Crossing into Czechoslovakia gave us
our first dose of Communist reality. The train stopped, and we were told to stay
in our seats. A succession of officials paraded through each compartment. First came a uniformed guard, who picked up our passports and disappeared. Then came the bank lady, a smiling woman who carried a tray strapped around her neck with various currencies. We learned the concept of "magic currency."
We told her that we did not need her services because we had had the foresight to buy Czech currency in Vienna. Our first mistake! Our currency was not in order! We had Czech crowns, yes, but not the right crowns. We could
not prove that our crowns had been purchased with hard currency, such as US dollars.
Of course it had, but we could not prove it. We would have to use our
precious dollars to buy crowns from her. The exchange rate would be terrible,
but far more important, this now gave us more crowns that we would need, currency that would be virtually worthless after
What a way to begin the trip! I will say this: the bank lady was charming and very warm in her insistence. She
sat down right next to us. She had a cousin in Chicago. Chalk it up to experience-- currency has a history.
Then we received a jolt. Next came a uniformed guard who demanded to see our passports. Someone earlier had taken our passports; we had no idea where they were.
He shook his head in disbelief and moved on. He came back, and demanded
to see them again. We tried to get up to look for the first guard, but were told
firmly to stay in our seats. Is this how it would be? We had grown up during the 1950s, constantly told how arbitrary life was under communism. Would they steal our passports right at the border, then accuse us of not having our papers in order and
throw us in jail without a key? We sweated it out. Suddenly, another official came by and returned our passports just as the train started moving. We were off to Prague.
We knew well the history of
Prague, the capital of Bohemia, as a center of culture in
Central Europe. It was the one city that adored Mozart
during his own lifetime, and he returned the favor by writing the Prague Symphony. Bohemia had been
a center for religious thinking, the home of Jon Hus, a hero of Protestantism. It
was a center for Jewish life and culture. Bohemian glass was the highest expression
of that art form. Prague, jewel of the Austrian
portion of the Dual Monarchy. Prague, home of
writers and intellectuals. Prague, a city
of baroque buildings that had been spared the ravages of war.
Prague broke our
hearts. The baroque masterpieces were barricaded with scaffolds. At first, we thought it was for repairs, but then we realized that there were no repairs at all. The scaffolds were there to protect the pedestrians from falling stones.
The city literally was falling apart. The famous towers, cornices and
ornamentation were raining down, so the city was in scaffolds. Through the scaffolds,
we could see the blue, orange and golden colors of one of Europe's most beautiful cities.
In the historic area of Castle
Hill, the buildings were kept in better shape as a way to promote tourism. We
relaxed a bit, and we saw scenes of historical events we had studied, such as the Defenestration of Prague of 1618.
Bohemian resistance to Habsburg authority led to death by shoving out of a window, a "defenestration." From Castle Hill, it was possible to look down on the rest of the city and not see the scaffolds. We began to fall in love with Prague again.
Then we heard the sound of
marching feet. As evening approached, there was a display of military force by
Soviet troops, who marched from their station on Castle Hill down in the direction of the Charles Bridge. This was only five years after Soviet troops had put an end to the Prague Spring, and they remained as
an occupying force. 1968 had loomed large in our lives. As a Chicagoan, I had been present for some of the events surrounding the Democratic Convention. We all had seen the streets of Paris convulse, and wondered
whether another French revolution was upon us. We had watched the Prague Spring
and the Soviet repression. That fall, we began college in the wake of the
events of 1968. Five years later, Prague was frozen
in time, frozen in the Soviet suppression of 1968, with no apparent sign that change could be possible.
Both of my traveling companions
were Jewish, and a visit to the Jewish sites was devastating. The old Jewish
cemetery was in a state of utter disrepair. Weeds covered the cemetery, the gravestones
had falled down. Some were broken. There
were no guides, no historical markers, just a forgotten and desolate corner of the old city.
We wandered through, the silence broken by Richard and Don reading names and dates from the gravestones. They felt helpless. For the first time in Europe, they were
physically encountering the aftermath of the Holocaust. The Jews were gone from
Prague, and there was nobody to watch over their cemetery.
We sought out the old synagogues, but they were locked up. We could not
tell whether they were still in use.
We did what we could as tourists. There were a couple of beer gardens -- U Flecku and U Tomasi -- survivors from
another era. We discovered a pastry shop and developed one of cardinal rules
for our trip: people who work in pastry shops always are friendly. We found an outdoor concert of Mozart's chamber music. The
concert was well attended, and the people seemed more animated than we had seen during the day. Listening to the woodwinds with the city veiled in darkness, it was almost possible for us to imagine ourselves
in the Prague of old. The unspoken emotions
of the people around us were intense.