Johan and I got married and went on honeymoon in Prague. Initially I thought we’d do some ancestor hunting for me. As far as I’ve researched (back into early 1800s), my family came from Bohemia – later Czechoslovakia. Then we decided no work, no war, and no genealogy. We would only be dreamy honeymooners exploring the city. However we always go with the flow and see what shows up. On our second day in Prague we stumbled upon a brochure for the tour company World War II in Prague. The brochure was exciting and well done. All you had to do was show up at the tour meeting place at the time you wished to go and pay there. How does it get any better than that?
On a rainy Sunday morning at 10:00 at the Powder Tower (just down the street from our hotel,) we met Hannah, our tour guide. There was a small group of less than 10 people which was perfect for asking questions. Our tour started at the Powder Tower and Hannah showed us a map of Czechoslovakia and the surrounding countries from 1938. She began telling us stories of how the annexation occurred and what happened to the Czech people, especially those in Prague.
After a serious history lesson about Czechoslovakia and its importance to Hitler’s war plans, we began walking to the Old Town Square where the Nazis rolled through Prague and began taking over. As we walked, Hannah stopped and pointed out different war memorials on the buildings, especially those for the resistance. Those in the resistance greeted each other with a specific hand signal, as seen in the memorials. Most of the signs we saw, with or without the hand on them, contained names of those who died in Prague fighting for freedom, many on the last days of the war as the Germans were killing everyone they could in an attempt to save themselves.
Our tour included a visit to the underground where the resistance met and many families whose houses had been destroyed, fled during the occupation. The underground took us two layers below the current Prague street level. The first level was the Gothic cellar. The second, the Roman cellar, beneath the Old Town Hall. Prague has a series of connected cellars which made it difficult for the Germans to know how many resistance members there were at one time. We had eaten the night before in Roman cellars and I had no idea then of their significance.
In the cellars I could feel the people who had once been there. Perhaps from the war and perhaps from other times. So many were silenced I discovered as I felt that energy in my throat. Others gave up their power willingly or unwillingly and were full of fear, as I felt that energy in my solar plexus. I could almost see and hear the mothers with crying children in the cellars. See the people wandering with lost looks on their faces. And the sick and dying. There were moments I wasn’t sure I could stand any longer in certain areas of the cellar due to the energy coming up. So many souls asking for peace and to be remembered.
After the Old Town Hall cellars, we walked through more of Prague toward the river. We learned the story of Heydrich’s assassination and the role of the resistance in that attempt. Hannah had photos from the war and showed them each step of the tour. We were able to have a “then and now” visual of what happened. You can see many of these photos on the tour company’s website.
We stopped in front of a building where Franz Kafka lived, which was the Gestapo Headquarters. Across the street from this was the building, which is still standing, which had radio transmitters on the roof for the resistance to use.
Prior to the end of our tour, we walked through the Jewish Quarter and learned more about the fate of the Jews in Prague. We learned how they worked with the resistance to stall production and fight the Nazis. We saw several monument stones on buildings for Jews who died, and the Stolpersteine in the sidewalks. I’ve seen more of these in Amsterdam than I did in Prague. Prague did not have a huge Jewish population during the war, but many were shipped to camps. It is interesting there are not more Stolpersteine. Our final stop was near the SS Headquarters, which was housed in the now Charles University Law Faculty building.
The tour took about two hours and our heads were filled with so much information that I asked Johan to start writing some of the highlights down as soon as we found a place for lunch. I learned so much about Czechoslovakia during the war. I’m interested in learning more, especially about the resistance and the people who lived there during the occupation.
The tour made me wonder about my own family who never emigrated to the U.S., specifically Chicago. Why did some choose to leave between 1865-1925? Why did other stay? Was there family still living near Prague during the war? My Tregler line lived not far from Prague in 1925. What about the families who lived in the country? What was life like for them? I wonder now too if any of my grandparents kept in touch with anyone in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s and beyond. They are all gone so I cannot ask.
So many questions and no answers. However, the next thing I can do is hire a Czech researcher to look over what has been done and see what else can be found. Then arrange for a guide or the researcher to take me to the places my families lived on another trip. To walk in their footsteps as I’ve walked in the footsteps of my WWI and WWII family members in Europe. What answers await me? What new discoveries? What healing will take place?
Have you ever taken a tour in Europe unrelated to your family that left you with a million questions?
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