Lány Diary

From TGM Museum, Lány

This was my third or fourth trip to Lány, a town about 35 kilometers west of Prague near the Křivoklat forest. I loved going to Lány to pay tribute to the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his family. I came by car this time, accompanied by a friend. First, I went to the TGM Museum, which told the story of Masaryk’s life and career. Then we went to the cemetery where Tomáš Masaryk and three members of his family are buried. After that, we strolled through one of my favorite chateau parks, part of the president’s summer residence. Masaryk had spent a lot of time in that majestic park and had died in the chateau.

Czechoslovak soldiers during World War I, from TGM Museum, Lány

First, the museum: I had been there once before and loved refamiliarizing myself with the history of the First Republic. If I could go back to any time in the past, I would travel to 1920s Czechoslovakia. The country was new, off to a fresh start as a democracy.

Besides exhibits relating specifically to Masaryk, the museum is home to period furnishings and paintings of his family members. There is a section devoted to the first World War, when he set up legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army, doing battle against the Habsburgs. First, we saw photos of Masaryk in a special exhibition. Then we went into the main part of the museum.

A philosopher, scholar and politician, Masaryk founded Czechoslovak democracy. He believed that small nations played a significant role in Europe and in the world. He also touted individual responsibility and religion as a source of morality. Masaryk came from humble beginnings. His father had been a Slovak carter, later a steward, while his German-Moravian mother had worked as a cook. At a German high school in Brno, Masaryk saw for himself the fraught tension between high-class Germans and oppressed, lower-class Czechs. He later concentrated on philosophy at the University of Vienna. While he was studying in a year-long program in Leipzig – a city I had loved visiting several years ago -, he met an American from Brooklyn, Charlotte Garrigue, and they were married in the USA during 1878. (I named my late cat the Czech version of Charlotte, Šarlota, after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia. My cat died suddenly in July of 2021 at the age of 11.) Tomáš took his wife’s last name as his middle name. They had five children, and their son Jan later became a prominent politician whom Communists pushed out a bathroom window, killing him.

Tomáš Masaryk was a university professor and a writer. He penned books about the deplorable conditions in Russia after visiting that country and in another grappled with the causes of suicide. His writings centered on politics as well.

A wall of the museum took up the theme of the scandals that had scarred the public opinion of Masaryk. He proved that epic poems, which supposedly dated from the Middle Ages and appealed to Czech nationalists, were forgeries. These nationalists branded Masaryk a traitor. Then, a Jewish man named Leopold Hilsner was sentenced to death for ritual murder. Masaryk insisted that the trial had been anti-Semitic. Hilsner was given life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Not all Czechs approved of Masaryk’s participation in this case, and the Masaryk family experienced anti-Semitic attacks.

An exhibit showing advertisements during the First Czechoslovak Republic

A section of the museum described Masaryk’s role during World War I. While Masaryk had fought for reforms with Austro-Hungary before the war, during World War I he became convinced that Czechs and Slovaks needed independence rather than autonomy. Masaryk was head of the government-in-exile in London. During a trip to the USA, he convinced President Woodrow Wilson that Czechoslovak independence was vital. Czechoslovakia was created October 28, 1918.

Pictures of the Masaryk family in the TGM Museum

Then there were the many exhibits about his presidency. Masaryk abdicated during his fourth term in office due to health reasons, after 17 years as head of state. During his presidency, the country was a democracy with all citizens equal, and minorities had rights to maintain their national identities. Freedom of the press and universal suffrage were other features. However, the country was not without its problems. German-Czech tensions and Slovak calls for separatism were two of the issues that caused him great concern.

Furnishings from the First Republic, TGM Museum, Lány

After his reelection in 1920, the country flourished, especially economically. However, personal tragedy hit the Masaryk family. His wife died in 1923. Three years into his third term, in 1930, he turned 80, and ideologies of Communism, Fascism and Nazism had infiltrated the democratic country. During 1934, he was elected for a fourth term, yet his time in office was riddled with health problems. He resigned in 1935 and died at Lány on September 14 that year.

Statue of TGM in front of the museum

After admiring a statue of Masaryk outside the museum, we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs marked the graves of Masaryk and his wife Charlotte, son Jan and daughter Alice. The small grassy area was roped off. It was a modest yet eloquent commemoration to lives that had upheld democratic values even during troubled times.

I reflected on Masaryk lying in state at Lány. About 60,000 citizens came to pay their respects. When his wife died in 1923, thousands of Czechs paid homage to her by going to Lány chateau as well.

Modest graves of Tomáš G. Masaryk and three members of his family

I thought about Tomáš Masaryk’s funeral in Prague. Black flags had fluttered from downtown buildings. Busts and pictures of Masaryk had dotted the town and covered the front pages of numerous newspapers. Black banners reading “TGM” had adorned Saint Vitus Cathedral and buildings on Wenceslas Square. Thousands of soldiers and legionnaires had marched in his funeral procession September 21 as 146 military standards appeared. Draped with the Czechoslovak flag, his coffin was carried on a gun carriage through the city. On its last leg to Lány, the coffin had traveled by train, placed in a car covered in wreaths and flowers.

The headstones of the graves of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his wife Charlotte

I remembered seeing that gun carriage at a temporary exhibition in a Prague gallery a few years earlier. I recalled watching Václav Havel’s coffin travel by me while I waited on an Old Town Street in December of 2011. I was huddled in my LL Bean winter coat on that dark, dismal morning as the coffin made its way toward Prague Castle. My hero was dead; my heart broken; my mood solemn. I thought that it was the same way I would have felt if I had seen Masaryk’s funeral procession.

From the cemetery we made our way to a restaurant on a square, where I ate fried chicken steak and ice cream on that sunny May afternoon of 2021. We ate outside to be safer from coronavirus infection.

The next and last stop was much more upbeat – Lány Chateau, the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since 1921. While the residence was not open to the public (with several exceptions), the beautiful park was. I first set foot in this park during the summer of 1991, when I was a tourist seeing Prague and its environs for the first time.

That trip during the summer of 1991 was magical – walking through the Old Jewish Cemetery, gawking at Old Town Square with its superb architecture, making my way to Prague Castle via the Charles Bridge, where Russian soldiers sold their uniforms and fur hats. On the way, I walked up Nerudova Street, where, in a photography store, I found some prints of President George H.W. Bush with Václav Havel during that historic visit in 1990. There were also discounted posters of Gorbachev, but I wasn’t interested in buying one. Saint Vitus Cathedral had amazed me. On Golden Lane, a place in legends dating back to Rudolf II’s era, I got my picture taken with a man I had met on the train from Berlin to Prague. We were smitten with each other. Yet, we would part our separate ways a few days later, never contacting each other again. Life somehow had gotten in the way. I visited Karlštejn Castle, Konopiště Chateau, Hluboká Chateau, Kutná Hora and so many other places during that trip. Prague had felt like my true home, and the park in Lány was so special in my heart.

By this time, I knew the history of the chateau well. There was a structure here before 1392, when it was first mentioned in writing. Late in the 16th century, that edifice became a Renaissance keep. Rudolf II acquired the property in 1589 and did much hunting on the grounds at the game reserve. During the Thirty Years’ War, Swedish troops had occupied the residence. After Rudolf II acquired it, the residence was state-owned for 100 years. In 1685 Arnošt Josef Wallensteain bought it. When his daughter got married, the chateau and surrounding land became the property of the Furstenberg family and stayed in their possession until the state bought it in 1921. Then the chateau was modernized. Masaryk had the balcony built. During Ludvík Svoboda’s presidential term, the game reserve had been open to Western tourists, but later it was closed off again. Many other renovations had taken place throughout the decades. The chateau had been in poor condition after Gustav Husák’s tenure, when the Communist regime was toppled in 1989. Under Václav Havel and Olga Havlová – after whom I had named one of my cats – the chateau had been totally reconstructed into a beautiful work of art and architecture.

Near the park we perused the obelisk that Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had erected during Masaryk’s era to commemorate fallen soldiers during World War I. In the park I felt at home, so comfortable as if I was meant to be there, basking in the sun near the greenhouse or taking in the many landmarks. This was one of the few chateau parks that made me see not only the beauty around me but also the beauty inside me. The other park that gave me this feeling was at the chateau in Opočno in north Bohemia.

I loved the two ponds. One landmark that impressed me was a lion-headed fountain made by Plečník, who had superbly decorated parts of Prague Castle, too. With five Dorian colums and five lions’ heads, the fountain symbolizes the five lands of Czechoslovakia. Water from the five heads flows into a sixth head that spouts the water into the pond, symbolizing the unity of newly-formed Czechoslovakia.

Across the Masaryk stream I saw three bridges constructed in a simple design by Plečník. I remember visiting Plečník’s studio when I was in Ljubljana.  Communist president Klement Gottwald had contributed to the park as well. He had a small cottage with fairy-tale elements built for his grandson. There were also beehives from Masaryk’s era, again designed by Plečník. The Furstenbergs, who had owned the land with chateau for several centuries, were responsible for setting up the greenhouse. Three benches celebrated more recent events. One commemorated the Višegrad Four conference hosted in Lány in 2006, when Václav Klaus was the Czech president. Another was donated by Livia Klausová, a former First Lady, in 2012. The third was donated by current President Miloš Zeman. The Riding Stables were built in Neo-Gothic style during 1861.

We walked along the main chestnut-lined path and took in the various perspectives of the yellow, Baroque chateau. I knew something about the interior, even though it was not possible to go inside. The Blue Dining Room was decorated in Third Rococo from the beginning of the 20th century. The bright yellow wallpaper in the Yellow Salon harkened back to Husák’s era. After the Velvet Revolution, five Renaissance painting of Habsburg archdukes as children had been installed. There was a beautiful marble fireplace surrounded by superb woodcarving in the library. Masaryk’s Salon includes, thanks to the Furstenbergs, furniture made from black pearwood.

During Masaryk’s tenure, there was a movie theatre at the chateau where locals could watch the latest talkies. The films of Vlasta Burian, a comic actor whose work I knew well, often were projected there. This was where the Lány Agreement promoting cooperation between Austria and Czechoslovakia had been signed in December of 1921. So many presidents and dignitaries had graced the halls of that chateau.

I tried to imagine Masaryk riding his horses through the park. At Lány Masaryk had written many of his books and had met with legendary Czech author Karel Čapek to put together the nonfiction work Conversations with TGM. During the Nazi Protectorate, Emil Hácha had called the chateau home. I tried to imagine the Protectorate flag fluttering from the tower during the second World War. I recalled that Gottwald had tried to do away with all the monuments at Lány that were associated with Masaryk. There had been an assassination attempt on President Antonín Zápotecky in 1953, as a bomb went off under his car. One of the town’s inhabitants was killed in the blast. During Havel’s presidency, I used to love to listen to his Conversations from Lány radio broadcast.

The chateau and park made me think about Masaryk’s era and Havel’s 13 years as president of Czechoslovakia and of the Czech Republic. After spending some time enjoying the sights in the park, it was time to go back to Prague. It was our first trip of the 2021 chateau and castle season, and it would always be one of the best ever.

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

My late cat Šarlota, named after Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk

Anti-nuclear Bunker Diary

A Communist banner with the hammer and sickle symbol

A Communist banner with the hammer and sickle symbol

The tall, thirtiesh man clad in a 1980s-era uniform of a Czechoslovak army officer approached me at the reception desk of the Hotel Jalta on Wenceslas Square. He introduced himself and said he would be my guide through the Museum of the Cold War. This was my first visit to the five-star boutique hotel, but I knew it had catered to Western tourists long before the Velvet Revolution of 1989. I had often passed by the 1950s style building so strongly influenced by Soviet architecture, taking for granted that it was part of the cityscape of Prague.

I have to admit that seeing the guide in a Communist era uniform made my stomach lurch as it brought to mind the rigid authority and terrors of the totalitarian regime that had lasted for some 40 years in former Czechoslovakia.

I followed the fair-haired, smiling man down the stairs until we were about 20 meters below the hotel, in spaces that were once part of an anti-nuclear bunker. 

When we reached the museum, the guide described the bunker’s design. Currently, there were only several small rooms with displays, but the bunker itself, completed in 1958, consisted of three floors. It was made specifically to protect about 150 high-ranking Communist officials for as long as two months, if nuclear war was declared. 

Communist era uniforms

Communist era uniforms

The guide talked about the history of the Hotel Jalta. It was constructed from 1954 to 1958 on the site of a building that was bombed by the Allied Forces in 1945. The spaces belonged to the Ministry of Defense until 1997. Now the hotel owns the bunker. The museum was relatively new; it had opened in November of 2013.

Nuclear war never broke out, but the Communists did set up a listening post on the premises. The Secret Police listened to conversations of hotel guests and employees. They had planted bugs in the rooms.

The guide explained that steel slabs were constructed to protect people from radiation. The concrete walls were two meters thick. Upon entering the first space, I faced a red socialist banner with a picture of former Czechoslovak President Antonín Zápotocký, who had influenced the design of the hotel. 

I cringed. Zápotocký had helped establish the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia back in 1921. He was the country’s Prime Minister from 1948 to 1953, taking over the position after the Communist Coup in February, 1948. That was when Klement Gottwald became the first Communist president. Zápotocký took up the presidential post after Gottwald’s death in 1953 and served in that capacity until 1957. The leader of the country during the harsh 1950s, Zápotocký really played second fiddle to hardliner Antonín Novotný, who was the First Secretary.

Zápotocký had a chilling past. He had spent time in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp during World War II. When he was released in 1945, the Dutch accused him of war crimes, claiming that he helped execute their citizens during World War II.

On the wall to my right, I scanned a poster featuring various Communist propaganda writings about Czechoslovakia. I think I would have gone crazy if I had had to listen constantly to all that socialist advertising with all those empty phrases. On another wall there were copies of posters from totalitarian days. Of course, they all celebrated and glorified socialism, announcing “Socialism for a better life” and similar slogans. One poster advertised the 15th anniversary of the Pioneers’ youth organization that had an emphatically Soviet slant. I wondered how children had felt about being sent to Pioneers’ camps. Did they accept the socialist preachings as part of their lifestyle and tradition, or were they disgusted with this athletic mouthpiece for the Communist regime?

One of the two tunnels

One of the two tunnels

The guide then showed me an entrance to a tunnel that leads to some place on Wenceslas Square, but no one knows exactly where. Another tunnel was connected to an adjacent building. I felt claustrophobic enough in the bunker itself. There was no way I could have ever crawled through one of those tunnels, even if my life had depended on it.

After passing through a small medical examining room, we came to a section dominated by a mannequin dressed in the uniform of a Communist border control guard finding smuggled jewelry in a suitcase he has opened. I realized that, as a child, I had thought of people living behind the Iron Curtain as mannequins, as people without souls, unable to feel joy or pain. I had been a big fan of the TV sitcom Get Smart that featured a bumbling American secret agent battling wits with the KGB. Back then, when I was about eight years old, my world had been black-and-white. The Americans were the good people. Russians and other nationalities living in totalitarian countries were the bad people. As a child I had viewed the lands behind the Iron Curtain as eternally covered in a thick mist that was impossible to see through.

It did not occur to me back then that people in Communist countries experienced the same feelings that all people do – they fell in love, sobbed hysterically, smiled brightly, laughed heartily. Back then I did not realize that some Czechoslovak citizens had joined the Communist Party out of fear. What if they wanted to send their children to university? What if they were blackmailed? As a kid, I had yet to learn that there were a lot of gray areas. Still, I now know that a lot of Czechs and Slovaks had not joined the Party despite the consequences. Those were some of my heroes.

A figure of a border guard finding smuggled jewelry

A figure of a border guard finding smuggled jewelry

The guide put a 1950s-era machine gun in my hands. It felt heavy and awkward. I could not imagine shooting anyone, ever. I could not even imagine owning a gun. I recalled the first and only time I had gripped a real pistol. I had been studying theatre in Vermont, and my classmate Steve and I were practicing a scene from a play by American playwright Sam Shepard. Steve had brought his gun to the classroom so I could use it as a prop. It felt so heavy, and my hands got clammy when I held it.

A small bust and a portrait of first Communist Czechoslovak President Klement Gottwald decorated the room. In the portrait Gottwald looked like a loving father and husband, smoking a pipe, seemingly such a gentle, kind man proud of his family. But anyone who has studied Czechoslovak history knows that Gottwald was far from kind. He orchestrated the Communist coup of 1948 that made the last democracy in Eastern Europe into a totalitarian country. After the war Czechoslovaks wanted solid ties with the Russians, who had liberated them. However, the Communist members of government became ruthless in their control of the police and security forces. The nonCommunist ministers resigned, certain that the democratic President Edvard Beneš would be able to create a new government that would exclude the Communist Party.

A medical room

A medical room

Their strategy failed. Instead, Communists reacted violently. Since the Army was controlled by a Communist General, there was no way to stop the brutal attacks unleashed by the Communists, who even beat students advocating democracy in a protest in the Lesser Quarter’s Nerudova Street. Then Prime Minister Gottwald threatened President Beneš that he would engineer a general strike and nonCommunists would be punished if Beneš did not sign the Communists’ proposal for a new government.  Beneš succumbed to Gottwald’s pressure.

Under Gottwald’s presidency, Soviet Union Prime Minister Joseph Stalin called the shots, and Czechoslovakia carried out the largest show trials in Eastern Europe. From 1949 to 1954, Communists and nonCommunists were tortured and executed for crimes they did not commit. Military leaders, Jews, Catholics, democrats –they all became victims in this horrific display of injustice. Over 180 people were executed in these trials that were scripted and rehearsed. One victim of this terror was democratic politician and resistance leader Milada Horáková, executed in 1950 for allegedly planning to overthrow the regime.  The international community was irate over her execution.

Yet the trials were not restricted to those supporting democracy. High-ranking Communist officials were purged, too. Communist official Rudolf Slánský was made a scapegoat, accused of high treason and espionage and labeled a Titoist, someone who supported the Marshal Josip Broz Tito-led Yugoslav government, which did not adhere to the dictates of the Soviet Union. Slánský was tried with 13 others and sentenced to death in 1952. His ashes were scattered at a construction site near Prague.

Back to the exhibits. A display on one wall described the responsibilities of the Czechoslovak border guards. The pictures showing dead bodies sprawled near the electric fence that delineated the border of the country deeply affected me. Those brave people had been mere meters from freedom when they were gunned down. I marveled at how much courage it took to try to escape. I wondered if I would have had that much courage. Probably not.  These people were heroes. They died for freedom. The freedom to have your own opinions and make them heard. The freedom to be whoever you wanted to be, to live the life you chose rather than one that was chosen for you. These are only a few of the things I had taken for granted until I moved to Prague in 1991.

Art on the Berlin Wall

Art on the Berlin Wall

The pictures also brought back memories of my visit to the Berlin Wall in 1991, when I was fresh out of college. I recalled how being so physically close to the Wall made me realize that it was much more than a physical barrier between two drastically different worlds. I thought about people who had risked their lives trying to get over that Wall. I recalled the November 9, 1989 TV footage of Germans scrambling over it when East Germans were granted the right to visit West Germany. Still, until I came face-to-face with the Wall, those TV images remained mere images. When I saw the Wall for myself, those images became real. I could see the people climbing higher and higher to the very top, reveling in the ecstasy of experiencing freedom for the first time. The art gallery on one section of the wall transformed it into a vibrant and dynamic celebration of color that made poignant statements about society and the value of freedom.

Still engrossed with the pictures of the fallen near the electric fences, I also pondered over stories Czech acquaintances had told me. One waiter at a restaurant I had frequented told me how he and his brother had planned to escape. However, when he showed up at the agreed meeting place, his brother was not there, so he went home. Later, he found out that his brother had escaped a day earlier without telling him.

The Berlin Wall, 1991

The Berlin Wall, 1991

Another acquaintance was punished for his brother’s defection to America. The authorities confiscated his spacious flat in Vinohrady and gave him an efficiency apartment in a district far from the center. He became so desperate to escape that he tried to hijack a plane to take him to the West. Because there were always Secret Police agents on flights, he was quickly apprehended and imprisoned.

The next room was decorated with various uniforms of the border guards from the 1980s. There was an old tape recorder, a megaphone, a shield and a helmet – I wondered if these very items had been used when the police beat demonstrators on National Avenue during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. A portrait of President Gustáv Husák was prominently place in the room. Husák had been president during the rigid Normalization era that had followed the Soviet invasion. The tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia’s capital on August 21, 1968 had put an abrupt halt to the Prague Spring that had brought liberal reforms to the country. For two decades Husák controlled the country with an iron fist, fiercely loyal to the Soviet Union.  After the invasion Husák had felt no mercy for the reformers. As First Secretary of the Party in 1969, he also purged Communists who had supported a more liberal stance during the Prague Spring.

A Communist official reading a Communist paper

A Communist official reading a Communist paper

Husák became President of Czechoslovakia in 1975. During the 1970s and 1980s, dissidents were even more oppressed, often arrested and imprisoned. He also punished people who did not believe in adhering to the principles of Communism by forbidding them to get a higher education or not allowing them to travel abroad, for instance. Many people lost their jobs. The Communist Party kept track of the activities of all citizens, following them and persuading citizens to denounce each other. Czech and Slovak culture suffered horribly during Husák’s tenure.

Coincidentally, Husák had served time himself. He was imprisoned during World War II for promoting Communism, which was illegal at that time. Then in 1950, when the high-ranking Communists and others were purged, he was ordered to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Later, in 1963, Husák had been allowed to join the Communist Party again. He resigned November 24, 1989 when the Presidium of the Communist Party left their posts, defeated by democracy. Husák was expelled from the Communist Party in 1990 and died in 1991.

A telex from the 1980s

A telex from the 1980s

But I was not only thinking about the crimes of the Czechoslovak government during the dismal 1970s and 1980s. The old-fashioned tape recorder brought back memories of an entirely different nature. It reminded me of my own tape recorder, the one I used as a teenager to do interviews with members of the Washington Capitals, when I dreamed of becoming a journalist. What a different world I had lived in during the 1980s! And I had taken it as a given that my writing would not be censored.

While the hotel was never used as an anti-nuclear bunker, the Secret Police did take over the rooms during four decades, the guide reminded me. A large switchboard showed how they had set up a listening post to eavesdrop on hotel guests’ and employees’ conversations. During the 1970s, the Secret Police also had eavesdropped on conversations in West Germany’s embassy, then situated in the same building. A display case showed brushes for shoes and clothes and other items where the bugs in the hotel rooms had been placed.

An old telephone

An old telephone

The guide played a taped English conversation between a Czech resident of Prague and an Austrian who was in Prague to enjoy the city without his wife. The Austrian asked the Czech advice about where to find a prostitute, and the Czech told him he would have to pay in Western currency. I remembered the days of the early and mid-1990s, when Czechs had always wanted dollars rather than crowns. I had to pay my rent in dollars for several years. Since then the dollar had taken a turn for the worst, and the exchange rate was no longer 40 crowns to one dollar but rather around 19 crowns per dollar.

I thought about how paranoid I would have been if I could not speak openly in my own house. A former dissident whose house had been bugged once told me that the authorities had been able to listen in on his conversations, but they could never take away what he believed in his heart.

I was musing about that when the tour ended, and the guide led me back upstairs to the lobby. I walked onto the large square, relishing the beautiful feeling of freedom. I would go home to an apartment that was not bugged and would write an article that would not be censored. And for that I am forever thankful.

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


Gas masks

Gas masks