The second time I visited Prague, I was shown incredible hospitality by people my father knew through mutual connections to a black light theater troupe. One of them, whom I will call Marie, while guiding me through St. Vitus Cathedral on the hill inside Prague’s famous castle, stopped before a series of carved wooden panels and grew reflective. “You know about Bílá hora?” she asked. Her expression, grown suddenly pensive, left me in no doubt that this mattered. A great deal. I did not, I admitted, shame-facedly. Ashamed that I knew so little of that history. But also, feeling a slap to my American ego, prepared to suggest that such local matters hardly cast ripples in postwar American suburbia. Then she observed: “Everyone has key moment in life when everything changed.”
“For you Americans, it is when Kennedy is shot. Am I right?”
I had not been expecting this. The American Revolution, maybe. The Emancipation Proclamation, maybe. But this? I was in elementary school. Fourth grade if I have the dates right. Actually, I was spending a few days in the local hospital while the doctors and nurses did what they could to begin the healing of my duodenal ulcer. I had pressed the button for the nurse. Nothing was wrong. Armed with the excuse that I needed more milk (the drug of choice in those days), I simply wanted to see her, to smell the minty gum she chewed, hear it snap in her pretty mouth (she was a candy-striper, a nurse in training), feel her cool hand on my brow. My roommate had bet me that I didn’t have the courage to kiss her. Was this my moment? Of course I had the courage! But, no show. I went out into the corridor. There in the glass-walled room at the end of the corridor, the floor’s TV room, was my nurse. And every other staff person on duty. I walked to that room, fascinated by the image of so many adults, eyes glued to the high-mounted black and white screen, crying. What was wrong? My candy-striper, noticing me for the first time, said, “Our president has been shot. Kennedy has been shot.” Then went back to crying.
“Yes, that was a fateful day,” I said to my guide. I was not disturbed so much as curious to know more about an event that could so disturb every adult present.
“For Czech people,” she said, “it was Bílá hora.”
That happened in November, 1620. Another fateful November event (Kennedy’s assassination was November 22). Marie was not as disturbed as my candy-striper, not as functionally disturbed, but psychically, the disturbance went deeper. Her very identity, she made it clear, was disturbed by this moment of infamy.
What happened? To verify her account, I went to The Coasts of Bohemia, a Czech history by Derek Sayer (1998 Princeton University Press). Without going into preceding events, suffice it to say, a year earlier, the Czechs had booted out the Hapsburg successor to the throne and installed a king of their own choosing. Frederick’s young wife was the daughter of King James I of England, with whom the Czechs hoped to forge an alliance. Side note: for the one year of their reign, he spent his time hunting and she hosting ball after expensive ball. This irresponsible behavior did not make them exactly popular. Training an army? Preparing to defend the kingdom? Well… Still, they were the Czech’s own royals. Until November 8, 1620. On that day, Ferdinand II, the Hapsburg king, crushed the pathetically underprepared Czech army on White Mountain, a hill not far from Prague. Hearing news of the defeat, Frederick and his wife fled the city in a carriage, reportedly in such haste they left their infant behind in the castle, forcing an alert staff person to catch up to their carriage to return their apparently not so precious bundle.
“Bílá hora settled the fate of the Kingdom of Bohemia for the next three centuries,” writes Derek. “It was without any doubt the most cataclysmic event in modern Czech history.”
“Czech people are cowards,” said my hostess. I began to protest but she stopped me. “It is okay. We learn what we must do to survive.”
I thought at the time, but did not say to her, that this experience, being forced to swallow one’s pride to survive, stood like a Berlin Wall between the Czech side of my family and the Iowa side of my family. We might break down the wall, or they might escape, but we would never know a disturbance so profound that nearly four centuries later it would bring shame to a cheek as vivid as the flush of shock on my candy-striper’s cheek.
Telling a story is not the same thing as standing rooted before a carved story panel, but at least my persona in the story stands a little closer to her.
Did I kiss my candy-striper? I did. She offered me a stick of gum. Later, I found out the gum was supposed to be forbidden. Her little rebellion. My little rebellion. Really nothing more profound than sweetness. What did we do to earn this sweetness? We were lucky enough to have been on our side of the wall.