Czech Republic: More than castles and villages


Our Lady of the Snows, in Prague

Baroque cathedrals, castles, apple blossoms, lilacs, forsythia and quince, winding rivers and rolling hills, broad fields of rape, pronounced “rap,” which is that intense yellow flower that I thought was mustard; the countryside is beautiful and we came just as the apple trees were blossoming.

Czechoslovakia was created out of the Versailles Treaty after WWI, as part of the strategy to break up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After that came a series of national traumas: Munich, when the Sudetenland (the western part of Czech) was handed over to Germany under Hitler. Then the surrender of the Jewish population in Hitler’s Final Solution, first into concentration camps and then to Auschwitz.  This included 95% of the Czech Roma population. At the end of WWII,  the one-third of the population that was German was expelled back to Germany (no matter how many generations they had lived in CZ). Then came the Communist period.  The period of opening after Khrushchev criticized Stalin, called “the Prague Spring,” was repressed in 1968 with Russian tanks rolling across the border into Prague. What a sequence of national traumas!  But now the Czech Republic, which split off from Slovakia, is among the most healthy economies in the EU with low unemployment and relatively low levels of inequality, although there is a heavy load of apathy towards anything political, almost a feeling of a white wall of silence. The old people, we are told, vote Communist; the young either vote ANO, a new party, or do not vote at all.

What is being displayed? What is the story? Who is telling it? For whom and why?

I come from a country that has done much evil and good in the world and is still doing it, too much, in fact — both the good and the evil. Many people in the US are concerned with how the story of our past is told, for whom, and how it will shape our future. I wrote a post about Christian Appy’s important book, American Reckoning, which explains how the national trauma of the Viet Nam War has shaped our sense of who we are. Museums and monuments are also ways of telling a story that is not individual but social or collective. In the US, the critical stories for us right now are about our experience of slavery; you can see how the telling of this story re-surfaces in the news every day, in one way or another. So I am interested in museums (and in tourist attractions that do not pretend to be museums, but that perform a function that mimics a museum). For example, Disneyland is a tourist attraction that does not pretend to be a museum, but it tells a story about what America is and was, and it is a persuasive story.The White Tower in Prague, part of the Castle, with its displays of armor and torture instruments, is another example of an attraction that is not exactly a museum. At the other extreme are museums like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which is really an archive and teaching and research institution, that tells a story about the American/Vietnam War that is so bound up with my own history.

These are the questions that I carry with me when I go to a new country and try to understand what is going on.

Here is a castle, Karlstejn, 30 K west of Prague:


View from the  entrance to the castle of Karlstejn. The winding road below leads past restaurants and souvenir shops down to the railroad station, about 30 minutes from Prague.

We are staying in Stranny, a village of 100 people near Benesov, where the Archduke Francis Ferdinand (the one who with his wife Sophia was assassinated in 1913, triggering the First World War) had his castle, Konopiste. We did not visit Konopiste: we were told, however, that it contains over 100 stuffed animals that the Archduke shot. But on the railroad platform there is a photo display about Ferdinand.

The display includes photos of the Archduke as a boy, as a handsome young man (doe-eyed, with a handlebar mustache), with a gun and a pheasant, also lying in a hammock, playing tennis, and dressed in his hussar uniform, which has a nipped-in waist and a lot of gold braid. Everything is in Czech except for one placard. One photo shows Ferdinand walking along near the railroad platform with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the caption says that “the public believed they were planning to go to war.” Soon after that, came the assassination. Inside the railroad station is a special separate waiting room, unfortunately closed right now,  where Ferdinand met with important visitors. On the platform there is a photo of Ferdinand and Sophie lying in state. In town there is a grand, castle-like brewery that makes Ferdinand beer.

From this train station in Benesov we can be in Prague in an hour or less. Coming home, we sometimes catch a bus and sometimes a taxi.

Not all castles and villages

We went east by train — the Pandolino, a beautiful fast train with good food — to Ostravo and then made short trips to Opava and Olumoc.

Ostravo was once known as the “Black City” because of the pollution. There were both coal mines and steel mills here. The mines were right under the city itself; there a football stadium that has sunk so much, because of the mines below it, that it can’t be repaired. The mines fed the steel mills which were basically coal gasification plants. Now all but one of the mills are closed. The air is clean, although you can still see the soot on the walls of some of the old buildings.

Green block.JPG

These are apartment blocks in Ostravo; built in the 1970s to house workers who were coming to work in the big steel mills and in the growing public sector (teachers, office workers), many of these were put up for private purchase after 1989. Our relative, a teacher, lives in a two-bedroom flat in one of these. It has windows on both sides, all new windows and doors, carpets and appliances, an elevator. There are perhaps 30 or 40 apartment blocks like this one, separated by paths and green spaces. Public transportation, schools, pubs, restaurants, playgrounds and supermarkets are all right there. Looking out her window we could see the elementary, middle and high schools.

So far, consensus from everyone we have talked with: taxes are high but healthcare is free, education is free, people have pensions, you get 3 years of maternity leave with a stipend from the state, everyone has paid vacations. Buses and trains go everywhere and are on time. What if you lose your job? You get unemployment benefits but you go to the social services and they have jobs for you. There are jobs. Everyone can get a job. To be evicted from your apartment the landlord must give two months notice; you also give two months notice if you plan to leave.

Also, everyone we talk to — which means people who speak English and are willing to talk – says the same thing about the Roma. They don’t work, they take money from the government, they steal.

These eastern cities have very spacious, dignified central areas. In both Opava and Olomouc the big central squares are surrounded by cafes and the cafes are full – although not the one in this picture! That particular cafe terrace did not open until later. The building in the rear is the Opera — they were doing Janacek’s The Little Vixen.

opava plaza

Town Hall square in Opava


Street in center city Opava, late afternoon

These cities are dignified, quiet, and calm; very few western tourists if any. They feel old but clean and not deteriorated. Lilacs are in bloom along the streets that circle around the central pedestrian area. corner of plaza

They are very serious about cakes and pastries.


We walked through the university neighborhoods of both Ostravo and Opava.  Of course, these are government-funded universities and we are told that they are “free” as far as tuition goes. So they do not try to attract fee-paying students or draw attention by building stunning Frank Gehry designs. This is true of Charles University in Prague, too, which is up on a hill south of the main railroad station: big, quiet, dark, maybe 5 floors high; gates leading into an interior courtyard.

A Museum from a Steel Mill:   Vitkovice Cylinders and Gearworks in Ostravo


This tank, which used to contain gas, has been turned into a giant concert hall. Music festivals take place here.

We were in Ostravo on May 1st, which is International Workers Day.  In Czech it is celebrated as a national holiday. To celebrate, many people do not go to work. One of the enormous old steel mills in Ostravo has been turned into a park. People can walk through the mill along paths that are signed in Czech and English to explain the manufacturing process. There is also a science museum on the site; the whole thing is like the Exploratorium in San Francisco, only with a real steel mill. One of the mines that supplied coal to the mill was right under the mill itself. That mine is also now a museum. A giant tower is named the Bolt Tower for the runner, Usain Bolt.


Just one small part of the giant steel mill that is now closed but re-invented as a park, with meeting places and restaurants and concert venues.

Part of the mill is actually still in operation. Vitkovice Gearworks and Cylinders manufactures railroad ties, tubes, tanks and canisters that will hold things like oxygen or other gases under pressure, things that will be come fire extinguishers (for example) or supplies for hospitals or other industries. These are shipped all over the world, including the US. Joe saw the labels on the shipping platforms. On May 1 people can walk through this part of the mill and see workers making things out of molten steel. Kids can see where their fathers and grandfathers worked.


Many of the older people in Ostravo worked in these mills; on this holiday they bring the grandchildren to see where grandpa worked. You are offered a hard hat at the entrance, but not many people take them. 


Inspecting cannisters; the guy on the right puts a torch into the opening; the guy on the left peers in from the bottom.

The part of the mill that is still functioning is open to the visitors to the park today. You can walk along carefully marked paths through the factory and see people working. In one area you can see long steel rods being heated, chopped into small chunks, melted, formed into balls and then rolled through a smoothing and cooling sequence. These are used for breaking down coal or rocks into gravel or dust; they are poured into something like a giant washing machine and rolled around.


At one end of the process, a giant jaw pulls a huge plug of molten steel out of a mold. Out of sight for me, this plug gets turns into long rods which are then chopped up into what will become balls.



I am posting many pictures of this because of how sharp the contrast is between the public access to a live factory in  Czech Republic and the US. I have visited two operating steel mills in the US (the Rouge in Detroit an the US Steel mill in Gary, Indiana) but both visits were as a guest of the union that represented workers there and in both cases, getting the invitation was difficult. Furthermore, private industry in the US often is behind fences and surrounded by a sea of parking, and may not even have a sign out saying what the name of the plant is. But in Ostravo you are invited to bring children within ten feet of a rube goldberg machine that is popping out molten balls of steel and cooling them in a sequence of tanks.

Near Ostravo is a park called Landeck, which was the site of a mine. They have kept the miner’s changing room and the work clothes are still hanging there. I saw a space like this once in Sudbury, Ontario, at the site of an enormous copper mine.

miners clothes

Another way the Czech celebrate May 1st is Walpurgisnacht; the night of burning witches, which would be the eve of May 1st. In Stranny the village men erected a high pole and then sat around on the terrace of our pension drinking beer. They were still awake and drinking when our host got up the next morning at 6;30 am. The idea is to keep watch so that the men from other villages do not steal your pole. Stranny’s pole was still there. It’s not really burning witches, apparently; it’s burning winter.

Museums, cathedrals, more castles

Yes, we went to the Castle in Prague. The Cathedral of St Vitus, which looms over not just the Castle but the whole city,  is astounding. This is an instance of a museum that is a treasure house.

St Vitus ceiling

All along the floor of the cathedral are chapels with elaborate religious sculpture and art. Every king or queen (or emperor) made a project of producing some fabulous contribution to the wealth and splendor of the cathedral. In the installation below, there are four flying angels lifting the curtains and they are all bigger than life-size.

St Vitus

The Jewish Quarter

This is the cemetery in the old Jewish Quarter, where some of the stone go back 400 years.

cmetery 1

The arched chambers of the lower floors of the old Synagogue are a memorial: the names of people who were killed during WWII under the Nazis are inscribed on the walls from floor to ceiling, arranged by family and region. Upstairs are more documents and a small narrow room dedicated to the drawings and notebooks created by the children at Theresienstadt, the model concentration camp that was shown to the Red Cross to demonstrate that the Jews were being well-taken care of.  There are artifacts of the art teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

The Spanish Synagogue, nearby, has a museum with many documents displayed in glass cases. As I think about the line between a museum and a tourist attraction, this is a museum.  Here is a picture of the roof of the inside:

Spanish synagog

On the train to Benesov one night we sat across from a handsome young guy, about 17, who told us in pretty good English that he goes to the Jewish high school in Prague. It is connected to the museum and the old Jewish Quarter; they learn Greek and Latin as well as Hebrew. Right now he and some friends are translating a comic book into Yiddish for the fun of it. Their teachers are “the old people,” he said; the people who have memories and know history. They have done at least one trip to Israel.

The Museum of Communism in Prague

Of course we want to learn as much about the recent history of the country as possible, especially how it has managed since 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union.  We were already familiar with how that word “communism” is used in the US, including how it has changed over time during its long history and the ways in which it is confused with socialism. Then there is the way the word is used in Viet Nam, where the government is led by the Communist Party, which is entirely different from how the word is used here in the US by Vietnamese living here. Here, some of our conversations have made me think that the the word “communism” covers everything that is un-speakable and indicates a desire to forget. By contrast, for Vietnamese in the US, looking back on the years during and after the American war, there is a great deal of  active memory about what living under communism meant. Here in Czech it seems as if a veil is pulled down over the whole period from the end of World War II through 1989 when the Soviet Union fell and the Velvet Revolution — the peaceful handover to the government under Vaclav Havel – took place.

The Museum of Communism is not a research museum; it has a message to deliver. Most of the visitors in the museum were from the US or Europe.

The written placards are in English and Czech and they refer to the years under Communism using words like “depravity” and “cruelty” but they do not document in detail the experience that lies behind them. They tell about the rise of communism in a very simplified way, with placards about Marx and about the lives of poor working class people, but the story as told by the placards swiftly turns into denunciations. This is in striking contrast to the Jewish Museum that is full of photographs and copies of original documents about both the historic Jewish community and the Holocaust. It is true that this Museum of Communism is still new.  It moved into its new quarters only 6 months ago from its old location near the Post Office. (The guidebooks list the old address; we just happened to pick up a brochure that gave the new address but very little other information, as if it had been designed in haste, so we spent a lot of time poking around near the old address first before taking another look at the brochure.) Also, it is a private operation, not government-sponsored, and apparently the work of two Czech Americans cooperating with a Czech person.

However, in comparison with the written placards posted on display boards, a much richer story is told in long video interviews with people who remember the period of communism. I did not count how many of these there are, but there must be 40 or 50, and it is quite possible that each screen could have more than one interview on it. The images on the screens are life-sized and there are subtitles in English. These interviews are each at least an hour long and they give space for all kinds of different people: there is a room, for example, of six women, women with various kinds of jobs from farm work to office work. At the time of the interviews these women were, from the looks of it, in their 70s or 80s, so they are talking about a period of time when they were young and middle-aged. Elsewhere there are interviews with poets, writers, film makers, young people. These are in-depth interviews about the life experience of individuals. One can sense that as time passes, these people will not be around any more, so that increases the value of the videos. The ones I watched told about the experiences of dissidents: people who were denied permission to travel, whose children were not allowed to go to school, people who spent many years in prison. In the ones I watched, the people all talked about forms of resistance: meetings at cabins in the forest, performing theater in living rooms, and lots of writing.  As I have always been told, jokes and humor were a large part of the resistance.

This made me think about what museums I have seen that address a national trauma. There is of course the War Remnants Museums in Ho Chi Minh City. There are the big Jewish museums in Washington DC, the famous one in Israel, and a number in Germany. Auschwitz itself  is in Poland, only 2 hours east by car from Ostravo. There is a new museum in Montgomery, Alabama, that brings to life the lynchings of black people in the American South ( We visited a small museum of the Anasazi in Northern New Mexico that has glass cases displaying the letters written to the US government trying to explain how the Anasazi and Hopi used land. The creation of such a museum, that tries to carry the story of a national experience, is an enormous, collective task that should take years and has to be ongoing.

From that light, the Museum of Communism is still very young. In Oakland, CA in the meantime, there is going to be a pop-up Museum of Capitalism in Jack London Square. Based on the write-up, I’m afraid that the exhibits all seem to be ironic artifacts like WalMart shopping bags. We’ll see. Not an easy task.

Although the Roma population in Czech was 95% wiped out, there is not, as far as I can tell, a museum of that culture and population.  This is a museum that needs to be created.





Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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