Prague' district of Vinohrady bears witness to a century of Czech history


Having lived in one of the grey prefab housing estates on the outskirts of Prague for most of my life, I continue to be amazed at how much history surrounds me now that I have moved closer to the centre. The buildings in Vinohrady, the district where I live and work, are in fact only around a hundred years old but the last century has been crammed with events which have left their marks everywhere.

On my way to work I pass a building in which the Czech realist and patriotic author of the turn of the century, Karel Vaclav Rais, lived. A few blocks away another memorial plaque commemorates Josef Herold, a Czech lawyer and politician, a deputy in the Austro-Hungarian parliament.

I also walk past a villa in which the founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, lived for several years, and where his son Jan Masaryk, a future foreign minister was born in 1886. The street now bears his name. At the upper end of that street a tablet reads that a general of the Czechoslovak Army, Alois Elias, was born there just four years later.

While Jan Masaryk spent the time of the Second World War in London, broadcasting on the BBC to his compatriots back home, General Elias was appointed prime minister of the puppet Protectorate government after the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, while at the same time organising a resistance movement. Alois Elias was executed by the Nazis in 1942. Jan Masaryk lived for only six more years before he was found dead in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry building. The circumstances of his death are still not clear.

The allied bombing of Prague in February 1945 left a scar in my neighbourhood, too. A synagogue, the largest in Prague at that time, used to stand across the street from General Elias's native house. It was badly damaged during the air raids and caught fire. It was eventually demolished in 1951 and a school was built in its place.

As I approach to the Czech Radio building, memorial plaques commemorating politicians and artists give way to tablets remembering nameless heroes who died in the Battle for Czechoslovak Radio. The houses surrounding the radio building are dotted with them. The radio building itself bears a plaque remembering 14 employees of Czechoslovak Radio who lost their lives defending it.

Czech Radio building in 1945
The second time the building of Czechoslovak Radio was at the centre of a fight was in 1968 during the Soviet-led occupation. The façade of the building across the street was only renovated last year. Until then you could see the pockmarks left by stray Russian bullets. Many of the victims of the 1968 fights were just accidental; people who lived nearby and got in the way of a bullet or were burnt to death in their flats after a stray round set their house on fire.

One of the victims, a young man, had lived in my street, as I recently found out on a list displayed at an exhibition. There is no plaque on that building but whenever I go past number 5, I think about him. He used to live in the building right next to the one where the writer Karel Vaclav Rais lived and where I today started my walk through the Prague district of Vinohrady. Being a hundred years old, Vinohrady has witnessed all the events that shaped Czech statehood in the 20th century.