A Literary Walking Tour
By Marylin Bender
“And yet Kafka was Prague and Prague was Kafka. Never had it been Prague so perfectly, so typically, as during Kafka’s lifetime, and never would it be so again. And we, his friends, ‘the happy few’…we knew that the smallest elements of this Prague were distilled everywhere in Kafka’s work.”
(Johannes Urzidil in The World of Franz Kafka.)
My first visit to Prague was in 1963, when the city was sequestered behind what Winston Churchill had defined as the Iron Curtain. The Gothic spires and Baroque domes that give the skyline its fairyland aura were masked with a brown haze of industrial pollution; grim-faced men in Marxist gray raincoats stalked through the streets. Did I imagine the shade of Franz Kafka lurking at every corner?
For most of his life, Prague had been the third center, behind Vienna and Budapest, of the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire. In its golden age, centuries ago, the city was capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia.
When I returned in the last year of the 20th century, exactly one decade after “the Velvet Revolution” of 1989, Prague had become the capital of a new Czech Republic, thrashing about in a joyful chaos of capitalist free-thinking. Suddenly the claims of more optimistic Kafka contemporaries like Hans Kohn, the historian of nationalism, were once again credible.
“Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe,” Kohn asserted in his memoir Living in a World Revolution: My Encounters with History. Recalling his youth before World War I, he declared that the Moldau River (the Vltava since German names were changed to Czech) was “more intimately a part of this lovely capital than is the Danube in Vienna, the Tiber in Rome, or the Thames in London.” Moreover, the views it affords are lovelier than the Seine’s in Paris, at least in his view.
Today’s street scene is lively and young, in many parts a Disney-land. Kafka has become the ubiquitous icon. His melancholy portrait is inescapable, adorning T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, shopping bags, puppets and above all, graffiti. Franz Kafka, successor to Mickey Mouse.
If it seems peculiar to have a neurotic and opaque author as the emblem of Prague’s post-Communist rebirth, consider that during the nation’s 40 years as a Soviet satellite Kafka’s work was scorned if not suppressed, his nightmare satires a dangerous reminder of totalitarian mentality. And who was chosen to be president of the new democratic republic but Vaclav Havel, an absurdist playwright who had been imprisoned for his dissident activities.
A sense of the absurd is inherent in Czech humor and Kafka a master of the form. Among the persistent ironies in Prague are the busloads of tourists, often as not Germans, descending upon the old ghetto of Kafka’s birthplace where Hitler had planned to establish a museum dedicated to the Jews he had arranged to become extinct. Fewer than 1,500 Jews live in today’s Prague compared with 26,000 in 1900.
Situated at the very center of Europe-the bellybutton according to jocular natives-Prague is a city of Slavs oriented toward the west. Layers of a thousand-year history are visible in its architecture–Romanesque, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-classic and effusive Art Nouveau. Even in its 21st century reincarnation it remains a spooky place, the heritage of Praga Magica surging from ancient labyrinths and alleys. “This city wears a tragic mask,” says the Meissen collector in Bruce Chatwin’s novel Utz.
Kafka represents Prague’s role in European Modernism. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, artists and writers in Paris, Berlin, and Vienna were breaking with the past, “seceding” from the worlds in which they had been raised. This determination to forge “a new art” erupted among a minority known as the Prague Germans. For the most part a class of prosperous aristocrats and business people speaking the mother tongue of their Austrian monarchs, they were separated from the Czech majority in German-language schools and culture. The writers in this circle were predominantly, though not exclusively, Jewish.
Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, into a middle-class Jewish family. His father Hermann was a merchant of men’s haberdashery, his mother Julie Lowy the daughter of a beer distributor. The family name was a variation of the Czech word for jackdaw-kavka-an exception to the emancipation rules promulgated by Emperor Joseph II in 1787. In exchange for the lifting of economic and social restrictions, Jews were to take German names and conduct their business only in German. Kafka’s parents were bowing in the direction of Emperor Franz Joseph when they gave him the name Franz.
In The World of Franz Kafka, Sheila Stern observes that “Prague is not mentioned in any of Franz Kafka’s major stories, yet it is the clearly implied location of most of them.” Streets and buildings are anonymous while his characters are drawn expressionistically. Joseph K. of The Trial and K. of The Castle lack contextual background and are confronted by blank-faced tormentors. But the settings of his stories match descriptions in his diaries and letters and identifications given by his biographers.
Gustave Janouch, an acolyte in Kafka’s last years, testified that “Kafka loved the streets, palaces, gardens and churches of the city where he was born” and was exceptionally well-informed on its architectural complexities.
In his letters and diaries Kafka expressed ambivalence about Prague. His was a love-hate relationship with the city akin to that of his slightly older coeval Rainer Maria Rilke (a Prague German Christian) and of James Joyce with Dublin. They knew they had to go into exile in order to write. Rilke and Joyce succeeded. Though Kafka decamped for Berlin and Vienna several times, he always returned–not just to Prague but to the suffocating ambience of his parents’ apartment.
Germans, both Jewish and Christian, were effectively eliminated from Prague after 1939 and even before that Czech nationalism overrode German language and culture. Street signs and maps are written in Czech. This may baffle a literary pilgrim using as reference the German names in Kafka’s own writing and his biographers’. I initially tore my hair out searching on a map for Wenceslas Square in the very heart of Prague only to discover it is now Vaclavske namesti (in Kafka’s time Wenzelsplatz.) In the walking tours I am proposing, names are given in English and Czech with German in parentheses. I ask pilgrims to trust me.
Old Town (Stare Mesto) and the Jewish Quarter
“Within this little circle, my whole life is contained.”
(Franz Kafka, looking out from his room on Old Town Square.)
Kafka was born, educated, and resided most of his life within the borders of Old Town.
This first district of Prague was settled by merchants in the 12th century at the intersection of an east-west trade route and after receiving its charter from King Wenceslas I in 1230 was fortified behind a double wall and a moat. Throughout centuries of radical change, its commercial character has been leavened by mystical and romantic happenings.
To get into the mood of this excursion, let us follow in Franz Kafka’s footsteps. We will begin at the Powder Tower (Prasna Brana) near the Metro station. It is late afternoon in, let’s say 1908; a short, hunchback youth is waiting for another university graduate to join him after work for an evening of earnest conversation. His name is Max Brod and though he is not aware of it yet, his life will be marked by dedication to immortalizing the friend’s literary genius. Soon a skinny six-foot figure appears and Brod and Franz Kafka set off. They duck into U Celetna (Zeltnergasse in those days) a medieval street in which the Kafka family lived for many years but has since departed for grander quarters.
Celetna ends in Old Town Square (Staromestske nam.) or Altstadter Ring to Kafka and Brod, an ancient marketplace instantly recognized by its massive monument to Jan Hus. A preacher whose radical ideas (including the use of the Czech language for prayer) predated the Protestant Reformation by a century, Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415.
Five hundred years later, Kafka witnessed the unveiling of the monument which co-existed awkwardly for several years with a Madonna of the Counter-Reformation in the center of the square. After the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy in 1918, the statue was taken down to give Jan Hus his proper space. For the Czechs, he is an enduring symbol of moral heroism.
We can part company with Brod and Kafka for a while to take in the contemporary scene in the square. The Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) described it in Total Fears, a memoir of his last years.
“…Dubenka, I couldn’t help remembering our Old Town Square in Prague, that monument to Jan Hus, which ever since the Velvet Revolution has been crawling with young people, all over the steps, even on the plinth, anywhere you can sit, you find these young people, Master Jan Hus has rock groups in front of him, young people sitting on the steps writing postcards and greetings from Prague on their knees, even quite tiny children under the eyes of their parents scrambling up under the auspices of various gaunt ascetic mystics, who ushered our nation into a new era in the name of their revered Master, this monument was a kind of promissory note, redeemable only during the Velvet Revolution, when Rafael Kubelik conducted his symphony orchestra in Smetana’s Ma Vlast…”
Given that Kafka made the remark about the circularity of his life from the third floor of Oppelt House (Oppelthaus), an apartment building at the north end of the square (then 6 Altstadter Ring), we might take the Hus Monument as a compass point to get our bearings.
Through his window Kafka looked across Parizska to the gleaming white façade of the 14th century St. Nicholas Church (kostel sv. Mikulase.) Currently a Czech Hussite house of worship and a concert hall, it is also a conduit to the first Kafka shrine. The writer was born in a tenement at the rear of the church at the corner of Kaprova and Maiselova streets, the southernmost point of the old Jewish ghetto (Josefstadt.) The building was pulled down a century ago,when the slum area vanished as part of an urban renewal project. The door was implanted in an ugly successor structure. Kafka graffiti on its yellow walls, and a Kafka exhibition hall commemorate the site at U Radnice 5.
Due south of the church is Old Town Hall (Staromestska radnice,) an agglomeration of Gothic and Renaissance buildings with an Astronomical Clock in its tower. Every hour on the hour two small windows above the dial open and a procession of the 12 Apostles appears, marching under the direction of a skeletal figure of Death. Grotesque figures representing a Turk, Vanity, and Greed in the guise of a medieval Jewish moneylender complete the chilling stereotypes.
To the left of the main door of Old Town Hall, marking the boundary between Old Town Square and the Little Square (Male nam.) is the House at the Minute (Haus Minuta,) Kafka’s childhood home from 1889-96. An example of Bohemian Renaissance laid on top of earlier Gothic, its two-tone frescoes of classical and biblical themes-sgraffito–show the strong Italian influence in Prague design of the 17th century.
From the inner courtyard apartment balconies are visible. In Letter to His Father, a document of cringing resentment on the part of a 36-year-old son, Kafka recalled being carried out in his nightgown to the pavlatch or balcony of the family apartment and left outside a locked door. Presumably, Hermann Kafka hoped to curb little Franz’s habit of disturbing his parents’ sleep with whining demands for water.
“I subsequently became a rather obedient child but I suffered inner damage as a result…I kept being haunted by fantasies of this giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge, coming to get me in the middle of the night, and for almost no reason at all dragging me out of bed onto the pavlatch-in other words, that as far as he was concerned, I was an absolute Nothing.”
In a letter to Milena Jesenka, one of the woman he loved, mostly by mail, Kafka described being forcibly escorted from Haus Minuta to elementary school by the cook. “…small, dessicated, thin, with pointed nose, hollow cheeks, yellowish but firm, resolute and superior…” she dragged Franz through Old Town Square past the
Church of Our Lady before Tyn (kostel Panny Marie Pred Tynem) and into Masna (Fleischmarkt) navigating the balky child past butcher stalls and a Czech grammar school to The German National and Civic Elementary School (Deutsche Knabenvolksschule.) An apartment house stands in place of the German school.
Kafka’s high school years present a marginally happier prospect. The German National Humanistic Gymnasium (Altstadter Gymnasium,) the elite secondary school attended by Kafka from 1893 to 1901, occupied the second floor of the Goltz-Kinsky Palace (Palac Golz-Kinskych,) a Baroque pink and white confection of a building on the east side of Old Town Square. Among his classmates was Max Brod, also a budding writer who would become Kafka’s lifelong friend.
In 1912, Hermann Kafka moved his wholesale haberdashery business to a store on the ground floor. Freshly scrubbed in May 1999 as if to erase its grimmest memory -in February 1948 Klement Gottwald proclaimed Czechoslovakia’s first Communist state from the balcony-the palace now houses an art gallery and in place of Hermann Kafka, Galanteriewaren en gros, the Franz Kafka Bookstore, a thriving source for Czech literature including English translations.
Now turn and face the southern side of Old Town Square, a wall of houses with picturesque facades built over Gothic and Romanesque cellars. Some have been converted to restaurants and nightclubs.
Number 18 Old Town Square at the corner of Celetna is named The Unicorn (U Jednorozce ); its place in Prague’s cultural lore rests on the pharmacy of the same name owned by Otto Fanta at that address and the salon his wife Berta conducted on Tuesday evenings in their apartment on the first floor. These gatherings which seem to have been the radical chic of pre-World War I Central Europe debated Kant and Nietzsche, dabbled in theosophy and the occult. Habitués included Albert Einstein, then teaching at Prague University, Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher who defined himself as an anthroposophist, and younger intellectuals like Max Brod and Franz Werfel. Kafka participated occasionally.
Around the corner from the Unicorn in Celetna, the Kafka family lived at Number 3, “At the Three Kings,” from 1896 to 1907 while Franz was attending gymnasium and then the German section of Prague University in the next street, Zelezna (Eisengasse.) His room on the first floor gave out on the street, a benefit he set forth in The Street Window, one of his earliest literary fragments. As he recalled in a 1920 letter to Milena Jesenska, the window served as the vehicle for his first guilt-ridden sexual encounter with a prostitute.
“I remember the first night. We were living at the time in Celetna Street, across from a dress shop, where a shopgirl always used to stand in the door. There I was in my room, just a little past my twentieth birthday, incessantly passing back and forth, busy cramming for the first State Boards…(by trying to memorize material that made no sense to me whatsoever.) It was summer, very hot at the time, altogether unbearable. I kept stopping at the window, the disgusting Roman law clenched between my teeth, and finally we managed to communicate by sign language…”
Let us turn around again facing the north side of Old Town Square and head for Parizska (Paris Street in English) which cuts between St. Nicholas Church and Oppelt House. Parizska has become the rue St. Honoré of Prague, lined with boutiques of high fashion provenance like Hermès, Ferragamo and Christian Dior and a swifly changing roster of trendy cafés.
When Kafka was a boy, the street was called Niklasstrasse and it was smack in the midst of the old Jewish ghetto which was being cleansed of its fetid slums to make way for middle-class apartment houses.
All that remained were the Jewish Town Hall, a few synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery now organized as the Jewish Museum in Prague (Zidovske Muzeum Praha). [A ticket purchased at the box office on U Stareho hrbitova for $13 gains admission to four synagogues, one a museum dedicated to Czech Jewish victims of the Nazis, the cemetery and an exhibition hall.] That these buildings survived the German occupation is a Kafka-esque twist of history. While ridding Prague of its Jewish citizens, Hitler planned to establish a Museum of Extinct Jewry in the old ghetto. He succeeded only by half.
Midway on Parizska, to the left, the back wall of a strange low building with a stepped gable recognized as early Bohemian Gothic comes into view. This is the Old-New Synagogue/ Staronova synagoga (Altneuschul,) the oldest functioning Jewish house of worship in Europe, constructed in the 13th century with the help of monks from a nearby church. Among the intriguing features of the interior are its five-ribbed vault, the carvings above the Ark and the entrance portal, and the historical banner of the Prague Jewish community granted by the Hapsburg monarchs. Visitors are permitted at the early morning services which are usually held somewhat short of the requisite 10 men. Women are restricted from entering the nave and can only observe the ritual through slots in the wall of the vestibule.
Attending Yom Kippur services at the synagogue in October 1911, Kafka was struck by its “churchly inside” and the “suppressed murmur of the stock market” which accompanied the Kol Nidre, the opening prayer on the Day of Atonement. “…the words are not really, or chiefly sung, but behind them arabesque-like melodies are heard that spin out the words as fine as hairs.”
Though the Kafkas were nominally observant Jews, they had lived through two pogroms and other anti-Semitic outbursts. Bohumil Hrabal in Total Fears refers to an account in Kafka’s notebooks in which Franz watched helplessly as his father was taken away at dinner time by a stranger. Hermann Kafka returned unharmed but Hrabal believed that the episode inspired the son’s novel The Trial.
While at the gymnasium Kafka began to be interested in the Zionist movement and to fathom the meaning of Jewish identity. In the years before his death he was studying Hebrew and thinking of migrating to Palestine.
In Conversations with Kafka, Gustav Janouch reported that when they were passing the Altneuschul one day, the writer noted that “the synagogue already lies below ground level. But men will go further. They will try to grind the synagogue to dust by destroying the Jews themselves.”
The Altneuschul is linked to the most famous Jew of 17th century Prague, Rabbi Jehudah Loew. According to legend, the scholarly rabbi created the Golem or robot man of magical powers which would be adapted by later writers of terror fiction from Mary Shelley to Gustav Meyrink and Karel Capek. As Bruce Chatwin recounts in his novel Utz, the Golem’s remains were stored after his downfall in the eaves of the Altneuschul. The rabbi is buried nearby in the Old Jewish Cemetery (Stary Zidovsky Hrbitov.)
Chatwin’s Kaspar Utz lived at 5 Siroka overlooking the burial ground.
“It was now early evening and we were sitting on a slatted seat in the Old Jewish Cemetery. Pigeons were burbling on the roof of the Klausen Synagogue. The sunbeams, falling through sycamores, lit up spirals of midges and landed on the mossy tombstones, which, heaped one upon the other, resembled seaweed-covered rocks at low-tide. To our right, a party of American Hasids-pale, short-sighted youths in yarmulkes-were laying pebbles on the tomb of the Great Rabbi Loew. They posed for a photograph, with their backs to its scrolling headstone.”
In fact, the best time for a spiritual experience at the cemetery is when the gate opens at 9 A.M. before the tourist hordes arrive. Mist still floats over the cluttered graves and the screech of black birds (kavkas, no doubt) is heard through the branches of the trees as the visitor peers to decipher the markings on the stones. Opened palms for a cohen or priestly family, a pair of scissors for a tailor, a lion for Rabbi Loew.
Leaving the cemetery by its exit gate walk straight ahead to regain Parizska. Turn left toward the river. Ahead on the right is the Hotel Praha-Intercontinental. In June 1907, the Kafka family’s fortunes had improved sufficiently to enable a move from Celetna to “At The Ship,” one of the new apartment houses in the ghetto redevelopment on that site. The address then was 36 Niklasstrasse.
Their apartment on the top floor had a view of the river including the Civilian Swimming Pool which Franz joined, and the Belvedere gardens (now Letna) on the opposite bank. The Cech Bridge (Cechuv most) was under construction. In his room, Kafka endured bouts of depression-“I’ve dubbed [the street where I live] ‘a launching ramp for suicides’ because it leads to the river, where they are now building a bridge’” he wrote to Hedwig Weiler, the object of a brief romance—and also bursts of literary accomplishment. He would struggle for years with his first novel Amerika but in September 1912 he wrote the story The Judgment in a marathon eight hours.
In the story, Georg Bendemann, a young merchant engaged in a conflict with his father as hideous as the relentless duel of the Kafkas, is sentenced by the old man to death by drowning.
“Georg felt himself urged from the room, the crash with which his father fell on the bed behind him was still in his ears as he fled…Out of the front door he rushed, across the roadway, driven toward the water. Already he was grasping at the railings as a starving man clutches food…With weakening grip he was still holding on when he spied between the railings a motor-bus coming which would easily cover the noise of his fall, called in a low voice: ‘Dear parents, I have always loved you, all the same,’ and let himself drop.
“At this moment, an unending stream of traffic was just going over the bridge.”
From the rooftop restaurant of the hotel, one can reconstruct the entire scene.
In November and December of the same year, Kafka began writing The Metamorphosis, the story in which Greg Samsa, a traveling salesman, is transformed into an insect. Samsa’s bedroom, like Kafka’s, could be entered only through the rooms of other family members, an architectural deficiency typical of Prague housing of that era and one which precluded privacy.
In November 1913, with the two older of their three daughters married and in their own homes, the Kafkas moved again to a new building, the Oppelthaus on Old Town Square across from St. Nicholas Church which we have already seen. By the following summer Franz was forced to leave the parental nest for the first time at the age of 31. In the outbreak of World War I, his sister Valli’s husband had been called to service in the Austro-Hungarian army and she and her children took over Franz’s space in the Kafka home. He moved to an apartment in her building at 22 Bilkova (then Bilekgasse), two streets south of the family’s former apartment on the river.
Here Kafka began work on The Trial. But he was troubled by noise from the neighbors and with his lot as an unmarried man. He had broken up with his fiancée Felice Bauer. In the story Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor, he registered his dismay.
“One evening Blumfeld, an elderly bachelor, was climbing up to his apartment-a laborious undertaking, for he lived on the sixth floor. While climbing up he thought, as he had so often recently how unpleasant his utterly lonely life was:…”
During the next four years, Kafka changed residences several times, tried living in Berlin and Vienna and was confined to various sanatoriums until he returned to the bosom of his family at Oppelthaus which we can revisit by walking back along Parizska. Here he wrote chapters of his last novel The Castle and several stories including the final Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.
Cross Old Town Square to the south side and leave by Zelezna Street. At Number 9 is the Karolinum where Kafka received his doctor of law degree from the University in June 1906.
Across the street on Ovocny trh is the 18th century green and white neo-classical Estates Theater (Stavonske divadlo), a temple of Mozart worship. Here Mozart conducted the first performance of Don Giovanni in October 1787. Milos Forman filmed part of his Amadeus in the opera hall.
Let’s head back toward the Powder Tower, the starting point for this walk. Just beyond it is the most significant landmark of 20th century Prague, the Municipal House (Obecni Dum.) Constructed between 1906 and 1912 on the site of the medieval palace of the Royal Court, the civic center exemplifies the flowering of Czech Secessionist or Art Nouveau style, the parallel development to Kafka’s literary Modernism. Visitors who think they have seen the best of this style in Vienna are bowled over by Alfons Mucha’s paintings in the Mayor’s Salon. Kafka attended a lecture at the center by a Czech politican on working conditions in the United States while Amerika was in gestation.
We have completed a circle of Old Town.
New Town / Nove Mesto
“All the legends and songs that came to birth in that city are filled with longing for a prophesied day when the city would be destroyed by five successive blows from a gigantic fist. It is for that reason too that the city has a closed fist on its coat of arms.” (The City Coat of Arms by Franz Kafka.)
Though one might never guess it from his writing which cries of alienation, Franz Kafka was fairly gregarious. To Max Brod, his lifelong friend and dedicated promoter of his work, he was “…one of the most amusing of men I ever met.” Despite tortured relations with his parents and female companions and suffering from the rebellious digestive system of a hypochondriac, Kafka earned respect for his work as an analyst of industrial accidents for a major insurance company. He made loyal friends in the Prague Circle of German-acculturated artists and intellectuals who hung out mainly in cafés and coffeehouses and he enjoyed the city’s leisure attractions from theater to sports.
Most of the theaters and cafés he frequented were situated in New Town which had been laid out as a market center in 1348 by Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, in the contiguous area south and east of Old Town. The borderline is Na Prikope, in Kafka’s time am Graben or The Moat, an avenue for fin de siècle promenading. It begins at the Powder Tower (see Walk 1) and continues above the old fortifications toward the river.
For 14 years starting in 1908, Kafka reported for work at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague, a massive structure at Number 7 Na Porici, one of the streets radiating from behind the Powder Tower.
Café Arco (Kavarna Arco), a favorite of the Prague Circle, was at Number 16 Hybernska (Hibernergasse), another street emanating from the Powder Tower. Café Continental at 17 am Graben (Na Prikope) was the largest of the coffeehouses, boasting of 250 newspapers and gaming rooms for playing cards and billiards. In a 1909 letter to his friend Oskar Baum, Kafka discloses that “I’m writing it at the Kontinental, the first quiet place I found.”
To the left at the end of Na Prikope we come to Wenceslas Square/ Vaclavske namesti (Wenzelsplatz to Kafka,) at the core of New Town. Originally the medieval Horse Market, the square is ringed with hotels and other tourist-centric businesses and has been the venue for marking the most important political turns in the country’s violent history. Whatever happens is commemorated at the foot of the statue of St. Wenceslas on his horse in front of the National Museum/ Narodni Muzeum at the base of the square. In October 1918, the Hapsburg monarchy collapsed at the end of World War I and a new Czechoslovak Republic chose Prague as its capital only to be crushed 21 years later with the appearance of German tanks in Wenceslas Square. In 1968, the tanks were of Soviet make and their presence extinguished the hopeful “Prague Spring” under Alexander Dubcek. Several months later, Jan Palach, a student, burned himself to death in protest by the fountain of the Museum. It took another two decades before Dubcek and Vaclav Havel, the new Czech president, were able to celebrate independence at the square.
To the right of the Museum at Wilsonova is the State Opera/ Statni opera. Kafka knew the neo-Renaissance pile as the Neue Deutsche or New German Theater built in 1888 in competition with the Czech National Theater (Narodni divadlo) on Vltava embankment. A theater buff with failed aspirations as a dramatist, Kafka saw plays by Schnitzler, Hauptmann and Ibsen at the Neue Deutsche Theater.
Turning back and moving from the equestrian St. Wenceslas toward the top of the square, we must stop at the Grand Hotel Europa at Vaclavske nam. 29. Built in 1904, it has survived with its dazzling Art Nouveau decorations intact inside and out. In Kafka’s day, it was the Hotel Erzherzog Stefan. On the second floor of the caf´ in December 1912, Kafka read his newly composed The Judgment to an appreciative audience of the Herder Association.
Five years before, he had taken his first poorly-paying job at Assicurazioni Generali, the Trieste-based insurance company. The long hours and bureaucratic pressure unnerved him and after nine months he quit. The Prague Baroque-style building still stands at the corner of Jindrisska.
Across from the Europa at 36 Vodickova (Wassergasse) is the Lucerna, a movie palace cum cabaret. Here Kafka and his friends saw the best acts performing throughout the Austrian Empire as well as new films. Jazz and cinema festivals are held at the Lucerna.
Having completed the tour of Wenceslas Square, we turn left into Narodni (formerly Ferdinandstrasse,) the extension of Na Prikope. The Reading and Debating Club of German Students, a vital university group to which Kafka and Brod belonged, met at Number 12, a building long since gone. Members wore the black, gold and red badges commemorating Prague’s role in the revolt of 1848 against iron rule from Vienna. Kafka and Brod also participated in the fortnightly meetings at Café Louvre at 20 Ferdinandstrasse to debate the philosophy of Franz Brentano, a pioneer in establishing psychology as a science.
Further along at Narodni 2 opposite the National Theater, the Café Slavia was the gathering place of Prague German artists and writers whom Rainer Maria Rilke satirized in King Bohush, one of his Two Stories of Prague written in 1899. Rilke changed the name of the café as the story begins but its identity is unmistakable.
“When the great actor Norinski entered the National Café, which is located in front of Prague’s Czech Theater, at three o’clock in the afternoon, he started a little__but then immediately smiled his most disdainful smile.”
The National Theater looms across the street overlooking the Vltava at Legii most (Legions Bridge or Kaiser Franz Brucke) now as much a symbol of Czech national revival as when it opened in 1883 with a performance of Bedrich Smetana’s opera Libusse.
Kafka was keenly interested in Czech literature, and unlike many Prague Germans was familiar enough with the language to have enjoyed performances of new plays at the theater.
The drama that would provide him with an epiphany was performed on the other side of the Kaiser Franz Brucke in Mala Strana, the section on the next walk. At the Café Savoy in Vitezna street in the fall of 1911, Kafka was awakened to the East European Jewish culture so denigrated by their German-oriented brethren. A Yiddish-speaking troop of actors from Poland was putting on plays at the Savoy.
According to his biographer Ernest Pawel, “Their artistry was minimal, their lives a sequence of miserable improvisations but what they brought him were the first authentic glimpses of Jewishness as an integral part of everyday life, a vague response to questions yet unasked.”
The Royal Route to the Castle
“Prague doesn’t let go. Either of us. This old crone has claws. One has to yield or else.”
(From Franz Kafka to Oskar Pollak, 12/20/1902. Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors.)
The visitor to Prague is invariably directed to the Royal Route, a two-hour stroll following the coronation procession of Bohemian kings and queens. The path, much of it hilly, takes in both banks of the Vltava and covers just about all of Prague’s layered history and architecture with particular wealth in the Baroque. Buildings dating before the use of numbers was introduced in the late 18th century are endowed with intriguing heraldic signs.
For the Kafka pilgrim, the route illuminates aspects of his and his characters’ lives not concentrated on the right bank. A passionate walker in his city, Kafka regularly trod the route as he went between his office job and more pleasurable pursuits which at one point included writing in a secret retreat on the grounds of Hradcany Castle.
Because the Royal Route begins at the Powder Tower and goes through Old Town Square, already covered in Walk 1, we should start at the House at the Minute where the procession moved into the Little Square/Male Namesti or Kleiner Ring. Here we turn left into Karlova street, passing the Klementinum, the 16th century Jesuit college that was one of the most powerful instruments of the Bohemian Counter-Reformation. Now it is the home of the National Library. Passing under the Old Town Bridge Tower, a monument of the Thirty Years War, we step onto the weathered cobblestones of the Charles Bridge/ Karluv most (Karlsbrucke.)
One of Europe’s most unforgettable river spans, the Charles Bridge may be the least subtle celebration of the Catholic victory over the Bohemian Protestant forces. Not even a proliferation of souvenir stalls can dilute the daunting spectacle of the Baroque statues of saints lining the pedestrian road on both sides.
“I’ve always admired,” said my acquaintance, clutching me with one hand and pointing with the other at the statue of St. Ludmila, “I’ve always admired the hands of this angel here to the left. Just see how delicate they are! Real angel’s hands! Have you ever seen anything like them? You haven’t, but I have, for this evening I kissed hands__” (Description of a Struggle by Franz Kafka)
In this tale of an eerie walk through the city on a frigid night, Kafka omitted mention of a statue that must have had particular relevance to him. The bronze Crucifixion garlanded with Hebrew letters spelling out “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord” represents penance paid by a Prague Jew on order of the courts in 1695 for alleged blasphemy. Jews are conspicuously absent in Kafka’s writing. One biographer theorizes that he used animals instead to connote targets of abuse.
Leaving the bridge on the west bank of the river, we are deposited in the Little Quarter/Mala Strana (Kleinseite.) A conglomeration of little settlements set up in 1257, the district was for centuries an economic dependency of the royal headquarters on the hill at Hradcany. In the late 19th century, the Little Quarter had a reputation for conservatism and mysticism which Rainer Maria Rilke drew on for Two Stories of Prague and Offerings to the Lares, his poetic evocation of the native city from which he fled.
King Borush, the protagonist of one of Rilke’s Prague stories lived at 13 Bridge Street (Bruckengasse, now Mostecka) the street leading from the Charles Bridge to Little Quarter Square (Malastranski nam./Kleinseitner Ring.)
The square is lined with palaces and that overwhelming edifice of High Baroque ecclesiastical art and Jesuit triumphalism, St. Nicholas Church (sv. Mikulase.) In no way is this church to be confused with the St. Nicholas of Old Town Square. In the 35 years between my visits to Prague, two images were etched in my memory: the gray citizenry on the streets and the colossal saints, undulating balconies and gilded excesses of the Jesuit church interior. Not to forget the memento mori of the Chapel of the Dead by the exit.
From the square we climb Nerudova ulice (Nerudagasse) named after Jan Neruda (1834-91), author of Mala Strana Tales. The Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda (born Neftali Ricardo Reyes) appropriated his name for a pseudonym. Jan Neruda lived at 47 Nerudova (“At the Two Suns”.) Most of the house signs on the street are particularly engaging and many of them adorn the entrances to beer halls and wine bars in which the climber can pause for refreshment.
Thus energized, the literary pilgrim completes the ascent to Hradcany Castle. A fortified complex dating to the 9th century, the Castle has been likened to a bird of prey hovering over the Vltava River. Within its walls are churches, convents and several palaces doubling as museums and the seat of the Czech head of state. In 1989, Vaclav Havel proclaimed the start of the “Velvet Revolution” from the Castle and moved into the president’s office.
There is no certainty that Hradcany was the inspiration for Kafka’s last novel The Castle. It might have been but there was no shortage of ghostly castles in the vicinity of Prague to provide settings for a writer.
The Royal Route culminates within the third courtyard of the Castle at St. Vitus’s Cathedral where the monarchs were crowned. One of Europe’s more impressive Gothic cathedrals, its delicate arches bear the stamp of the 14th century Swabian architect Peter Parler with successive additions of Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau. St. Vitus’s is the most familiar landmark of the Prague skyline. Chapter 9 of Kafka’s The Trial is assumed to take place in the Cathedral.
“K. felt a little forlorn as he advanced, a solitary figure between the rows of empty seats, perhaps with the priest’s eyes following him; and the size of the Cathedral struck him as bordering on the limit of what human beings could bear…when he heard the priest lifting up his voice. A resonant, well-trained voice. How it rolled through the expectant Cathedral! But it was no congregation the priest was addressing, the words were unambiguous and inescapable, he was calling out: ‘Joseph K.!’…”
“‘You are Joseph K…You are an accused man…You are held to be guilty.’”
Moving toward the edge of the Castle grounds via Jirska, the street alongside the Romanesque St. George’s Basilica, one exits into Golden Lane/Zlata ulicka), a cobblestone alley of pastel-tinted hovels carved into the ramparts. Built in the 1500’s to house the imperial guards, it was called Alchimistengasse or Alchemist’s Lane in Kafka’s time, furthering the lore of magical happenings in the labyrinths of Prague. A blue shed at Number 22 contains a bookstore and Kafka memento shop. In December 1916 his youngest and most supportive sister Ottla rented the one-room cottage and offered it to him as a refuge from the noise in his Old Town apartment. During the next four months the creative juices flowed; closeted in silence from dusk to midnight Kafka produced more than a dozen stories including The Country Doctor, The Great Wall of China and A Report to an Academy.
In March, he found lodgings that pleased him at last. The two-room flat on the second floor of the Schonborn Palace, a 17th century palace on Trziste (Marktgasse) that had been converted into rentals, lacked a kitchen or bath but its windows gave out on the garden and the spires of Hradcany in the distance. Schonborn Palace is now the home of the United States Embassy. With Kafka we can walk from Golden Lane back through the Castle grounds and down the steps (Zamecke schody) into Nerudova. Midway on that street a right turn leads to Schonborn Palace.
Kafka’s contentment was brief. In August he suffered a hemorrhage, the first indication of an ultimately fatal pulmonary tuberculosis. On September 2 he wrote Ottla, “I closed the windows in the palace for the last time, locked the door; how much like dying this must be.” He left on a round of medical treatments outside Prague and when he returned it was to his parents’ flat at Oppelthaus in Old Town.
IN AND BEYOND KAFKA’S PRAGUE
(Letter to Ottla, 10/8/23)
Kafka was anorexic, a vegan, a food faddist, a masticator of his food; to join him at the dinner table could literally be a revolting experience. He was a fitness buff who fretted over his frail-looking physique and tried to improve it with outdoor exercise. He loved to swim and to row in the river in his small boat, holding heated philosophic discussions with Max Brod. He went on nature walks with his sister and friends. The angst-ridden author of claustrophobic works appears to have been a fresh-air fiend.
Prague has an abundance of oases, in hilltop parks and lush gardens with panoramic spectacles to reward the hiker. One of his favorites was the Belvedere (Letna) which lies on the far side of the Cech Bridge (Walk 1.) In later years, Kafka often walked to his home in Old Town from the Castle area through the Belvedere. He did not live to see the statue of Joseph Stalin erected on the hill facing the Kafka apartment on Niklasstrasse after the Communist takeover in 1948. The monument was blown up in 1962 and in its place a giant metronome was installed, a Pop Art statement of typical Czech whimsy.
Petrin has always been one of the most popular parks in Prague. In Kafka’s time it was the Laurenziberg and he used it for the setting of Description of a Struggle, the story he wrestled with in secret when he was 20 before showing it to Brod who had it published posthumously. It is Kafka’s only story with specific details about streets and areas of Prague. The Narrator is asked by a guest at a party to rescue him from a sexual escapade.
“All right then, if you insist, I’ll go with you, but I repeat: it’s ridiculous to climb up the Laurenziberg now, in winter and in the middle of the night. Besides, it’s freezing, and as it has been snowing the roads out there are like skating rinks. Well, as you like—“
All the more reason to make the climb on winding paths in daytime and fair weather as Kafka did when he was a teen-ager. From a slope on the hillside, he tried to decipher the meaning of life.
A less sturdy walker is advised to take the funicular railway from Ujezd street in Mala Strana, not far from the Legii Most. Midway to the top, get off at the Nebozizek restaurant (Kafka knew it as Hasenburg.) The views are splendid, the menu eclectic. Continuing to the summit, one finds orchards and tennis courts, a rose garden and a 200-foot version of the Eiffel Tower, like the funicular, a relic of the Prague Jubilee Exhibition of 1891.
A descending path leads to the 800-year-old Strahov Monastery/Strahovsky klaster with its rare collection of philosophical and theological books and a museum of Czech literature.
To the left at some distance, and not worth trekking to except as a point of orientation, is the Strahov Stadium/Stadion Strahov where in the Communist-era athletic rallies were held. In Kafka’s time, the site was an old quarry that provided background for the last terrifying chapter of The Trial.
“A small stone quarry, deserted and desolate, lay quite near to a still completely urban house…The moon shone down on everything with that simplicity and serenity which no other light possesses…It was a spot near the cliffside where a loose boulder was lying…The two of them laid K. down on the ground, propped him against the boulder, and settled his head upon it…”
Another great public playground on Kafka’s agenda was the Baumgarden (Stromovka) a former game preserve for Bohemian kings, and one of the most romantic spots in Prague. Kafka did a lot of lazing around and listening to music in the park, reading Plato to his sister Ottla while she tried vainly to teach him to sing. To reach Stromovka which is in the Holesovice distict on the left bank, take the Number 5 or 17 tram and get off at the stop just past the National Gallery of Modern Art/ Veletrzni Palac. Don’t be put off by the 1928 Functionalist exterior of the building which belies a wonderful collection of Czech and other European art including the Modernist painters of Kafka’s generation like Frantisek Kupka and Josef Capek.
A mile and a half jaunt through Stromovka’s grounds takes the energetic walker to Troia (Trojsky Zameck), an arcadia consisting of a Baroque palace with vineyards and gardens built by a French architect for the Sternberg family of Bohemian aristocrats.
Cooped up in urban flats most of his life, Kafka was avid about gardening and sought opportunities to put his hands to the soil. In 1918, he spent afternoons after his insurance job at the Institute of Pomology, Wine-Growing and Gardening at Troia; the training would have been useful had he migrated to Palestine. The building is at the corner of Trojska and Pod Lisem.
At the opposite end of the complex just beyond the palace is the Zoo (Zoologicks Zamrada) known for its species of wild beasts. One guidebook suggests this animal population might better have been left to die out. However, the zoo offers an apt conclusion to a Kafka walk. As Ronald Hayman points out in his biography, Kafka’s surname of a not particularly winsome bird may have been the prelude to his identification with insects, apes, dogs and rodents. He placed his human characters in their guises to signify the low value in which he placed himself.
Franz Kafka died on June 3, 1924 just short of his 41st birthday in the Kierling sanatorium near Vienna. His body was returned a week later to Prague for burial. About one hundred mourners from the Prague German community attended the funeral on a gray Wednesday afternoon at the Jewish section of Strasnice (Straschnitz), the city’s vast necropolis. Max Brod gave the eulogy. At the request of Kafka’s parents, no condolence visits were paid.
In death almost as in their anguished lives, Hermann and Julie Kafka lie beside their son. The grave, decorated now with fresh tokens of esteem, is part of the irony alluded to at the beginning of this tour—Kafka as tourist attraction. The literary pilgrim in search of closure can take the Metro by line A to the Zelivskeho station and walk a short distance to the entrance of the Jewish cemetery (Zidovske hrbitovy.)
The gravesite also commemorates Kafka’s three sisters who perished in Nazi death camps. Ottla, the youngest sister and his closest ally in the family, was sent to Teresin near Prague and then transferred to Auschwitz where she died.
Teresin (Theresienstadt), about 40 miles north of the city, is part of the Prague tourist agenda. Organized excursions can be booked through the Jewish Town Hall at 18 Maislova; independent travel by bus leaves from Florenc station.