1) Franz Kafka’s Prague: An Old Town childhood and youth

Kafka in front of the Oppelt house, the apartment building where his family lived. Prague, around 1922
previous episode
next episode

The great writer Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 and spent his entire life in the city. His early years, and the life of his family, are closely linked to its Old Town district.

Today Prague’s Old Town is filled with tourists from all over the world. Naturally, the place looked rather different in the final years of the 19th century, when the young Franz Kafka walked its streets.

Dana Kratochvílová at the statue of Franz Kafka by Jaroslav Róna | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

To get a flavour of Kafka’s links to the Old Town we spoke to guide Dana Kratochvílová, who shows visitors – foreign and local – around the district of his youth.

“Czechs don't know much about Kafka. It always surprises me that teenage Americans have read The Metamorphosis and Kafka is a familiar subject for them. Many Czech young people have also learned about him. But under communism here, Kafka was taboo. For several generations, including my own, he was simply kept secret.”

Franz Kafka Square | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

Just a short walk from Old Town Square’s world famous astronomical clock is where you will find Prague’s Franz Kafka Square. It is one of the smallest and newest squares in the city; indeed, it was only named after the writer, who was born right by here, in 2000. Dana Kratochvílová continues.

Only the Baroque portal remains from Franz Kafka’s birthplace | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

“This little square in front of the entrance to St. Nicholas Church was called Kurný trh in the Middle Ages. Franz Kafka’s birthplace is marked by a bust of him, from 1966. However, we cannot say that he was born in this actual corner house. In fact, the original building was demolished during the redevelopment of the adjacent Jewish ghetto. Only the Baroque portal remains, and the house was rebuilt. It has recently been renovated, with cafés downstairs and I expect apartments or offices inside.”

Little Franz Kafka around 1887 | Photo: Klaus Wagenbach,  'Franz Kafka: Pictures of a Life'/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Franz Kafka was born on 3 July 1883. His father Hermann came from southern Bohemia and was born in very poor circumstances. After arriving in Prague, he opened his first haberdashery shop in Dlouhá St., with the help of cousins.

As a skilled merchant Hermann quickly climbed the social ladder, and his successes included winning the heart of future wife Julia. She, by contrast, came from a well-to-do Prague Jewish family. Franz was their first child. He was followed by two other sons who died in infancy.

House U Minuty | Photo: Radio Prague International

From Franz Kafka Square one can pass through an arcade to Old Town Square, to where the Kafka family moved when he was still small. All three of his sisters – Gabrielle, Valerie and the youngest, Ottla, who was the writer’s favourite – were born in quick succession in the late Gothic building U Minuty. The building, decorated with 16th century Renaissance sgraffito, is still standing and today houses the Scout Institute.

“The Kafka family took an apartment on the first floor here. It was a large apartment, with a room for a maid. When Franz was six years old, he started going to school locally. The new German school he went to then was in Masná St., meaning he had to cross the whole of Old Town Square. He describes in his diaries that this was very stressful for him, as he was afraid of getting lost. Indeed he had the idea that a railing should be built on the square along which he could walk, so that he wouldn’t become lost."

House U Minuty | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

Just off the Old Town Square is the narrow Týnská St. This was not a place that the German-language author liked in his young days.

The narrow Týnská Street | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“Kafka really didn't like to come this way. Later he recalled how a cook accompanied him to school every day and more or less dragged him behind her, with the local market women looking on. Every morning the same scene took place. And every day the cook threatened to tell them at the school how Franz had been difficult again.”

The school in Masná still serves its purpose. However the German Gymnazium, where Franz was enrolled thanks to his excellent grades and despite doubts about his abilities, is no longer standing today.

The school in Masná Street | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

It was housed in the Kinsky Palace on Old Town Square, which is now occupied by the National Gallery. And the building has another strong connection to the writer: Hermann Kafka had a shop at this prestigious address, from the year 1912 on. Our next stop is nearby, on Celetná St.

German Gymnazium and a shop of Kafka’s father were housed in the Kinský Palace on Old Town Square | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International
House U tří králů in Celetná Street just below the Church of Our Lady before Týn | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“First we will focus on the house located just below the Church of Our Lady before Týn. Today it houses a Kodak Express store and a gift shop. Kafka's family moved in there. His father had warehouses and a big store there. He also employed Kafka’s mother, who sat at the cash register, and a couple of clerks. A window from Kafka's room looked directly onto the Týn Church. Interestingly, during the communist era, the room was used by the secret police; it was through that window that they kept track of who came to the church."

But it turns out there are even more buildings around Old Town Square connected to Kafka. Dana Kratochvílová highlights one.

Hrzán Palace | Photo: VitVit,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“We are in Celetná St, in front of the Hrzán Palace, at no. 12. It once belonged to the Hrzán noble family from Harasov. Hermann Kafka owned a warehouse with textile goods in the building. It was already toward the end of his successful business career, when he stopped doing retail himself and only supplied goods to shops in Prague and other cities.”

Kamzíková Street | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

One can pass through the Hrzán Palace, which is a cultural monument, to the inconspicuous Kamzíková St. It was once home to one of Prague’s most high-class brothels, the House of the Red Peacock.

Many well-known names were clients there, including Franz Kafka. It is possible that he visited the brothel during his studies at Charles University, formerly known as Charles-Ferdinand University, which is just around the corner.

The building of the Assicurazioni Generali on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Jindřišská Street | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“Right now we are standing in front of the Karolinum, at one end of Ovocný trh, the Fruit Market, where Kafka studied law. At first he chose chemistry, but he soon dropped out. He began his studies in 1901 and graduated with a doctorate in law in 1906. He dreamed of going to Italy for a time after his studies, but this didn’t work out. In 1907, at the age of 24, he joined the Prague branch of the insurance company Assicurazioni Generali, which was based in Trieste. The firm built a huge neo-Baroque building on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Jindřišská St.”

Kafka worked in that grand building for some time, before moving to another insurance company a short walk away.

Building of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Company in Na Poříčí Street | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“It was a time when, in connection with the establishment of factories, people started talking about occupational safety and workers' insurance. As a clerk with a law degree, Kafka devoted himself to this field. After two years he took a job at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Company in Na Poříčí St. He stayed there until 1922, when he asked to be released for health reasons. He spent his entire working life at the insurance company and made a very respectable career there.”


The 100th anniversary of Franz Kafka's death offers the opportunity to look at Kafka's work and life from current and new perspectives. All events, exhibitions, lectures, literary links can be found on the Project Kafka2024 website.



  • In Kafka's footsteps

    Franz Kafka was born in Prague, but where specifically did the world-famous writer grow up? Where did he draw inspiration, or even go on holiday?