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Prague: A Dual Heritage of Beauty and Sacrifice

Robert R. Thompson

Prague shows the world that sacrifice is not futile, that evil can be fought and ultimately, defeated.

The TV trailer for the new film XXX explodes on the screen; sound and fury, snarling faces. But behind the explosions and screaming people it is possible to make out some of the scenery in the background. I recognize that city. I just visited there with a group of professors and recognized immediately in the XXX film clips its famous landmarks. There was the medieval Charles Bridge over the Vltava River, along with the spires of St. Vitus' Cathedral towering above the ancient walls of Hradcany Castle. The city is Prague. The spectacular capitol of the Czech Republic is one of the locations for this new action adventure film.

The young Czech woman who guided us around the city and to our professional meetings noted, somewhat wryly, that in movies Prague sometimes stands in for other cities. In The Bourne Identity, for example, Prague was Zurich. But in the soon to be released I Spy, like XXX the action both takes place in and was filmed in Prague.

On a special about the film on The Black Entertainment Network, Vin Diesel, XXX's star stood on the Charles Bridge. Considering his own impressive exploits in the film, Vin Diesel seemed awed by the splendid backdrop Prague provided for those exploits. Another of our Czech friends, though, expressed some unease with the film's story: Russian terrorists based in Prague. She felt that this plot echoed the reality of the communist leaders who, before 1989 and their fall, were alleged to have supplied explosives to terrorist groups.

Still, Prague has often been a prime film location since the end of World War II, and no doubt it brings money into the city. This is partly because 50 years of war and Cold War, from 1939 to 1989, took an enormous toll on the other capitol cities of eastern and central Europe such as Berlin, Warsaw, Budapest and Bucharest. Prague, capitol of Czechoslovakia until 1993 when the country peacefully split into two nations, the Czech republic and Slovakia, did not escape that era's turmoil.

The city and the nation suffered a brutal Nazi occupation during World War II, was made a part of the Soviet block after the war, and was crushed in 1968 by a Soviet and Warsaw Pact invasion when Czechoslovakians tried to break free of the Soviet Union. But the city mostly escaped the extensive destruction its sister European cities suffered. Consequently, the "City of Spires" maintains the beauty and fascination which has attracted visitors since the Middle Ages, and now filmmakers.

As Prague is an attractive backdrop for spies and counter spies, super heroes and their evil adversaries, it is also a tourist magnet. And Prague is a place to study post-communist. Oppressed but not destroyed, Prague attracts with its beauty. And its people relish its standing as one of Europe's premier cities. As I spoke with our hosts, wandered around the city, and watched the Czechs, it was apparent that both young and old dress stylishly and stride about with confidence.

The tactile, physical beauty of the city, and of its people, which glows in reality and on the movie screen, draws one in, and, in a sense, leads to "another" Prague. This other Prague is less tangible, but no less remarkable than the visible spires and towers of this ancient city. And the people of Prague are no less proud of its heritage. What I found to be especially remarkable about the intangible city was its quiet instruction in lessons about resilience and sacrifice.

Early one evening, after our academic meetings finished, I walked across the Charles Bridge which has been, since 1400, the main artery which connects the city on either side of the Vltava River. The evening was pleasant with a cool breeze coming off the river. Behind me the setting sun highlighted the spires of the 14th century St. Vitus' Cathedral, the walls of Prague Castle, and the distinctive Judith and Mala Strana towers of the bridge. Ahead, a crescent moon hung low over the bridge's stately Stare Mestro tower, and the sun's last rays glinted off the distinctive statues of saints and heroes which stand atop each side of the bridge, and off the far skyline studded with more spires. During the middle ages the bridge was a center for commerce and trade. It is still one of Prague's most vital spots. Musicians and artists, vendors, peddlers, and hawkers all vie to attract those of us in the endless stream of people moving back and forth over the bridge.

Some of the cafes that I passed heading to the bridge were booming out the loud pop music which seems to permeate all the east European countries that I have visited. But on the bridge a young casually dressed male violinist was playing � Dvorak, of course � the patron saint of Czech music. Was he playing just for tourists? Maybe. But it was clear from their murmured comments that many of the young people gathered around the violinist, bewitched by the music's piercing beauty, were Czech. I stood on one side of the bridge next to an artist making charcoal drawings of tourists and made a full 360 degree turn to soak it all in: the bridge, the statues, the architecture, the people. At that moment I felt as if I stood in the center of the world.

The next day, sunny but a bit warm for mid-June in northern central Europe, I returned, as everyone does, to the Charles Bridge. I got a sense that some tourists never went much beyond this spot's allure. I kept thinking I was seeing the same people. I, too, wanted to absorb the sights and sounds of the bridge in full daylight. But I also felt the need to explore further, to search for that less tangible Prague. Surrounded by medieval glory, I headed off the bridge and into the city.

I passed through the winding streets of the Stare Mesto, the "Old Town." The square in the center of this historic district is lined by picturesque medieval buildings. It is dominated by the multi-spired early Gothic Tyn church, and the Old Town Hall of 1338. Looking down from the Old Town Hall's tower is the famously picturesque, and still working, Astronomical Clock. Its large, complicated, and colorful face shows, among other things, a bright sun, the moon's phases, and the signs of the Zodiac. Yet the face is only part of the clock's charm. Since 1490 people have waited for the hour to chime, when carved figures of Christ's Apostles parade around the bottom of the clock, and a skeleton representing death seems to cackle, while it tips an hourglass and rings its bell.

I headed out of the Old Town square, perhaps the most beautiful location in old Prague, and over to Wenceslaus Square. It's not really a square, but a long avenue which extends several blocks up a slight hill. At the top of the Square, crossing it like the top of a "T" is the National Museum, an imposing neo-Renaissance building of the Hapsburg Empire built in the 1880s. Across the street, down from the Museum in a wide plaza, is a large equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslaus-of "Good King Wenceslaus" Christmas carol fame. He is one of the patron Czech saints, a hero and symbol of the Czech nation.

The square is the heart of the Czech Republic, where Czechs have come since 1848 to protest, demonstrate, and to celebrate. In 1989 they gathered here by the thousands and brought down the communist government in a peaceful "Velvet Revolution", during eastern Europe's autumn of revolt. But, earlier, in 1969, after the tanks of the Soviet Union and other eastern European Warsaw Pact nations crushed an earlier attempt at freedom in 1968, the square saw heroic, if fruitless attacks against invading tanks and soldiers. The National Museum still bares bullet scars from the Soviet onslaught.

And it was here, on January 16, 1969, near the statue of King Wenceslaus that university student Jan Palach burned himself to death to protest the invasion. His sacrifice inspired dissidents such as Vaclav Havel, the author/dissenter who spent time in jail, and after the successful 1989 revolution became president of free Czechoslovakia. The day after Palach's act, 200,000 Czechs filled the square in quiet protest.

A small, round oval of grass and stone is memorial to Palach and other victims of communism. It has a simple cross, pictures, and a plaque which commemorates their heroism. I stood in front of the memorial and glanced up at the stately columns of the National Museum which stretches across the top of the Square. The building's august presence, and the figure of King Wenceslaus, symbolized the beautiful Prague of pictures, and highlighted the simplicity and power of the memorial to the young Czechs who had died to let all know that freedom still lived in their nation.

As I stood, a steady stream of people moved back and forth, up and down the Square, some heading to the Museum, some to the shops which lined the Square. In fact, the shops which extend all along both sides of the long square are also a "monument" to the freedom of the new capitalist era. There were the requisite tacky tourist shops. (I admit it-I bought Prague tee shirts for my whole family.) But also designer shops like Gap, and Czech clothes boutiques whose names I couldn't pronounce. And, there were some cafes.

A short detour took me away from the Square and down into the Lucerna Passage. Here is where the young people hang out. There were very fancy clothing and jewelry shops, some very expensive cafes, and a restaurant with a rock club, or was it the other way around? It was crowded in the middle of the afternoon. It must be packed in the evenings with that whole new class of young Czechs who have expendable income for entertainment. Capitalism had, in Prague, spread its bounty wider than what I had seen in past years in other formerly communist nations, such as Russia.

Back in the Wquare, by Jan Palach's memorial, foreign tourists like me with cameras, and Czechs as well, still stopped at the simple oval, stood, sighed, and shook their heads. Were these fruitless deaths? Even though their sacrifice was a first step on the road to 1989, democracy, and the attractions of capitalism? I took this question with me as I headed away from the Square through more winding streets, past quaint 19th century houses and grimy gray apartments from the communist era.

I was moving close to the Vltava River. Looking down the side streets in the distance I could see boats cruising on the river and the spires of churches on the far side of the river. On the corner of Resslova and Na Zderaze Streets was the Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius. In this modest but elegant Baroque church, built between 1730 and 1740, there had taken place what is now referred to as "A great act by a small church". I came here because one of our Czech colleagues suggested it. I had asked about other Prague sites to visit, perhaps not so well known, but also important to Prague's past. She immediately suggested this church, and, despite the fact she was born long after the war, she was especially animated when she talked about the importance of this place for Czechs.

In 1942, Prague and, what was then Czechoslovakia, were in the grip of Nazi Germany. The infamous Munich Pact of 1939 had delivered the nation to Hitler. In 1941 the country was ruled by SS Obergruppenfuhrer and General of Police Reinhard Heydrich, also known as the "Butcher of Prague." On December 28th and 29th a small group of Czech soldiers who had been trained in Great Britain parachuted in near Prague. Their mission was to assassinate Heydrich. They attacked him on May 27, 1942 as he traveled in an open car, and he died of his wounds on June 4, 1942.

The assassination was followed by fierce Nazi retributions all across Czechoslovakia. The Nazis were most desperate to capture the parachutists. They swept through and searched all over Prague without success. The soldiers had found refuge in the crypt of the Church of saints Cyril and Methodius. But they were betrayed, located, and then killed themselves during a fierce fight with the Nazis, rather then surrender.

Now just over 60 years after the parachutists' battle with the Nazis ,the church's outer wall is still marked by bullet holes where 800 SS and Gestapo troopers launched their attack against the few Czech parachutists. Was theirs yet another fruitless act of defiance? I walked around the side of the church and down a steep stairway into the crypt. No one else was there.

The crypt was long and narrow, dank and gloomy, with a high ceiling. It ended at another stairway, which went up into the interior of the cathedral; it was there the Nazis had broken through. After the battle the Nazis killed anyone even remotely connected with the cathedral, whether or not they were involved with hiding the soldiers. And they obliterated the nearby towns of Lidice and Lezaky.

This crypt was now another simple Prague memorial. Along each side of the crypt there were pictures of the destruction the Nazis wreaked in the cathedral in the battle's aftermath. There were pictures of the parachutists. And there were fresh wreaths next to their photographs. Above me was the high curved roof of the crypt. And above it was, I knew, the restored cathedral � once again one of the little gems of Prague's beauty.

Wending my way up the stairs I stopped in a small room that had been transformed into a museum. There were more pictures of the church's destruction and of the church's Bishop Gorazd and others who hid the parachutists. In a corner was a counter at which one could buy postcards and make a small donation for the museum's upkeep. Behind the counter sat, I assumed, a monk or priest, in a black habit, orthodox cross around his neck, with long dark hair and a bushy black beard. I didn't know if he spoke English, but, as I made my donation I felt the need to say something. I handed him my money and said, haltingly, "Exactly sixty years. . ." He nodded slowly, and then again to my "Thank you" as I left.

I walked down the few blocks from the small church where the Vltava River flowed towards the Charles Bridge, dark against the river's white foam that pushed against its ancient arches. Above it, as always, as it had for 500 years, St. Vitus's Cathedral overshadowed the bridge and its distinctive statues. This dazzling view epitomizes Prague. But so does the memorial to Jan Palach under King Wenceslaus's guarding gaze; and so too the remembrance in the crypt to the Czech parachutists.

Back in the states as I watched superspy XXX doing his thing I understood our Czech acquaintance's pride that Prague stars on film, and I understood her apprehension about the story in front of the backdrop. This filmic heroism, along with the city's sheer beauty, can obscure the genuine memories of war and oppression � memories that are strong in both young and old.

A month later Prague was on my television screen. The city was flooded by a Vltava River grown malevolent. The treasures of Prague, the Charles Bridge, the Old Town were all threatened. "An army of 15,000 eager volunteers and soldiers" worked to save the city reported the Financial Times of August 15, 2002. Their efforts initially seemed a fruitless attempt to halt the raging river. But they succeeded. The sight of the city's people working together, said the Financial Times, stirred "memories of wartime camaraderie".

Indeed. The camaraderie and sacrifice that motivated a congregation to sacrifice itself in the fight against Nazi oppression, and a young man to sacrifice himself in the battle against Soviet brutality, survives. As does the Czech nation. Prague shows the world that sacrifice is not futile, that evil can be fought and ultimately, defeated.

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