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Prague - & why I could not get there

· ESSAYS

Beth Alvarado

On a wall in my apartment there is a black and white photograph my daughter took while we were in Prague. I looked at it every morning last summer, trying to get in the mood to write. It is, I would say, an iconic photo of the west end of the Charles Bridge. The building you are facing is white, a church. The photograph is peopled with statues, most of them on the roofs, most of them, I’m assuming, saints. Kathryn must have taken it on one of our early morning walks when the streets were empty. St. Nicholas Church, I think. There is something that looks very eastern, a turret in the background that goes up to a spire. If the photo were in color, the turret would be the green of weathered copper. 

Since the lockdown started, I had been writing about travel—previous travel, of course— to escape my trackless days and keep a record of them during the pandemic. Once we got to August, I found writing more and more difficult until, finally, I stopped. 

The menu of days in August and September, then, went something like this: research on Psoriatic arthritis, doomscrolling—(police violence against Black Lives Matter protesters eclipses the plague)—feel guilty, donate $20, work, take a walk with my daughter and her family, lunch with her twins, play school with the twins, work, Zoom class, more doomscrolling—(the coming election eclipses the plague)—feel worried, donate $20 (should I choose “monthly” because this wasn’t going to be solved overnight?), Zoom meeting, another walk, drink a cocktail, help Kathryn make dinner, eat dinner, hug and kiss twins good night, drink wine while reading, more doomscrolling—(wildfires begin to eclipse the plague)—feel despair, long to go to Norway. But why Norway? When I wanted to write about Prague?

Palm Springs: Museum goer with Robert Longo's charcoal drawing "Untitled (Capitol)" from Storm of Hope: Law and Disorder.

Kathryn and I had gone to Prague in 2006. On the surface, we went because of a conference on writing and photography. When I told Kathryn I was going, over the phone, she’d said, “Oh, I want to go.” Such wistfulness in her voice, such longing. I didn’t yet know she was planning on leaving her first husband. 

I told Kathryn, “Apply for a fellowship in photography and we’ll figure out the rest.” My parents had divorced when I was in my early thirties, but my mother didn’t leave my father for another ten years. My mother took herself to France. I remember my mother saying that when she felt the plane lift off, when she was finally on her way, leaving him below on another continent, she felt everything fall away. At that moment, because she felt free of him, I suppose she also felt the full weight of him. She said that to really leave someone, you had to put an ocean between you. My mother paid for Kathryn’s plane ticket. She must have suspected what I did not.

Kathryn was escaping her marriage and I was escaping my mother. This might sound cruel. My mother had a fracture of her spine. That was the immediate crisis. But for years, pulmonary disease had diminished her lung capacity. I’d been taking care of her and, before that, helping her take care of her bedridden sister Dorothy. It felt like for years, this care-giving, although it might have been only six. Or seven. Or eight. 

By 2006, my mother was terminal. For years, she had told people, “I have a terminal disease,” confusing the word “terminal” with “chronic,” a distinction that, in the end, made no difference. Really. So why did I insist on correcting her? When you die, you die. 

I knew she might die while I was gone. She knew. But she wanted us to go. She made me promise not to let Kathryn out of my sight—she was worried about sex slave traders—but not to bring her home early, no matter what happened. I made her promise not to die. This was in her hospital room, the night before we flew out.

Prague

In Prague, my mother stayed in the periphery of my vision—as we were deposited, jet-lagged, at the door of the flat we would be renting with my friend Barbara; as we ascended with all our luggage in the creaky wire cage of an elevator; as we went out, crossing crowded Týn Square, Kathryn tucking my arm under hers because she could feel my disorientation. I wasn’t quite there, my mother hovering, as the dead sometimes do, although she was not dead and would not die until after I returned home. She hovered as we passed the brightly lit shop fronts full of Bohemian crystal, amber earrings, and garnets like drops of blood; as we came around a dark corner to an opening, a street, trolleys rattling by; as we saw the Charles Bridge, the black statues silhouetted against the light sky at dusk, just as you may have seen in the postcards; as we wound our way, later, back through narrow cobbled streets, coal dust still graying the walls of buildings; as, even later, I stood in the classroom looking down on the Jewish cemetery’s thin, toppling headstones. 

My mother hovered as Kathryn and I toured Terezín, a holding camp, not a concentration camp, the guide was careful to tell us. Those who died there, mostly children and the elderly, were not liquidated, she said, but died, instead, from the conditions or else they were sent from here to concentration camps. 

My mother hovered as we heard numbers so incredible, I knew I’d never remember them, one hundred, four hundred? slept in this room? The wooden platforms, where they slept, had no mattresses, no blankets, only so many centimeters allotted for each person. 

She hovered as we learned about the cold showers, the elderly prisoners made to walk naked, wet, emaciated, starving, across snow-covered yards, from showers to bunks, weak, but not liquidated, not yet. Liquidated. How many times could this woman say this word in reference to human beings without her voice, her lilting voice, cracking? I could not help but picture my mother, her frail bones and thin blue veins, her sun-freckled skin, her modesty, my mother, her back hunched over from osteoporosis, arms cradling her breasts, walking naked through the snow. 

In my apartment now, next to the photograph that Kathryn took of the Charles Bridge, there are watercolors painted by a great-uncle, a botanist. I could not go outside once September came—because of the smoke—the west was on fire—so I found myself substituting them for the pine forest, outside yet untouchable. The paintings, ca 1900, were landscapes from his travel around the world to paint exotic plants for textbooks; they used to line the walls of my aunt Dorothy’s house in Carmel Valley. I wondered if her house was still standing or if it had been burned in this current conflagration. A 100-year wildfire, climatologists tell us, and yet only the beginning of more to come. 

My aunt and uncle once had to bury these very watercolors in the yard to save them from fire. But that was over forty years ago. This fire, this conflagration, has been a long time in the making.

Also in September: around four in the morning, every morning, I wake up with tightness around my heart. Was it my lungs? I’d been diagnosed with a mild case of bronchiecticus, the damage to the lungs that had eventually killed my mother and would complicate everything if I came down with Covid. How did I get bronchiecticus? I’d quit smoking when I was nineteen and pregnant with Michael—but maybe it was my lungs. I’d had pneumonia twice. Or was it my heart? Worry over the fires? The coming election and armed self-appointed “patriots”? The state of our divided union? 

I was worried about our democracy, it is true. And Michael. Michael, in Boise. He’d been ill since March and I was sure it was the allostatic load, the adaptation to chronic stress, that had tipped him over. Finally, a diagnosis: psoriatic arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease. Not good in the middle of Covid. 

I worried, of course, about other things as well: Michael is Mexican-American, his wife is Jewish and very visible in her work in social justice, one child looks white but is nonbinary, the other looks Mexican. All four of them, therefore, possible targets. 

Michael’s income has gone down by half and he is home-schooling the kids. Boise, where, by December, the Anne Frank Memorial will be defaced with swastikas, and where, with an infection rate of 50 percent, people with guns will surround meetings and the homes of public health officials to protest wearing masks. It is easy to foresee danger, easy to worry about such things in advance.

Michael said it felt like his body was eating itself, and Kathryn said, It is. Some mornings, he could not walk.

I wanted to write about Prague, but I couldn’t get there. I kept saying that on Zoom, “I can’t get to Prague,” and people would look at me: “Of course, you can’t.” I meant in my head. I couldn’t even get there in my head. They say when you’re depressed, your memories flatten, become generic, lose their particularity. Is this what was happening? 

The rest of the photos Kathryn had taken were in a box high on a shelf in the garage. Why hadn’t I thought to get them down? I skimmed an essay I’d written about Prague soon after the trip, but I couldn’t remember anything beyond those words, nothing around the edges. It felt like the paralysis of grief.

There was fire on the coast, fire in the passes between here and the coast, fire to the south in California and to the north, up near Portland. When I stood looking out my window to the west, I could see the mountain and one ribbon of blue between the mountain and the clouds, but they were not clouds—it was smoke, heavy and dark.

We were not worried about fire. We could not go outside. But we didn’t have to duct-tape our windows and doors shut like they did in Portland, although the smoke was still seeping in, burning our eyes and dulling our minds, carrying tiny particulate matter that settled in our sinuses and lungs, maybe like splinters. Never good. Oh, the tender tissues of the lungs, especially worrisome, now, with small children, in the middle of a pandemic, just before flu season. 

Was there smoke in Boise, I asked Michael. There was.

How much more can we bear, I wondered, not Americans only, of course; all of us—but I know people always bear more. It’s what we do. How we do it, that seems to be another matter.

Robert Longo, charcoal drawing "Iceberg for Greta Thunberg" from Storm of Hope: Law and Disorder, Palm Springs Art Museum.

Do you know there are very few movies on Netflix set in Prague? When we were there, we watched a documentary about a Jewish man who had escaped the Nazis by clinging to the undercarriage of a train. We were sitting in an airless auditorium as we watched, midday—it was hot and humid that summer—and I was still jet lagged and sleep deprived from having taken care of my mother. I’d been sleeping in the bedroom with her in case she had to get up in the middle of the night—I didn’t want her oxygen cord to get tangled in the wheels of her walker. 

That was who I was in that auditorium, a traveler between here and there, not fully present, but I do remember that film, even though my eyes kept closing from the heat and the weariness of travel. I remember: the color blue, a young man climbing beneath the train leaving Prague, the black boots of the Carabinieri as the train arrived in Italy. He is sent to a prisoner of war camp. Later there is a hillside village, people in a town square, a girlfriend. The man who wrote the voiceover for the film and who is narrating it, is in the auditorium as we’re watching.

One recent evening, I googled “film about Jewish man who escapes Nazis by clinging to undercarriage of train” and I found Fighter, director Amir Bar-Lev. No record of it on IMDB, but I could stream it on YouTube. 

It opens, with an older man, very fit but with a shock of white hair, hitting a punching bag in a barn. His name is Jan Weiner, and he reminded me, immediately, of my father-in-law, who had been orphaned in Mexico as a child. It wasn’t only his looks, but his gestures, the pride with which he held himself. Weiner is the protagonist, the one we will follow from Prague down into Italy. 

In the following scenes, he is planning a trip over maps with another older man, who teases him about all the Italian girlfriends he must have had, one a nun in Palermo. 

Arnost Lustig, the narrator, is Jan’s friend, a writer and also a Czech émigré. He had not escaped the Nazis. Instead, he survived three concentration camps and escaped going to Dachau when the train he was on was strafed by the Allies. He is the man who was sitting in the auditorium that afternoon in Prague and whose story is woven, almost as a counterpoint to Weiner’s, throughout the film—although, as I strained to remember it, I found that Lustig’s story had receded entirely from my memory. 

There is archival footage from 1938 when Czech troops marched off to stop the invading Germans but were withdrawn after the Munich Pact. In exchange for a promise of peace, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and France forced Czechoslovakia to surrender its border regions and defenses to Nazi Germany, not understanding that the promise meant nothing. Weiner and the other soldiers were sent home, “broken by shame,” to their countrymen heckling them in the streets. An old woman calls him up to her apartment. “Go,” she says, “This will be a horror. Go away while you still can.” 

He does, leaving his mother behind, visiting his father and his second wife in Slovenia. On the eve of the Nazi occupation, his father tells him, “Tonight I will die,” and then calls him into his room and asks him to lie on the bed with him. “I have taken the pills already,” he tells him, “hold my hand.” On the next bed, his wife is already dead. She was not Jewish. 

Weiner tells this story during the first stop in his and Lustig's journey to retrace his life. They are sitting on a bed in the father’s room in Slovenia. “She must have loved him very much,” Lustig says of the stepmother. Pointing out the window at the cornfields he tells us that he remembers thinking, “I will live,” and then silently urging his father, “Die fast. So I can run and save myself.” 

Lustig tries to comfort him. “He gave you the freedom to go. The three of you would not have made it together.” 

Weiner responds, “I could not leave my son alone in this hostile world.” 

Throughout the film, this will be the contrast between the two, their visions, Lustig always weighing possibilities, imagining inner conflicts and motivations, while Weiner insists that our actions alone define us.

Barracks for Jewish prisoners at Terezín.

After Kathryn and I left the camp in Terezín, we wandered around the town. We bought ice cream from a small store, an ordinary and easy pleasure. A stray thought left by the place we’d left intruded: I remembered reading Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, and how surprised I was when I first read that Eichmann had been a vacuum cleaner salesman and that his wife was half-Jewish. Why had it been so hard for me to believe that ordinary people were capable of such things? “The banality of evil,” Arendt famously called it. But what does that tell us, really?

I remembered my mother telling me that her friend, Susie, a war-bride from Germany, swore that she and her family knew nothing of the camps. Yet they could see one in the distance as they were working in the fields. Susie, my mother told me, never again wanted to see a potato. 

Kathryn and I were sitting on a bench. I kept looking at the walls of the museum across the street. The pale yellow seemed incongruous, but why? Maybe because it was the color of the kitchen in the house where I grew up and so reminded me of my mother and her stories? 

What am I trying to get at? My own discomfort, for one thing. Susie never wanted to see another potato? Of course not. But did I really think she would tell my mother she never wanted to see another concentration camp? Another Gestapo? Maybe “potato” represents a constellation of things she couldn’t bear to remember or maybe, literally, the worst thing about the war for her was that she had to eat so many potatoes. 

That was the source of my discomfort, I think, the collision of the ordinary with extremity. They are not so far apart as we might wish. The concentration camp was less than a block from the ice cream shop. Kathryn and I had just “toured” it. We had disembarked from a tour bus, tickets in hand. 

Inside the museum, we had seen the paintings made by the children who passed through Terezín from 1943-44. Their teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, saved their paintings, 4,387 of them, in suitcases that she hid in the children’s dormitories. Many are of things children always paint, flowers, butterflies, children holding hands. There are quite a few entitled “Memory of Home.” 

Some are of things that should not be ordinary for any child: lines of people carrying bags, families huddled together, climbing into the mouths of box cars. Next to each painting, on a slip of paper, the title, the child’s name, the birth and death dates. The death date for almost all of them was 1944. In the autumn of that year, Dicker-Brandeis and most of the children were transported to Auschwitz.

Children at Terezín cleaned up and dressed for Red Cross visit.

I hit pause, wrote a few scattered notes, took a slug of wine. How could I have forgotten the scene where Weiner tells Lustig of his father’s suicide? Or the one before that, when the two of them visit Terezín? This is where their roads had diverged. Lustig, who had not escaped, who had not been told to go by his father, was held in the camp until he was sent on a train to Auschwitz. 

I try to remember my own visit to Terezín in relation to this viewing of the film. Which came first? The visit must have. Otherwise, I would have imagined them there, looked to see if there was a painting by Lustig. As it was, I felt myself resisting the lilting voice of the tour guide as she assured us that this was merely a transportation camp. “No one was liquidated here.” 

In the film, the tunnel is precisely as I remember it and just as Kathryn captured it in her black and white photographs, narrow and dark, textured stone, the door at the end, a bright archway. I remember feeling the presence of those marched through that tunnel, their fear, their knowing that they were approaching their deaths. The doorway opened on to a bright field where people were executed, where fathers and sons were ordered to attack one another. Weiner’s mother was beaten to death in a room Kathryn and I entered. In the film, he mentions bringing his daughter there. “It is difficult to take,” he says.

It was a room with faded walls, chipped terra cotta paint, two windows. Like the room with the showers—huge, gray, exposed pipes overhead—I remember windows. There are archival photos of children being offered slices of bread from platters, singing in choirs, being tucked into beds out of doors in the summers, a Potemkin village for the benefit of the Swiss Red Cross. 

“A theater was played here,” Weiner says, “[but it] was a railroad station to the gas chambers.” And, in fact, Lustig shows us the tracks he and the other boys helped build. He mentions that he liked being out of doors building them, because “here is some possibility of going far into the distance….” 

Later, in a café, the two men eat lunch. In the background, we see a younger man filling steins of beer and, all around them, people eating. Lustig tells Weiner about things that happened in Auschwitz and Buchenwald—a friend who had worked with him to build the tracks, for instance, his frozen legs were amputated “without any injection.” After the war, the friend’s father wanted to know how he died. Lustig says he didn’t, couldn’t, tell him. He told him, instead, that before the son was sent off on the train from Terezín, his friends had procured for him a prostitute. “A very beautiful woman, an artist in the circus, a horseback rider.” 

Weiner’s hands, in a close up, shake. He is worrying a piece of paper. Lustig has said to us, earlier, of the camps, “If you will be sensitive to everything that deserves your sensitivity, you will go mad.”

As I watched Fighter, I kept waiting for the movie I’d seen in the auditorium to begin. When was Weiner, as a young man, going to climb beneath the train? When was the train going to begin moving? I remembered, so clearly, the sound of the train, the boots of the Carabinieri. When was the black and white of the archival footage and the muted colors of Weiner and Lustig, as old men, remembering, when was that going to burst into the Technicolor of escape to southern Italy? Where were the people Weiner met there? The girlfriend? Where was the real story? Was this a different film? Maybe this was a documentary about making that film?

And then we come to the moment when Weiner shows Lustig the rusted undercarriage and I realize that there, in the hot auditorium, in the hypnagogic state hovering between sleeping and wakefulness, I’d dreamed a parallel journey based on small details. The movie I remembered did not exist. 

In reality, Weiner had clung to a filthy steel plate attached to a toilet hole. The trip took eighteen hours. If the sky was blue, it did not matter. He could not see it. He took with him some bread and milk. Did he eat while he was under the train? Yes, he says. It is clear it was as disgusting as we imagine. And then, in Genoa, the head of the Italian police, after hearing the story of his father’s suicide, sends him to a POW camp in southern Italy instead of back to certain death in Prague.

Of the prisoner of war camp, not much more is said. We see old black and white photos. Weiner and the other prisoners are young, handsome, shirtless, smiling, and I thought of so many of the pictures I’d seen of my father and his brothers, also soldiers in that war. Weiner and a Polish prisoner decide to escape together. They have nothing, not even shirts, and he remembers knocking on the door of an old man who says, “Step in. We are all sons of Christ.” 

Returning, decades later, to the old man’s village, Weiner approaches a table in the village square. He asks for the address of the old man’s daughter. A man with his back to us turns out to be her husband. Weiner is shooed away. They visit a family in their home. Adult children sitting around a dining room table tell Weiner they don’t remember him. We see the place where the POW camp used to be. His past has vanished.

In the Bohemia Internet Café, I opened emails from my husband who, with my sisters, had been taking care of my mother. He tells me that on morphine, in the hospital, while recovering from an operation to stabilize her spine, she kept dreaming that she was on Saipan where she and her first husband, a Marine officer, had been stationed after the war. 1947. 

In her morphine dream, the Japanese soldiers who’d been left behind were surrounding her. My older sister and brother were still infants and she had to protect them. Her husband was on night duty and she was sitting, revolver in her hands, her children tucked in behind her, listening for the soldiers, for their footsteps coming through the jungle. 

Long ago, she’d told me that she and her husband had taken a jeep up into the hills to see the caves where the Japanese soldiers had hidden and the cliffs off of which they had jumped to their deaths rather than be taken prisoner. She didn’t tell me, then, that their wives and children had also jumped. I found out later. She must have known. How could she have not known? We’re talking about thousands of bodies broken on the shore below, the cliffs now a memorial. 

The sacrifices so others go on. After living in the Southwest for years, I knew that Diné women had wrapped their arms around their children and jumped from cliffs in Canyon de Chelly to escape capture by Kit Carson. Jews hiding from Nazis had sometimes inadvertently smothered their crying babies, trying to save their families. I knew about the designated survivor, how the most Aryan-looking Jew in a village was chosen to pass and sometimes ordered to load his own family on to the trains as a “test” of his identity. The designated survivor: one person left to tell the story. 

Was I thinking about all of this in beautiful Prague? Such a charming city, a paradoxical grace and weight in the architecture, the weather not bad at all. Did these unthinkable choices linger in the light outside the café where we ate with Barbara and our friend Cynthia, behind the glass shop where the chandeliers still looked molten, where the fan was turning turning turning but never cooling us off? I don’t think so. 

I drank wine and went to the writers reading their work below the smoky bar. Afterwards, we talked of the fragment and its relation to the whole, which always, it’s true, reminded me of Picasso’s “Guernica” and the power of abstraction. A fragment can be a word. The word “liquidation” for example. 

“In the struggle between yourself and the world, you must side with the world,” Kafka said, but I don’t think Kafka had children, or could have imagined, even in his darkest hours, Theresienstadt. 

Prague, a charming city, has a history that is unsettling. The streets in Prague, where Kafka grew up, are made of cobbles and in the cobbles of Old Town Square, there are twenty-seven inlaid crosses, one for each martyr beheaded upon that spot. There are memorials everywhere if you know how to see them, if you’ve heard the stories. 

When I visited Prague Castle, I was told that the word defenestration comes from fenêtre, “window” in French, but defenestration, the term, was coined in Prague and means to throw someone out of a high window, especially during political upheaval, as in a coup. 

Later, when I looked at Kathryn’s proof sheets from Terezín, there were so many windows—windows and doors that led nowhere, windows and doors behind bars, doors the texture of tombstones, tombstones shaped like doors. 

A memorial is a way of seeing. “The first step in liquidating a people,” the Czech historian Milan Hubl said, “is to erase its memory.”

One historical period does not equate in a 1:1 fashion with another. And yet. There are lessons we can learn. Tearing apart the fragile carapace of a civilization can be as quick as ripping a piece of silk. On the time it takes to mend it, if it can be mended at all, I believe the jury is out. 

Better to stop it from happening, always. If one can. In 1945, at the age of 19, Arnost Lustig, primed by his experience in the camps, returned to Prague and took part in the uprising against the Nazi occupation. Jan Weiner joined Britain’s Royal Air Force.