Czech Personalities in History Diary

The following is my own personal list of Czechs who, throughout the centuries, have contributed in a positive way to Czech culture, art, politics and other fields. There are many people I left out because I do not feel they played a positive role. Others I simply forgot and will have to add at a later date.

Tomáš Baťa (1876 – 1932)

Born April 3, 1876 in the southeastern Moravian town of Zlín, Tomáš Baťa became a leading entrepreneur in a family that has received accolades for its long and impressive history in shoemaking. The Bata clan began making shoes as early as 1667. Not only did he found shoe factories throughout the world, but he also was the Zlín’s major from 1923 to 1932. He was responsible for transforming Zlín into a modern city, building schools, for example. He was greatly improved the educational system, too. Even though Baťa died in a plane crash during 1932, the company Baťa Shoes remains successful to this day.

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Edvard Beneš from TERAZ.sk

Edvard Beneš (1884 – 1948)

Beneš served as second president of Czechoslovakia from December of 1935 to October of 1938, when he resigned, convinced that the Munich Agreement was unfair. He became president of the Second Republic during June of 1946. Beneš asserted that the Sudeten Germans were collectively responsible for the destruction of independent Czechoslovakia, and he instigated the Beneš decrees, which involved confiscating the property of Germans, traitors and collaborators, taking away their Czechoslovak citizenship and expelling them from the country. Beneš also was the first Czechoslovak Minister of Foreign Affairs when Czechoslovakia was founded during 1918: He held the post of Prime Minister for a year and served as a Member of Parliament for a lengthy period. Beneš was very active in the fight for Czechoslovak independence during World War I and in the resistance movement during the Nazi Occupation.

Karel Havlíček Borovský (1821 – 1856)

Often referred to as the founder of Czech journalism, satire and literary criticism, Karel Havlíček Borovský was not only a journalist and critic. He also penned poems, was active in politics and worked as a publisher. His book Pictures from Russia presented the first Czech objective view of life in that country during that particular era. He established the first Czech daily newspaper, Národní noviny, known for its liberal viewpoints. Borovský was by no means a fan of the Habsburg Empire. He was tried several times for his sharp criticism of the monarchy. Borovský was expelled from the Czech lands and then lived in the Tyrol for almost four years. Though a pragmatist, he also supported universal suffrage. For a short time he served with the Austrian Empire’s Constituent Assembly but then opted to focus on journalism once again. He also translated works by Gogol and Voltaire into Czech. His book Tyrol Laments describes his arrest and subsequent expulsion to the Tyrol with humor and satire. He also is known for his poem “King Lavra,” a piece punctuated by allegory and satire.

Petr Brandl (1668 – 1735)

A leading Baroque painter in Bohemia, Petr Jan Brandl created emotional paintings using strong chiaroscuro. His works feature a powerful, passionate movement of colors, dramatic tension and a distinct tenderness.  He authored more than 60 paintings and numerous drawings, all of which are scattered throughout Bohemia from Chyše to Hradec Králové, Prague to Litoměřice and Kutná Hora to Kuks, for instance. Prague’s National Gallery even has an entire hall filled with his paintings, including his famous “Simeon with the Baby Jesus.”

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Vlasta Burian from ceskatelevize.cz

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Vlasta Burian from revue.idnes.cz

Vlasta Burian (1891 – 1962)

Nicknamed “The King of Comedians,” Burian was a film and theatre actor, director, singer, writer and mime, for instance. During the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918 – 1939) his popularity soared. After the war he was wrongly accused of collaboration with the Nazis. He started out in cabarets and later established his own theatre, where he worked from 1925 until May of 1945, when it was nationalized. During 1944 the Germans closed his theatre for a while and after the war he was imprisoned twice. When he was freed, he found himself destitute. His villa in Hanspaulka and almost all his property and belongings had been taken away from him. He had to do manual labor working in the mines, for instance during a five-year ban when he was not allowed to act. He returned to acting, but the stints in prison had taken a toll on his health. He had to act even when he was ill for financial reasons. From 1923 to 1956 he made four silent films and 36 with sound. He was known for his improvisation, black humor and satire as well as his uncomplicated humor. He played roles of people in many professions. During 1994, he was rehabilitated. In 2002 his grave was moved from the cemetery in Prague’s Vinohrady to the famous Vyšehrad Cemetery, where Czech national figures rest.

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Bust of Jára Cimrman

Jára Cimrman (Born during a freezing February night between 1854 and 1872 – ?)

The 15 plays in the repertoire of the Jára Cimrman Theatre revolve around the fictional, unlucky outsider and genius Jára Cimrman, who lived in the Austrian part of the oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire, during an era of Germanization when the Habsburgs were on the throne. Voted the Greatest Czech in a poll during 2005, Cimrman was a Czech nationalist who abhorred the Habsburg regime. Cimrman was a man of all trades – a seasoned traveler, prolific writer, collector of fairy tales, philosopher, filmmaker, gynecologist, dentist, teacher and criminologist, among others. While serving time for making fun of the emperor, he formed a choir and orchestra with his fellow prisoners and organized contests in Morse Code. His many inventions and accomplishments were only brought to light in 1966, when Zdeněk Svěrák (who co-authored the plays with Ladislav Smoljak) and his relative come upon Cimrman’s bust and papers at Liptákov 12, in a cottage in a village of the north Bohemian Jizera valley. His parents, an Austrian actress and a Czech tailor, forced him to wear girls’ clothing until he was 15 years old. The plays are laced with the typically Czech sense of humor that has allowed Czechs to survive a past riddled with oppression. All the plays take place around the turn of the 20th century, with the last one focusing on Cimrman’s life during World War I.

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Josef Čapek from Muzeum bratří Čapků

Josef Čapek (1887 – 1945)

Karel Čapek’s older brother, Josef made a name for himself as a painter, writer, journalist, photographer, graphic artist and book illustrator. He authored books with his brother early in their careers, including the plays From the Life of Insects and R.U.R., for which he coined the word “robot.” Josef also wrote books without his brother, including a mystery and some art-related works. He was a Cubist painter who utilized simple, geometric shapes and severe lighting contrasts. He was very inspired by “primitive” art and often rendered members of the lower class in his creations. A supporter of democracy, Josef was arrested by the Gestapo on September 1, 1939 and then spent the next six years in concentration camps. He died shortly before the Germans lost the war. His symbolic grave is at Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery.

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First President of Czechoslovakia Tomáš G. Masaryk with Karel Čapek

Karel Čapek (1890 – 1938)
The most versatile and perhaps most prominent writer in Czech history was a true Renaissance man –he was a playwright, novelist, feuilletonist, travel writer, story writer, journalist, children’s author, biographer, essayist, illustrator, photographer and translator. In the early years he often collaborated with his brother Josef, an accomplished artist in his own right. Karel Čapek argued that each person has his or her own truth, showed many perspectives of reality and criticized modern society. His writings also expose fears of Fascism, describe everyday events and warn against the abuse of technology. His works include Tales from One Pocket and Tales from the Other Pocket, War with the Newts, The Gardener’s Year, The Makropulos Thing, From the Life of Insects and R.U.R., a play which first used the word “robot.” He is buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery.

Miloň Čepelka (born 1936)

A brilliant actor, Čepelka is best known for his roles in the plays of the Jára Cimrman Theatre, where he has graced the stage for half a century. The former teacher and reporter with Czech Radio dazzles the audience in plays such as Hospoda Na mýtince (The Glade Tavern), České nebe (Czech Heaven), Akt (The Nude) and Cimrman v říší hudby (Cimrman in the Paradise of Music), for instance. His singing in Cimrman v říší hudby is extraordinary. In Vražda v salonním coupé (Murder in the Parlor Car) he teams up with his son, who is also an actor. His biography Nedělňátko was published in 2016. He is also an accomplished poet and prose writer.

David Černý (born 1967)

A rebel artist, Černý never fails to spark controversy with his shocking and provocative creations set in public areas. He has painted a Soviet tank pink and designed male figures that urinate into an enclosure shaped like the Czech Republic, for instance. His 1997 creation “Hanging Man” consists of a 220-centimeter Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand onto a roof of a building on Prague’s Husova Street. In the main passage of Prague’s Lucerna Palace, his 1999 “Horse” shows Saint Wenceslas on an upside-down horse. Located in a courtyard in front of Prague’s Quadrio shopping center near Národní třída, his monumental installation of the head of Franz Kafka, also referred to as The Metamorphosis, consists of 42 moving layers that rotate 360 degrees and occasionally align to resemble Franz Kafka’s head. Weighing 39 tons, the Metamorphosis measures 11 meters or 36 feet in height.

Charles IV (Karel IV) (1316 – 1378)
The first King of Bohemia to become Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV was crowned in 1346 and made Prague his capital. During his rule the city played a prominent intellectual and cultural role in Europe. A major patron of Prague, he also had the Charles Bridge built, established the first university in Central Europe and founded the New Town in the capital city. He had Karlštejn Castle built to safeguard the crown jewels.

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Jan Amos Comenius (Komenský in Czech) from Dobré knihy

Jan Amos Comenius (1592 – 1670)

This 17th century religious and educational reformer was fiercely Protestant, a member of the Unity of the Brethren denomination (also called Unitas Fratrum) and its last bishop. His work and life focus on his relationship to God, and he became a religious refugee on more than one occasion, living in Sweden, the Holy Roman Empire, England, the Netherlands and other countries. Jan Amos Comenius (Komenský in Czech) wrote innovative textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries and philosophical and theological studies. He even penned one of the most prominent works of Czech literature, the allegorical The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart. Some of his reforms of the school system are still in use today. Comenius contributed greatly to universal education, and it is no wonder that he is considered a symbol of the Czech nation.

Ema Destinnová (1878 – 1930)
A Czech opera singer born in Prague, she started her career successfully in Berlin and later became a member of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, where she performed in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, Puccini’s La fanciulla del West and Wagner’s operas, for instance. Because she had connections with the Czech resistance, her Czech passport was revoked in 1914. Two years later, when returning to the Czech lands from the USA, the Austrians accused her of espionage and placed her under house arrest at her chateau in Bohemia. During 1918 she was back in the limelight, singing on Czech stages. Even the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš G. Masaryk, visited her at the chateau she called home. She died at the age of 51 and is buried among great contributors to the Czech nation at Vyšehrad Cemetery in Prague. She also wrote poems, songs, novels and plays.

Josef Dobrovský (1753 – 1829)

This philologist, historian and Jesuit priest played a significant role during the Czech National Revival, although he did not write in Czech. Dobrovský, one of Europe’s first and foremost linguists, founded Slavic studies in the Czech lands. He was a key figure in establishing the Royal Czech Society of Sciences and Prague’s National Museum. His writings focus on Slavic studies, historiography and philology. He also contributed to the study of archeology and botany.

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Václav Havel hugging Alexander Dubček, picture from Czech Free Press

Alexander Dubček (1921 – 1992)

Dubček is best known as the Slovak First Secretary of Czechoslovakia who instigated the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968, when the country experienced more freedoms. At that time, Czechoslovakia seemed destined to find its own individual identity while remaining a Communist country in what was called “socialism with a human face.”  The Soviets put an end to the Prague Spring in August of 1968. Dubček also was a prominent politician before 1968 and after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. His life ended tragically on November 7, 1992.

Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904)
Neo-Romantic composer and head of Prague Conservatory, Dvořák was strongly influenced by Czech, Moravian and other Slavic folk music. The creator of nine symphonies, he is best known for From the New World, which was inspired by a tour of the United States. From 1892 to 1895, he worked as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. His opera Rusalka has achieved worldwide acclaim. Dvořák also composed two sets of Slavonic dances, symphonic poems, songs, choral works, chamber music and piano music, for instance. He created the religious work Stabat Mater, the chamber piece Dumky Trio, the Cello Concerto and American String Quartet as well as the Moravian Duets. He admired Richard Wagner’s operas. The librettos of eight of his nine operas were written in Czech. He often travelled to England and also visited Russia.

Miloš Forman (born 1932)
This film director, screenwriter and professor greatly influenced the New Wave movement in the 1960s with movies such as Talent Competition, Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman’s Ball. During this time period he often focused on reality and everyday life, sometimes using individuals who had no acting experience to play main characters. After the Soviet tanks ended the Prague Spring of 1968, he emigrated to the USA, where he experienced more success. There, his films often dealt with themes of alienation and craziness. His 1975 hit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest captured five Oscars, and his 1984 creation Amadeus nabbed eight Oscars. He also directed a film version of the musical Hair.

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Josef Gočár (1880 – 1945)

One of the pioneers of modern Czech architecture, Gočár has created architectural masterpieces in Prague, Pardubice and Hradec Králové, to name a few places, implementing styles of Cubism, Rondocubism, Functionalism and Constructivism. His contributions to architecture between the two world wars have distinguished him as one of the most significant personalities in Czech architectural history. From the House of the Black Madonna in Prague to the development plan of modern Hradec Králové to the Grand Hotel in Pardubice, his awe-inspiring creations spectacularly dot the Czech landscape.

George of Poděbrady (1420 – 1471)

George (Jiří in Czech) of Poděbrady served as King of Bohemia from 1458 to 1471 and also was leader of the Ultraquist Hussites, who were not the radical branch of the Hussites. The Hussite wars in the 15th century set factions of Hussites against each other, and foreign armies took part, too. He was successful on the battlefield during these wars. He defeated the Austrian troops of King Albert II in one battle and greatly contributed to the demise of the extreme Taborite branch of Hussites in another battle. Though he made many efforts to get the confidence of Pope Pius II, the Pope did not approve of him. He often found himself in conflicts with Rome. Pope Paul II excommunicated George of Poděbrady when his nobles revolted against him.

Karel Gott (born 1939)

Often called the “Golden Voice of Prague” and the “Sinatra of the East,” singer and painter Karel Gott is a master performer of romantic ballads. Yet his success – from 1960 to the present – is largely due to a diverse repertoire that includes operas, classical compositions, jazz, musicals, rock ‘n roll, country, western and disco music. The most acclaimed singer in the country, he has performed all over the world.

Jan Grossman (1925 – 1993)

Grossman’s tenure as artistic director of Prague’s Divadlo Na zábradlí (The Theatre on the Balustrades) from 1961 to 1968 is considered one of the most significant eras of Czech postwar theatre. There, he directed Havel’s The Memorandum and The Garden Party, Jarry’s Ubu The King and Kafka’s The Trial, to name a few. He was punished by the Communists on numerous occasions. After the February 1948 Communist coup, he was expelled from university, forced to leave his job as lecturer at the National Theatre and banned from publishing for a lengthy period. When he again was allowed to work in the literary sphere, he edited books by significant Czech authors, including František Halas and Miroslav Holub. After the tanks of the Warsaw Pact countries entered Prague and the 1968 Prague Spring was crushed, he was no longer allowed to direct in Czechoslovakia. He had to work abroad. Then, in 1975, the Communists revoked his passport, and he was forced to do his directing in the country but outside of Prague. From 1989 to his death in 1993, he was once again creating stagings with Divadlo Na zábradlí, directing Havel’s Largo Desolato and Temptation as well as Moliere’s Don Juan and Bennett’s Kafka’s Dick.

Dominik Hašek (born 1965)

This legendary Czech goaltender was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame during November of 2014. His career spanned 16 seasons, as he represented the Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings. He also tended goal for Czech HC Pardubice and Spartak Moscow. Dubbed “The Dominator,” he starred in the NHL from the 1990s to early 2000s. From 1993 to 2001, he was awarded the NHL’s Vezina Trophy six times. He played a vital role on the Red Wings when they captured the Stanley Cup in 2002. Hašek holds the distinction of having the highest career save percentage ever in the NHL (0.9223). He was 43 years old when he retired.

Jaroslav Hašek (1883 – 1923)

This writer, journalist, pubgoer, hoaxer and anarchist is best known for his four-volume epic The Fortunes of the Good Soldier Švejk in the First World War, a picaresque novel focusing on the lovable idiot Josef Švejk, who messes up orders by acting them out literally. The book expresses the plight of the common man in the dawn of a new age and is famous for its Czech humor and anecdotes. Hašek also succeeded as a story writer – overall, he had about 1,500 stories in print. The writer fought in World War I but was captured and placed into a POW camp in Russia. Then he joined the Czech Legion. The former bank clerk and dog seller was no stranger to prison, as he was sometimes jailed for his unruly, bohemian behavior.

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Václav Havel, former dissident and President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic

Václav Havel (1936 – 2011)

The playwright-turned-president led Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic for a total of 13 years, shaping his nation into a Western style democracy. He was the first President of Czechoslovakia to be elected in a democratic election in 41 years. Under his guidance the Czech Republic became a member of NATO, and he contributed greatly to the Czech Republic’s acceptance into the European Union. He left the political sphere in 2003, During 2008, his play Leaving premiered in Prague and later was made into a film. Havel was one of the country’s most prominent writers, penning plays, essays, letters, poetry, memoirs and speeches. He worked as playwright and dramaturg at Prague’s Divadlo Na zábradlí during the 1960s, where his absurd plays such as The Memorandum, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration and The Garden Party were first staged. He helped instigate Charter 77, a document signed by dissidents, promoting human rights and taking a stance against the repressive regime. Havel was imprisoned for his dissident activities under Communism several times. He spent almost four years in prison from 1979 to 1983.

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A young Olga Havlová and Václav Havel, photo from Knihovna Václava Havla

Olga Havlová (1933 – 1996)

The first wife of Czechoslovak and later Czech Republic President Václav Havel grew up in a working-class family with the name Šplíchalová, toiling in the gritty Žižkov district of Prague. This former First Lady worked in a factory after graduating from high school and later took on various jobs. She met Václav Havel for the first time in the first half of the 1950s and married him in 1964. A theatre and film enthusiast, Olga worked as an usher at The Theatre on the Balustrades during the 1960s, the same theatre where Václav served as dramaturg and staged his plays. She supported Václav’s dissident activities and even took part in them herself. From 1979 to 1983, Olga was the recipient of her husband’s letters from prison. Later, this correspondence would be published as the philosophical Letters to Olga. She co-founded the underground video magazine, Original Videojournal, which documented dissident activities. Olga also was a driving force behind the founding of About Theatre magazine. From 1989 to 1996, as First Lady, she devoted her time to charities and set up the Olga Havlová Foundation, which helps people with physical impairments and others who are the subject of discrimination in society. During 1991 a Norwegian Foundation named her Woman of the Year, and in 1995 Czechs awarded her that honor. In 1997, she posthumously received the Czech Republic’s Order of Tomáš G. Masaryk. A documentary film about her life nabbed the Czech Lion award for best documentary in 2014.

Milada Horáková (1901 – 1950)

A champion of women’s rights and democratic principles, Horáková was executed by the Communists on June 27, 1950. Her opinions and criticism of the regime had made her a target for the Secret Police, who incarcerated her on trumped up charges of conspiring to overthrow the republic. A show trial, reminiscent of those during the Great Purges of the 1930s in the Soviet Union and enforced by Soviet advisors, ensued. She received the death penalty. Horáková’s hanging marked the death of an anti-Nazi and anti-Communist fighter who had fervently fought for democracy and the ideals of first Czechoslovak President Tomáš G. Masaryk.

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Bohumil Hrabal, photo from Moderní-Dějiny.cz

Bohumil Hrabal (1914 – 1997)

This life-long pubgoer had a literary career that spanned six decades. He is noted for his grotesque, absurd and irreverent humor and anecdotes and often wrote in Prague dialect. While he is best known for his fiction, he scribed impressive poetry during the early years. Hrabal created the pábitel character, a dreamer living on the outskirts of society who often speaks in meandering, whimsical anecdotes. Hrabal held a myriad of jobs – train dispatcher, trainee lawyer, insurance broker, traveling salesman, paper baler and theatre stagehand, to name a few. He also worked at the Poldi steelworks in Kladno. After the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague during August of 1968, the Communists banned Hrabal’s writings. On February 3, 1997 he either fell or jumped to his death from a fifth floor window of the hospital where he was receiving treatment. Hrabal’s works in English include Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, Harlequin’s Millions, Too Loud A Solitude, I Served the King of England, In-House Weddings, Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp and Closely Watched Trains, which was made into a film by Czech director Jiří Menzel and received an Oscar.

Rudolf Hrušínský (1920 – 1994)

One of the greatest Czech actors of all-time, Hrušinský hailed from a family famous for its contributions to theatre and film.  After sojourns with E. F. Burian’s avant-garde D 39 Theatre and Prague’s Municipal Theatre, he became a member of the National Theatre, where he graced the stage from 1960 to 1992. When, in 1968, he signed dissident Ludvík Vaculík’s 2,000 Words, protesting against the totalitarian regime, Hrušinský was severely punished by the Communists: He could no longer teach at the theatre university, act in film or television or take part in radio broadcasts. Later he was permitted to take up acting again. Some of his dazzling performances on stage took place in plays Ubu The King, Much Ado About Nothing, The Makropulos Thing and The White Plague. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, he acted in Hrabal’s I Served The King of England along with one of his sons and his grandson at the Činoherní Klub. A prominent actor in films as well as in the theatre, he is known for his roles in the movies The Good Soldier Švejk, The Summer of Caprice, My Sweet Little Village, The End of Old Times, The Cremator, The Death of the Beautiful Deer and Larks on a String, to name a few.

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Jan Hus, photo from MojblognaATLAS.SK

Jan Hus (1370 – 1415)
Hus was a religious reformer, priest, university lecturer, preacher and Czech nationalist symbol who influenced Martin Luther. Inspired by the writings of John Wycliffe, Hus played a major role in the development of Protestantism and emphasized the moral weaknesses of the clergy when speaking from the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague’s Old Town. The Pope and Archbishop were far from pleased with his ideas. In 1414, he was called to defend himself at the Trial of Constance but was arrested immediately. He was burned at the stake as a heretic on July 6, 1415, a day considered the precursor to the Hussite Wars and now commemorated as a Czech national holiday. The Czech Brethren Church consists of his followers even today. Hus also was a pioneer of the Czech language, inventing diacritics. He was a prolific writer as well.

Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928)

This Czech composer, teacher, folklorist, musical theorist and publicist was greatly influenced by the music of Antonín Dvořák and Moravian folk songs. He also was enthralled with Russian culture. His opera Jenůfa was dedicated to his daughter, who died young. He also is known for the opera The Cunning Little Vixen, the Sinfonietta that is inspired by his beloved Brno and the rhapsody Taras Bulba. From 1881 to 1919, he served as director of the school that became known as the Brno Conservatory. His string quartet, The Kreutzer Sonata, also is a top-notch work. He befriended theatre critic, dramatist and translator Max Brod, who published Janáček’s biography.

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Jaromír Jágr, photo from Týden.cz

Jaromír Jágr (born 1972)

One of the greatest ice hockey players of all-time, right wing Jaromír Jágr helped the Pittsburgh Penguins to Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 and guided the Czech National Team to gold in the Winter Olympics in Nagano during 1998. He has played for the Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins, for instance. He also skated in Russia with Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League during three seasons. He served as captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Jágr has won numerous awards in the NHL, including the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer numerous times.

John of Nepomuk (Saint) (1340/50 – 1393)

This martyr of the Catholic Church and national saint of Bohemia was tortured and drowned in Prague’s Vltava River. Historians argue about the reasons for his horrendous fate. One possibility involves his being condemned to death by Bohemian King Wenceslas IV when he refused to divulge the queen’s secret confessions to the king while John of Nepomuk was the queen’s confessor. Another version states that King Wenceslas IV and John of Nepomuk disagreed on the appointment of an archbishop. He is now considered to be the patron saint against catastrophes, floods and drowning.

Josef Jungmann (1773 – 1847)

This linguist, translator and prose writer, along with Josef Dobrovský, is considered to have laid the foundations for the modern Czech language,. His most valuable work was his five-volume Czech-German dictionary, which includes the basis of modern Czech vocabulary. Jungmann put to use archaic words and borrowed words from other Slavic languages, and they became a part of the modern Czech language. He also wrote novels and polemic works. Jungmann translated into Czech from German, French and English, making the works of Milton, Schiller and Goethe available to Czech speakers. Emperor Ferdinand gave him with a medal for his dictionary.

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Franz Kafka, photo from kultura.zpravy.idnes.cz

Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924)
This German-Jewish writer born and brought up in Prague authored The Trial, The Metamorphosis, The Castle and In the Penal Colony, to name a few. He worked for many years as an insurance clerk. Kafka’s characters cannot communicate with others and find themselves consumed by anguish in absurd situations that they cannot control. Kafka wrote of guilt and despair and satired bureaucracy. Born next to the Old Town’s St. Nicholas Church, Kafka is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in the Žižkov district.

Ivan Klima (born 1931)

This versatile writer of prose, plays, essays, feuilletons and children’s books spent three and a half years in the Terezín concentration camp along with his parents, persecuted for their Jewish origins. Somehow they all survived. After the war he joined the Communist Party but was expelled in 1967, reinstated in 1968 and expelled again in 1970. From 1970 he was a banned author, having to publish illegally in samizdat. Klíma has won numerous awards for his writing. Some of his books in English are Love and Garbage, My First Loves, My Golden Trades, Judge on Trial and his autobiography, My Crazy Century.

Frantisek Křižík (1847 – 1941)

This inventor and electrical engineering guru created the automatic arc lamp and built the first electric railway in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as trains made their way from Tábor to Bechyně. Thanks to Křižík, the first electric street car line in Czech lands ran through the Letná fairgrounds at the Jubileum Exhibition in Prague during 1891. It was 800 meters long. He perfected the design of electric street cars and constructed power stations, too. His equipment was used in 130 power stations during his lifetime.

Milan Kundera (born 1929)

One of the world’s most well-known and most translated Czech authors, Kundera has published poems, plays, prose and essays. He has lived in France since 1975, and the Communists revoked his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979. Under the totalitarian regime his books were banned. His most significant works include the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), which was inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy and his first novel, The Joke, which criticizes the totalitarian regime. His writings have been inspired not only by Nietzsche but also by Rabelais, Robert Musil and Miguel de Cervantes, among others. Kundera used to write in Czech but since 1993 has penned his prose in French. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times.

Ivan Lendl (born 1960)

Born in Ostrava to two successful tennis players, Lendl continued the family tradition with a flourish, becoming the number one ranked player. He played a significant role in pro tennis during the 1980s and early 1990s and is considered to be one of the best players of all-time. He has won eight Grand Slam singles titles while competing in 19 Grand Slam singles finals and nabbed 22 Championship Series titles. Overall, he notched 94 singles titles. Lendl moved to the USA in 1981 and became a US citizen during 1992. Lendl retired in 1994, when he was 34 years old. An avid fan of Alphonse Mucha, Lendl owns an almost complete collection of this artist’s posters. An exhibition of his collection took place at Prague’s Municipal House during 2013.

Princess Libuše (pre-9th c.)
She is often called the “Mother of Bohemia.” According to legend, clairvoyant Libuše stood on a cliff on Vyšehrad Hill overlooking the Vltava River during the eighth century and predicted that Prague would be founded there. She and ploughman Přemysl Oráč established the Přemyslid dynasty, which lasted from the 10th century to 1306.

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Bohumil Hrabal and Arnošt Lustig in U Zlatého tygra pub in Prague

Arnošt Lustig (1926 – 2011)

This prolific Czech Jewish author focused on the Holocaust in his novels, short stories, plays and screenplays. Lustig spent time in three concentration camps during World War II. In 1945 he made a daring escape and hid in Prague for the rest of the war. When peace arrived, he became a member of the Communist Party, but Lustig gave up his membership in 1967. He was forced to leave the country after the Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring of liberal reforms in 1968. Lustig settled in the USA, and in the early seventies began teaching at The American University in Washington, D.C. After he retired from the university in 2003, Lustig moved back to Prague. Many of his novels are available in English: A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova, Dita Saxova, Night and Hope, Darkness Casts No Shadow, Lovely Green Eyes, Indecent Dreams and others. Many of his novels have been adapted for the big screen. In 2008 Lustig was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Karel Hynek Macha (1810 – 1836)

This pioneer of Czech Romanticism died at the age of 25. Still, in such a short time, he found modern Czech poetry and wrote poetry. He authored one of the best poems in Czech literature, May (Máj), a lyric epic poem about a prisoner awaiting execution. It contains motifs of love, nature and country. Yet his writings did not receive much acclaim during his lifetime, and May was his only book that was published when he was alive.

Bohuslav Martinů (1890 – 1959)

This Czech composer created almost 400 works, including six symphonies, 15 operas, 14 ballet scores as well as orchestral, chamber and choral music, for instance. He is best known for his neoclassical style. The piano plays a major roles in many of his orchestral pieces. He also utilized Bohemian and Moravian folk melodies. Martinů lived in Paris from 1923 – 40 and then emigrated to the USA, settling in New York City. He wanted to go back to Czechoslovakia in the 1940s, but his hopes were dashed when Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was murdered by the Communists in 1948. From 1953 to 1959, he resided in Europe. His compositions include Memorial to Lidice (1942), written for the village razed by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. He also wrote the opera Julietta and the Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras.

Jan Masaryk (1886 – 1948)

The son of first Czechoslovak president Tomáš G. Masaryk, Jan made a name for himself as a Czech diplomat and politician. He worked as chargé d’affaires to the USA from 1919 to 1922 during the First Republic. From 1925 to 1938, he served as his country’s ambassador to Britain, but he resigned when the Nazis took control of the Sudetenland, which had been the part of Czechoslovakia with a German majority. He remained in London, acting as the Foreign Minister for the Czechoslovak government-in-exile during World War II. He continued to hold the same post after the war even though the Communist Party was becoming more and more powerful. Jan was still serving in this capacity after the February of 1948 Communist coup. On the morning of March 10, 1948, his body was discovered in the courtyard of Prague’s Černín Palace, where the Foreign Ministry has its offices. His corpse was found below his bathroom window. At first it was declared a suicide, but investigations in the 1990s and 2003 labelled his death as murder.

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Tomáš G. Masaryk, first President of Czechoslovakia

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850 – 1937)
This philosopher, professor and prolific author held the post of Czechoslovakia’s first president for three terms that lasted 17 years. Guiding the government in exile during World War I, he argued for independence rather than autonomy. When he married the American Charlotte Garrigue, he adopted her last name as his middle name. Masaryk took a stance against antisemitism in the Hilsner Affair. He believed in giving minorities the right to embrace their national identities, freedom of the press and universal suffrage. He was convinced that a small nation could play a significant role in Europe. He also promoted the most contemporary advancements in science, the humanities and world literature. He viewed religion as a source of morality. Masaryk traveled to Washington, D.C., where he received the support of President Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I for a sovereign republic of Czechs and Slovaks. This nation was founded as Czechoslovakia on October 28, 1918. He resigned for health reasons in 1935 and died less than two years later. In his writings he described the oppressiveness of tsarist Russia, analyzed causes of suicide and warned Czechs against the dangers of radicalism and escapism. He also criticized Marxism and supported the women’s movement. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 17 times.

The Mašín Gang – Ctirad (1930- 2011) and Josef Mašín (born 1932), Milan Paumer (1931 – 2010), Zbyněk Janata (1932 – 1955) and Václav Šveda (1921 – 1955)

The five anti-Communist fighters making up the “Mašín Gang” are remembered for their acts of sabotage in the early 1950s as well as for their 1953 death-defying escape to the West that covered 200 miles in 28 days. The group consisted of brothers Ctirad and Josef Mašín, Milan Paumer, Zbyněk Janata and Václav Šveda. During two raids on police stations to obtain weapons, the group killed two police officers. Then they shot a wages clerk to obtain 846,000 Czechoslovak crowns. During their escape, they were responsible for the death of three East German police officers. Their actions have triggered heated debates about whether they are heroes or villains.

Gregor Johann Mendel (1822 – 1884)
The father of genetics and the laws of heredity often referred to as Mendel’s Laws was a German-speaking Moravian scientist, born in Heinzendorf (now Hynčice, Czech Republic). Mendel was educated at an Augustinian monastery in Brno, where he also performed his experiments with plants. He founded the rules of heredity by examining seven characteristics of pea plants.

Jiří Menzel (born 1938)

This world-renowned director’s career in film was launched with his rendition of Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains, which won the 1966 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. My Sweet Little Village was nominated for an Oscar in 1985. Another much acclaimed film was Larks on a String, based on fiction by Hrabal. Other notable films he directed include the Summer of Caprice, The Beggar’s Opera, I Served the King of England and The End of Old Times. Since the 1970s he has devoted time to directing in the theatre as well, at home and abroad. He also has acted in films, appearing in Closely Watched Trains, The Cremator and Summer of Caprice, for instance.

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Alphonse Mucha, from the web page of Jarmila Mucha Plocková

Alphonse Mucha (1860 – 1939)
The imaginative and passionate creations by legendary Art Nouveau painter and decorative artist Alphonse Mucha are well-known throughout the world, especially the idealized images of Sarah Bernhardt with her poignant, exhilarating gaze. An avid supporter of democratic Czechoslovakia, Mucha is also celebrated for his patriotic and folk art themes that celebrate not only the Czechoslovak nation but also Slav unity. He was prolific, creating posters, books, magazine and book illustrations, stained glass windows, jewelry, theatre sets, costumes and more.  The Mucha style features beautiful, young women exuding optimism and happiness in extravagant, flowing robes designed in pale pastels. Flowers or crescent moons make halos around the enchanting figure’s head. He employed folk elements that were not only Czech but also Byzantine, Celtic, Rococo, Gothic and Judaic, among others. Tourists will not want to miss the opportunity to visit Prague’s Mucha Museum.

Martina Navratilová (born 1956)

Considered one of the best female tennis players of all-time, Martina Navratilová has an impressive list of accomplishments. She nabbed 20 Wimbledon titles and 18 Grand Slam titles. She remains the only player to ever rank first in both singles and doubles for over 200 weeks. She was the number one female in singles from 1982 to 1986. When she was given temporary residence in the USA during 1978, when the Communist government of her homeland revoked her Czechoslovak citizenship. She became a US citizen during 1981. She also has achieved much success as a tennis coach and has written several books.

Božena Němcová (1820 – 1862)

A significant writer during the Czech National Revival movement, she authored The Grandmother, based on memories of a happy childhood in the countryside. The main character, a grandmother, is a symbol of good, love and morality. The book has an optimistic tone. Němcová also wrote travelogues, fairy tales, legends and several other novels. The Grandmother has been made into a film and has been adapted for the stage.

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Jan Neruda, photo from ceskatelevize.cz

Jan Neruda (1834 – 1891)

This prolific writer of the Czech Realism movement was a poet, prose writer, journalist, playwright, literary critic, drama critic and translator. He hailed from Prague’s Little Quarter, and his collection of short stories, Tales of the Lesser Quarter (1877) are imbued with the special and magical atmosphere of this district. As a journalist he concentrated mostly on writing feuilletons and contributed greatly to the development of that genre. He wrote about everyday occurrences as well as exceptional events in Prague and its society. His prose also often was set in Prague. As a poet, though, he was pessimistic and skeptical. He also translated poetry, legends and national songs, for instance. He is buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery, and the main street in the Little Quarter is named after him.

Jan Opletal (1915 – 1939)

This Charles University student was shot by German soldiers during the October 28, 1939 demonstrations against the Occupation. The strong believer in democracy died in the hospital November 11, 1939. His public funeral in Prague, held on November 15, became a spontaneous demonstration and would be the last big demonstration against the Nazis in the Protectorate. As a result, on November 17, German soldiers beat and arrested many students, even executing some and sending others to a concentration camp. Furious because of the demonstration at Opletal’s funeral, Hitler closed all Czech universities and dormitories for three years. Now November 17 is considered to be International Students’ Day and is a holiday in the Czech Republic.

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Jan Palach, photo from vsezlate.blog.cz

Jan Palach (1948 – 1969)

The 20-year old Charles University student set fire to himself on Wenceslas Square in Prague on January 16, 1969, protesting the lack of freedoms and passivity of Czech citizens. He died in the hospital from his injuries. Palach’s funeral at Prague’s Olšany Cemetery on January 25 turned into a huge demonstration against the Soviet Occupation. After Palach’s death, the Communists imposed the rigid rules of the normalization era. Commemorating the 20th anniversary of Palach’s sacrifice, Jan Palach Week in 1989 was marked by many demonstrations against the totalitarian regime, and police used brutality in response to the protests. Dissident Václav Havel was arrested and imprisoned during Jan Palach Week in 1989.

František Palacký (1798 – 1876)

This Czech historian, writer and politician who greatly influenced the Czech National Revival movement is often called “The Father of the Nation.” His mammoth literary accomplishment, The History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia is one of the most significant books in Czech history and remains an authority to this day. He traveled to archives all over Europe to do research on the work. Palacký, a nationalist and a Protestant, envisioned Czech history as a constant battle between Slavs and Germans. He was also very active politically. During the Revolution of 1848 he took an anti-German stance. In the 1860s he joined the Austrian senate as head of a nationalist-federal party called the Old Czechs. He promoted the idea of Czech autonomy with Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia belonging to a Czech kingdom.

Jan Patočka (1907 – 1977)

One of the most significant philosophers in Central Europe during the 20th century, Patočka dealt with the philosophy of educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius and the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš G. Masaryk, among others. He also focused on the philosophy of history and contributed to Czech culture. Patočka came up with a unique philosophy of three movements in human existence – receiving, reproduction and transcendence. He was banned from teaching during the Nazi Occupation and also for many years by the totalitarian regime. His philosophical thought greatly influenced the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia from the 1960s through the 1980s. Patočka was one of the first signatories of Charter 77, a human rights movement in the country drafted in 1977.  The Secret Police repeatedly interrogated him, and these lengthy interrogations triggered his death. At his funeral, Czechs demonstrated against the Communist regime.

Přemysl Otakar II (1233 – 1278)

Dubbed “The Iron and Golden King,” Přemysl Otakar II brought prosperity and prestige to the Czech lands as the fifth Czech leader, reigning from 1253 to 1278. With the exception of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, this energetic and well-educated ruler is the most revered Czech sovereign due to his penchant for promoting trade as well as making legal and other reforms. He created about 50 towns in Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Austria and Styria and founded Prague’s Little Quarter (Malá strana). He also had many castles built.

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Jaroslav Seifert, photo from Web-Blog.cz

Jaroslav Seifert (1901 – 1986)
The only Czech to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Seifert was not only a poet, though he is best known for his works in this genre. He also worked as a journalist and translator, for instance. He published over 30 collections of poems. Seifert’s first poems appeared in 1921, and during the 1920s he was one of the founders of the influential journal Devětsil. Seifert signed Charter 77, a document calling for human rights and opposing the Communist regime. Even though his relationship with the Communist regime was complex, he was given the title of National Artist and received state prizes.

Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884)
An avid supporter of Czech nationalist identity, Smetana invented an entirely new genre of Czech opera. He composed eight operas, including The Bartered Bride and Libuše. He focused on Czech legends in his six symphonic poems called Má Vlast, and the Vltava movement in the symphony is always performed on the opening night of the annual Prague Spring Music Festival. A museum in Prague honors the composer who strove to express characteristics of the Czech people in his music.

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Ladislav Smoljak, the bust of Jára Cimrman and Zdeněk Svěrák, photo from lidovky.cz

Ladislav Smoljak (1931 – 2010)

Although he majored in mathematics and physics, Smoljak made a name for himself in the world of theatre and film. One of the three founders of the Jára Cimrman Theatre, he co-wrote for this theatre 13 plays with Zdeněk Svěrák and authored one by himself. He took on acting and directing in the ensemble. He was also a screenwriter and film director, often co-writing scripts with Svěrák. Smoljak was an expert on Czech comedy. A strong supporter of the Velvet Revolution, he was politically active as well. This dazzling performer for the Jára Cimrman Theatre was also an educator.

Josef Sudek (1896 – 1976)

Although he lost one arm while fighting for the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, Sudek became one of the most renowned avant-garde photographers in the world and one of the most significant Czech photographers to work between the two world wars. A bookbinder by trade, he is best known for his photographs of Prague, including pictures of the interior of St. Vitus’ Cathedral and many photographs of the city at night. He also took snapshots of the interior of his studio and the views from its windows. Still lifes, landscapes and advertisements also make up the repertoire of his innovative work. While he focused on the Pictorialist style during the 1920s, most of his creations are considered to be in the Neo-Romantic style.

Josef Suk (1929 – 2011)

The grandson of composer Josef Suk and great-grandson of Antonin Dvořák, this violinist also played the viola and conducted. In 1961, he became a soloist for the Czech Philharmonic and performed with top-notch orchestras around the world. He gave concerts in the USA, Germany, Romania, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, for instance. He was renowned for his performances of pieces by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. His rendition of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto received much acclaim. He also was a chamber musician, playing with the Prague Quartet, Suk Trio and Smetana Quartet. From 1974 to 2000, he conducted with the Suk Chamber Orchestra that he founded. Suk won many awards, including the National Order of the Legion of Honor in 2002.

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Ladislav Smoljak and Zdeněk Svěrák in the play Afrika, photo from showbiz.cz

Jan Svěrák (born 1965)

The son of actor and screenwriter Zdeněk Svěrák has made a name for himself as one of the best filmmakers of his generation. His film Elementary School, which takes place shortly after the end of World War II, was nominated for an Oscar in 1991. His film Kolya nabbed an Oscar in 1996. He often teams up with his father in his work. Zdeněk Svěrák wrote the screenplays for Jan’s feature films Empties, Dark Blue World and The Three Brothers.  His father acted in Elementary School, Kolya, Empties and The Three Brothers, too. Jan also filmed the documentary Papa, which focuses on his father’s intriguing life. Kuky Returns also received acclaim. During 2016 and 2017, he directed Barefoot Across the Stubblefield, a film based on his father’s biographical novella about life in a village during and after the Nazi Occupation. Jan also has received three Czech Lion Awards, a Crystal Globe and the Tokyo Grand Prix prize.

Zdeněk Svěrák (born 1936)

One of the most popular personalities in Czech culture, Zdeněk Svěrák is a man of many talents: He is an actor, screenwriter and writer of children’s books, stories and musical texts. Along with actor Ladislav Smoljak, he invented the fictional character Jára Cimrman, an unlucky Czech genius who, in his lifetime, did not get the credit he deserved for his masterful inventions and other achievements. Cimrman had been an inventor, detective, poet, writer of fairy tales, philosopher, gynecologist, dentist, philosopher and composer, for instance. Though fictional, Jára Cimrman was chosen the Greatest Czech in 2005. The extremely popular Jára Cimrman Theatre performs 15 of Cimrman’s plays set during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Svěrák co-wrote 13 of the the plays, penned one by himself and acts in them. But Svěrák does not limit his acting to the stage. He is a well-known film actor and screenwriter, too. He has authored scripts that his son Jan has directed, including Kolya, which won an Oscar during 1996, Elementary School, also nominated for an Oscar, Empties, The Three Brothers and Dark Blue World. He also wrote and acted in the comedy Run, Waiter, Run! Other films in which Svěrák has cast his magical acting spell include My Sweet Little Village, The Snowdrop Festival, Larks on a String, Dissolved and Effused and Seclusion Near A Forest. His books in Czech include Stories, New Stories, Barefoot Across A Stubble Field and The Three Brothers.

Emil von Škoda (1839 – 1900)

Thanks to this prominent and industrious Czech entrepreneur, Škoda Works (now Škoda Transportation) became the largest industrial business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later in Czechoslovakia. At first the enterprise focused on steel but also manufactured equipment for sugar refineries, malt houses and breweries. Later, it became one of the largest manufacturers of weapons in Europe. Now called Škoda Transportation, the company concentrates on making trams, electric locomotives and rapid transit train systems.

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Václav Havel and writer Josef Škvorecký, photo from Aktuálně.cz

Josef Škvorecký (1924 – 2012)

Nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1982, Škvorecký was a prolific and prominent writer on the postwar Czech literary scene. He is best known for his novels and stories, but he also wrote essays, translated works by authors such as Faulkner and Hemingway into Czech and worked as a university professor in Toronto, where he settled after fleeing Czechoslovakia during Communism. Along with his wife Zdena Salivarová, he founded one of the most influential publishing houses, specializing in literature by dissidents, ’68 Publishers in Toronto. In his first novel, The Cowards, he introduced the character who would feature in many of his literary creations, Danny Smiřický, a young man with a passion for jazz and girls. The book takes place in a fictional town mirroring Škvorecký’s hometown of Náchod at the end of World War II. In another novel, The Miracle Game, Danny turns up again, this time amidst the political events of the 1950s and 1960s. In The Engineer of Human Souls, Danny is a university professor in Toronto. Life as an expat, the trials and tribulations of living under Communist rule and the magic of jazz are themes often found in Škvorecký’s works. Many of his books have been translated into English, including Miss Silver’s Past, The Swell Season, Dvořák in Love and The Bass Saxophone. He also wrote a trilogy of mysteries featuring Lieutenant Borůvka. During 1990 Škvorecký received the prestigious Order of the White Lion award from then President of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel.

The Three Kings – Josef Balabán (1894 – 1941), Josef Mašín (1896 – 1942) and Václav Morávek (1904 – 1942)

A major player in the Czech resistance movement during the Nazi Occupation, The Three Kings – a code name coined by the Nazis who hunted them – made significant contributions to the Czechoslovak cause from 1939 to 1942. Working for the resistance group Defense of the Nation set up by former army officers, protagonists Josef Balabán, Josef Mašín and Václav Morávek relayed information about life in the Protectorate to the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London via radio transmitters. News often involved the movement of goods and German transports as well as political and economic events. These resistance fighters also carried out acts of sabotage by staging bomb attacks and setting fire to factories. They collected weapons for the resistance and helped with the publishing and distribution of the underground magazine V boj! as well. In addition, the three-man team helped agents escape from the Protectorate.

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Josef Kajetán Tyl, photo from web pages of Středočeský kraj

Josef Kajetán Tyl (1808 – 1856)

This playwright, journalist, writer and actor wrote the words for the Czech national anthem, Where is my home? He served as actor, director and playwright for an amateur group who performed plays in Czech at Prague’s Theatre of the Estates, where most of the performances were staged in German. After Tyl left that theatre in 1846, he experienced the peak of his career as his collected works were published, and he received many awards. A key player in the Czech National Revival, Tyl got involved in politics during the revolutionary year of 1848, when the Czechs voiced their desire for independence from the Habsburgs.  Many of his 20 plays are still performed today. They basically involve three themes. Some focus on everyday life in Czech society while others portray historical events in the Czech lands. Still others can be described as fairy tales.

Petr Vok of Rožmberk (Rosenberg) (1539 – 1611)

The last of the prominent Rožmberk (sometimes called Rosenberg) dynasty, Petr Vok of Rožmberk created magnificent Renaissance chateaus in Bechyně and Třeboň and influenced the development of Český Krumlov Castle, where he also spent his early childhood. His collection of artifacts and instruments was vast and extremely impressive. A Protestant nobleman during the Catholic Habsburg era of the Holy Roman Empire, he became the non-Catholic authority in the Czech lands.

Wenceslas (Saint) (ca. 907 – 935)
The first Czech saint and the patron saint of the Czech state, Wenceslas (Václav in Czech) served as duke of Bohemia from 921 until his death in 929 or 935. Although he died young, this martyr’s accomplishments were many. He had numerous churches built in Bohemia and was revered as a pious, moral, educated and intelligent man who promoted the Christian faith and took care of the poor, the sick, the widowed and the orphaned by doing good deeds. He founded the rotunda of Saint Vitus at Prague Castle. Wenceslas was executed at the site of the present-day city of Stará Boleslav, on the orders of his younger brother, Boleslav, who took over the Bohemian throne. At the top of Prague’s Wenceslas Square, there is a statue depicting the saint on horseback. It was constructed in 1912.

Wenceslas III (1289 – 1306)

When Wenceslas III was murdered on August 4, 1306, it marked the end of the male line of the legendary Přemysl dynasty of rulers of Bohemia, a dynasty that dated back to the ninth century. The house of Luxembourg took control of the Bohemian throne in 1310. The teenage Wenceslas III ruled Hungary, Poland and Bohemia for a brief period, and his tenure on the throne was punctuated by much friction with Hungary and Poland. It is not known who murdered him while he was resting in a former deanery in Olomouc, Moravia. Wenceslas III had not yet turned 17 at the time of his death. Over the centuries his skeleton was lost.

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Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec, photo from ceskatelevize.cz

Jan Werich (1905 – 1980)

Actor, dramatist and screenwriter Jan Werich dazzled the public in both film and theatre productions.  The comic duo of Werich and Jiří Voskovec dominated Czech avant-garde theatre between world wars. The man with the deep voice, the chubby cheeks and glowing smile of Santa Claus continued to be a major influence on Czech culture after World War II until his death in 1980.

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Statue of Jan Žižka in front of National Monument in Vítkov, Prague, photo from Alamy

Jan Žižka of Trocnov and the Chalice (1360 1424)

Jan Žižka is one of seven military commanders in history never to lose a battle and one of the greatest leaders in military history. His Hussite army was the first to use field artillery in battle, as Žižka employed unique and ingenious tactics. He brought armored wagons on which there were cannons and muskets into battles and was very successful. In the Battle of Kutná Hora during 1421 he defeated the Holy Roman Empire and Hungary. He led the Taborites during the Hussite Wars. Even going blind did not hinder him from leading his troops into battle.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Pilsen Brewery Museum Diary

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There are a lot of eclectic sights to visit in the west Bohemian town of Pilsen (Plzeň) from apartments featuring the architecture of Adolf Loos to St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral on the main square to the Great Synagogue nearby. Pilsen’s Brewery Museum is an intriguing sight for beer lovers and for people who want to learn about how significant a role beer played in the history of the Czech lands generally and in Pilsen specifically.

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I strongly recommend that you supplement a tour of the Pilsen Underground (see my post about this sight) with a look at this museum. It sure is convenient; both are located in the same building. Also, a tour of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery (see my post about this sight) is a must-see for visitors. The Brewery Museum adds a more general historical perspective to the tour.

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Some of my favorite exhibits at the museum are the displays of beer mugs, glasses and jugs throughout the centuries. The handmade painting and detailed designs are exquisite. Many installations that offer insight into the history of beer as well as panels to read in English.

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To prepare for a visit to the Brewery Museum, let’s take a look at the history of beer in the Czech lands. The first beer made in the Czech lands existed even before the Slavs arrived in the sixth century, but it used different ingredients.

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The oldest brewery was at Prague’s Břevnov Monastery, which was established in 993, and, by the way, also deserves the attention of tourists. In the 11th century, the Canons of Prague’s Vyšehrad (the name of a hill which included a castle with cathedral) were given the right to brew beer. The oldest document about harvesting hops was drawn up in the 11th century. Czech beer was first exported in the 11th century, when the town of České Budějovice sent its brew to Bavaria and other places abroad.

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In the 12th century, the brewing of beer flourished and was a significant part of people’s diet. Women made beer at home, using it not only as a beverage but also as a soup and sauce. That same century the first royal towns received the privilege of making beer, though many did not get permission until the 13th and 14th centuries. In the 13th century, King Václav (Wenceslas) II proclaimed that only townspeople living in royal towns inside the town walls had the right to brew beer. Pilsen was granted this privilege when it was founded, in the late 13th century. Monasteries also were allowed to make the alcoholic concoction.

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In the 15th and 16th centuries, a heated conflict between nobles and towns ensued over whether the nobles should have the right to brew beer. They argued over the matter for 33 years, from 1484 to 1517. The nobles won the legal battle, and, as of 1484, nobles, townspeople and monasteries had the right to make beer. From 1517 to 1869, the Saint Wenceslas Agreement (Svatováclavská smlouva) was in effect. It put in writing specific rules for the brewing of beer.

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From the 16th century to the 18th century, Pilsen alone had 36 malthouses and 26 small town breweries. At the end of the 18th century, barley and hops replaced wheat as key ingredients. Czech beer was lauded at an international exhibition in Paris during 1837, when the Pilsner Prazdroj and Pilsen town brewery (Městanský pivovar) were recognized for their high quality of beer.

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The city of Pilsen has played an extraordinary role in the history of beer through the ages. The most common beer is the pilsner lager, easily recognized due to its golden color and light flavor. Perhaps the most significant date in Pilsen’s beer-brewing history is October 5, 1842, when German beer guru Josef Groll, inspired by Bavarian lagers, invented Pilsner Urquell, which holds distinction of being the first light-colored beer in the world.

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Fourteen years later, Pilsner Urquell beer began to be exported abroad, as trains transported it to Vienna on a daily basis. The tasty concoction was introduced to the United States in 1874. Pilsen’s beer-making ability won many prizes, including first place at Prague’s Jubilee Exhibition in 1891. A million hectoliters of beer were manufactured in 1913. The Pilsen brewery became the biggest in all of Europe, and its beer was sold in 34 countries.

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Beer-brewing continued to flourish in Pilsen, but then in April of 1945, more than a hundred bombs fell on one of its breweries. It was rebuilt, but in 1946 both Pilsen breweries became the property of the state. That did not impede the breweries from continuing to receive worldwide recognition, though. Pilsen’s beer achieved success after success in the following decades. In 1990 cylindrical tanks were installed. Now Plzeňský Prazdroj can be found in more than 50 countries. It encompasses the Czech beers Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Velkopopovický Kozel, Radegast and others. The enterprise runs four breweries in the Czech Republic.

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However, Pilsen is not the only city where beer has a long and impressive history. Take České Budějovice and its Budějovický Budvar beer, for example. The town brewery there was established in 1795, when České Budějovice was  a mostly populated with Germans. Czechs, however, founded the Budějovický Budvar brewery during 1895. The beer had reached worldwide acclaim by 1913.

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In the 20th and 21st centuries, Budvar has continued to earn recognition throughout the world. Now it is sold in 76 countries and is especially popular in Germany, Austria and Britain. It officially became known as Budvar beer in 1930. During World War II the Nazis took over the brewery, and, later, with the onset of Communism, the brewery became the property of the state. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, it was privatized.

Please note that this is not the same as the American Budweiser beer! There are many legal battles over the patent between the Czech brewery and the American Anheuser-Busch brewery, which makes another beer called Budweiser.

While I was at this museum, there was also a small, intriguing exhibition of abstract sculpture inside. Although I rarely drink alcohol, I did not want to pass up the opportunity to familiarize myself with the beer-making success of this city and in the Czech lands.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Kozel Chateau Diary

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I took a bus with Student Agency to Pilsen (Plzeň in Czech), a city in west Bohemia where I have explored the historical underground, the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, art galleries, excellent restaurants and the main square, to name just a few. Pilsen was very dear to me, and I loved coming here on day trips. This time, though, I was getting a train to Šťáhlavy, and from there I walked to Kozel Chateau, which I had visited about 10 years earlier on a perfect, sunny summer day.

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This day was by no means perfect. It was cold, and the dark clouds threatened rain. Still, I knew that would not stop me from enjoying this unique chateau, built in Classical style, with four wings surrounded by an inner rectangular courtyard. The architect was Václav Haberditz, who had been based in Prague. I wished I had more information about him, but he was not well-known.

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The design had a simplicity and sobriety to it that I admired. It was restrained, symmetrical and orderly. While I loved traveling to Baroque chateaus, I also appreciated this style that harkened back to forms utilized in classical antiquity. The chateau did not need any fancy exterior fittings to project its beauty.

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I reacquainted myself with its intriguing history. Kozel was erected from 1784 to 1789 for its owner, Jan Vojtěch Černín of Chudenice, who worked for Emperor Joseph II as the supreme huntsman of the Czech kingdom. The chateau, not surprisingly, was designed as a hunting lodge, though a few years later it became the family’s summer residence.

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In the 1790s the chateau was expanded. Four new buildings came into being thanks to Prague architect of Italian origin Jan Nepomuk Palliardi, who specialized in the Classicist style.

The chateau had not always been called Kozel. Its original name was the German Waldschloss or Jadgschloss bei Stiahlav. It is not known how the chateau came to be called the Czech word meaning goat, though a legend says that the ancient Slavs used to sacrifice a goat on this spot during the spring equinox in hopes of receiving a bountiful harvest.

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Jan Vojtěch Černín died childless, so his grandnephew Count Kristian Vincenc Valdštejn-Vartenberk inherited the property. Kozel remained in the family until it was nationalized in 1945 and did not undergo any major changes. I admired that the chateau remained in its original style. So many chateaus underwent such drastic makeovers over centuries. During the 19th century, one owner was Arnošt Valdštejn-Vartenberk, whose claim to fame was establishing an ironworks in Pilsen during 1859. He sold it to Email Škoda in 1869, when the business took on the name Škoda Works, and before long this enterprise would become the most prestigious and largest engineering works in what was at the time Austria-Hungary.

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I walked through the park, though the weather was chilly. I saw ducks, swans, a big pond and a vast expanse of land that merged with the countryside. Here I felt at one with nature. I remembered the last time I was here. I had spent time reading on a bench as well as gazing at the idyllic scenery in the park.

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Now it was time for my tour. The interior was nothing like the Classicist exterior. It was extravagant, luxurious, plush. In one of the first rooms, I admired a clock from London that had only one hand; it dated back to the 16th century. I did not recall ever seeing a one-handed clock. Graphic sheets from Italy showed Italian villas and chateaus, and I was reminded of my passion for Italy and my exciting travels there. How I would love to visit those villas and chateaus! I wanted to see everything in Italy just as I wanted to see everything in the Czech Republic.

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I saw a Classicist commode decorated with intarsia and a few Baroque fans, one showing off a scene of people, dogs and horses. A King Louis XVI bureau hailed from the 16th century and was adorned with Greek and Roman mythological scenes. The intarsia decorating the piece of furniture was outstanding. There also was an impressive tiled stove. I would see similar stoves in all but one space, it turned out.

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Next, we came to the entrance hall. I loved the wall painting by Antonín Turova, who made the room resemble a winter garden with walls showing green ivy on trellises. His al secco method of painting on dry lime plaster was exquisite. I thought of the illusive painted altars I had seen in churches, such as the remarkable one at Hejnice Basilica in north Bohemia. A movable Rococo lamp also caught my attention.

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The Smokers’ Drawing Room included a Classicist bureau and two Rococo cabinets with Meissen porcelain. A collection of pipes was on display, too. It reminded me of my grandfather, who had for many years smoked a pipe. I remember scrutinizing his collection of pipes when I was a child. Then I recalled how proud he was when I was nine and took up his hobby of coin collecting. We walked into one coin shop, and he announced, “This is my granddaughter!” Even today I can see the saleswoman’s smile.

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A bedroom was decorated in 18th century Rococo style with a Classicist bed. The graphic sheets on the walls hailed from Germany and portrayed aristocratic life during the 18th century. I admired the shell decoration on the Viennese porcelain.

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In the Dressing Room, I wanted to relax on the Rococo chaise-lounge and yearned to take home the Renaissance jewel chest inlaid with ivory. In the Hunting Salon, a Baroque desk featuring intarsia showed off hunting motifs. While I was not a fan of hunting, that piece of furniture did impress me.

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There was a Billiard Room as well. I recalled playing pool with my father when I was a child. I played badly, but we had fun. It was treasured father-daughter time. My interest was riveted by the landscape paintings by German and Italian painters. In the Dining Room I gawked at the black-and-gold Baroque thermometer and faience portraying birds and cabbages. The only fireplace in the chateau was Rococo in style.

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The biggest space was the Drawing Room for Social Occasions, where a painting by Turova caught my attention. It showed Radyně Castle, now a ruin, located near Pilsen. I recognized Kozel below it. There were birds, trees, ancient ruins, dogs and an eagle in the painting. The walls were stunning. Medallions were inspired by mythology. I saw Hercules holding a boar, for example.

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The Blue Room or the Countess’ Study intrigued me with its Louis XVI style furnishings. I loved the intarsia table shaped as a globe. It could be adjusted to be an embroidery table or a desk. I would love to have that in my living room, though the cat would probably sharpen her claws on it. Another white tiled stove, this one quite ornate, was on display. A bedroom also boasted Louis XVI furniture and a Classicist mirror.

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The Music Chamber had served that purpose when Jan Černín created it for his first wife Josefína. I took special notice of the piano and harp. I loved the music instruments painted on the walls. The grey-and-light blue painted walls impressed me, too. We came to the Grey Room, the original living room of the countess’ chambermaid. It included Biedermeier furniture from the 19th century. I loved the symmetry of that style, the orderliness, the simple elegance. I took special note of the portable embroidery table that can be closed like a purse – exquisite! Porcelain in display cases also caught my attention.

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The Morning Dining Room showed off a series of Viennese porcelain with shell-shaped adornment. Meissen porcelain was no stranger to the room, either. The Count’s Study featured oriental objects. I loved the turtle figure that looked like a dragon. It hailed from the 18th century. A gilded Classicist desk that featured intarsia was another highlight.

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The library was divided into two parts. It included over 7,900 volumes from 1517 to 1840, including the first edition of a French encyclopedia and 17th century maps. Books from 18th century France were in abundance. The library’s volumes were in various languages – Old German, French and Latin, for example – but, as was the case in many chateau libraries, none of the books were written in Czech. It is worth noting that the library was only moved to Kozel after 1945. It is not original.

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The next room, the Empire Drawing Room, was decorated with Empire style furniture. I loved the painted vedutas of Italian spas on the walls. I thought back to Monreale’s Santa Maria Nuova Cathedral in Sicily and the Church of Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli) in Rome. What about those arcades in Bologna and all the masterpieces in Ravenna? I loved Italy so much, but I loved the Czech Republic even more. One painting of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius caught my attention. I recalled the views from Mount Etna and from Mount Vesuvius during my trips there. The Viennese porcelain was another treat in that space.

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There was a theatre on the premises, too. Created in the 1830s, it was originally a stable for Jan Vojtěch Černín’s favorite horse. Decorated in Empire style, it was composed of a small, modest stage that served as an intimate space. The equipment was original. The owners’ families had often performed here. I studied the stage set of a lush forest with a wooden church, a tree in the middle.

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What impressed me more than the furnishings of the interior was the wall painting of the interiors, the work of Prague artist Turova, who drew his inspiration from Rococo painting with landscapes and ancient ruins. He also decorated part of the monastery of Břevnov in Prague’s sixth district, and I remember touring the impressive monastery church too many years ago. He painted the interiors over a two-year period, from 1787 to 1789. The reception rooms boasted female figures, putti and deities, for example. The main chateau Drawing Room featured romantic ruins and landscapes.

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The Chapel of the Holy Rood was a vaulted structure with a cupola. The altar, created in 1794, featured a painting of the crucifixion by Turova. Columns and pilasters were not absent, either. The organ was Rococo in style.

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Soon the tour finished. I greatly appreciated this unique architectural structure of pure Classicism. I was impressed that very few changes had been made over so much time. I was also impressed that the chateau had stayed in the family for so long rather than having many owners, each making his or her own changes to the place. The painting decoration inside particularly thrilled me. I was fascinated how the inside could be so different from the outside of the building. I thought the exterior and interior somehow created a sense of harmony, even though they were composed of such different architectural elements.

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I went around the back of the chateau and looked at the countryside from a terrace with a fountain. The views from the chateau were astounding. I only wish the weather had been better. It was not possible to explore paths as it began to rain. Still, I was satisfied with my trip. I went back to Pilsen to take a look at the Brewery Museum and grab a bite to eat at the legendary U Salzmannů restaurant and pub. Then I took a Student Agency bus to Prague, where I returned home, happy to be living in such an amazing country with so many places to explore.

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

 

The Kraus and Vogl Apartments in Pilsen Diary

 

PilsenLoosBendovaint1I traveled by bus with Regiojet to Pilsen to see two flats designed by Viennese architect Adolf Loos during the first third of the 20th century. I was already familiar with his architecture. Loos had made the Müller Villa in Prague into an architectural gem. When I visited the Müller Villa, I had been fascinated by the contrast of the spartan exterior and luxurious interior. Loos’ use of rare woods also greatly impressed me. I liked the symmetry and the harmony of the spaces in the Müller Villa. The Japanese theme in the Winter Dining Room entranced me, too.

This tour included two flats – the one that Loos designed for the Kraus family at 10 Bendova Street and the apartment in which the Vogl family had resided at 12 Klatovská Street. Luckily, Bendova Street is within walking distance of the town center. You can almost see the Great Synagogue from there. I stood in front of the building on Bendova Street. It looked like a typical apartment building in the city, but, of course, Loos did not design the exterior – only one flat inside.

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Soon it was time for the tour to begin. Facing me was a huge black-and-white photo of Loos. He was holding headphones because he was hard of hearing. He wore a pearl in his necktie. I was familiar with Loos’ background. Born in Brno, he received Czech citizenship thanks to Czechoslovak President Tomas G. Masaryk. Loos had lived in Vienna, the USA, Paris and Dresden, among other places. He had finished his studies in the Czech lands. Loos admired classicist modern architecture, which stressed simplicity and symmetry. His style was influenced by the architecture of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Trademarks of Loos’ creations included a lack of decoration on exteriors, a penchant for symmetry and the use of expensive materials such as stone, marble and various types of wood. The Viennese architect had had a close relationship with the city of Pilsen. He designed no less than 13 interiors there, though only eight have been preserved. Four of them are open to the public.

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The flat at Bendova 10 was commissioned by chemist Vilém Kraus, who lived there with his wife and two children. Loos worked on the project in 1930 and 1931. The family would not live at this address for long because they were of Jewish origin, and the Nazis took over in 1939. Gertrude and the children were sent to a concentration camp, where they perished. Vilém, however, survived World War II. After the war, the Communists confiscated the flat, so he moved to Britain. During totalitarian times, the flat was divided into three sections for three families, and part of Loos’ design was destroyed.

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The guide led us into a space divided into the dining room and the living room. There were two mirrors opposite each other in the long space. They created a multiplying effect. I felt as if I was in the room full of mirrors at Lindenhof Palace in Bavaria. I had a feeling of being watched and of spying on others at the same time as I saw reflections of myself and the other participants of the tour. It made me self-conscious and paranoid. I found the mirrors to be jarring. Two pilasters made of rare marble flanked the mirror in the dining room. This feature reminded me of the living room in the Müller Villa, where Loos utilized two marble pilasters. The living room of the Müller Villa also had been divided into parts.

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On the other side of the room, a fireplace played a central role. In the living room of the Müller Villa, there had been a fireplace as well. There was a mirror above the fireplace, and I noticed the white and green marble decoration. Typical for Loos, there was no ornamentation. His design emphasized the beauty of the materials, in this case, the marble used in the room. The ceiling also appealed to me. It was made of dark mahogany.

In the hallway a closet opened to reveal three sections where dirty laundry could be placed. I thought that the device was efficient and rational. We went into another room dominated by light blue wallpaper on one wall. It added a vibrancy to the small space where pictures of Loos and the apartment were on display. The wallpaper was not original, though. I noticed the bright red radiator. In the Müller Villa Loos had also had the radiators painted red. He wanted them to be visible instead of hidden.

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In the bedroom the desk and closet were made of Finnish birch wood. The closets had drawers and hooks for hats. I remembered the moveable drawers and hooks in the closets of the men’s and women’s bedrooms in the Müller Villa. These were details that Loos often employed. In a side panel below a window, there was a safe. The bed was blue, and I wondered if it had been this color when the Krauses lived here.

Soon the tour ended. I was surprised that the flat was so small. I had been expecting something on a grander scale. Still, I was intrigued by Loos’ design, especially by the use of rare materials and mirrors.

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Our group then walked about five minutes to 12 Klatovská Street. Again, the exterior of the building was nothing special. The two preserved rooms in this flat turned out to be located amidst a labyrinth of offices. Originally, the interior had been furnished for businessman Otto Beck, but when he moved out, the new tenant, Josef Vogl, wanted Loos to make adjustments because the dentist needed a section of the flat for his practice and another part for his family. It was Loos’ job to harmonize the two sections. In 1928 and 1929, Loos designed a waiting room and an X-ray room in addition to the doctor’s office. During the Second World War, the apartment was turned into offices. Unfortunately, the part of the flat used for Vogl’s practice was destroyed. The bedroom and children’s room are no longer visible, either. The family did not return after the war, and then the spaces had been used for administrative purposes.

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We did, however, have the opportunity to see the living room and dining room, both of which greatly intrigued me. One room was divided into a study with a desk and chair and a living room area with a floral-patterned couch and various chairs, each one unique. I recalled the chairs in the living room of the Müller Villa. There, too, all the chairs had been different, and each one had been extraordinary in some respect. I especially liked the low armchair, and I recalled the low armchairs in the Müller Villa. Another chair that fascinated me was the tiny one on which only a small child could sit. It was a copy of an Egyptian chair from a museum in London.

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Marble pilasters flanked a fireplace made of red brick. Again, I noticed that the fireplace played an important role in Loos’ design. The walls were decorated with Japanese woodcuts. After Loos had visited the Chicago World’s Fair, he had become intrigued by Asian art. I recalled the Japanese lantern light and other Asian elements in the Winter Dining Room of the Müller Villa. There were even a few Japanese lantern lamps here, too. The room boasted symmetry, one of the features of Loos’ creations that appealed to me the most.

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The dining room was a different, though no less intriguing, story. The yellow travertine walls gave it a warm orange color that I liked. I recalled that travertine had been one material used in the Müller Villa, too. Mirrors dominated the space, set above a long counter on the back wall. A big conference table took up most of the space. The dining room in the Müller Villa had been dark; this room was light and airy. The mirrors blended in with the rest of the design in this space. I did not feel awkward.

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I liked the design of these two rooms more than I had liked the Kraus’ apartment, although I appreciated the unique and daring features in both flats. In the Vogl family apartment, I felt as if I could sit at the desk in the study and write or lie down on the couch and read. The space was comfortable and appealing. Even though the Vogl family apartment was now only comprised of two rooms, those spaces had a lot to say.

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I left Pilsen, vowing to return to see the two other flats that Loos had designed in this city. I would recommend this tour to anyone interested in architecture and to anyone who had enjoyed visiting the Müller Villa.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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The Historical Underground of Pilsen Diary

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When I bought my ticket to visit the underground cellars below the center of Pilsen (Plzeň in Czech), I thought the tour would be interesting. However, I had no idea it would be fascinating and one of the highlights of my many trips to this dazzling city in west Bohemia. The ticket office was at the entrance to the Brewery Museum, which I also visited and found intriguing, even though I rarely drink alcohol.

Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of visiting underground areas, and I admit that I was a bit scared for my safety when I had to put on a hard hat. It turned out that there was no reason to be afraid. The corridors were not wide but provided enough room for one person to walk through. I can at times feel a bit claustrophobic, but I did not have a problem there. In some parts in caves I had visited, I had been squashed between rock formations, and the paths had been very tight.

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The guide explained that we would explore 800 meters of the underground area, though the cellars were actually much more extensive. The passages can be traced back to the early 14th century. They were built soon after the founding of the town by the first houses that had obtained the right to brew beer. The cellars served various purposes. Food was stored there, and beer was brewed in the underground areas. During sieges of the city, inhabitants took refuge in this labyrinth. The passages also became important parts of the city’s defense system. In addition, during the Middle Ages, the pubs above the passages were ordered to close at a certain hour, and the establishments carried on serving beer in the cellars after hours.

The eloquent guide told us the different eating habits of the poor and the rich during the Middle Ages. Poor people used ceramic tableware and ate mostly vegetarian food because meat was too costly. Birds and fish made up part of their diet. The wealthy, though, used glass, metal and silver tableware and ate a lot of meat and spices. They ate with their hands, though they used knives when eating meat. The well-off citizens refused to use forks because they thought they resembled pitchforks and were bad luck.

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I saw beautiful tiles from stoves constructed in the Middle Ages. One that caught my fancy showed Saint George fighting the dragon. I also saw an exquisite decorated water pot from medieval times.

The guide talked about the three symbols on Pilsen’s coat-of-arms – an angel, a camel and a greyhound. I loved the story about how the camel came to be one of the city’s symbols. During the Hussite wars, the Hussites attempted to overtake the city four times, but never prevailed. The Hussites tried to frighten the inhabitants of Pilsen with a camel. However, their plan backfired in a major way. The inhabitants liked the camel so much that they put the animal on their coat-of-arms. In the end, the Hussites left, defeated. The camel stayed.

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The guide also explained that the three golden fountains of contemporary art on the main square stood for the three symbols of the city. The T-shaped fountain stood for the angel while the F-shaped one represented the camel. The Greek letter stood for the greyhound. I was captivated by the three fountains, though I had not understood what they symbolized. Though contemporary, they fit in well with the medieval atmosphere of the main square dominated by the Church of Saint Bartholomew. I was impressed that they by no means take away from the square’s historical charm.

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I also saw samples of ceramics from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Two objects that caught my attention included a unique 16th century sieve and a piggybank from the 17th century. I was intrigued by the many wells – we saw 20 of them!

When we reached one point, the guide told us that we were standing under a house that once printed books in Pilsen. The first book published in Pilsen hailed from 1468. I also was intrigued with a pair of very pointy shoes, often referred to as poulaines. They looked very uncomfortable. I did not understand how someone could squish up his or her feet into those shoes. How would it be possible to walk in them? During the Middle Ages, very pointy shoes were a sign of wealth. I recalled that they had been particularly fashionable in France during that era, as evidenced by The Book of Hours. The pointier your shoes were, the richer you were.

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There were many guilds during the Middle Ages, including a guild of manufacturers of tiled stoves. I saw many examples of tiles from stoves during the tour. Emperor Rudolf II lived in Pilsen for one year when the plague was ravaging Prague, and the inhabitants presented him with a tiled stove to show their appreciation that he had chosen their city as his temporary residence.

I saw some cannonballs used by the Hussites. They weighed 200 kilograms each!  The cannonballs were able to demolish the first town wall, but they did not destroy the second wall. The inhabitants of the city threw the cannonballs back at the Hussites, foiling their enemy’s plan.

A functioning water wheel fascinated me. It was a replica of one that dated from 1532. I also saw remains of a water town hailing from 1847. It had played a role in the town’s defense system. Emil Škoda, an entrepreneur who set up the Škoda factory that would play a major role in European industry during the 19th and 20th centuries, was born in the water tower on November 19, 1839.

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The 2002 floods had made their way to Pilsen. A sign showed the high level the water reached on August 13 of 2002. The entire underground had been immersed in water. I recalled my personal experience with the floods for a few moments, lost in thought.

During 2002, devastating floods ravaged the republic. I was in Slovakia at the time, so I did not witness them first-hand. Even though the house where I lived in Prague was on a hill, there was significant water damage because we had had no roof because it was being repaired. There was only a protective covering. Rain from the downpours seeped into my flat. I came back to find some of my clothes ruined and mold on the walls. My cat was traumatized. Luckily, my books were all dry. Living through the aftermath of the floods was one of the most difficult times of my life in Prague, where I have lived for 23 years.

When we reached the end of the tour, I was enthusiastic and bewitched by the information I had learned about the Middle Ages and the history of Pilsen. The objects I had seen during the tour were very intriguing. I thought the tour was organized well. I had taken the tour in English because that was the one offered at the time I was able to visit, and the guide had an excellent command of the language and a talent for communicating effectively.

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I am convinced that the underground tour should not be missed when tourists are visiting Pilsen. It is a must-see. When you come back above ground, you understand how the Middle Ages affected Pilsen and have a greater appreciation for the city.

I left Pilsen for Prague about an hour after the tour, and I was certainly more than satisfied with my day trip.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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National Gallery of Le Marche in Urbino Diary

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One of my most memorable experiences of my trip with arsviva to Le Marche and Umbria was my visit to the National Gallery of Le Marche in Urbino, a medieval town with steep, romantic streets, a stunning cathedral and the intriguing museum at the birthplace of master painter Raphael. The gallery is located in a majestic building – the Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, built in the 15th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We entered a elegant porticoed courtyard. The collection focuses on the Renaissance period, with works by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello and Titian, for instance. Raphael’s masterpiece La Muta, Uccello’s six-panel Miracle of the Desecrated Host and Titian’s The Resurrection are three of the many gems in this collection. The building also includes a small study that is decorated in trompe-l’oel style. The intarsia work is this room is remarkable. I especially love the squirrel! The doors boast latticework.

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Leipzig Diary

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A fountain in Leipzig

When I saw that arsviva offered a day trip to Leipzig, I jumped at the opportunity. I had no idea what to expect, but I had enjoyed their day trips to other places in Germany, such as Nuremberg and Bamberg. Besides, our guide would be one of the best I had come across. With a specialty in architecture, she also had led the thrilling tours of Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel’s creations.

There were many things that awed me about Leipzig. The first and foremost, was, indeed, the architecture – how the modern and historical styles did not clash but rather provided a sort of artistic harmony.

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A contemporary statue in downtown Leipzig

The guide told us about the history of the city, and I had read about Leipzig’s trials and tribulations before the trip. During the seventh century, Leipzig got its name from the Slavic Lipsk, which means “a settlement where the linden trees stand.” The town was first mentioned in writing during 1015. It was founded in 1165, soon gaining a reputation as a trade center. The beginning of the 15th century changed the character of Leipzig, as a university was established here, and it became a prominent center of higher education. Goethe and Nietzsche had studied here.

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A beautiful book published in Leipzig

The Leipzig Book Fair, the second biggest book fair in Germany, has its origins in the 17th century. Book publishing took off in Leipzig during the 18th century and continued to play a major role until World War II, when the Graphic Quarter was mostly destroyed by bombs. The Battle of Nations in the 19th century took place near Leipzig. The 1813 ordeal pitted Napoleon’s France against the Prussians, Austrians, Russians and Swedes. The allied nations came through victorious, and Napoleon had no choice but to leave Germany. We would visit this monument later in the day.

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This painting from the Museum of City History shows the destruction during World War II.

The city became part of the German Empire in 1871, and the years before World War I were rosy. Then, after the war, the Weimar Republic was established, though short-lived. In 1933 the National Socialists took over, and Hitler’s reign of terror would continue until the US army freed the city on April 18, 1945. Then in July of that year, the Americans handed the city over to the Soviets. The totalitarian regime that was called the German Democratic Republic or East Germany existed from 1949 to 1989, when Communism was defeated in Germany in part thanks to the citizens of Leipzig and their demonstrations. Today more than 40,000 students vie for degrees in Leipzig, a truly university town. Leipzig was coined the “City of Diversity” by the German government in 2008.

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Gothic and modern architecture in a university building

The Augustusplatz, spanning 40,000 square meters, was a wonder in itself. The Gewandhaus, where the symphony played, and the Opera House took me by surprise, as I usually was not so enthralled with modern architecture. I took special note of the Paulinum, where the current structure resembled a former church that was destroyed by the Communists on this site in 1968. The 2012 creation really brought a sense of unity to modern and historical styles.

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The first high-rise in Leipzig

I also was enthralled with the first high-rise building in Leipzig, an 11-storey edifice constructed in the 1920s. Its design was inspired by the clock tower at St. Mark’s Square in my beloved Venice. For a moment, I mentally went eight years back in time and recalled winding through the empty, romantic streets of Venice on a Sunday at seven o’clock in the morning. The experience was magical, to say the least. In the present again: The tall Leipzig building was topped with a ball that showed the phases of the moon and a sculpture of a man ringing a bell. The German words for “Work overcomes everything” stood out on a gable.

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From the Museum of City History exhibition of the modern era

We also spent some time in the train station. No, we were not going anywhere by train, but rather we were admiring the masterful technical achievement that consisted of two entrance halls and two waiting rooms plus 25 platforms. In the early 20th century, this transportation hub ranked as the largest main train station in Europe after the architects transformed four stations into one. It made Prague’s main station look so tiny. I always felt a sense of excitement in train stations. I thought of the many trips I had taken by train. Prague’s train stations were starting points for what turned out to be superb experiences during which I became acquainted with an intriguing part of the country and also, most importantly, got to know myself better. The trips to Olomouc, Liberec, Turnov –  each journey provided me with insights about the external landscape as well as the internal landscape of my mind.

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A postcard of the Church of St. Nicholas

Unfortunately, it was not possible to take photos in the Church of St. Nicholas, the largest church in Leipzig. I tried to imagine October of 1989 in the church, when citizens crammed inside, protesting against the totalitarian regime and creating a path for democracy. The people of Leipzig really had made a difference in the so-called Peaceful Revolution, and this had been where it all began. On Mondays, ever since the early 1980s, prayers for peace were held here, too. I wondered when there would be peace in the world, if ever. So many tragedies, so much violence rocks the world today. The world was the most dangerous it had been during my 46 years on this earth, I mused. And it only seemed to be getting more and more dangerous day-by-day.

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From a postcard of the Church of St. Nicholas

I admired the architecture of the impressive church. Although originally constructed in Romanesque style during the 12th century, it was transformed into a Late Gothic structure boasting three naves during the first quarter of the 16th century. Three steeples boast Baroque decoration. Now the prevailing style of the interior is classicist, a characteristic that the church took on in the late 18th century. I loved the palm tree capitals on the stately columns most of all, especially the pink and green colors. The pillars made the church appear even more lively. It was not just an architectural masterpiece with a past, but it felt like a masterful design with a present, too. I tried to imagine Bach performing here, as he has served as organist from 1723 to 1750. I tried to imagine Martin Luther preaching here as churchgoers became familiar with the Reformation. It was a profound experience, standing there, gazing at the gem of an interior.

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The Church of St. Thomas

You could not miss the Bach monument in front of the Church of St. Thomas, which was constructed in 1212 as a monastery church for Augustinians. By 1355 the Romanesque structure had been transformed into Gothic style. Now it has a Late Gothic character with a late 15th century appearance. Real hair adorns Jesus’ head on a 16th century crucifix. The church holds the distinction of having one of the steepest gable roofs in the country.

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The ceiling of the Church of St. Thomas

The interior got a Neo-Gothic makeover during the revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849. Still, there were elements of the church that were much older than that. I saw a triptych altar from the 15th century, for instance, and even some Romanesque traits remain on the exterior. I especially liked the stained glass windows. Many people come here to pay homage to Bach, who worked as cantor here from 1723 to 1750. His grave is located in the choir.

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The stained glass windows at the Church of St. Thomas were extraordinary.

We also saw a modern church, built only several years ago. The interior was so sparse and minimalistic. There was a large wooden cross on one wall, and on the opposite wall another big cross was made of glass. I preferred Baroque and Gothic churches, definitely, but there was a profound sense of harmony in its simplicity. It ranked as an architectural gem in my book, though it was not my preferred style. There was something special about seeing this space stripped of frivolous decoration.

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Built from 1899 to 1905, the New Town Hall was another gem, purposefully reminiscent of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. With an area of 10,000 square meters, it is one of the biggest town halls in the world. The tower reaches a height of 1,147 meters, making it the highest town hall tower in Germany. It was a pity there was not more time to spend examining this building, but we had a lot to see. The town hall fountain featuring creatures from fairy tales and a figure of a young boy playing a flute was a gem.

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The New Town Hall

I was drawn to Klingerhaus, the birthplace of the 19th century Symbolist painter, sculptor and writer Max Klinger. I did not know much about Klinger, except that he had been influenced by Goya’s art. I recalled gazing in awe at Goya’s paintings in the Prado and at the artist’s drawings in the small, quaint contemporary art museum in Passau. I liked the Renaissance architecture of the building. I was particularly enthralled with the red gables and oriels that made the building look so dynamic.

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Klingerhaus

We walked by Auerbach’s Cellar, a tavern Goethe had frequented and the inspiration for a scene in Faust. We went into the Mädler Passage, an arcade building that reminded me of another arcade structure in Naples. It was modeled after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan from 1912 to 1914 and boasted a central rotunda. A Glockenspiel of Meissen china charmed audiences on the hour.

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The Old Town Hall

I ate a hearty lunch in a narrow Baroque court teeming with restaurants and cafés – there were over 30 of them, in fact. Then I made my way to the Old Town Hall across the square. The first Renaissance hall in Germany, it was constructed in 1556. It was heavily damaged by bombing during World War II but rebuilt. The city administration worked here until 1905, and soon afterwards the Museum of City History opened in the impressive space. Shops were situated amidst the lovely arcades. I loved the gables and tower clock.

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The interior of the Old Town Hall

At the Museum of City History, I learned that the history of Leipzig is, in effect, the history of Germany and former East Germany. A remarkable exhibition of modern history from the revolutionary years of 1848-49 to the present enthralled me. Rarely have I been so enlightened and moved by an exhibition. Citizens were not satisfied with the political situation in 1848 and revolted, hoping to gain a constitution for Germany, among other goals. But it was not to be. The city became a central point for the German labor movement, German social democracy and women’s movement from the 1850s to 1871, when the German Empire was founded. Jewish fur traders flocked to the city, and their businesses flourished. Indeed, before World War I Leipzig was thriving.

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The interior of the Old Town Hall

From 1918 to 1933 Leipzig found itself in the Weimar Republic, an era that had to deal with the political and economic issues that followed the war. Yet Leipzig experienced the Roaring Twenties, and when things turned for the worst, the Great Depression of 1929. Then, in 1933, the National Socialists took control. The city was subject to much bombing during the war, and forced laborers toiled in the city during the war. US troops liberated Leipzig in April of 1945, but in July the Americans turned over the city to the Soviets. The German Democratic Republic was established in 1949, as Leipzig then became part of the totalitarian East Germany. Companies were nationalized, and cheaply built housing estates cropped up. Before the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, thousands of citizens escaped to the West. At the end of the 1980s, more inhabitants made it to the West. During the 40th anniversary of East Germany, the state employed violence to repress demonstrations. The Peaceful Revolution began on October 9, 1989, and the Leipzig protests would play a major role in the collapse of the Communist regime. In 1990, after 58 terror-ridden years led by dictators, democratic elections were held in Leipzig. There was much construction, and Leipzig earned the nickname “the Boomtown of the East.”

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From the Museum of City History exhibition about the modern era

The exhibition also focused on book publishing in Leipzig, which played a major role from the 18th century up to World War II. Until 1945, the biggest book fair in the world took place in Leipzig, and now the city hosts the second largest book fair in Germany. The exhibition also concentrated on Leipzig as a city of music, mentioning Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Grieg, Wagner and others who greatly influenced the town.

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From the Museum of City History exhibition of the modern era

There were many places in Leipzig that I did not have time to explore. For instance, I would have loved to have visited the museums in the former houses of Mendelssohn and Schumann. I longed to see the richly decorated facades of buildings on the Brühl, where, at the turn of the 20th century, 700 fur companies had been located. I would like to linger in the Baroque Coffee Baum, where famous musicians had once gathered. The Memorial Museum, at the site of the former State Security forces, would certainly allow insights into the terror-ridden years as part of East Germany.  There are other museums that I wanted to visit as well– the Grassi Museum of Applied Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts are just two examples.

During my day in Leipzig, I gained so much knowledge about life in the city and in Germany, especially from the middle of the 19th century to the present. I was won over by the architecture, both modern and historic. I left Leipzig, knowing I had to return in the not-so-distant future. Its strong impression will forever be stamped in my memory.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.