November 11 is the 80th anniversary of the death of Jan Opletal, a Prague student who had been gunned down at an anti-Nazi demonstration in the city a fortnight earlier. Opletal became a symbol of Czech resistance to the German occupation and a march held in his honour helped spark the Velvet Revolution five decades after his death.
Though little-known today, Marie Schmolka was for several years one of Prague’s key organisers helping Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, while she also helped arrange transports of children to the UK that saved hundreds of lives. On Monday Schmolka is receiving, in memoriam, honorary citizenship of Prague 1, as officials finally honour the heroic work she carried out in her native city.
Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution was sparked by a student demonstration on November 17, 1989 that was brutally quelled by riot police. Among those on the front line of those clashes was writer Magdaléna Platzová. The daughter of dissident Eda Kriseová, at 17 years old she had already taken part in a number of demonstrations. But, she says, nothing prepared her for the violence that surrounded her on Prague’s Národní St. on that now famous day.
As the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution draws near, we take you to places that played a significant role in the events leading to the collapse of the Communist regime 30 years ago. In the first episode of our mini-series, we visit Národní třída, the scene of a brutal police crackdown on an unarmed student demonstration on November 17. It was this event that marked the beginning of the revolution.
The Czech Radio archives give us a rich and nuanced picture of the months leading up to the Munich Agreement of September 1938 that resulted in Nazi Germany annexing huge areas of Czechoslovakia. So many recordings survive that we can reconstruct the events leading up to Munich almost day by day. They include insights from many different angles, not least the perspective of the German-speakers of Czechoslovakia, those who supported, but also those who opposed Hitler. The archives offer a sober warning of how easily a democratic state can be shattered
Prague’s historically working-class Žižkov district is perhaps best known today for its abundance of pubs (even by Czech standards) and colossal TV Tower – once voted the world’s second ugliest building. Lesser-known is the rich cultural history of what some natives proclaim the “Independent Republic of Žižkov”. Two of its proudest sons, Jaroslav and Miroslav Čvančara, have just published a sweeping illustrated book about the Prague 3 district, literally filling in the historical picture.
Thanks to a unique sound recording acquired by Czech Radio, the state attorney’s office has ordered a new investigation into the death of foreign minister Jan Masaryk, son of the country’s first president T.G. Masaryk, in February 1948. His great niece Charlotta Kotik has welcomed the news and is hoping to help the investigation.
Czech Immigrants first started settling in Chicago in the 1850s and continued in several waves in the 20th century. Today the city has the biggest number of Czech-Americans living in the US, with localities known as ”Prague” and “Pilsen”. I recently visited Chicago for the 80th Moravian Day celebrations and took the opportunity to stop by the University of Chicago, where the tradition of Slavic studies is almost as old as the university itself.
If asked to picture Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in your mind’s eye, odds are you will conjure up one of two images of the Austrian composer – both of which have Czech rather artistic roots, albeit centuries apart. If not the lead actor from Miloš Forman’s Oscar-winning film Amadeus, the image in your head is likely a posthumous portrait by Jihlava native Barbara Krafft.
Václav Havel’s relationship to the United States is the focus of the recently issued book Havel v Americe (Havel in America) by historian Rosamund Johnston and journalist Lenka Kabrhelová. Mainly based on Q&A-style interviews, it contains insights and anecdotes from Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, both presidents Bush and a host of others and is the first publication to concentrate on the subject. When I met the authors, I first asked Johnston about the genesis of Havel v Americe.