  The Soviet Union feared the Czech Republic would leave the Communist Bloc, the spreading of liberal communism and unrest, the loss of control and an opening of borders with the West.
In 1968, the Soviet’s and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded in a large, well-executed and well-planned operation. The plastered over bullet holes are still visible on the facade of the Czech National Museum because the builders used a lighter color of plaster in their repairs.
In January 1969, student Jan Palach, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the invasion.  His funeral turned into a major protest against the occupation.  Protests were unsuccessful and a clampdown followed.  The Communist Party was thoroughly cleansed of any liberalizing members after the Prague Spring, kicked half a million members out of the part and dissolved all organizations that had supported reform.  Censorship was strict and Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty was limited by the Soviet Union.  The cross in the pavement marks the spot where Jan Palach and others died.
Wenceslas Square filled with protesters, again for protests marking the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death criticism of the regime escalated.  This time, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev didn’t react violently.   The ensuing confrontations with police were one of the catalysts for the demonstrations that preceded the fall of the communism with the Velvet Revolution 11 months later.

The museum contained a segment of the Berlin Wall which fell not long after.
 
When we were there Wenceslas Square still contained piles of memorials to its first post-communist leader Vaclev Havel who died in December 2011.
 

 

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The Golem

When we were in Prague’s Jewish Quarter, we saw the Old-New Synagogue.  I got very excited and started yammering on about the Golem of Prague. Someone asked, “wasn’t he in Lord of the Rings?”
Nope, that’s Gollum, although Tolkien may have been making an allusion to the Golem (which becomes dangerous and makes bad decisions when it gets a soul). I realized not everyone knows about the Golem, so here it goes.
The Golem is a character in Jewish folklore that is artificially created and endowed with life.  Huh?  In other words, it is an animated anthropomorphic being created entirely from inanimate matter.  Say what?
You know how Frosty the Snowman came to life one day.  It’s like that.
In the late 16th century, to protect Prague’s Jews from anti-semitic attacks, Rabbi Loew of Prague created The Golem.  He took clay from the banks of the Valta River, fashioned a man from it and said incantations to bring it to life.  Initially, the Golem was a big help, kind of like your own personal robot.
Unfortunately, the Golem could only follow orders.  This led to some strange outcomes as he would continue doing what he’d been asked to do until he was told to stop.  You can see how this could become problematic.  Eventually, the Golem ran amok and had to be deactivated.
The Golem has appeared in a vast array of works including: the Simpsons (Bart finds the Golem), Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavailer and Clay (a great read) and in various editions of Dungeons and Dragons.  It even served as inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which she started writing in Switzerland, not far from where we live).   The above statue of the Golem, looking astonishingly like Darth Vader.
 

Prague’s Jewish Quarter

Jews have lived in Prague since 965 In the 13th century, Prague’s Jews were banned from living outside a particular area of the city.  They had to leave their homes and settle in a prescribed area, the Jewish Quarter, also known as Josefov.  During the mid 1500’s, Prague’s Jewish population almost doubled as Jews were expelled from Moravia, Germany, Austria and Spain.
In 1708, Jews were 1/4 of Prague’s population and by the early 18th century, more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world. In the 19th century, Prague’s Jews gained freedoms and began integrating into society.  All that changed when the Nazis came in 1939.
Initially, the vast majority of Czech Jews were imprisoned in Terezin, a ghetto north of Prague.  Others were sent directly to concentration camps.  More than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.  Today, there are estimated to be 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in the Czech Republic.
The synagogues no longer need to serve large populations.  Rather than let them fall into disrepair, have become different parts of the Jewish Museum in Prague and are best preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in Europe.  Six synagogues remain and have been restored.  Together, they comprise the Jewish Museum.*  The sites include:

  • Jewish Town Hall (Židovská radnice) – This 18th century rococo town hall Jewish Town Hall has a clock tower whose hands run backwards as Hebrew reads from right to left.   Part of the building dates from 1586.

  • Klaus Synagogue (Klausova synagoga) – It is 16th century baroque synagogue that houses Hebrew prints, manuscripts and has a good exhibition explaining Jewish traditions and customs..
  • Maisel Synagogue (Maiselova synagog) – This 16th century synagogue was once destroyed by fire.  Now, it houses a collection of items brought to Prague by the Nazis with the intention of establishing a museum of vanished people.

  • Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova synagog) – This 16th century synagogue was rebuilt many times since it was founded in 1479.   After WWII it became a memorial to the 77,297 Jewish Czechoslovak victims of the Nazi Holocaust.  These numbers do not include Slovakian Jews, only Jews from current Czech territory.  Each of the victim’s names is written in alphabetical order on the walls with their date of birth and the date they were last seen alive.  The building is silent except for prayers and a reading the names of the dead, which alternate over the sound system.

  • Spanish Synagogue (Španělská synagog) – This 19th century synagogue is a stunning building named after its Moorish interior.  It contains an exhibition of the life of Jews in the Czech Republic.   Despite it’s appearance, it was never used by Sephardic Jews, but was an early Reform temple.

  • Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagog) – Dating from 1270, this Gothic synagogue is the oldest working in Prague.  It is legendary and reputed to be the home of the famous Golem of Prague.  It requires an additional ticket that can be purchased at the same time.

  • Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý židovský hřbitov) This 15th-18th century cemetery is  Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery and one of the most unusual sites. Founded in 1478, it is Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery.  As Jews were not permitted to bury their dead outside the Jewish Quarter and space was tight, there was a severe lack of space. 100,000 people are thought to be buried here.  To fit them all, people had to be buried on top of each other. There are about 12 layers and over 12,000 gravestones.   Since Jews do not believe in moving the dead, even when permitted to bury outside the quarter, they did not move the bodies to make more space.

It is customary for Jews to put small stones on a gravesite when visiting it.

Over the years, the bodies accumulated.  Now the cemetery is over a story above street level.

I found the concept of having a museum divided between several important buildings all within close walking distance to each other really interesting and easy to manage.  Each one has a different focus and so they compliment each other, rather than overlap. It was an incredibly interesting and moving morning.






Praha, Prague, Whatever You Call It, You Will Love it

Last weekend, we met Mrs. DiCaprio in Prague and had a great time. There are no friends like old friends and it is a wonderful city.  Aside from the great company, here are some of the things we liked about Prague:

While certain parts of Prague have definitely figured out the tourist schtick, it didn’t seem as overdeveloped and the local culture seemed a bit more accessible than some cities.
It wasn’t majorly bombed during WWII and so it is rather old and incredibly beautiful.
It’s got a ton of history, a river running through it, beautiful buildings and the light is amazing.  It gives the city a romantic, dreamy quality.
Czech culture is really interesting.  Completely over-generalizing, the Czech Republic is independent, peaceful, loves democracy and is skeptical of authority (which is understandable given their conquest and years of rule under foreign empires like the HapsburgsNazi Germany and The Soviet Union).
The Czech Republic has a rich tradition of art, music and literature that are distinctly Czech.  This tradition still percolates through daily life there.  Below is the Franz Kafka Memorial in the Jewish Quarter.  It was inspired by his story “Description of a Struggle“.
Vaclav Havel, playwright, poet, essayist, dissident and first post-communist leader of the Czech Republic died in December 2011.  His contributions cannot be overstated.

Czechs are proud of their history.  Statutes abound.  You see plaques all over the place with little paragraphs.   For example, Johannes Kepler, the mathematician, scientist and astronomer lived in Prague.  He has a plaque on a former residence.
Crosses in Prague’s main square commemorating the execution of 27 Protestants during the 30 Years War by the Catholic Hapsburgs in 1621.
There is a statute known as the Jan Hus Memorial in the center of Prague at at one end of Old Town Square.  It depicts depicts Hus, a young mother, victorious Hussite warriors and Protestants who were forced into exile.  He was burned at the stake for his beliefs that  Catholic mass should be given in the vernacular, the local language, and not in Latin.
Prague has lots of interesting public art.
 
After John Lennon’s death, people painted his portrait, lyrics and grievances on this wall.  The communist government painted them over every day.  Each night, they appeared anew.  It’s known as the Lennon Wall.
The Penguins below are by the Cracking Art Group.  They are on the edge of  Vltava River waiting for their boat to Antarctica.
We couldn’t help but get our picture taken by the Crawling Baby bronze sculpture by David Cerny.
If you get too cold walking the beautiful streets, excellent cafes and beer halls abound.  Perfect places to warm yourself up.
Prague has an abundance of things to see and do.  Three days were definitely not enough and we hope to be able to go back.