We took an extra day getting to Prague, because our train to Munich was delayed and we missed the last train to Prague. As it turned out it was not a bad thing, because it was already a very long day, and we probably should have divided it up in the first place. So we were able to find a hotel a few steps away from the Munich train station, and also find a Brauerei to sample some Bavarian beer and (in Sam’s case) brats. We found a huge beer hall/brewery that was bustling. Sam had probably his favorite meal of the trip, and I took advantage of their advertised “Asparagus Season” specials (they get very excited about this, even calling it “White Gold”) and had some hulking spears of white asparagus with new potatoes salmon and lots of butter, also very delicious. Add to that some very thirst quenching Weizen beer and Pilsner, and it was a nice if unexpected stop.
Once we had arrived in Prague and settled into our apartment in the Karlin neighborhood of Prague, we tried to duplicate last night’s fare by walking towards the center of town to one of the many Czech beer halls. Since every experience of this kind is a new one, it always takes a bit of orienting to figure out how to get served. In this case, you asked the bartender for a small or large, he gets it for you, and then hands you a tab with about 20 little beer mugs printed on it. This is your beer tab, and they cross off the beer mugs as the night continues. You better hang on to it, or else! The beer was very refreshing, but the food wasn’t very tasty. One of the house, and local, specialties that happened to be vegetarian is “fried cheese” which is also breaded. It was tough, and very bland…..However the atmosphere was very cheerful and the people seemed friendly, and it was a very pleasant evening.
It took us a few days to get used to being in the Czech Republic because suddenly all the street signs had a lot of consonants clumped together. We had practiced some basic words on the train coming in, but I’m afraid that by the end of the trip, we’d only mastered thank you in Czech which is, in transliteration, “die ku ee”. Most places we went we were able to get by with English. However, my knowledge of German and Russian did come in handy because Czech does have some similarities to Russian, and quite a few Czechs speak German, thought because of their history during the war, I tried to avoid speaking German unless someone spoke to me in it.
The first few days of our time in Prague were overshadowed by news from Chicago that Isobel, our niece was sick with an infection, and in the hospital. So I didn’t feel much like sightseeing at first. It was a very tense few days, as I was preoccupied by being very far away from my family in a time of need. Fortunately Isobel made a very good recovery, and by the time she was well enough to go home (after four days), she was really wanting to. We had to wait a while to Skype with her, but when we did, she was as bouncy as ever, and up to her usual fun and games with her brother Harry.
We decided to take a few more tours than usual in Prague, probably because we were losing a bit of steam, but also because in some cases, it suited our interests. This was true of Terezin or Theresienstadt, the former garrison town 60 miles north of Prague, that was used during WWII as a ghetto, concentration and transit camp for Jews from Prague and later on from all over Europe. It is a living museum, while continuing to exist as an isolated small Czech town.
At its worst point in history the Nazis imprisoned 58,000 Jews there, mostly Czech Jews, but with large numbers of German, Austrian and Dutch Jews. Approximately 150,000 Jews were sent there, including 15,000 children, of whom only 150 survived. 33,000 died from the inhuman living conditions, disease or were murdered, and approximately 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps. At the end of World War II, there were 17,247 survivors in Terezin, including some who had survived the death camps. The site is vast, and we could only take in a part of all the exhibits, some of which included rooms full of paintings, drawings, diaries and musical compositions that amazingly were created by inmates both young and old in such extreme circumstances. Children’s welfare and education was a particular focus by the adults who had special skill or interest in that area, including one very gifted artist and teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, under whose supervision the children produced 4,000 works of art. They did their best to provide as varied and rich an education for them as possible, in a somewhat separate location, which provided some respite from the misery of camp life. We also got to see parts of the well-known propaganda film that the Nazis were filming during the war to show the visiting International Red Cross that Terezin was a peaceful town of resettlement for the Czech Jews.
It seemed strange to be walking down a street or across the main Terezin square or waiting for the bus to take us back to the train while the town’s current inhabitants were going about their ordinary daily business, pushing strollers, talking on their cell phones, waiting for the bus. Many feelings and realizations came over us on this day, from arriving at the train station where the camp’s inmates arrived, to the crematorium, to the many memorials placed by victims’ families posthumously, and of course the extraordinary signs of humanity expressed through the works of art displayed and the written testimony of the lives of the inmates.
While in Prague we also took a tour of the Jewish neighborhoods, a few synagogues, and the old Jewish Cemetery as well as a tour focusing on WWII and subsequent Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Perhaps the most striking monument on this whole tour was to a group of special forces who were responsible for the death of one of Hitler’s most important and ruthless leaders, Heydrich. In response to this assassination Hitler ordered for two nearby Czech villages to be completely destroyed, and put up a reward any information leading to the arrest of those responsible for Heidrich’s murder. Ultimately meant they were betrayed by one of their group, and were killed in an attack by the occupiers on a Russian orthodox church where they were had been given secret sanctuary. The name of their mission was “Operation Anthropoid.” Anthropoid is also the name of a recent film that tells the story, the whole of which was filmed in Prague.
Apart from these tours, we enjoyed walking around the city, getting used to the very efficient and clean metro system, visiting the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square.
The Easter festivities added something to the experience. We were surprised to hear about some of the Easter customs, and how Easter Monday is a very high-spirited and colourful day. We were slightly concerned that the whole town would shut down for Easter, because seeing people celebrating their holidays can feel a bit isolating to us, but that wasn’t the case.
Tea houses are delightful in Prague, and they are definitely Eastern influenced. We went to a few tea houses that had all the traditional Chinese accoutrements, and we drank many infusions from the same pot.
We also met the daughter and fiancé of our good friends Susan and Steve, and had a delightful evening of beer and good Czech food with Elle and Tommy, and learned about their experiences of living in Prague. They both seemed to like the pace of life and the feeling of living in a very safe city. We did notice that on the underground the people seemed very unhurried, and even mellow. There was not a lot of pushing and shoving, at least not that we saw. Even though Prague is beautiful, I think we didn’t quite take to the city as much as we thought we would, partly because it was very crowded, but we did take to the chilled out Czech way of life, and the beautiful countryside, and friendly people.