Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Destination Life : The ghosts of Prague

In her latest Destination Life column, Michelle Styles recounts a visit to Prague.
When I first thought about writing this blog about Prague, I thought I would write about the many marionette shops, the cobbled streets and the fantastic atmosphere. Because it was never bombed during WW2 and then mouldered gently under the Communists, it boasts of many unique buildings with place names that seem straight out of fairy tale. Who can resist a place which boasts of  a Winter Queen and a Street of Gold where alchemists once toiled to turn base metal in the real thing. But Prague and my visit to it had a much more profound effect on me.
It is a city of ghosts and memories. The most obvious were in the old Jewish Quarter. In the 19th century, the Jewish ghetto of Prague was a byword for  over crowding. Many tales were told of the magical happenings, in part inspired by Rabbi Low's golem. Supposedly in the late 16th century, Rabbi Low created a clay creature and brought it to life by placing a magical tablet in its mouth. The creature went berserk and the Rabbi had to risk life and limb to remove the tablet and stop the golem. Later he secreted the creature in the rafters of the Old-New synagogue where legend has it remains to this day. However, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the city authorities started to raze the ghetto and move people out. This was exacerbated by WW2. Hitler had plans to make the Old Jewish Quarter a memorial to a dead race. The Jewish Quarter is now mainly silent except for tourists, but it is a different sort of memorial. The Pinkas Synagogue serves as a memorial to all those Jewish Czecholslovak citizens who were deported by the Nazis to concentration camps and did not return. The names of  77,297 people are inscribed on the walls but it was the exhibition of children's drawings from the Terezin concentration camp that had tears flooding down my face. There was one which said -- Dreaming of Palestine and freedom.
The ghosts of WW2 are not just confined to the Jewish Quarter, the Orthodox cathedral of SS Cyril and Methodius still bear the bullet holes and scars of when the Czech agents who had assassinated the hated Heydrich were captured. They had initially escaped and everyone thought it was going to plan but they were eventually betrayed by a member of the Czech Resistance. The Nazi fury at what happened led directly to the death of 10,000 Czechs, including those who were burnt alive in a barn near the village of  Lidlice. The memorial to the men and the rest of the victims of the brutal reign of Heydrich is covered in flowers. Their story was told in the 1977 movie Operation Daybreak. It is a profoundly moving place not the least for the sacrifices of the bishops and priests involved.
Finally because my husband wanted to get my eldest who was studying Russian a real communist souvenir rather than something from one of the many vendors, we ended up down a back street in a used military equipment place, hung with cigarette smoke and full of odd exhibits. Several guns, a black leather over coat, and a knife with rust stains. It reminded me of a cross between something from a John le Carre novel and the black magic shop in Harry Potter. The former KGB agent/army officer was on the phone and we backed out of the place, returning to the light and bustle of modern day Prague. My sons had to make due with fake Soviet Army hats...
Sometimes when you go to a city, it can be good to visit the hidden byways and it can be the least expected things that linger in your mind. Is there any place unexpected that has lingered far longer than you thought it would?
Michelle Styles writes for Harlequin Historical. Her next UK release is the Viking's Captive Princess in December and A Question of Impropriety will be her next US release also in December. You can learn more about Michelle's books on her website

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