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)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick