We moved to Prague, Czech Republic, in 2018. I’ve had in mind to write this article ever since shortly after we moved into our new apartment. I have tarried in writing it because of the heaviness of the subject.
The morning of 21 August 2018, we heard a voice over a loudspeaker then a somber brass band. We went outside and around the block toward the sound at the Český rozhlas (Czech Radio) building. A crowd had gathered, and two dozen or so chairs were set out into the street. An honor guard with Czech flags and a small brass band were present. A lectern and some official-looking people stood in the entrance of the building. The mood was somber as someone spoke into a microphone.
We asked someone what was happening.
“Okupace,” she said.
But which one?
Not yet knowing much Czech language and having an unsettled feeling we were somehow intruding, we went home. Looking up the date online, I discovered that August 21 2018 was the 50th anniversary of the Soviet-led “Warsaw Pact” invasion of Czechoslovakia. It was the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring, when the Czechoslovaks dared to have a small bit of autonomy from Moscow.
I had known about the Prague Spring and the invasion that had violently repressed it, but I had never imagined the battle was right here, on my block. The radio station was a beacon of free speech and revolution against Soviet totalitarianism. When the invasion began, Český rozhlas started broadcasting information for the public on what was happening and how to resist. The Soviets understandably wanted to shut down the station—totalitarianism wants to control information.
Vinohradská, a street that runs by my apartment and in front of the Český rozhlas building, was where street battles occurred as Czech civilians tried to fend off Soviet tanks and troops that were assaulting the radio station. Tanks against civilians.
The radio headquarters was a center of activity both during the Prague Spring and the resistance to the Warsaw Pact invasion. People were murdered by Soviet/Warsaw Pact troops.
That plaque is on the entrance of the Český rozhlas building, as is this plaque:
Český rozhlas was the epicenter of the May 1945 uprising against Nazi occupation. Like in 1968, it had broadcast information for the people about the armed uprising. The building was a gathering point for resistance fighters.
The Czechs had always resisted the Nazis, and it should not be forgotten that Czechoslovakia was the first foreign nation occupied by the Nazis, even before the war started. By 1945, Prague had suffered seven long years of brutal occupation, waiting for a chance to throw off Nazi totalitarianism.
As the Soviet army neared Prague in May 1945, Prague resistance fighters launched their long-planned effort to liberate the city and the country as a whole. Their first action on May 5 was to take over the radio station from SS occupiers and broadcast to Czech citizens a call to arms. The Nazis tried to retake the station, while partisans gathered to reinforce it. The Nazis placed a machine gun in an upper floor of a school at the head of Balbínova street overlooking one entrance to the Český rozhlas building. Here are two of the memorial plaques to partisans shot by Nazis on Balbínova.
Plaques like those can be found all across Prague but are concentrated around the radio station—in my neighborhood.
The battle for Prague was the last armed conflict of World War II in Europe, lasting several days after the official Nazi surrender on May 7. The residents of Prague, as many as 30,000 active citizen soldiers, fought the Nazis and won.
They welcomed the Soviet army as liberators when they entered Prague on May 9, only to have the Soviets a few years later impose their own totalitarianism on Czechoslovakia. Again, the Czechs never fully capitulated. Twenty-three years later their resistance escalated to armed conflict. In 1945 and 1968, war against totalitarianism occurred next door to where I now live.
Totalitarianism in My Building
Recently, we returned from a long trip to find a surprise in front of our building.
The freshness of the roses indicated the installation was recent. For those who don’t know, those two brass plaques are Stolpersteine, German for “stumbling stones,” also known as “the stones of the disappeared.” The Stolpersteine project, initiated by German Gunter Demnig in 1992, commemorates those individuals where they lived or worked before they were abducted by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps and usually murdered.
We have seen quite a few of the Stolpersteine in our travels around Europe. They are destressingly common, over 75,000 in over 1,200 cities so far. There are 567 so far in Prague, which was under Nazi occupation for years. Two were installed a block away before we moved here. Now, two had been installed in front of our home.
“Here lived Arnošt Brunner and Irena Brunnerová (née Reinischová), born 1895 and 1911 respectively. Deported to Terezín [concentration camp] in 1942, then to Riga, where they were murdered.”
Arnošt was one of 1,001 Czechs who the Nazis deported to Terezín on August 3, 1942, 924 of them were murdered in the camp. Only 77 survived the Nazi regime.
Arnošt and Irena lived in our building, maybe even our apartment. He was an engineer for a glass factory and then for a banking and coal mining company. When the Nazis took over Prague, he was working in the Petschkův palác, a building the Gestapo appropriated as their headquarters in Prague.
These were human beings, two of millions of people who have been victims of far-Right totalitarian forces. It is one thing to understand this in the abstract; it is another thing entirely to have it happen around you.
I am fortunate to be able to live in a Czech Republic that is free and at peace. This neighborhood is beautiful and happy today. Someone asked me this week what I think of the Czechs. I said I think they are remarkably resilient. What other country can celebrate four independence days?
I don’t want to be maudlin about it, but the presence of totalitarian terror, even in the past, in my neighborhood makes me sad. What really makes me sad is that it wouldn’t make some other people sad.