The Israeli author Tom Segev is in Prague to launch the Czech translation of his acclaimed biography of the Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal. Entitled Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends, Tom Segev’s latest work offers a critical yet compassionate look at the complicated man who devoted his life to tracking down Nazi criminals. Radio Prague spoke to Tom Segev during his Prague visit, and asked him how different the real Simon Wiesenthal was from the myths he himself helped create.
Anniversaries give us the chance to think again about the meaning of events and their relevance today. Next month it will be exactly 70 years since the destruction by the Nazis of the Czech village of Lidice in June 1942. The facts and figures are well known, and even in the shadow of huge numbers later killed in the Holocaust, still remain shocking: 340 people were murdered, including 88 children and all but two of the men of the village. They were killed systematically and in cold blood in a calculated attempt by the SS to prevent Czech insurgency.
If there was one sound guaranteed to infuriate Czechoslovakia’s communist leaders during the 1970s and 80s it was the call-sign of the US-funded Radio Free Europe, broadcasting from Munich to the countries of the Eastern Bloc. After the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, many Czech and Slovak émigrés of a wide variety of political hues ended up working for the station’s Czechoslovak Section. Back home they found a receptive audience and Czechoslovakia’s communist leaders became little short of obsessed with discrediting Radio Free Europe’s broadcasts.
Prague’s Old Town Square may be famous for its grandeur and architectural beauty, but it is, in fact, a shadow of its former self. A great chunk of the Old Town Hall building was decimated by the Nazis at the end of the war, and has never been rebuilt. To this day, a rather bare park stands where most of the building once did. And across from the famous Jan Hus sculpture used to be a towering Marian column, built in 1650 and felled in 1918, by Czechs who felt it symbolized the country’s Habsburg past.
Two massive wooden boxes, each weighing over 300 kilograms – that was what the botanist and pharmacologist Bohuslav Jiruš left the National Museum in his will some 100 years ago. The humungous mystery crates came with one instruction: They should not be opened until 200 years after Jiruš’s death –the year 2101. Now, the National Museum has published the surprising result of its vote on whether its researchers should be allowed to take a peak inside with computed tomography.
South Moravia is well-known for its wine, which has been produced there at least since thirsty Roman soldiers far from home began doing so in the 2nd century. Move forward a thousand years or so, to the 13th century, and wine trading had become one of the most profitable businesses in the region. Those are the days that our destination for today stretches back to.
In the 1970s the communist authorities tolerated popular music as long as it was insipid, colourless and unoriginal – everything that the Czech psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe most definitely was not. Their music was inspired by Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground, their lyrics anarchic, their behaviour unconventional and their hair long. In 1976 four members of the band were sentenced to prison terms for what was described as “organised disturbance of the peace”, and in December of the same year Czechoslovak Radio broadcast
Prague’s Antonín Dvořák Museum recently reopened after renovation with a new programme dedicated to the life and work of the famous composer. Entitled The journeys of Antonín Dvořák, it offers a new look at the composer’s stays abroad. It also features an exhibition on Dvořák’s Czech-American friend and collaborator, Josef Jan Kovařík, who worked with Dvořák during his stay in New York.
The 1960s had seen a thriving musical scene in Czechoslovakia, which had been broadly tolerated by the regime, especially during the 1968 Prague Spring. With the political clampdown of the early 70s, rock and pop music were also to suffer. But this was a gradual process, and, initially at least, the communist authorities were careful not to go too far to alienate young people.
In the course of 1969 and 1970 Czechoslovak Radio was transformed back into what it had been in the 1950s, a tool of hard line propaganda. In the process, over 700 radio staff were forced to leave their jobs. Those who stayed found their freedom of expression severely curtailed. To give an idea of the extent to which things had changed by August 1969 - the first anniversary of the Soviet led invasion – I will start with a short extract from Radio Prague’s broadcasts back in 1968, as the tanks rolled into the city. At the time the radio was playing