Prague in Danger

When Hitler came to power, Peter Demetz was not yet a teenager; by the time the people of Prague rose against their Nazi overlords in May 1945, he was 22: an altogether remarkable, horrifying time to come of age. Today, Demetz is a renowned cultural historian whose Prague in Black and Gold traced 1,000 years in the history of Central Europe. In Prague in Danger, he trains both his scholarship and his memory on the years of the Nazi occupation of the Czech capital that began in 1939. Unlike the reigns of Rudolf II and Charles IV, this is a history the author lived and experienced, and he braids a sensitive narrative of the politics of occupation and oppression with dry, clear recollections of his multi-ethnic family’s travails under Hitler.

Demetz’s family expressed the richness of cosmopolitan Prague in all its diversity. His father was from a family of Ladins, an ancient tribe of trans-Alpine peasants, while his mother was a Jew of the assimilated, German-speaking Prague milieu from which Franz Kafka had sprung. Demetz was a child in the era of Tom?? Masaryk, the humanist who led the Czechoslovak nation that emerged from the rubble of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. Masaryk’s presidency came to be seen as a golden age, a precursor of today’s post–Cold War Europe in its commitment to dialogue and diversity. But when Hitler took advantage of the power vacuum that followed Masaryk’s death in 1937 to push for Czechoslovakia’s annexation to the Reich, the Demetz family’s world quickly turned upside down. At the infamous Munich Conference of September 1938, Czech hopes were betrayed by the Western powers, and an emboldened Hitler moved swiftly, calling Masaryk’s successor to a humiliating meeting in Berlin while preparing to send troops over the border and naming a Reichsprotektor, or viceroy, to bend the Czech people to his will.

For citizens of Prague, the occupation’s early uncertainty quickly gave way to terror and resistance. When Reichsprotektor Otto von Neurath proved too mild-mannered, the ruthless Rudolph Heydrich was sent in to replace him; the mass arrests and executions began immediately. (Heydrich would later chair the infamous Wannsee Conference, where plans were laid for the Final Solution.) With Heydrich came the tightening grip of short rations, limited travel, and the ever-increasing transportation of Jews to the camps. As conditions in the protectorate deteriorated, Hitler and his minions blithely planned the liquidation of the Czech nation and its assimilation into greater Germany; Hitler himself stated in September 1940 that “assimilation of a greater part of the Czech people was possible, provided that Czechs who were racially useless will be eliminated.” It was in the midst of such madness that the Czech resistance began to find its teeth, moving beyond reburial of poets to prepare for armed insurrection.

A “Half-Jew” in the Nazi racial formulation, Demetz avoided early transport, working in an antiquarian bookshop where staff and clientele vetted each other’s politics through the careful code of literary chat. “Sometimes it was easy,” he writes. “Every week or so an elderly man appeared, complete with loden coat and Nazi badge, asked if we had a book by one Franz Kafka, a local Prague writer, smiled contentedly when I answered that his writings were long vergriffen — that is, out of print — and then disappeared, only to come again.” Demetz found opportunities for dissent: handing off antiquarian tomes to out-of-work intellectuals, fetching the works of Brecht and other forbidden authors for secretly communist Luftwaffe officers, and engaging a bit of cultural resistance of his own by publishing a secretly circulated (and thus illegal) journal for a small group of poetry lovers — some of the small, poignant (and nonetheless dangerous) acts of resistance that Demetz and so many Czechs offered in those years.

Demetz enlivens Prague in Danger by relating such experiences, as well as those of family and friends, in vignettes set in italics and interposed with episodes of political and cultural history. These vignettes relate the travails of people trying to get on with life amid the uncertainty and privation of occupation and war — the young people who endure the bullying of Wermacht soldiers and shortages of ration coupons to enjoy their nights out, or the half-Jewish families who make a virtue of necessity by undertaking mushroom-gathering outings in the Vltava woods. Although they’re not always well incorporated with the political and cultural history, these stories lend richness to Demetz’s portrayal of the fragile life lived by Praguers under Nazi dominion. Demetz also chronicles the lives of promising artists and writers cut short: figures like Jir? Orten, a promising Jewish poet who, after being struck by an ambulance, died because the hospital refused to take a Jewish patient; and Milena Jesensk?, once Franz Kafka’s lover, who was sent to her death in Bergen-Belsen for helping Jews and dissidents escape the country. Demetz undertakes a work of cultural and historical rescue here, bringing to our attention fiercely lived lives of Prague’s forgotten wartime intellectuals.

In 1942, Czech agents trained in England parachuted into the country and assassinated Heydrich, unleashing a wave of Nazi retribution that resulted in the deaths of thousands. Soon thereafter, Demetz’s mother was transported to Terezin. He accompanied her to the transit station, where she sat on her suitcase and told him not to neglect his studies; he would never see her again. Eventually, Demetz himself was transported to a work camp. For a time, his imprisonment had the feel of a camping trip — until the day a Gestapo officer arrived to bring Demetz back to Prague. He was to be interrogated for illegal activities; the poetry group to which he belonged while working in the bookshop, it turned out, had been started by undercover SS agents hunting for dissidents. The weeks that followed included a trip to Auschwitz (the town, fortunately not the camp itself), desultory interrogations in Prague, and a return to the work camps.

In the spring of 1945, the war began to wind down for Demetz and his fellow prisoners. As Demetz’s closing vignettes lengthen, they paint a picture that is wry and faintly absurdist: the smoke of firebombed Dresden, a hundred miles away, clouds the horizon; SS troops appear out of nowhere, threatening execution, only to disappear as swiftly; a fellow prisoner suggests seeking shelter in the castle of a local prince whose cooks are busy sewing Czech flags out of scraps of cloth; Demetz and another refugee, armed with rifles left along the roadside by fleeing Germans, engage in a brief and ineffectual gun battle before taking command of a rural police station, where they are hailed as comrades and partisans by the Soviet officer who arrives to take charge of the town. A survivor, Demetz eventually makes his way back to a Prague that had thrown off the German yoke in an outbreak of desperate guerrilla fighting as Soviet troops advanced upon the city — a city that in years to come would continue to suffer from postwar privation and Communist rule; a city that despite it all kept alive the seeds of its liberal, urbane, and tolerant way of life.