Geographical Notes: The many societies of pre-war Prague

I ALWAYS envied people born in cities in which a self-assured and compact society speaking the same language had the chance to live together and defend its achievements. Since I was born in Prague in the early 1920s of mixed Czech Jewish and Austrian parentage, I usually have an awful time explaining where I come from. When, after 40 years, I returned to my home town (somewhat shabbier than I had remembered it), the streets were full of tourists in search of "magic Prague", complete with century- old mysteries. The new tourist industry tried to sell the excellent local beer (overpriced), ridiculous Franz Kafka T-shirts, and excursions to the places where the ugly Golem - a kind of docile giant - was made of earth by the learned Rabbi Loew, and where the deranged Emperor Rudolf (in the early 17th century) presided over a court of wondrous alchemists in search of gold and crystalline waters of eternal youth.

The real mystery is that for so many centuries the four societies of Prague - Czechs, Germans, Jews and Italians - lived and worked together, or at least side by side: the Czech baker and candlestick-maker, the German civil servant, the Jewish merchant, and the Italian craftsman of the building trades, as well as their wives, sons and daughters.

There were many decades of tolerance, peace and prosperity but then there were the years of mass murder and expulsions. Three thousand Jews were killed in 1389, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa expelled all Jews from the ancient town, and between 1940 and 1944, the years of the Shoah, the transports rolled to the camps.

At the height of the Hussite revolution (1420), the Catholics of whatever language had to leave, and after the Battle on the White Mountain, 200 years later, it was the Protestants who had to convert or leave; after the the Second World War, almost all Germans were expelled.

In the Democratic Republic of the 1920s and 1930s, citizens of all creeds and languages were protected by the constitution and the laws. When you felt Czech you read the patriotic newspapers, went to see the new play at the National Theatre, frequented the Cafi "Salvia', and on Sunday went with your kids to the Vysehrad where the great men and women of the Czech nation were buried.

If you were German or a German-speaking member of the Jewish community, you had your own set of newspapers, attended the German Opera House, had your coffee at the "Louvre', and took your kids on Sunday to the "Baumgarten" (stromovka, in Czech).

If you felt not particularly bound to either nation and spoke both languages it was all the better because you could talk to all the girls and take them to the movies, preferably those on fashionable Wenceslav Square

Now the city has changed and yet it has not; the bridges, palaces and chestnut trees are all there but the vulnerable interchange of idioms and the lively rituals of the different societies have gone, as irretrievably as those of ancient Alexandria or modern Sarajevo. That colourful magic of the many societies living in one place for centuries will not be easily restored, and the cosmopolitan din of the tourists does not, I think, entirely compensate for the loss.

I was first terribly mad at the purveyors of magical commodities, and later I was sad to learn that even my Czech friends for many decades cut off from public habits of sober analysis, were prone to accept a mythical image of their city - not because they were mystics (the writer Bohumil Hrabal reminds us that the favourite Czech Sunday meal consists of pork, cabbage, and dumplings) but because the Communists had favoured an official cult of the "real" and "realism": and to hold up magic traditions was a clear move to oppose the views prescribed by government.

Peter Demetz is the author of 'Prague in Black and Gold' (Penguin, pounds 9.99)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album