Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Dark Side of Velvet

This statue of Franz Kafka in a hidden corner of Prague's Stare Mesto always collects a few puzzled tourists. It is a reminder that the Central European mindset is much more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Life is not as it seems. Shifting ground ... not certainty ... is what we stand on. So as an American in Prague on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, I was happy to have the opportunity to have some oral histories made available to me to help me see below the surface of the current mood of celebrating the triumph of liberty over totalitarianism. The Memory of a Nation is an extensive collection of memories of individuals who lived through and were buffeted by the totalitarianism and fascism of the 20th century. Many of these stories have been mounted on huge poster boards throughout Prague. I found myself sucked into these narratives trying to understand better the complicated business of what it meant to be Czech in the 20th century. For example, the story of this man, A Jewish professor of history in Prague, who passed as a Gentile during the war, shows many layers of Czech life in the last century. He moved boldly among German soldiers during the war saying "It is always darkest just beneath the candle's flame," but was betrayed in the late days of the War and survived several concentration camps. In the post war years he supported the dissidents in 1968 and had his teaching job taken from him. He was reinstated to that post after 1989. Or the story of this man, Olbram Zoubek, the sculptor, who made the death mask of Jan Palach before he died in the hospital following his self immolation Wencheslas Square in 1969. This death mask was only put on display AFTER the 1989 Velvet Revolution. There were also stories of those on the other side ... the members of the Czech Army who enforced the Soviet takeover of their country. Often their stories began in the disputed regions of Czechoslovakia, Carpathian Ruthenia, that were given over to the Hungarians in the early days of WW II. Thinking that retreat in the USSR would allow them more safety, they migrated to Ukraine only to find themselves thrown into Soviet work camps. When they were offered freedom by joining the Czech Army on the Allied side in the middle of the war, they accepted and found themsleves part of the Soviet apparatus after the war.

And even with all of these stories laid out to read, there is no way as an outsider to know what the Czechs themselves carry within them of those conflicted times. Many of the MOST idealistic are now the most disheartened and disilluioned. Life is not what it seems.

As we walk across the Charles Bridge later in the week I see a sign "Kafka Museum Open" Perhaps it is closed.

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