Student Photographic Reflections:
Thursday, April 7, 2016
Day 5 - Prague
Our day began with a bus ride up to the hills overlooking the beautiful city of Prague to Prague Castle, the largest castle complex in Europe. During the ride, our local guide Kamila, told us a little about the geographical layout of the city as well as some of the history. The capital city of the Czech Republic has a little more than one million residents, and is called Praha, which means ‘threshhold’ because as she told us, one never knows when they are crossing the threshold from history to mythology in this city. She told us to look for the many church spires. “So many churches”, she said, “but the country is atheist.” Kamila described some of the changes in the city since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 which ended communist rule, such as the buildings were no longer just gray, but were colorfully painted, and citizens had more variety in consumer goods and also more availability.
We started at the Strahov Monastery which was run by Norbertine friars who came to Prague in the 12th century from France, selling their services as bibliophiles (librarians) and scribes (copiers of books). A special VIP tour had been arranged for us and we were able to physically enter the two beautiful halls of the library, one for theological works and one for philosophical works. The library contains over 45,000 volumes of work dating back to the 10th century, demonstrating how the church institutions were the repositories and guardians of much of the European culture. One book we saw was written in 860, which made it older than the country itself, which was first mentioned in 880. In the Hall of the Censors we learned how the friars would determine whether a book was acceptable to the church or needed to be archived as a forbidden book because of the content. And in the Theological Hall we saw the gold cages where the forbidden books would be locked away from view. She also impressed upon us the value of a single book to people in this time period by showing us a statue in the Theological Hall: the man is carrying his book around in a pouch, because having a book was like having a diamond, she said, and one did not leave it behind. Mr. Barmore also demonstrated his favorite piece of furniture in the hall, a book holder which could have several books and which one could turn to refer to another book to check the information. As Mr. Barmore said, a very early form of today’s hypertext. Kamila explained the beautiful paintings which adorned the ceilings in both halls and showed us one of the hidden staircases to the second floor in the Philosophical Hall.
From the top of Castle Hill we had wonderful panoramic views of the city of Prague and took advantage of the wonderful weather to take numerous photographs, then climbed back on our bus to visit the U.S. Ambassador’s residence. There we were greeted by Ambassador Andrew Schapiro’s wife, Tamar Newberger who spent the next two hours telling us about the fascinating history of the residence, her husband’s career and appointment as ambassador to the Czech Republic by President Obama in 2014, and graciously showing us through their home. We were joined at the residence by our dear friends, Tony and Eva Vavrecka. Eva is the niece of Otto Wolf, whose diary our students study in our Holocaust classes, and about whom we will talk more later.
The residence was built in 1929 by Otto Petschek, a Czech Jew, who had made his money in the coal industry. This was to be his dream house and he built a smaller, second home next door from which he could oversee every facet of construction. Ms. Newberger told us that we would see many examples in the house of two of his passions: technology and symmetry. Otto and his wife, wife their oldest son and three daughters moved in to the completed house in 1929 but sadly he did not enjoy it for long, as he died of a heart attack in 1934. Coincidentally, Otto had two brothers who also built huge villas in the neighborhood: one is currently the residence of the ambassador from China, the other, the residence of the ambassador from Russia. In 1938 one of these brothers correctly sensed the impending danger to Czechoslovakia from Hitler, and took a train around Bohemia, picking up every Petschek he could, finally gathering up Otto’s widow and daughter Eva who were still in Prague and getting everyone out of the country. No Petschek died in the Holocaust, she said, which is an unusual story in itself. They were forced to leave all the household furniture, art, books, and personal belongings, most of which are still in the residence today. When the Nazis invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, the General Toussaint, the Germany general in charge of the city, would be headquartered in this house. They kept the beautiful furnishings, china, chandeliers, even the library, in tact, including ironically, the encyclopedia of Jewish history. They also did an inventory of everything and one table in the foyer still bears the Nazi inventory stamp. The general, however, did care about the residence and treated it well, so that when the Allies liberated Prague, the home was in good condition. The Soviets stayed in the residence for a few days and destroyed some of the chandeliers and furniture, but when the Czech government took control, it was largely in the shape that the Petscheks had left it when they fled in 1938. Later, the United States purchased the villa in 1946 and it has served as the residence of the U.S. ambassador since that time.
Ms. Newberger then told us about her husband’s distinguished legal career, including clerking for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and serving as a federal appellate attorney, culminating in his recent appointment as ambassador. From Chicago, Andrew Schapiro has a close personal connection with Prague. His mother, Raya Czerner Schapiro, is a Czech survivor of the Holocaust and lived with her family just a few blocks from where we were sitting. Ms. Newberger told us the fascinating story of the Czerner family during the Holocaust, which is chronicled in his mother’s book, Letters from Prague: 1939-1941.
Lastly, we were shown around the residence. We had been told to look for technology and symmetry and we saw multiple examples of both. From the Winter Garden, where an entire glass wall could be lowered into the ground during nice weather and raised during winter but allowing beautiful panoramic views of the garden, to doors that weren’t doors but provided balance in a room, to the old elevator, and so many more examples, it is truly a special house.
After taking group photos in the backyard of this beautiful home, we thanked Ambassador Schapiro’s wife, Tamar, said goodbye to the Vavreckas and headed back to the Castle District for the afternoon. We visited the magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral which took 600 years to complete and inside Kamila explained the beautiful stained glass windows. We continued our walk with wonderful views and outside the Royal Hall of the Palace, Mr. Barmore told us the story of how horse manure and a defenestration from this building led to the disastrous Thirty Years War in Europe.
Arriving in Lesser Town, we ate lunch at a pizza restaurant, and then continuing back towards the central square, stopped at the Lennon Wall which is a memorial to freedom of expression in Prague and the site where people in love have attached locks to the bridge as in many other cities. We then climbed the stairs from Lesser Town to the Charles Bridge which connects the two sides of Prague: Castle District / Lesser Town and Old Town / New Town / Jewish Quarter. Walking over the bridge provided us with incredible views of this beautiful city and Kamila told us several stories connected with the statues and the bridge. Several students stopped to make a wish and rub the statue.
We stopped in the Market Square for a short while before heading back to the hotel to get ready for a pasta dinner at Hotel U Prince, back in the Market Square.