I admit it. Franz Kafka didn’t seem like pleasure reading for a vacation. I also gave Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being a miss even though I found the Daniel Day Lewis film of that novel, well, incredibly touching.
Instead, I opted for anniversaries: May 8 is the celebration of the end of World War II in Czechoslovakia, following by a day the official surrender of Germany. It’s also the end of Holocaust Remembrance Week. What better story to read than The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman (2011). It’s possible to read a sample of a novel on Kindle before purchasing; for this novel, I did that. The story begins in New York City in 2000. An elderly grandfather anticipates the wedding of his grandson; at the rehearsal dinner, he’s seated next to the maternal grandmother, and he believes that she looks familiar. He sees a mark on her wrist beneath the lace and lifts her hand. “I am your husband,” he tells her. Sold.
The main of the novel takes place in Prague, a truly beautiful city with Art Nouveau buildings that didn’t suffer the ravages of World War II. Would that the same could be said for the large Jewish population. The two primary characters, Lenka and Josef, come from well-to-do families. She is an art student, and he is in medical school. They fall in love and marry, but she refuses to leave her family even though the German army is on the march, turning down the visa that has been procured for her. Josef and his family depart, promising to get passage for Lenka’s entire family as soon as possible.
Prague Castle looms on the hill above with its Golden Lane, where Kafka lived with his sister.
Crystal, puppets, and garnets grace the windows of shops on cobble-stone winding streets. Drawings from the children imprisoned in Terezin grace the Jewish Museum. Of 660 children, 550 perished. Lenka reflects when her family is being deported to Terezin that she recalls citizens freeing the swans who are held captive in ice on the river during the winter, but no one comes to their rescue.
Tours to Terezin, the “model” concentration camp that the Red Cross visited during the war are possible from Prague, and there is a wealth of literature about the camp. The young readers’ books are especially moving and help us “never forget”: The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin; Fireflies in the Dark (the story of the art teacher to the children); and others found on this Mighty Girl site: http://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=11586.
Perhaps Kafka might have been easier after all.
For something lighter, try The Doctor Dines in Prague (2003) by Robin Hathaway, #4 in the Dr. Fenimore mystery series, about a cardiologist in Philadelphia, who solves crimes. In this volume, the doctor travels to Prague to determine what’s happened to his cousin, husband, and child, who have vanished. This is an excellent light romp—no matter that there are lives at stake—as the doctor, even while solving the mystery, visits numerous touristic sights. The famous marionette theatre of Prague comes into play, too; take in a show while in Prague. We saw Don Giovanni, “directed” by a rumpled bewigged Mozart.
For a more serious mystery, Bernie Gunther, a Berlin detective, visits Prague during World War II in Prague Fatale (2010) by Philip Kerr, another series. It focuses on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia—the terms used for Czechoslovakia after the Nazi invasion. Heydrich was killed by Czech resistance fighters, and the small village of Lidice paid a horrific toll when it was believed that one of the assassins may have come from there.
While it may seem strange to recommend a memoir about an Idaho farm for travelers to the Czech Republic, I heartily endorse Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament (2013) by Evelyn Funda. Her mother escaped Czechoslovakia in the 1950s in the false bottom of a wine barrel, and her father’s parents were Czech immigrants as well. Several of the chapters focus on their Czech legacy, and in one chapter, Funda herself travels back to the homeland to discover her cousins in a touching finale. Along the way, she explains much about Czech history, including the martyrdom of Jan Hus and the Battle of White Mountain. Understanding the latter is very helpful in decoding the monumental paintings, The Slavic Epic, by noted artist Mucha, housed in the Trade Fair Palace in Prague. She also recounts the story of Lidice village and its obliteration movingly.
For fantasy lovers, Bartimaeus: The Golem’s Eye (2004) by Jonathan Stroud, offers insight into the folkloric characters of the golem and djinns. The former is a Jewish creature, created out of clay that was said to save the Jews of Prague in medieval times. The golem is referenced in The Lost Wife, where it so obviously doesn’t save anyone. Djinns are something like genies and have made appearance in other books I’ve read for travel, particularly The Caliph’s House, set in Casablanca.
Finally, I recommend two films worthy of viewing: The Shop on Main Street, which won an Academy Award for best foreign film in the 1960s; and Zelary, about a Czech resistance fighter who must seek sanctuary in a mountain village and marry a local man to save herself. Both films are about World War II and persecution by Nazis.