by Eric Damiana
At the beginning of September, a group of eight students and one UW professor descended on Prague, Czech Republic. We stayed for three weeks, taking intensive language courses and enjoying daily cultural and academic excursions in and around Prague. The first few days were, as with any trip abroad, exhausting and trying, but Professor Jaroslava Soldánová was quick to get us back on our feet. The Fall Exploration Seminar was a resounding success in every way: the language and cultural components were comprehensive, and the program’s organization was stellar. We went into the program with only one or two years of Czech language study with varying grasps on central and east European history and returned with increased confidence in our language capabilities and deeper insight into this region.The cultural component of the program covered everything from museums and churches to political and film lectures to a Jewish ghetto from World War II. The wide-ranging cultural component gave us the opportunity to capture the “big picture” of the Czech Republic, past and present.
One afternoon after class we were slated to watch a Czech film and speak with notable film journalist, Vojtěch Rynda. The film, “Eighty Letters” (Osmdesát dopisů) by Václav Kadrnka, explores life under Czech communism through the eyes of a teenager, autobiographical from the director’s life. His father had illegally – from the stance of the then-communist Czechoslovak government – emigrated to London, while he and his mother remained behind and attempted to wade their way through the nightmarish bureaucracy to rejoin his father abroad. There was very little dialogue in the film, so much of the narrative and symbolism was represented through the cinematography, imagery and the actors’ body language. We met with Rynda at a nearby pub after the movie showing and he brought Kadrnka himself to speak with us. Kadrndka spoke at length about the meaning behind the film, why he filmed it using certain methods and the difficulties he faced during and after film production. The camera lingers on certain shots long after a character has left the frame and the stillness of shots gives the audience a view of what remains behind long after the action has passed. Kadrnka never received grants from the government despite the success of the film and despite its unbelievably low budget.
Our group also had the opportunity to tour and hear a lecture at the Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFL/RL) headquarters in Prague. Security was impressive and lengthy, as we learned later, RFE/RL has received threats in the past. Despite this, everyone was exceedingly polite and the entire experience was more bemusing than intimidating. Once inside, we met with one of the regional directors who discussed the organization’s global efforts today. While many people in the United States are under the impression that Radio Free Europe all but ended after the collapse of communism in eastern and central Europe, Congress still funds this organization, whose stated purpose is to provide free media in countries where there is no free media. RFL/RL reports in 21 countries and in 28 languages, but this does not mean they do not still face challenges. Just recently the office for Radio Svoboda in Moscow was shut down and only a handful of affiliated journalists remain in Russia. Our visit was at once somber and enlightening. Everyone in our group walked away with something to ponder.
We also took several excursions outside of Prague. We visited Kutná Hora, which was a mining town during the Middle Ages and produced half of the silver in Europe before the colonization of the Americas. The highlight of this trip was not the mines, but the Sedlec Ossuary. An ossuary is a chapel built to store the bones of the deceased once a church’s graveyard filled. Graves were emptied to make room for the newly deceased and the bones were deposited in the chapel. This particular ossuary is notable because monks constructed all of the art and decoration in the chapel from human bones as a message of mortality. There are an estimated 40,000 people stored in this ossuary, many of whom died of the plague. Should you decide to make a pilgrimage to this site, do so during the winter when the majority of the tourists are in hibernation.
Castle Karlštejn, situated on a high hill outside of Prague, was also on our agenda. This castle was the site of a few battles, most notably during the Hussite Wars when the Hussite attackers employed biological warfare against the castle. Not only did they lob carcasses and feces over the walls, but they also attempted to infect the water supply, but failed thanks to the carefully guarded secret of the well tower. The well tower drew water from a nearby stream, although most people at the time believed it was connected to an underground water source. The castle itself underwent major restoration efforts after the overthrow of communism in Czechoslovakia and our guide showed us several parts of the castle that were deliberately not restored to show the damage that careless visitors can cause over time. The Chapel of the Holy Cross, which has restricted access, was the starkest example of this. The walls and ceiling were covered with gold leaf, scores of saints’ portraits lined the chapel and hundreds of small mirrors were affixed to the ceiling to emulate the sky at nighttime. One alcove of the chapel was not restored. It was, in a word, hideous. There were only flecks of gold leaf clinging to the stone, the mirrors were shattered and some of the portraits pilfered.
Our countryside excursions were not limited to medieval landmarks but also included sites of modern tragedies. We visited the settlement of Terezín, which is a fortress and a small garrison town that the Austro-Hungarians built in the 18th century as a defense against Prussia. Later, it was turned into a prison and held captive Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, Gavrilo Princip. More infamously, during Hitler’s occupation of the Czech lands, the Nazis turned Terezín into a ghetto and the fortress into a concentration camp. A week later, our group was fortunate enough to meet Dita Kraus, a survivor of the Terezín concentration camp. No amount of reading or even visiting sites of such horror is comparable to hearing first-hand accounts from a survivor.
These outings are just a glimpse into our three weeks in Prague. The schedule was diverse and our learning experience incorporated lectures with a hands-on approach to learning as well as first-hand accounts of history-making events. Soldánová’s efforts were integral for this program’s success. Her motivation and enthusiasm kept everything running smoothly, and her connections in the Czech Republic added a lot to the trip that would otherwise be closed to outsiders. We can only hope that incoming students will be able to participate in this program in the future!
Eric Damiana (MAIS 2012) received his Bachelor’s in Russian Language and Literature from Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. He is now a Master’s candidate in the REECAS program, and the editor of this newsletter. You may reach him at email@example.com.