Prague has always been a city that I adored. Always? At least since 1978, when our school made an Easter trip to the capital of, then, Czechoslavakia, and I was a guiding teacher. While I was astounded by the beauty of the city and the contents of the musea (I still have catalogues: there were a lot of Flemish masters hanging there… At least, their paintings!), there was a tense, even hostile atmosphere at that particular time, due to the fact that ‘The Spring Of Prague‘ (*) was only nine years before. People looked depressed, didn’t dare to answer any question about it. Even an allusion was enough to see people quickly disappear: no one trusted anyone. Fear was in their eyes.
Not only in their eyes, I must admit. We saw a guy been picked up out of the crowd: a jeep-like vehicle passed and four soldiers, armed with kalashnikovs, jumped out and singled out a specific bypasser, taking him with them, all this without a word and in five seconds at the most. The staff of the hotel (on Wenceslas square! In my imagination I saw the Warsaw pact tanks still rolling down…) were party members and through a mirror, placed strategically in a corner, we saw one of them studying our passports and comparing them with endless lists. We quickly realised this mirror was put there on purpose, just so one of us would notice and tell the group, to threaten us, without making to much fuzz about it.
On the other hand, when you took the elevator alone, one of them would jump in (they were on the outlook, for sure!) and ask only one word: ‘Tauschen?‘ (‘Change?‘) They would probably kill for a few dollars, which we all had. The shops were nice but empty. As an amateur of HO gauge model railroads I bought a few railroad cars (of the brand PIKO), not even ten in total, at ridiculously low prices, while people behind us were waiting in line. When leaving the shop, one of my friends said: ‘Do you realise you emptied the shop and made the guys behind you sad?‘ Suddenly I felt so ashamed, depriving these people from the few things they had…
It went very far: some of our group of last year students and teachers had visited the quarter with the night cafes, with prices only foreigners could afford, and the day after they told us that they had met people who spoke more or less freely about the Spring, the regime, etcetera. These all too nice Czechs claimed to be unhappy and wanted to know what the West was thinking of this. We damped the enthusiasm of the members of our group when we pointed out that they hadn’t met courageous dissidents, but trained party spies for Moscow, who wanted to extract ‘useful’ information from our folks. They had been a (very small) pawn in the communist game. This was in all respects pure Kafka!!!
This general atmosphere of gloom and doom, sadness and pure paranoia was underlined by our guide, who never said a word wrong (well trained doggy!) and for instance took us to see the place where the killers of Hitler’s right hand Heydrich had hid and were betrayed, and finally killed. She didn’t mention Lidice, I still wonder why… But I told the whole story to the others, afterwards. I can assure you that this, coupled with the border control (in and out), which was a real showdown, with people crawling in and under the bus, gave our trip a weird and bizarre edge. I even didn’t tell all I had seen or deducted, because it would have made my fellow travellers uneasy and maybe even disappointed. The only small light in the whole matter was that practically all shops had postcards and other memorabilia, related to ‘der brave Soldat Schwejk‘: it was a open and even blatant form of protest against which the oppressor had no answer. So they allowed it, maybe to release steam out of the kettle of resistance…
I take that Prague nowadays has no memory of all this and that only the beauty radiates, unscathed, unharmed. Belgian folk band Lupa Luna recorded a song by someone who was overwhelmed by the city. They included this in their 2009 CD ‘Le ciel est au bout‘ (‘Heaven’s At The End‘) Here’s an extract from a review of a Lupa Luna concert a few months ago (De Centrale in Gent, May 24th)
‘…The following song, ‘St Sarah’, then again is a moment of requited magnificence. Luc Van Autreve, head of the ‘onafhankelijke kunstenarij’ (‘independent art-ery’) De Ontginning in Zaffelare where part of the CD was recorded, wrote this, presumably after a trip to Prague. There you find the Carolus Bridge,earlier on called Judithbrug, which was built from 1357 onwards. It’s 516 m long with 16 arches. It crosses the Moldau and connects the two main city parts; the tower is one of the most beautiful gothic buildings in the world. On that bridge thirty statues were erected in 1700, mostly in baroque style. Copies of these statues can be found at the gate of the church for Saint Sarah. These inspired Luc to write a poem full of poetic imagery: ‘Welkom zingt St Sarah en denk nu niet langer. Laat langzaam je verlangen vervagen in de klank van dit uur.’ (‘Welcome, Saint Sarah sings and stop the pondering. Let your longing dissipate slowly in the sound of this hour.’)…’
In 1971 I visited Hungary and although there was the same iron curtain and an identical communist dictatorship, the atmosphere was somehow more relaxed and people gave the impression to lead a life that was ‘free’. Moskou simply hadn’t succeeded in dividing the nation as they clearly had done in Czechoslovakia… Only when we asked our handsome young guide about the rebellion of 1956, fear got in her eyes and she completely shut down. Wonder what she thinks now!
Antoine Légat (19 10 12)
(*) In sixth form of my Latin classes I always read and explained a truly magnificent… Latin poem about the Prague Spring, which led me to do ample research on the subject. As an 18 year old I had monitored closely the dramatic events and sympathised with Czech people. Belgian journalist Maurice De Wilde was the last to leave the country and made the very last pictures (with a camera hidden in a box on his car), under the noses of the Warsaw Pact. These images went around the world. Later on, the suicide of Jan Palach struck me deeply.