and I made a documentary about it, too

To make up for the recent influx of moronic personal details and unoriginal political ranting, here are a few excerpts from the project I did in Prague over the summer. It has pictures that go with it, but they are in the documentary in my brain. Perhaps I shall transfer them to the electronic format and grace you with them at a later date.

I think I titled my project something really terrible, like A MEMORY COME ALIVE/AS IF THE SHAME OF IT WOULD OUTLIVE HIM: Ghosts of Prague’s Fifth Quarter and the Great Sanitation of 1893. Eech. Such a title would only really work in a documentary. The study was in several parts (read: “It was summer and I didn’t want to slap together a sustained argument in six mere weeks”) and I had heartbreakingly little research material in that I barely speak Czech and had a really hard time finding sources in English or German. The professor working with me approved of me doing the project in an “informal voice,” so I decided to tackle this extremely academicky subject but write about it like I was doing an article for Glamour. The sad thing is that I plan to use this as a jumping-point for my thesis this year, so I’ll have to mine something serious from it. Perhaps making a documentary about it would help clear my mind? Well, now I’m just dawdling. Here’s part of it:

ON THE RARE days when the now-constant throng of foreign tourists disperses enough so that one may clearly see Prague’s grand Old Town Square, a strange detail emerges: all the streets that lead away from this, once the epicenter of the city’s oldest settlement, are winding, narrow medieval-style cobblestone affairs, lined on either side with two- or three-storey buildings sporting grand Baroque or Rococo facades over weight-baring arches, which themselves seem almost to hang over the lanes, to the point of creating semi-tunnels through the hectic Old Town. All streets, that is, but one: Pařiská, a wide, multilane boulevard lined on either side with luxury apartments and stores, making a clear path all the way to the Vltava River. The name is immediately apparent, as this self-consciously grand avenue, lined on either side with stunningly-preserved examples of early-20th Century urban architecture, immediately brings to mind Paris, both in mood and in content. Moreover, as if the arrow-straight abruptness of Paris Avenue weren’t jarring enough, all one has to do is turn a few corners before one is suddenly confronted by not one, two, or three, but six synagogues, some of them dating back almost a thousand years. And more: a graveyard the likes of which one has never seen, stacked two storeys above ground level and crammed overfull with crumbling Hebrew headstones, none of which is newer than five hundred years old. What of this bizarre neighborhood, with its placid, airy 1905 elegance butting up against what now looks like a collection of haphazard Jewish edifice-relics? How do these two worlds now exist so nonchalantly in the same neighborhood? And, possibly most importantly of all, does your average dopey tourist even notice, since nowadays even Art Deco is considered “old” and Neo-Baroque and Baroque are, after all, sort of hard to tell apart?

The answer, which itself brings about more questions than could possibly be answered in one lifetime, takes flight in a quote from a conversation some ninety years ago with the man now considered Prague’s favorite son, Franz Kafka. Though wholly unknown outside his circle of friends during his lifetime and banned in Czechoslovakia or unavailable in Czech for the better part of the 20th Century, the author now seems to have been Prague’s only resident ever. His gaunt, massive-eared mugshot now graces innumerable tchotchkes and t-shirts, and editions of his books are available in fifteen languages from the Franz Kafka Bookstore, located (of course) where his equally feared-and-loved father’s haberdashery once hawked its wares. His grave, marked by the only Cubist headstone in the otherwise-staid New Jewish Cemetery, receives hundreds of visitors a week and even has its own little sign showing first-time visitors where to find it. There are also at least two restaurants named after him, one on the site of his former birth house that seems to serve primarily pork (something the Jewish vegetarian probably would have found hilarious once he got over the shock of everything else contemporary Prague now boasts), and another just off Pařiská, which inhabits a building that more than likely spent Kafka’s entire lifetime in a perpetual state of construction. For between the years of 1893, a decade after Kafka’s birth, and 1915, eight years before his death, Prague’s “Jewish Quarter,” Josefov, was in the process of being rebuilt from the ground up. Of this process, whose din, racket and human-displacement results must have (literally) followed Kafka around for his entire life, Kafka once said to his friend Gustav Janouch:

The dark corners, mysterious little lanes, blind windows, filthy courtyards, noisy taverns and secluded bars still live within us. We walk along the broad streets of the new city but our gaze and steps are unsure…the insalubrious old ghetto is more real for us than our new hygienic surroundings. We walk around the city as if in a dream; we ourselves are only phenomena of the past. (Janouch, qtd in Kaplan 100)

Equally indicative of Kafka’s vivid imagination (as the old ghetto started being razed when he was ten) and his extraordinary sensitivity to the world around him, this quote is but one of innumerable instances in which the author seems preoccupied by place, either literally or figuratively, either being too stuck in one or not having one at all. One can’t help but deduce that the constant state of influx plaguing his neighborhood contributed to the constant state of unsettlement that permeated both his fiction and his letters and diaries. Early in his correspondence with first (and third) fiancée Felice Bauer, for instance, he frets over whether or not the letter will even reach her, as he’s unsure of her correct Berlin address. He writes:

And nothing is sadder than sending a letter to a doubtful address; that’s no letter, it’s more like a sigh. (Letters to Felice 14)

And even now, when the majority of the Jews in Josefov on any given day are foreign tourists, it is impossible not to feel just a little bit haunted by the ghost-streets of the old quarter. The troubling question is, of course: haunted by what?

TO FIND OUT, we must first go back a mere thousand years or so. Jewish settlement in Prague area recorded possibly as early as 10th Century. And if you want to read about it, look somewhere else because this part of my paper isn’t good enough for you to see. Sorry! Now, back to our regularly scheduled program:

After a mere six hundred years of intermittent persecution and forced isolation and dress customs, Habsburg Emperor Josef II (1741-90) granted Jews several basic liberties, including the inclusion in the learning of a limited amount of trades, the ownership of land, and the rights to serve in the army and practice their religion. In 1867, at which time approximately 8500 Jews and 115,000 Christians lived in Prague, Bohemia’s Jews were finally given full equality in the eyes of the law and were thus able to live wherever they chose. Those with the financial means left the ghetto immediately. Still, out of some sort of bizarre and ironic gratitude, the quarter, now only bound by the walls of socially-constructed stigma, was named Josefov, after the ruler who granted the Jews permission to move out of it as soon as they could.

Thus Josefov’s often neglected and cramped housing was left free for other stigmatized members of the populace—thieves, ladies of the night, drunks, ne’er-do-wells, et. al. By the 1890s, the district was considered by the city’s governing board to be a “festering sor” on an otherwise-prosperous city, plagued with poor sanitation that resulted in numerous disease epidemics and a general lack of hygiene that the quickly-modernizing rest of Prague was eager to leave behind. Thus, after a series of sometimes-confounding decisions by the city bureaucrats that will be discussed in much greater detail later on, the decision was made that the former ghetto in its entirety (save a handful of sacred sites), all 365,000 square meters of it, should be razed. A new quarter would then be rebuilt, but with splendid and extravagant avenues built in the burgeoning and decidedly bourgeois styles of turn-of-the-century Europe: Art Deco, Art Nouveaux, Secession, Rationalist, and of course those two bizarrely playful and equally queasy anachronistic throwbacks, Neo-Gothic and Neo-Baroque. This so-called “great sanitation,” a contestable translation of the Czech word asanace, was carried out in the dual names of hygiene and commerce, two concepts which carry weighty and controversial connotations with the Jewish people, who themselves had already fled the area but whose places of worship and millennium-long history was still inextricably tied to the dank lanes and archaic little houses.

Ugh. I can’t put any more of this up here for now. Maybe later. Enjoy. (or not)

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