Letter from the Czech Republic

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Prague, Communists, Velvet Revolution, Dvořák, Czech Highlands, Iron Curtain, Bohemia, Churchill, Cold War, Jewish cemeteries & prayer books.

I came to the countryside to get out of Prague. The Czech capital is enchanting, a colorful bricolage of buildings—yet perhaps even too charming, attracting herds of tourists who stampede down from Hradčany, the castle on the city’s highest hill, across the Charles Bridge and into Old Town Square. It threatens to turn the city into not only a canned experience, but an effacing one.

I wanted to get deeper inside the place, away from the noise of pubs, to somewhere I could hear stories. Now was a good time. A quarter century after the Velvet Revolution introduced a period of democracy and relative prosperity, some Czechs were digging into their past, which had been buried under layers and debris of twentieth-century calamities: falling empires, rising nationalism, Nazis, and Communists. The proximity of the anniversary made people reflect on the strange turns of their lives.

“My father was a high official with the Communists,” one woman from Telč told me. “After the revolution, everyone was outside singing and dancing and celebrating, and he was inside his room with the shades pulled down. He didn’t want to watch. But he also went straight to the phone and began calling people he knew. He was making business. It was like that with all the Communists. They lost the government power, but they had the contacts. The people who celebrated were still poor after and the people who were sad got all the money.”

“So he became a capitalist?”

“No. He still says he is a communist—a communist businessman.”

I would go, I decided, by bicycle, which I rented from a local agency called the Greenways Travel Club, and set out on the trails and secondary roads that wend through the countryside.

On the way south, not far from Prague, I met Antonin Dvořák. I was in Nelahozeves, his ancestral home.

He was a sturdy 80-year-old and carried in one arm a timid and tiny Yorkie named Haffi who was about Antonin’s age in dog years. He took me to the estate where his grandfather, the great composer, wrote many of his major works. He used a heavy metal key to open a big wooden door that breached a stone wall surrounding the property, and we walked up a path toward a house within a sprawling forest of spindly trees. A second-floor room had a dining table, and a puffed-up feather bed in a corner that made it feel as if it had all just been tidied up before whoever lived there returned home. On the walls were framed letters and sepia photographs of Dvořák, and when my Dvořák stood next to them, you could see that the patriarch had left the world his music, but left his grandson his face, his deep-set eyes under the eaves of heavy brows, a wide nose and swept-back gray hair.

The family tradition was always to name one son Antonin. It must have been part honor and part affliction, to be labeled a facsimile at birth, since of course there could be only one “real” Dvořák.

But my Dvořák seemed happy to bask in his grandfather’s reflected glory—though it had shined relatively late in life.

“Before the Velvet Revolution,” he said, dropping his chin, “I was only Dvořák.” He worked as an engineer in a nuclear-energy plant, and though he was clearly an intelligent man he’d been a mere cog in the industrial wheel of the Soviet satellite. “But after the Velvet Revolution,” he said, waving his hand boldly as if he were conducting a symphony, “I was Dvořák!”

There were different reasons—some quite absurd, looking back—that had to do with Czech nationalism, the Communists, and their questions about Dvořák’s patriotism due to time Dvořák spent in Spillville, Iowa. In any case, Antonin’s story was unusual among others I heard, only in that his grandfather was so famous. In another way, it was emblematic of how 1989 had been like the parting of the Red Sea, of black and white before versus vivid colors after.

Before the Velvet Revolution, I was only Dvořák. But after the Velvet Revolution, I was Dvořák!

A couple of days later I rolled into Klatovec, a tiny village in the Czech Highlands. On a narrow road lit up by wild red poppies and purple lupines, I turned off onto a narrow road into the woods and arrived at a forge. They were a family of blacksmiths. Alfred “Freddie” Habermann, sixty, greeted me with his sons, Josef, thirty-three, and David, thirty. They were ready to get down to business.

“Okay, you’re here, so let’s do some smithing,” Josef said. He and David, wearing leather aprons and bandannas, fired up the furnace. They held a metal rod with tongs in the furnace until it turned orange-red and became like taffy. Then they began pounding it, the two of them together, creating a shrill, rhythmic cadence.

“Blacksmith music,” said Freddie, with a discernible twinkle in his eyes.

For generations, blacksmiths had thrived in the Czech Republic. The ubiquitous countryside castles needed enough work that a diligent, skilled smith could bang out a good living. The region’s location as a central European crossroad meant that people were constantly bringing in new knowledge, materials, and techniques. The Communists quashed most of that. Aesthetic endeavors were considered bourgeois. There were no more commissions from castles; remnants of a decadent past were left to decay. The Communists wanted factory workers. How many hammers and sickles could a smith do? The Iron Curtain closed off the flow of people and knowledge.

For people like Freddie’s father, Alfred, it was as if they’d cut off the supply of oxygen. A renowned master known as “the pope of the blacksmiths,” he got permission to emigrate in 1985. Freddie stayed, but was barred from smithing until the Velvet Revolution put him back into business. Eventually Josef and David apprenticed with him. Another son makes horseshoes, while a daughter is a goldsmith and jewelry designer. Alfred died in 2008, age eighty-four.

“Freedom is everything to a blacksmith,” said Freddie.

Josef and David finished pounding and shaping the piece they worked on—a Habermann leaf, which is their signature—and now they put it aside so we could tour the property as it cooled and hardened.

Each Habermann had a specialty, and as they walked me through the forge and the garden outside I saw samples of their work. Freddie, known for the gates he crafted, also designs abstract works, such as one featuring two attenuated shafts of metal, one bending toward the other, which he named “Resolution.” Another was a large mobile of oval shafts that he called “The Universe.” A devout Catholic, his work also contained religious motifs. Josef’s specialty was restoration. He showed me a lockbox whose labyrinthine mechanism he’d reconstructed through reverse engineering. Restoration also seemed symbolic of the blacksmiths, and the family.

I thanked them for taking time to show me around.

“Wait,” Josef said. He disappeared into the forge and came out holding the Habermann leaf. “Here,” he said, holding it out to me. “We made it for you.”

I tucked the leaf away and continued on my way, for the first time noticing the gates, grilles, lamps and locks of the castles alongside the road—the castles themselves no longer reminders of the past, but a gallery of Czech master smiths’ work.

Under a thick cover of clouds, I pedaled until I arrived in Cisov, a tiny Czech village in southern Bohemia along the border with Austria. Its small stone houses were set close to one another, and I felt the bicycle rattling on the rutted main road. I didn’t see anything resembling a storefront, but found a tavern where a merry troupe of spandex-clad cyclists drank golden pilsners around a long picnic table. It was 9 a.m. The ones who spoke no English at all laughed at the ones who tried, insisting that I join in their liquid whole-grain breakfast.

I accepted, then switched to coffee before getting back in the saddle to see Cisov’s main attraction, the Czech Republic’s last remnant of the Iron Curtain. German-speakers had populated the region for most of the five centuries it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Czechs and Slovaks united as a country in 1923. In 1938 the Nazis invaded and annexed the region they called the Sudetenland, and when the Allies liberated it in 1945, the Czech government expelled 3.5 million German-speakers, whom they perceived as Nazi sympathizers and collaborators. Needing to repopulate the region to sustain industry and agriculture, they offered incentives for Czech speakers from other parts of the country to move in.

Then, as Churchill later phrased it, an Iron Curtain descended across the continent, and Cisov became an Eastern Bloc frontier town, a militarized zone to watch the Austrian border and keep its own people from fleeing across it. Until 1989, when the nonviolent uprising known as the Velvet Revolution let all of these historical tremors settle, and the world came back into focus.

Then, as Churchill later phrased it, an Iron Curtain descended across the continent, and Cisov became an Eastern Bloc frontier town, a militarized zone to watch the Austrian border and keep its own people from fleeing across it.

A light wind combed a field of yellow-brown wheat while I rode. On the side of the road a barbed-wire fence ran for several hundred meters to a squat and gloomy black watchtower. It was a relic of the Iron Curtain, and yet it looked like a piece of protest art. I thought of a Czech man I’d spoken to in upstate New York—another blacksmith, named Vaclav Barina—who in the 1980s escaped by clawing his way under the fence. The feat of desperation was even more difficult to imagine seeing the physical layout for myself.

A young couple rode up, stepped off their bikes, and pulled out a camera. The man climbed up the watchtower’s metal stairs and the woman ordered him to come down. They put their cheeks together and he held his camera with a straight arm to record the moment. I offered to take their picture.

“Make the tower be in the picture,” he said. He learned English working a chairlift at a Vermont ski resort for two seasons.

I asked if the place had any particular memory or meaning to him.

“It was a horrible period,” he said. “Thanks God it’s over. I was just a kid, so it didn’t affect me, but my father tells stories. He patrolled in Germany, but it was all like this. He had to serve two years with the army. Once, he took off his uniform jacket because it was too hot, and he was walking with it under his arm like this and the other soldiers started shooting at him.” He pantomimed someone using a machine gun.

“Why did they shoot?”

“They thought he was trying to escape.”

His father had visited two years ago, revisiting a time many would just as soon forget, probably the way someone fingers a scar left by a bad accident. He arrived, looked at the fence, and left, the man said.

I took their photograph and handed over my camera so they could take mine, too. Then we climbed onto our bikes, said goodbye, and put the Cold War behind us.

Over the next few days I rode through several villages perched on mountains, brightly painted homes divided by narrow lanes and cobblestone squares with clock towers and church spires. Castles were typically perched high above town. (People often assume the Prague Castle, or Hradčany, was Kafka’s model, but any of the towns I saw could be the setting for his famous novel.) Between the hamlets were great fields of barley, meadows speckled with wild red poppies, horse paddocks, and forests framing cultivated fields of sunflowers.

East of Cisov, I arrived in Mikulov, just north of the Austrian border, and checked into the Hotel Templ. The name referred to its prior use as a synagogue, and after arriving I took a walk up what for centuries had been the Jews’ street. Some of the disused temples and study houses had been repurposed, some rehabilitated. The addresses on Jewish homes had once been marked with Latin numerals to differentiate them from Christian homes, which used Arabic numerals.

Being Jewish myself, I had been fascinated by the Jewish history of Czechoslovakia. The six-hundred-year-old community produced a census of major figures, rabbis and writers, mystics and merchants. In the twentieth century they had become cosmopolitan and acculturated in ways that I found very relatable. (Kafka, who had a kind of religious and Zionist awakening toward the end of his life, criticized his father, a shop owner, for going to synagogue only on high holidays.) The community had grown to 375,000 people before the Nazis annihilated them, and then the Communists did their best to blot out their memory by barring serious discussion of them. Even now, they occupied a place in the conscious of many Czechs. One of Prague’s must-see sites is the Jewish cemetery in the Josefov neighborhood. What better place to encounter a dead community?

Headstones were uprooted and stacked sideways to create a retaining wall to build the cemetery up and make more burial space.

Mikulov’s Jewish cemetery bore certain similarities, the big difference being that no one else was there. Getting in required finding someone with a key, and then, once inside, it was a haunting place. It contained thousands of graves; over six centuries, the dead had outgrown the space. Headstones were uprooted and stacked sideways to create a retaining wall to build the cemetery up and make more burial space. Jewish DNA here ran deep, quite literally. Religious Jews come to visit graves of tzadikim, or holy men, lighting candles and leaving behind personal prayers and messages in pieces of paper, which were scattered like litter.

And yet it was a sign of life. Some headstones were so old that it was hard to make out their heavily eroded Hebrew letters. Trees grew everywhere at strange angles, sometimes twisting and misshapen, even out of the graves themselves, pushing the steles sideways. No Jews lived or were buried in Mikulov since the 1940s; a few Holocaust survivors had returned briefly after World War II but did not stay. Authorities, who did not permit any acknowledgment of Jews, barred anyone from entering the graveyard. Left to themselves, trees had self-seeded and grown wildly. When people entered the cemetery in the 1990s, a controversy arose between those who wanted to clean it up and those who saw the haunted forest as part of the historical record they wanted to preserve.

One person who had plumbed the past, and literally mined the earth that contained it, was a local painter named Sylva Chludilova. I went to see her on the old Jewish street, where her building, once a cheder, or a Jewish study house, contained her gallery and living quarters. Sylva was a matronly woman who wore a loose-fitting dress and at forty-seven carried herself in a way that suggested she’d given up all vanity. We sat under the vaulted ceiling of her garden-level apartment and, as twilight shadows dimmed the room, progressed from tea to shots of medovina, a local honey wine.

“Do you like it?” she asked.

She was delighted to hear that I did. She didn’t remember any particular event that spurred her interest in Jewish history. Like the trees in the cemetery, her curiosity about the Jews had just seeded itself.

“When I read the stories or see these things,” she said, referring to Jewish objects like ritual candelabras and scrolls, “I just felt something. In school, you couldn’t talk about anything Jewish. The Holocaust was never mentioned. You couldn’t talk about it openly.”

“Do you have any Jewish roots?” I asked.

“Maybe. We don’t know.”

Sylva’s work hung from the walls, and canvasses of various sizes were stacked or set upright in clusters against the wall. Her style included layering light with shades of white, gray, and black. Portraits of holy men and other imagery drew on the Hebrew alphabet. Some works alluded to Jewish legends, such as one about a rabbi who buried a menorah during a pogrom, though only he knew where it was. Centuries later another rabbi who knew it existed prayed until he saw seven stars pointing to it.

She related to the story in particular because from the time she first moved to the apartment, she’d found signs of Jewish life in her garden, likes signs to the past. And like the cemetery up the street, it included both what was buried and what grew on its own.

“How so?” I asked.

“I go outside and dig,” she said. “I find buttons, pieces of ceramic, a prayer book.”

“How often do you find something?” I asked.

She smiled coyly. “Every time,” she said.


In 2015, Todd Pitock received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers as Travel Journalist of the Year and was a double-winner of the American Society of Journalists & Authors Award. He can be reached at todd@toddpitock.com.

Lead image by Marketa

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