One man’s inflammatory stand against an evil regime

By Ollie Heppenstall

In January 1969, a student at Charles University in Prague died after setting himself on fire outside the national museum as a protest against the conclusion of what has become known as the Prague Spring.

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Jan Palach’s death mask

The term Prague Spring refers to the seven months of peaceful protests against the invasion of the Czech Republic by the Soviet Union, following First Secretary Alexander Dubcek’s attempts to reform the way the country was governed.

The reforms aimed to bring more rights and freedoms to citizens of Czechoslovakia as well as loosening restrictions on the media and on travel.

Jan Palach was a student of history and political economy at the university, and was outraged at the conclusion of the protests.

His decision to self-immolate on Wenceslas Square, and the reasons for doing so, have become famous.

In a letter addressed to public figures, he asked for the abolition of censorship and for the Zpravy newspaper to be taken out of circulation as well as for Czechs and Slovaks to go on a general strike in support of the demands.

His example was followed by another two students; Jan Zajic underwent self-immolation on Wenceslas Square having taken part in a hunger strike in support of Palach in 1969, while Evzen Plocek committed self-immolation in the city of Jilhava in protest of what he saw as Soviet aggression.

Palach’s exploits are commemorated in Charles University’s museum, where his death mask and student ID book are both on display.

Palach’s act has become a defining moment of both modern European and Czech history; the most jarring and violent form of protest against a regime that ruined the lives of millions.

This theme of resistance runs through Czech history itself; from Jan Hus resisting the Catholic Church in the 12th and 13th century, to the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942 by Czech paratroopers and to Palach’s fiery defiance of the Communist regime.

The terrors of Terezin

By Chloe Hewitt 

Despite its seemingly picturesque scenery, a dark past of one of the great atrocities of the Nazi regime remains at Terezin.

Constructed back in 1780 as a fortress to protect against a potential attack from Prussian troops, the complex never came under direct siege.

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The fortress was used as a prison for a time, with one of its most notorious prisoners being Gavrilo Princip, the man who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife and thus was the catalyst for World War I.

Under the Munich Agreement of 1938, the land which the fortress lies on was absorbed into Germany.

Regardless of the fact the town is steeped in other history, it is its Nazi past that overwhelms you when you visit.

In 1940, Germany assigned the Gestapo the task of transforming Terezin, or Theresienstadt as it is known in German, into a ghetto and concentration camp for Jews, a form of transit depot from which they were then transported to the more notorious death camps such as Auschwitz.

Primarily it housed Jews from Czechoslovakia as well as tens of thousands from Germany and Austria, plus hundreds from the Netherlands and Denmark.

More than 150,000 Jews were sent to the camp, including 15,000 children – only 132 of those children are known to have survived the holocaust.

Yet the outside world was being told Hitler had built a city for Jews to protect them. Propaganda films were made showcasing this idyllic city and that all was well.

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One of the transport tunnels

The ruse worked, with the Red Cross paying visits to the camp and deeming that while war-time conditions made all life difficult, life at Terezin was acceptable and that the Jews were being treated acceptably.

Despite not being an extermination camp, about 33,000 people died in the ghetto – mainly due to population density, malnutrition and disease.

However, according to many survivors, as conditions became more cramped a sense of community, almost family-like, developed.

The Small Fortress at Terezin served as the largest Gestapo prison, housed separately from the ghetto. About 90,000 people went through it and 2,600 died there.

Few remained at Terezin until its liberation with 88,000 people transported to Auschwitz and the other Nazi extermination camps.

As late as 1944, people were still being transported off by train to the death camps.

Out of more than 150,000 Jews sent to Terezin, only 17,247 survived the war, including some who survived the death camps.

The International Red Cross took over operation of the camp on May 2, 1945, with the Commandant and SS guards fleeing within the next two days, although some were later captured. The Soviet Army officially liberated the camp on May 9.

 

Following the war, the small fortress was used as an internment camp for ethnic Germans, arriving on May 10. The camp was officially closed on February 29, 1948.

A number of notable prisoners were interned at the camp, one of which was one of the women who had lived in the annex with Anne Frank, in Amsterdam.

Auguste van Pels was being moved from Bergen-Belsen to Raguhn and from there she was sent to Terezin and is believed to have been murdered on the journey, by Nazi guards who threw her onto the tracks in front of the train.

Whilst walking through the city of Prague, I spotted this gold plaque on the floor. After some research I found that it was in honour of somebody who used to reside there who had ended up in the Terezin camp before being moved onwards to Auschwitz where he ultimately met his fate. IMG_8037

Walking through modern-day Terezin gives you a peculiar feeling. You are walking down the same streets where people met a tragic fate and yet there are pubs and a pizzeria as though none of that atrocity ever happened.

The fact Terezin looks so quaint and frankly beautiful is what makes the horrors of what went on there all the more disturbing.

No matter how chilling it is, reading and seeing things to do with the Holocaust, the number of children who lost their lives will never cease to be heartbreaking.

It may not be one of the more pleasant places to visit whilst in the Czech Republic but it is worth a visit to simply reflect.

 

 

 

Prague is cheap – if you know where to look

By Matthew Earth

Within a few hours of wandering around Prague Brits will be almost shocked to find how low most of the prices are for food and drink.

While the exchange rate is perhaps not the easiest to understand, some quick maths prior to entering a restaurant or bar will reveal just how little it costs to eat and drink out when compared to the UK.

However, as with any tourist destination, there are many traps the local business owners will hope visitors fall into and end up out of pocket.

About a week prior to my flight to the Czech capital I visited my local bureau de change for some Czech korunas. For nearly £205 I received 5,500 korunas, which worked out at a rate of about 26.85 CZK for 1 GBP. Fortunately, the woman who served me made me aware that if I needed more cash while I was out there I could probably get a better exchange rate in Prague than in the UK, as long as I paid in cash. However, she warned me to always compare the buying and selling prices at any Czech exchange bureau before handing over my hard-earned cash.

Upon arrival in Prague I immediately found this to be true. In Muzeum station, which was one of the first stations we visited en route to our accommodation, we could only get 17 CZK for 1 GBP at the exchange office. This is a blatant trap the management of the bureau hope tourists will fall into, and it is easy to see why.

A bureau in central Prague will hope people who are perhaps in a rush, or simply wanting to get on with their holiday, will not spend their time seeking out an office that gives more korunas, thinking they will not be easy to find. To say the bureaux which give poor rates are commonplace is an understatement. They will be located towards the central areas of the city, close to landmarks, hotels and the busier metro stations. They will also have eye-catching decals or posters advertising ‘0% commission’, which is technically true – although the rate they offer you will be meagre.

Obviously, whenever you visit anywhere abroad you hope you have taken enough money to last you. But if and when you do need some more cash, be sure to seek out an office that offers a similar buying and selling rate. It is easy to feel that many people see the selling price is around 28 CZK for 1 GBP before noticing the buying rate is much lower. Towards the end of our first week, I felt my money was running a bit short, so I set out to find an office. I eventually settled on a bureau in a mall by Kino Lucerna, which is just outside of the Old Town. Here I managed to get 28 CZK for a single pound.

It is worth noting that in Prague, like many European cities, cash is king and not many places accept cards as a form of payment. There are many restaurants, bars and cafes slightly outside the main city centre which may not accept your card when you come to pay the bill. Despite the extra travelling distance, everywhere we ate and drank outside the centre had a wide range of delicious Czech food and drink, which were all reasonably priced. This rings especially true for the beers in Prague, of which there are many – it is not uncommon to find a Pilsner Urquell, a Kozel or a Staropramen for 30 korunas (just over £1). For those on a budget, meals with a drink are available for 150 korunas if you’re willing to look around.

It is also worth remembering that when dining out there are some restaurants who will try and charge diners for some extras they may not have particularly wanted. Tipping is almost expected in most restaurants in the city, so it is always best to factor in a ten per cent gratuity after you receive the bill. To most this will not be an issue, but some eateries will try and catch unsuspecting customers out with some almost hidden charges. For example, on our first night a friend ordered schnitzel at a restaurant and was asked if he would like either potatoes or fries with his meal. The waiter made no mention of an extra cost – yet we found we were billed for them at the end. Waiters will also sometimes try and bring you bread baskets to your table. Be warned, as this is usually not complimentary, so it is always best to ask if there is a charge before you accept it.

On the whole, a city break in Prague is going to cost you far less than in other European capitals, such as London, Berlin or Paris. The lower cost may lead you to believe the quality is lower, yet this is simply not the case. Everywhere you go the food is delicious and the drinks go down a treat. It is just a case of knowing where to look and what to avoid.

Just what is inside Prague’s Sex Machines Museum?

By Alex Leadbetter, Sophie Sandberg and Alice Warner

Of all the weird and wonderful places in Prague, the Sex Machine Museum really stands out as one that captures your attention.

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Three floors showcased a collection of eccentric sexual aids from the Victorian era onwards, featuring phallic teddy bears, swings and an erotic cinema.

The sexual instruments are accompanied by graphic diagrams that illustrates how they would have been used.

It was intriguing to see a completely different side to historical periods.

All of the exhibits were presented tastefully despite the subject matter.

For just 250CZK, this is definitely a sight to be seen – if you are 18 or over!

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WW1 heroism remembered in grand style

by Ollie Heppenstall

Not far from the cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius, in the heart of Prague’s new town, stands a granite column.

Surround21192731_1267979743329782_1351181598341660147_ned by bronze figures of soldiers, it stands on Namesti Pod Emauzy as a memorial to the Czech contribution to the Allied effort in the First World War.

In addition to serving alongside the Army of Imperial Russia, Czechoslovaks served in the armies of France and Italy with distinction with many eventually returning home to form the army of the newly independent Czechoslovakia.

Their service in Russia is the most famous, though. Cut off from a route to their homeland because of the Russian Revolution, they fought across Russia following the route of the Trans-Siberian railway in order to return home by sea.

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Their effectiveness in battle was such that by September of 1919, the entirety of the railway was clear of anti-Czech forces and all of Siberia’s major cities were under Czech control.

Their legend continued with the capture of part of the Russian royal family’s gold reserve and the capture of the most effective anti-Bolshevik leader of the entire war, Admiral Alexander Kolchak. While they were forced to hand over both the admiral and the gold in order to reach Vladivostok and return to their newly-independent home, their place in history is assured.

A daredevil dash through a country in turmoil, stolen royal gold and captured generals – the stuff of legend.