A Tale of Two Cities: Prague Then and Now

A Tale of Two Cities: Prague Then and Now

The author Rosalind Jana grew up on stories of Czechoslovakia told by her grandmother who fled the country during the Communist coup. Decades on, Rosalind pays Prague a visit in order to trace some of her family’s history for herself

This article appears in Volume 20: The
Homelands Issue

family is dressed up as a group of ski tourists, desperation
disguised under thick coats. One possible escape route has already
closed and a second is being sought. The mother has never skied
before, but she’ll be expected to slide through snow over the
border and on towards safety. The daughter they have with them –
Eva – is in her late teens. Their younger one – Vera – is at a
school in Switzerland.
It’s their father who’s orchestrated this concealed flight, rushing
back to Prague, trying to hide his panic. It’s 1948, the Communist
coup d’état has just taken place and he knows that he’s being
followed. By now the fact that they’ve rapidly fled their home –
through a rear window because the front of the building is under
surveillance – has probably been discovered. They need to get out
of Czechoslovakia, and fast.

My paternal grandmother Vera became a refugee at the age of 16.
She lost her home city as well as her language, friends, country
and nearly all of her possessions in a single day. The family
sought asylum in Ireland before eventually being allowed into the
UK, where Eva very sadly died of leukaemia at the age of 19. Babi
(Czech for grandma) went on to train at The Royal
Academy of Dramatic Art
as an actress, living and working in
Britain, America and Germany. She didn’t see Prague again for
nearly three decades, by which time my dad was ten.

And here I am, standing on the street where it all began. A
street like many others in the city, with pastel buildings and old
windows with the paint peeling off. A few of these windows once
framed my grandma’s face. During the Second World War a bomb fell
not too far away from here. My grandma, then a child, was having
her hair braided by her grandmother. She claimed that she’d never
seen the old woman – who usually could only move slowly, cane in
hand – bolt so fast down six flights of stairs to get to the
cellar. Once this place was home to glamour and parties, to
homework and family meals, to fear and plans and bickering, and
nights spent quietly hunched over the radio. Then, on that day in
1948, it was left behind.

Only there’s a problem. I can’t work out which apartment they
lived in. Was it the blue building or the grey one? I know that
it’s about halfway down the street, on the side where the floors
stretch up high. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Even without identifying
the exact address, I can already better place the stories that I
grew up with. They have a setting beyond the half-formed images in
my head. Somewhere on this street is where those stories began.

I can’t recall a point when I didn’t know about Prague. Our Babi
is a seasoned storyteller, and I’ve always been fascinated by the
twists and turns of her life. However, for some reason I’d never
visited her city. In the absence of actual experience, it mainly
existed in details relayed by her – men selling live carp from big
barrels of water on the street, girls dressed in white processing
around churches, a state funeral seen from a family friend’s ornate
balcony, Vera’s older sister, Eva, pinching her legs under the
dinner table, the shiny black boots of the Gestapo officer
searching their apartment during occupation. These details, which
are added to every time she unravels another tale, are a mixture of
entrancing, horrifying and cinematic, the Second World War seen
through a child’s eyes. This year I finally decided that it was
time to map her version of the city on to its present-day
incarnation – to flesh out these stories further, and see where she
spent her formative years for myself.

I hadn’t anticipated it being this beautiful. Stupid, I know,
but it still feels like a revelation compared to the stock images
on Google and the few monochrome photos from Babi’s youth (it’s
amazing how different our perception of space is when it is cast in
black and white). The city brims with colour. There are green
graveyards, dappled parks, rococo churches dripping in gold statues
with frescoed ceilings, terracotta roofs, doorways guarded by
carvings of half-clad women and street after street of buildings in
confectionary colours – lemon, mint-green, sugarmouse-pink,
pistachio, peach, chocolate and gobstopper-blue. Take away the cars
parked on the cobbles and the odd tattoo parlour or mini-market
and, in some pockets of the city, it would be easy to imagine that
you’d rounded a corner and tumbled straight into the 1920s. Scrap
that. The 1820s. Of course, it helps that this is a summer visit.
The tree-lined avenues are already hot when we set out at 8AM, and
the smell of lime blossom is everywhere. Every time we hit the
river Vltava, criss-crossed several times each day, I’m struck by
how fiercely it sparkles. And on the evening when we head to the
observatory at the Žižkov television tower, I marvel at the city
seen from on high, at the way that the low light brushes everything
with gold.

We mainly explore on foot. I’m here with my photographer-friend,
Susannah, and on the first day we manage to cover 17 miles as we
wind from bridges to hills to alleys to grand buildings to the odd,
leafy stairway. We visit the Jewish cemetery, with its
higgledy-piggledy graves like rows of broken teeth, search in vain
for a hidden flea market in a courtyard that apparently exists
somewhere near the national library, and have a pit-stop to eat
slabs of strudel in Petřín Gardens, where couples, families and
gaggles of friends spread out on slopes between the trees.

Susannah soon turns out to be the ideal travelling companion. I
love to watch her with her Rolleiflex camera – the way that she
stops, sizes up an image and finally clicks the shutter. She does
it with such grace. As well as a good eye, Susannah also happens to
have an impeccable nose for the best cafés in the vicinity. On the
first day we practically take up residence in the Café Savoy, which
sits a short stroll away from the Most Legií (Legion Bridge).
Despite being fully booked we manage to snag a seat on the bench
outside, eating breakfast al fresco while looking at the trams
rattling past. The coffee, fresh bread, boiled eggs, thick slices
of ham and emmental prove to be the ideal fuel for further
exploration. Later we return for lemonade. And in the evening,
weary with stomping, we sheepishly turn up again to ask if they
might have room to squeeze in two for dinner. The waiter recognises
us and we are duly led to a table.

As we eat wiener schnitzel surrounded by white tablecloths and
chatter, we talk about the process of retracing history. It’s an
imprecise art, requiring a strange balance between known scraps and
imagined story. Or rather, an acknowledgment that drawing clean
lines between these points can be impossible. We are chasing
fragments – ones that, as with all memories, will have shifted and
twisted and calcified over the years. In between these fragments
there are vast gaps in my knowledge. Susannah asks questions about
my grandma’s family that I can’t answer, or can only hazily recall.
I’m sure that there are bits that I’ll have accidentally added in
too, or got wrong in the retelling.

I think more and more about this process as the stay goes by. At
some points I feel as though I have split-screen vision. Here I am,
taking in the hidden delights of the library in the Strahov Monastery, where it costs 50 koruna (just over
£1.50) to take pictures – it’s absolutely worth it, because the
light falling on the rows of books and glass cases full of sea
creatures and butterflies is too spectacular to go uncaptured – or
stopping to study the elaborate alcoves in the Vyšehrad cemetery,
where so many poets and sculptors and composers were laid to rest.
At each juncture I wonder whether Babi ever lingered here, and what
it was like through her eyes. How different did it look then? What
was the city like under occupation? And before? And after? At
Vyšehrad, perched on top of one of Prague’s many hills, I imagine a
younger version of my grandma also standing there, staring over the
sweep of her city.

At other points I have a clutch of named locations. On the first
day we battle through tourists to the bottom end of Wenceslas
Square, where my great-grandfather’s shop used to be. Ever the
canny entrepreneur, he began selling radios after the Second World
War, and was highly successful. Later we stand in the Old Town
Square, rounding on the famous medieval astronomical clock just
before 1PM. The crowds are huge, all waiting for the little
procession of mechanical men that appear on the hour. Somewhere in
the vicinity my grandfather used to have offices, but again, I
can’t work out exactly what building to look at. All I have are
rough approximations, and the knowledge of how cities are always
shifting – forever being built up, torn down and remade. Even the
ones that still look perfectly historically preserved.

Other places prove more tangible. On the second day we spend the
morning in Vinohrady, the area where Babi grew up. First there’s
the The Church of St Ludmila in Náměstí Míru. Babi was christened
here. It’s not open to the public in the morning, so we hover in
the atrium and squint through glass at the patterned columns and
red carpets. I think this is the church that Babi’s older sister
Eva used to bunk off from – heading diagonally across the square to
the Valdek cinema to watch films instead (that building is now an
office block, although the name remains). Occasionally she let her
younger sister tag along. I’m not sure if it’s also the church
where Babi made up sins to tell the priest, whispering in the
confessional booth and painting her life as far more wicked and
exciting than it actually was. I hope that it is.

The Vinohrady Theatre opposite the
church, with its winged sculptures on top of the building,
depicting bravery and truth, invites a similar balance between
solid facts and embellished possibilities. There Vera and Eva sat
to watch performances of fairytales, the perfectly presented
children of an important businessman. Babi also took part in a
poetry recital contest on that stage, and won. However, I don’t
know if the verse she performed really did start with the Czech
words that translated mean “for a little love, I would go the end
of the world”, or whether I’ve just parachuted in that reference
because I know how much she loves that poem.

Later, on the way to the brilliant Café Sladkovský, where the food is superlative
and the interiors look like something dreamt up by Wes Anderson, we
go through another gorgeous park. I point out the vineyard on the
slope, dark-green leaves rustling. It’s only when we’re sitting in
the café that I check Google maps and realise that we’re only a
six-minute walk from Babi’s old street. We’ve been circling it all
day. That park was the one where her playgroup met when she was a
child. The vineyard on the hill – well, she’s told me about it
before. The story retrospectively makes the space more charged.

By the final day my head is awhirl with images and narratives
and questions about how on earth to distil this all down into
words. We wake early, Susannah suggesting a 5AM start to get a good
look at Charles Bridge before it’s overwhelmed with tourists and
selfie sticks. We catch the metro in. The streets are deliciously
quiet. After the first day’s hot bustle of tourists it’s paradise,
but as we approach the bridge we realise that we’re not alone.
Ahead of us a bride stands, a column of white froth against the
grey stone. Behind her there’s another. Then, in the distance,
another, all arriving with their grooms and their own photography
teams in tow. As we cross the bridge I count them as though they’re
magpies, seven in total. Although that’s the wrong analogy, I
realise – they’re more like swans, preening in the soft glow before
the sun burns bright.

What a sight, so manufactured, yet so captivating. A world away
from my grandma’s city, but the bridge remains. It’s been there
since the beginning of the 15th century, and millions of feet have
passed over it since then. Hundreds of years’ worth of stories and
memories and trauma and wonder. And now the happy couples. And us.
All visitors in the morning light. All people constructing our own
stories from the stones underneath our feet.

Discover More
Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara: A Journey through Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Cities