On a recent bicycle tour from Vienna to Prague, as we neared the border of the Czech Republic, our guides from Austin Adventures alerted us to the fact that the Czechs are "different from the fun-loving Austrians." They told us the Czech people would seem more withdrawn, not as interested in learning anything about our language or culture, and not particularly outgoing or friendly, as opposed to the Austrians we met, (some of them probably descended from the happy Habsburg clan), who were outgoing, smiling and interested in who we foreigners were.
We found this assessment to be absolutely on the mark. Especially when we rode the trolleys and subways around Prague. The Czechs riding with us kept their eyes looking straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, trying not to connect in any way with the obvious foreigners in their midst. Compared with our own subway, bus and train riders in the U.S., who all have enough curiosity to at least check out everyone else in the car before they get back to their own book or iPhone or laptop, the eerie mood we perceived on the trolley made us feel we were the only people riding in the car.
Why is this? It turns out that the Czechs have good reason not to look curious about anything around them. They suffered the Nazi German occupation of the Czech Republic during the Second World War; three years after that, Stalin and the USSR brought communism into the country with a new round of intimidation, arrests and imprisonment for whatever "crime" the occupiers wanted to charge; there were murders for false crimes, tapings of conversations and long lists made by the police of suspects for all manner of supposed wrongs. It's a wonder that the average Czech even allowed us to get on the trolley with them.
They had just three short years, after the end of World War II, until they were once again plunged into an evil new government that took all their postwar freedoms away again and left them under the rule of Moscow.
As Czech novelist Milan Kundera writes in his book "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," the "Red Army listened in on the Czechs when they were invaders, and the way I look at it, we've got nothing to hide. And think of what a boon it will be to Czech historians of the future. The complete recorded lives of the Czech intelligentsia on file in the police archives! Do you know what effort literary historians have put into reconstructing in detail the sex lives of, say, Voltaire of Balzac or Tolstoy? No such problems with Czech writers. It's all on tape. Every last sigh."
Kundera is writing about what had become of Czech painters, philosophers and writers after the Russian invasion. "They had been relieved of their positions and become window washers, parking attendants, night watchmen, boilermen in public buildings, or at best -- and usually with pull -- taxi drivers" Among those on whom the Communist government had kept a file was the family of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, born in Czechslovakia, whose father had had powerful enemies in the Marxist regime.
Our guide in Prague, Milos Curik, explained with bitterness that before the Soviets occupied his beautiful city, he had studied chemistry and received a degree before switching to human science at the Charles University of Prague. He became an independent art consultant, art collector, and music impresario, establishing the Jazz and Rock Music Center in Prague in 1974, bringing singers from the West such as Nico, of the Velvet Underground, to town, until the police began following him and put his name on lists of suspected citizens. He was interrogated many times by the police and refused to collaborate with them (unlike many others, including some of his friends) and faced prison after being accused of undermining culture policy of the socialist state because the musicians were not approved by the official authorities. As a result, Curik lost his job and the license to perform his art shows. That is why he is now a tour guide, albeit one with an incredible wealth of information on the arts and culture of his beautiful city, described by poet Peter Ginz, as a "fairy tale in stone." (Ginz wrote those words from his own imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt, which is not far from Prague.)
Curik told us that he never forgot the eyes of his interrogator, and met him many years later in a restaurant. "He was scared that I would speak about his past in front of his customers," Curik said. "He said that he secretly liked my art shows and that he was innocent. I never forgot those eyes."
Kundera writes that "the years following the Russian invasion were a period of funerals; the death rate soared. I do not speak only of the cases (rather rare, of course) of people haunted to death, like Jan Prodhazka, the novelist. Two weeks after his private conversations were broadcast daily over the radio, he entered the hospital. The cancer that had most likely lain dormant in his body until then suddenly blossomed like a rose."
Why should we wonder why the Czech citizens, still in 2013, stare straight ahead of them on the trolley and on the street, without expressing any emotion? Since 1939 until relatively recently they have been hit with a one-two punch and who knows how long it will take for them to forget? Those Czechs under the age of about 20 seem to talk to each other on the street and in the subway, we noticed, while the older ones want above all not to be noticed. How can we blame them?
They've shown their feelings about the communist invasion with a haunting group of statues placed n one of Prague's downtown parks. Called Memorial to the Victims of Communism, the metal statues depict six men. The man on the bottom stair looks sad and defeated, hunched over in helplessness. The one on the second stair has an open slash from shoulder to waist. The third one has lost part of an arm, and the last one is barely a person; there's hardly anything left of his body. At the side of the steps is this list: "2-5,000 arrested. 170,000 forced into exile. 4500 died in prison. 327 shot trying to escape. 248 executed."
And we wonder why Czechs are not effusive and ebullient with their visitors? The Austin Adventure guides said the Czechs are more "insular" than the Austrians. Insular? It's amazing they let us in their country with what previous "visitors" have done to them! We hope they've got years and years ahead of peace and stability to recover from what no perople should suffer.