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Issues of the Day Of Prague, Kafka and Havel

During a visit, my first, to Prague last February I was fascinated by what I saw and learned about the city and it's society.  I knew little about the country other than its reputation for culture and literature, the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989 that ended Communist rule, and that the Czechs were geographically and culturally slightly east of "Mitteleuropa" (German-dominated central Europe) and slightly west of eastern Europe.  


I also knew that there had been a significant Jewish presence in that country and had read some Kafka. 


Rock, High Culture, and Art

I was vaguely aware that rock music has a following in the Czech Republic, though Prague is historically associated with "high" culture. Classical music concerts are offered at midday, late afternoon and in the evening at numerous venues from symphony halls to churches and synagogues. Street musicians also offer serene interludes to passersby.


Art is ubiquitous and is displayed in numerous museums and galleries throughout the city. My favorite was the National Museum (New) Building, north of the city center, which has an impressive array of modern and contemporary art including excellent examples of surrealism and works in the socialist realism tradition. Pieces exemplifying the latter provide insight into the dismal suppression under which creative people, as well as ordinary Czechs, suffered during the Communist period.


What I found especially engrossing during my visit to the museum was an exhibition of Alfons Mucha's "The Slav Epic" which consists of twenty large murals by an artist whose design work in jewelry and stage sets is widely known but whose paintings were not familiar to me.


Mucha's murals recalls Slavic history, and its heritage. The historical clash between Germanic and Slavic civilizations has been a major if little-known part of the evolution of peoples in Europe and of the Czechs in particular and is beautifully depicted in these works.


Away from the Castle

Prague Castle, which sits commandingly on a hill along the Vltava River is the city's most dominant landmark and though I visited it briefly, I preferred to devote my limited stay to sights elsewhere in the city. Abutting the castle hill is the little quarter and along its edge is the Kafka Museum, which is situated in a small and unassuming building along the river.


I heard it said that "Prague is Kafka and Kafka is Prague," which the museum, with its understated presentation of the writer's life, conveys through excerpts from his books and letters and in photographs of him, his family and friends.


The impress of Prague is clearly seen in Kafka's writings and Kafka is truly everywhere in Prague. He is memorialized in Kafka Square, Kafka Café, Kafka Bookstore, in statutes and on a plaque on the façade of the building where he was born, and throughout Josefov, the Jewish Quarter, of which he was a native son.


The Jewish Quarter

A visit to the Jewish Quarter is bitter-sweet. The Jewish community in Prague (actually there had been two during the medieval period, though few remnants of the first remain) was established in the late tenth century. Throughout the years it has produced renown rabbis and other Jewish leaders who tended to a community that lived in ghetto-like conditions.


In the late 19th Century, the Jewish community was brought into modernity and has produced some of the country's best known scientific, cultural, literary and commercial figures. Its heritage is well-preserved.


New Town: The National Center

During my last day in Prague, I visited New Town, a vibrant commercial center that is also rich in contemporary history. The funeral of Jan Palach, a philosophy student who burned himself alive in 1948 to protest the Soviet invasion of the country took place there and many of the huge rallies of the Velvet Revolution were also situated in Wenceslas Square where tribute is made to Vaclav Havel, one of the country's most prominent dissidents who led the bloodless revolution went on to become the first post-communist president of the republic.


Vaclav Havel

Intrigued by Havel, I purchased one of his books, Disturbing the Peace, a political autobiography that describes his evolution from his pleasant bourgeois background, his military service, his literary development into a playwright writing in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd and as a man of letters.


Disturbing the Peace reveals a sensitive, passionate, self-critical and exceedingly thoughtful individual, human in his foibles and heroic in his acts.

I found myself nodding approvingly in reading about Havel's humanistic philosophy, egalitarian élan, spirituality, politics and insights on social change. I wish I could have met him. His legacy deserves to be honored and retold, not only among Czechs, but by all who wish to make the world a better place.


I look forward to returning to Prague and the Czech Republic in general. It was an enriching experience.

Artsy, an organization promoting accessibility to art via the Internet has a website devoted to Alfons Mucha. Viewers are invited to the page.

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved