I have been singing Good King Wenceslas for years without thinking that, of course, he was Czech. And the more I learn Czech and read Czech history and Czech writers, the more I notice Czech everywhere. Not only do I find myself following people in the street who are speaking Czech, including a whole tour group going round a madrasa in Fez, I start noticing Czech ancestry in people I had known about but never registered as Czech: Milos Forman, Madeleine Albright, Sissy Spacek, Kim Novak, Peter Falk, Karl Malden and worryingly, Donald Trump Jnr. (son of Ivana).
I follow the Czech Centre and other Czech and Slovak sites on twitter, and learn that soft contact lenses, sugar cubes, finger prints and blood types were all first discovered/ invented by Czechs. And of course, there are the Czechs most people do know- Dvorak, Janacek, Smetana, Havel, Hasek, Kafka, and Freud who was born in a town that is now in the Czech Republic. Czech history even pops up with surprising regularity in spy and detective novels I read.
In just over two weeks, I shall be there – living for a month in Prague, going to Czech lessons every morning and then exploring the city in the afternoon and evening, finding where Erwin and Alice lived, the hotels where they stayed while on the medical mission, the medical and law faculties at Charles University where they studied, the law courts, the prisons where Alice spent five years of her life and the flats in which she lived after her release. I shall be going to the concert halls and galleries that were familiar to them and most exciting of all, I shall be meeting the sons and daughters of Alice’s friends.
At the end of the month, we go to Slovakia, to revisit Zilina, my father’s home, and then on to Ruzomberok where Alice grew up, before heading up to Poland for a study day in Auschwitz. I have started an Instagram account just for this research (e.j.kohn) so I can post immediate impressions as well as continuing to write here in more depth.
This visit has been planned for nearly a year and I thought I would probably be visiting the EU as a non-EU citizen; it is a relief in many ways that won’t be the case. It isn’t only the easier practical details, but something intangible, a feeling of greater connection, of being part of the same Europe, albeit rather tenuously. Visiting the former Czechoslovakia, I am acutely aware of its painful history. The EU, for all is faults, has been a beacon of hope; a light of cooperation and democracy held up against the darkness of division, totalitarianism and territorial expansion. Young people now cross boundaries with confidence to study and work, as exemplified by the others on my Czech course in London, all of whom are married or in relationships with Czechs, and many who themselves have come from abroad: Ethiopia, Canada, the USA, Japan, Hungary and France.
My parents were not unusual; many of their generation married husbands/wives from other countries, as a result of the displacement of war. My generation, however, mostly married people from the UK, yet their children have not; our friends’ children have found partners from Russia, France, Cuba, Nigeria, Vietnam, Germany. Unlike our parents, these young people met as a result of peace and the opening up of borders. It is worrying to see that there are those who want to re-erect the barriers and that nationalism and populism are on the rise again in Europe. However, the recent election of Zuzana Caputova as president of Slovakia, is definitely a hopeful sign. She is a lawyer and a civil society activist, who impressed the voters by her anti-corruption stance and her refusal to engage in personal attacks on her opponents. I would like to think that Alice and Erwin would be proud that their country has elected such a president.
Going to the former Czechoslovakia in search of the past has emotional challenges, but also practical ones. Place names and street names, which are so constant in the UK, in the former Austro -Hungarian Empire are much less reliable. Maps of the area are a palimpsest of history, with Czech names erasing German ones after the formation of Czechoslovakia only for them to be re-appropriated after the Nazi invasion. The Communist era, in its turn, then stamped its values on streets and towns until finally with the Velvet Revolution some of the original names were restored. The street where Alice and Erwin lived in Zilina was newly named Masaryk Street, but it is now Narodna Ulice (Nation Street). Pressburg is now Bratislava, Carlsbad has become Karlovy Vary and so on. Sometimes it took me weeks to realise I was searching for just one place, but with two (or even three) names.
I hope I shall be able to see beyond the present world of tourism and stag parties into the layers of the past; to connect with the years between the wars when hope in Masaryk’s government and the newly independent country was still strong, and later, to the long years of communism, punctuated by the short-lived flame of freedom in 1968. Just walking through the streets and gardens where Alice and Erwin walked, breathing the spring air as they did a hundred years ago when they were students in Prague, I hope will collapse the years between us and perhaps for a few short weeks, instead of peering backwards through the prism of words, I shall glimpse first hand the world they knew.