Finding Healing in Prague

Anne Organista

© Copyright 2018 by Anne Organista

Photo of old town tower in Prague.

I expected Prague to be one of the most interesting places I'd visit.  Little did I know it would give me so much more.

Prague’s bohemian appeal and fascinating features made it an ideal destination for culture lovers like myself. But the day before I left, my boyfriend broke up with me. Suddenly, Prague was not as enticing and curling up into a ball seemed like a sensible idea; even though I knew it would have been foolish not to go.

I rose to a gorgeous Monday morning with the Prague skyline peeking through my window. The radiant sunlight, however, didn’t produce much difference. Sleep had been uneasy, leaving my eyes red and swollen. Everything had fallen apart, but this was a dream vacation and I knew it would be a waste not to make the most of this opportunity. So despite my foul mood, I pushed myself to join the others who had already headed for Prague Castle.

Prague Castle was majestic. Its tall buildings and magnificent palaces would impress anyone with both its size and grandeur. Massive statues of fighting giants stood above the gateway of the courtyard. They shielded the sky into an ominous shade of dark gray, reminiscent of the heaviness that continued to pound my insides. I stood in the middle of the courtyard, mesmerized by its sheer enormity. To capture its splendor, I grabbed my camera for a panoramic view of the towering Baroque buildings that surrounded it. Turning, I felt a tightness in my chest and immediately sucked in for air; but all the more the buildings converged. My lungs seemed to be on fire and throbbing pains drowned my head. How could he treat me this way? How had things changed so suddenly? Did I expect too much?

These thoughts went on inside my head, robbing whatever semblance of control and balance lingered there. My heart raced and in a panic, I ran around the courtyard, looking for a way out of the maze of buildings. Ultimately, I found a narrow passageway that led to the castle garden enabling me to breathe. My eyes feasted on the scenic terraces, magnificent pavilions and graceful fountains where the display of color, beauty and freshness was dazzling. I pulled myself together, reveled in the sun and took comfort in its warm caress. And as if heaven heard my cry, the sprinklers turned on right that minute, spraying a cooling mist that soothed my weary body. With eyes closed, I allowed the tranquility of the place to assuage the persistent rumblings in my heart.

Moments later, the rustle of the tree branches and the gentle breeze lulled me to near sleep. But just when my breathing slowed down and found its normal rhythm, a torrent of fierce emotions caused another uproar. Stand up! I jerked out of the bench, bewildered, not so much by the sudden movement but by the anger that washed over me. Furious and shaken, enraged thoughts burned my heart. What did I miss? What went wrong? How did this happen? Should I have anticipated it? Drained of color, my chest felt heavy with futile rage. While I had no idea how much I could hold, I knew there’s only so much my heart could take. Suddenly, the stillness and peaceful solitude of the castle gardens had become oppressive. I needed to escape.

My unsteady steps led to Golden Lane, a little cobbled street lined with miniature, colored houses where castle guards used to live. Pretty as a picture with an old-world quaintness, Golden Lane brought unwitting guests back in time where skilled workers once ate, worked and lived. It was inconceivable how people had slept in such tiny houses. Some maintained their historical character like house no. 12 which belonged to Josef Kazda, an amateur film historian. His photos and documentaries hidden from the Nazis during WWII, remain intact. House no. 22, on the other hand, is today a souvenir shop. Franz Kafka, the distinguished German writer, used to live here with his sister. Sadly, only a plain-looking plaque and a poster of him on the inner door are all that’s left in this small, insignificant quarters.

I wasn’t extremely familiar with Kafka except for “Metamorphosis”, one of his notable works. Considered a classic, I found his writing hostile and conflicted, like the searching eyes of a little boy that stared at me from one of the houses. Was Kafka perhaps as suspecting as the little boy? Was his life as tragic as his writings? Had he perhaps been betrayed and abandoned too? It would have been comforting to experience how he felt and discover how the tormenting events of his life had fueled his career. Unfortunately, there was no way of finding out now.

Going out of Golden Lane, a bronze sculpture of a beggar weighed down by a large skull stood directly in my path. Known as the Parable with Skull, the unusual piece was based on Kafka’s characters, often portrayed as belittled and crippled by a mysterious force. Examining the piece, I thought how the beggar’s misfortune shed light on my own. This is incredibly cruel! How could I be so pathetic? How stupid could I be?

Still reeling from these disturbing thoughts, another sculpture of Kafka, riding on an empty suit, startled me. The weight of this twelve-foot bronze statue, though hollow, forced an excruciating pain through my shoulders; as if shattering my bones to pieces. Akin to Kafka’s struggle, the push and pull between reality and the imagined was disconcerting. Where others in similar circumstances had stood firm and strong, I felt myself sinking, separated and uprooted from everything I had known. Who is he anyway? What was there to even like about him? How could I have fallen for such a jerk?

Hours later, darkness fell and silence descended upon the city, evoking an atmosphere of absolute tranquility. The historic Charles Bridge appeared in the distance and I marveled at its graceful elegance. Even so, the stillness in the air grew oppressive as thoughts of shame, confusion and guilt stormed my mind. What if work had not consumed me? What if I had acted differently? Would things have changed? Leaning on the bridge for support, I looked at my feet, unsure if the land underneath had given way. This was an unknown territory, and I had no idea how to move on. With only the thirty life-size statues that lined the bridge to witness my grief, I finally succumbed to tears.
In the midst of my muffled cries, an elderly woman approached me and related a legend about St. John of Nepomuk. He was one of the saints that stood on the bridge; the one decorated with five stars. An iron framework with a picture of a falling priest stood on the right of the statue. Legend maintains this was the place where the saint was thrown off; and that touching the picture would bring the person good luck.

I think you could use a bit of luck right about now,” the woman said, “though of course, it’s just a legend.”

She smiled, nudged me lightly on the shoulder and left. My rational mind said it was absurd, but desperation can sometimes lead to unreasonable paths of behavior. All I wanted was to relieve myself from this gnawing pain. And so despite sounder judgment, I reached out and touched the framework, wondering if this was enough to turn my luck around.

The following day, we had scheduled to visit Vysocina; a pristine countryside noted for its picturesque landscape, charming towns and lush fields. Ideal for gentle breathing, solitary walks and thoughtful reflection, a friend reassured me. But extremely tired of my own thoughts, shutting off from the world didn’t seem to be a good idea. So despite my friends’ quiet objections, I waved them off at the train station and ventured on my own.

Under the glorious sunshine, I explored the Old Town Square. Bordered by a number of magnificent houses, palaces and churches; this charming square offered tourists a relaxing place to enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of beer at one of its many outdoor cafés. One could also feed the pigeons, observe the street performers and merchants, or simply soak in the beauty of this incredible city. I felt giddy climbing to the top of the Old Town Tower and discovered the astonishing view of the square to be an absolute delight. Watching from two hundred twenty-eight feet high, it was amazing to find how people looked so insignificant. Reduced to tiny colored dots moving in different directions; there was no telling the young from the old, the locals from the tourists, the content and satisfied from those who were probably as depressed as I was. It was fascinating how a view of the square from another position changed one’s perspective. Would it be possible, I wondered, for my present heartbreak to become trivial two years into the future?

The hourly chime of the Astronomical Clock sounded and from across the square, a sizeable crowd had gathered underneath. People raised their cameras to catch a glimpse of the parade of the apostles.

The parade’s not that impressive,” a woman behind me whispered to her companion.

You think?”

It's fascinating. But trekking across Europe just to watch the show? A bell rings and the 12 apostles appear at the windows and then it's over.”

People say it’s a masterpiece?”

Oh sure, the clock is. But to wait for an hour for the parade? There are better things to do with our time.”

The woman’s remark struck me though I wasn’t sure why. Minutes later, I went down the tower and headed for the square with the scorching sun on my back. Reminding myself to catch the next parade of the apostles, I hurried to a nearby café for a quick refreshing glass of ice-cold beer. Torn between finishing my beer and joining the crowd gathered under the Astronomical Clock; the conversation I had overheard a few minutes ago snuck up on me.

It isn’t that impressive. . . . A bell rings. . . the 12 apostles appear, then it's over . . . . It’s a masterpiece, but. . . There are better things to do with our time.”

Her voice reverberated in my head, placing me in a trance; quite like the bubbles bouncing off the sides of my glass. Did he ever love me? Did I care for him? Or was it a total waste of my time? Was any of it even real? Shocked, confused, humiliated; I grabbed the glass and gulped the beer down my throat. A heavy pounding beat my heart; and unable to control myself, tears burst forth like water from a dam, spilling down my face.

For the next couple of days, I wandered the city’s cobbled streets, admired the spectacular facades of the centuries-old buildings and snapped tons of incredible pictures. I admired some of Europe's most important art collection at the National Gallery and marveled at the majestic stained-glass windows of St. Vitus Cathedral. Exploring the Jewish Quarter with its collection of precious artifacts, kosher restaurants, cemetery and synagogues was enlightening as it provided an excellent preview into the local culture. Most amazing however was the elaborate Moorish motifs of flowers and brilliant geometric patterns that covered the ceilings and walls of the Spanish Synagogue. In addition, I paid tribute at the John Lennon Wall and tasted the famous pork knuckle dish marinated in beer. While the former was interesting, the latter seemed overrated. I admit though that this might have been more because of my own sour company than the dish itself. Still perplexed and miserable, I blended with the locals at the Farmer’s Market and haggled with merchants over delicacies and souvenir items. I walked until my feet hurt, hoping the exhaustion would deaden the sickening pain I felt inside.

With my vacation coming to a close, I decided to explore the unbeaten path. Terezin was one of those places; not one to land on a travel guide. Misery loves company, people say, so I had no qualms exploring what had been a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation. My friends were aghast, saying that going to Terezin would be rubbing salt to injury. I didn’t care. I had examined thousands of WWII pictures; read stories of Anne Frank, Victor Frankl and Elie Wiesel; and watched dozens of movies about the Nazis and their cruelty to the Jews. I knew their stories like the back of my hand. In my present state, nothing could make matters worse.

As it turned out, I may have misjudged this whole experience. Entering the camp through a huge arch painted with the black and white swastika symbol of the Nazis, was unnerving. I knew what Terezin was and what happened in places like this many years ago; but the foreboding silence transported me far deeper into a world I had never imagined.

The camp was composed of a large and small fortress, about a ten-minute walk apart, with the National Cemetery in between. Housed in one of the huge barracks buildings within the large fortress was a museum, a Jewish cemetery, crematorium and columbarium. The cells looked pathetic with the uneven wood planks put together to form the prisoners’ bunk beds. Each little space had fit sixty to ninety people with no toilet, light or fresh air. Jews who had tried to escape were brutally punished in the solitary confinement rooms, also with no light or heating. My eyes swept over in pain at the shattered glass windows in the barracks, the cracked tiles in the bathroom and the rust-covered chains at the execution ground. Plaques dedicated to the victims hung on the walls of the Columbarium; a silent request not to be forgotten. The truth of these events was undeniable. It was disturbing, appalling and horrific. How could such monstrosities occur?

Moreover, displays at the Ghetto Museum revealed an even more atrocious world. Covers of magazines presented anti-Semitism propaganda. A children’s textbook illustrated a Jew as a toxic mushroom. Photos portrayed countless bodies left in mass graves. Diaries and letters portrayed extensive accounts of ghetto life. Such gruesome artifacts left me uneasy, and I was anxious for an escape. Unnoticed by the others, I headed towards the exit when a collage of children’s drawings stopped me in my tracks. Their sketches of boats, flowers and other nature scenes looked whimsical, far removed from the harsh reality in which they lived. Yet, they also spoke of another truth I hadn’t completely grasped. In the midst of tremendous abuse and injustice, these people continued to live, hope and dream. And it was this unrelenting spirit that gave their lives meaning. Adversity had not defeated them because their wounds had not held them captive.

There it was, that feeling when you’ve hit a bull’s eye. Truth hurts when reality strikes. Loud as a siren, the truth mocked me and refused to be silenced. What is my heartache compared to how much the Jews lived through? What plausible excuse could I make to not move on when these people suffered so much more? How could I feel burdened when they were the real captives? At that point, I recalled a friend who used to say obstacles don’t exist unless we make them so. The Jews apparently didn’t, and they were all the better for it.

With our tour completed, we headed towards the National Cemetery, marked by a huge cross and a Star of David. As we lowered our heads in prayer before the never-ending rows of graves marked only by the victims’ numbers; I noticed a low granite tablet with “10,000” inscribed on it. It seemed surreal how an inconspicuous memorial for those whose sufferings paved the way for our freedom today, carried the weight of the victims’ pain and misery. Even more disheartening was breathing the air in the final spot of their journey. It felt almost like a desecration of their suffering.

Though uneventful and quiet, my thoughts raged as we drove back to the city. I thought I had seen and experienced the worst. But visiting Terezin had been cathartic. I was consoled, cleansed and freed of the burden that had festered inside and surprisingly, counting my blessings now became so easy.

The following morning, my friends were surprised by the sudden change in my behavior, though they kept silent and respected the process I chose to take. To celebrate my awakening, as they termed it, we decided to visit Kutna Hora; a silver mining town included in the UNESCO world heritage list.

We made our first stop at Hradek, an impressive, seven hundred year old building which houses the Czeck Museum of Silver. The museum offered two different tours; the first led visitors through the history of Kutná Hora and the second, a tour of the silver mining process. Feeling adventurous, we chose the second. Equipped with a lamp, helmet and coat, we went six feet underground through a modern steel staircase. At the bottom was the original medieval mine, where scratches along the walls marked by the miners’ hammers and crevices that held their candles could still be found. A dark passageway ushered us to a tunnel that grew tighter as we squeezed our way through. At one point, our guide requested us to turn off our lamps and imagine the condition in which the miners worked in the past. Cloaked in complete darkness, I shuddered at the thought of the dangers that could happen should one be left in this dark and dangerous pit.

After almost an hour, we approached the end of the tunnel and came out to Hrádek garden, a recreation of a miner's settlement. It was furnished with a replica of a hearth furnace and the tools used in the mining process. Exhausted from our one-of-a-kind experience, I thrust my face towards the sun and smelled the fresh air; grateful for things that easily escape our attention. Recalling the miners of Kutna Hora whose livelihood depended on that dark and dangerous cave; I finally recognized how my heartbreak was an invitation to lead a more authentic and meaningful life.

After a late lunch, we proceeded to the Sedlec Ossuary in Kostnice, our last stop in Kutna Hora. A small village chapel known for its unusual art collection, every wall and corner of the church was filled with bizarre decorations made from various parts of the human skeleton. There were chalices, a monstrance, a family crest, a pyramid, crosses, candle holders and an impressive coat of arms all made from human bones. Awestruck, I marveled at the ingenuity of the artists who had miraculously transformed these pieces into works of art. Jokingly, our tour guide said that a deranged monk was supposedly responsible for crafting these unusual art pieces. Who would have thought that human bones can be turned into a creative production?

Pretty much like turning lemons into lemonade, don’t you think?” my friend winked. I smiled, comprehending the meaning of her words.

After quite an extraordinary day, we went on the sightseeing and dinner cruise along the Vltava River. Welcomed on deck with appetizers, we sat down as the boat sailed past a marvelous view of the sun-soaked Prague Castle; and a host of Baroque and Gothic buildings. The sight of the Nationale-Nederlanden building, aptly called Dancing House due to its resemblance to a pair of dancers stuck out like a sore thumb. Admittedly unique, I wasn’t certain about it, though. Nevertheless, it forced me to reassess my concept of beauty and truth. Things, after all, continue to be true and beautiful despite what people think. Indeed, while we make our own truth, it is still beyond our control. I chuckled to myself, wondering if I was perhaps coming to terms with my own truth. 

As darkness fell, we enjoyed a sumptuous buffet accompanied by live music on board. The cruise steered us past a fantastic view of Charles Bridge and the remarkable sights of the Old and Lesser Town, now illuminated with lights. Aided only by the light of the moon and far-off street lamps, Prague was once again quiet and peaceful. A perfect ending to what had been a momentous journey.

That night, I packed my bags with a grateful heart. Though miserable and dejected at first, Prague’s incredible sights offered a refuge to wash away my doubts, vent my anger and confront my fears. The stories of love and sacrifice in Terezin offered a way out of my pain; just as going underground in Kutna Hora enlightened the path on what I can become. From a life that had been in chaos, this beautiful city directed me to look inside and find the order within.

For that, I will always be grateful.

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