Prague, Czech Republic: Kafka's ghosts and rich history
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Soon the crowd disperses into the plethora of cafes running along the uneven grounds of the square’s periphery. I, on the other hand, find myself alone, face-to-face, with the dulled-by-age, charcoal-gray fresco that adorns the one-time home of my ghost: Franz Kafka. Here, within the shadows of Town Hall’s medieval skyscraper, the baroque aquamarine domes of St. Nicholas Church and the twin towers of Tyn Church, I record my first ghost sighting. Franz Kafka, the existential author of such eerie cannon staples as The Trial and The Metamorphosis, once wandered through the streets, alleyways and bars of Prague’s Old Town, New Town and Castle District. During his lifetime, Kafka was not regarded as a writer but instead as a prominent attorney for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Company of the Kingdom of Bohemia, which now houses the Mercure Hotel. Kafka was a rather obscure German speaking Jew who actually requested that, upon his death, all his works be burned and forever erased from our collective conscious. Luckily, this deathbed request was politely ignored, allowing the world to experience the genius of Kafka and, more importantly, giving literary aficionados like myself an excuse to go to Prague.
From the grandeur of Old Town Square, I make my way to the humbling Jewish Quarter, long serving as the city’s Jewish ghetto and thus the epicenter of Kafka’s religious life. Within these cramped and shaded blocks, I see the jagged, pyramid roof of the Alt-Neu Synagogue brutally sawing its way through the sky in a frantic gesture towards the heavens.
It is here Kafka attended services and, with a history that includes hundreds of Jews being herded inside only to be brutally slaughtered, it is unquestionable that Kafka’s works were influenced by these stories of grief and horror. In fact, the entire synagogue is enshrouded with an air of eerie history. Legend has it that within the mystery that permeates the synagogue’s musty air, stashed safely away behind the attic door’s rusted chain and bolts, are the remains of the Jewish Frankenstein known as The Golem.
Leaving from the low hanging door of the synagogue, it is just several blocks along a craft-shop lined promenade to the black iron gate of the Old Jewish Cemetery. As city rules once forbade any Jew from being buried outside the strangling confines of the ghetto’s boundaries, the cemetery is overfilled with 12,000 bodies, sometimes buried twelve deep, causing the earth to swell like the tide of a dead sea.
Although the castle complex is still home to the Czech Republic’s president, various nobility and leaders have occupied it since 3200 BC. Today the castle is the accumulated result of a building spree that has transported it through Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and modern times. Here history is heaped atop history, burying the ghosts of its collective past with the treasures and bones just now being unearthed from the castle’s most inner vaults.
Seated at Cafe Kafka and sipping from a warming cup of coffee, I feel a slight chill crawl up my spine. Perhaps it was the waiter brushing by me? Perhaps it was a slight shift in the wind? Or perhaps it was just my imagination? Regardless, I begin to feel a bit haunted myself. Within these shuffling crowds of photo-snapping tourist I sense the eyes of history, watching us, judging us, and, guessing from some of my fellow tourists erratic behavior, laughing at us. Yes, now I see it. Deep inside these narrow, must-filled castle hallways, while we are all preoccupied looking for our ghost, the collective ghost of Prague sits silently, staring us in the face.
If You GoPrague Tourism Bureau: Prague-info.cz
Franz Kafka Society: http://www.franzkafka-soc.cz/index.php?lang=en
Franz Kafka Museum: http://www.kafkamuseum.cz/ShowPage.aspx?tabId=-1
Prague Castle: https://www.hrad.cz/en
Jewish Quarter: http://www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/info/visit/
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Nicholas J. Klenske is a freelance writer living in Brussels, Belgium. His work has appeared in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, New Haven Advocate and TransitionsAbroad.com.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author