As part of my passion to remain informed about world events, I subscribed to a podcast produced by Radio Prague, mainly to keep up on national events in the Czech Republic. And recently, while listening to a weekly report, I came across a story that transported me back to a very specific moment in my life, and it began to stir my consciousness with a perfect storm of memories, beauty, and profound sadness. It is a tale that illuminates the two sides of our human nature; our ability to create what is beautiful, and our propensity to destroy it all – the yin and yang of beautiful destruction.
Old Town Prague is one of the luckiest places in Europe. It is one of the few centers of medieval architecture that was left virtually unscathed by the carpet bombings of WWII. Unlike neighboring cities in Bohemia like Plzen and Dresden, Nazi controlled Prague was not a place where the Allies routinely rained down terror from the skies. There was not much of strategic importance to the city besides being the cultural heart of the Czech people. Most of the industry was located in the outskirts of the city, or closer to the mines in the eastern part of the country. And that was something that turned out to be the saving grace of the city – and also led to some incredible examples of the triumphs of beautiful destruction.
In 2007, I spent five months living in the Czech Republic, and the vestiges of WWII were few and far between. Besides the basement of one castle in Brno that still housed a radio station as it appeared when it was abandoned by the fleeing Germans, there was very little to remind you that the world’s most violent conflict surrounded this small country just a couple of generations ago. Most of the mementos from the Great Wars were replaced by constant reminders of the Cold War, on which Prague was the front line.
And that’s why this story caught hold of me so much. World War II is hardly acknowledged in the Czech Republic because the struggle against Communism was the dominant narrative of Czech identity. And while I had a personal connection to the places from living there – I had never thought about the stories and the tragedies that befell the Czech people before the Russian occupation, it opened up a whole new perspective to view my experience.
On Valentine’s Day of 1945 a squadron of American B-17s broke through a dense bank of clouds to descend upon Dresden, Germany which lies about 95 miles northwest of Prague. It was the incendiary bombs from this raid that reduced the sandstone cathedral of Dresden to a gleaming and twisted lake of glass. However, this particular group of bombers did not materialize over Dresden. A navigational error had led them too far South, and instead of the industrial heart of Germany, these bombers set their sights on the medieval city of Prague.
In the aftermath of the mix up, 93 buildings were flattened and over 700 people were killed. A month later another bombing struck the industrial outskirts of Prague – but this one was no mistake. All told, Allied bombing killed over 1,000 Czechs in Prague and had laid waste to large portions of the city.
Unfortunately, a proper record of these events was never undertaken. Under Nazi control, the Czechs were severely limited in their ability to document and publish with any regularity, and besides a few propaganda pieces over the radio, much of the destruction was lost to fading memories. Besides eyewitness accounts, there was very little done to preserve the stories of the survivors. Perhaps that is why I never came across the story while living there – that there was no one to tell it.
In 2010, the forgotten memories of the Allied bombing of Prague were brought to light for the first time when the personal photo collection of Stanislav Marsal was released. Marsal had spent time as a photographer for the Hitler Youth during the war (Czechoslovakia was given over to the Germans by the Allied governments in an attempt to appease Hitler – meaning that the Czechs were forced to assimilate into the German war machine or face the concentration camps), and was able to document the images of the war in all of their gory detail. It was the first time that pictures of the aftermath of the bombing of Prague had been available for the world to see, telling an untold story nearly seventy years later.
While researching more information on the bombings, I came across a map that showed where the bombings had taken place – and noticed that many of the landmarks that I would’ve recognized in modern day Prague were under the dark circles indicating the devastation.
“The Dancing House” is one of the most recognizable buildings in Prague. Lying just downriver from Old Town, and situated on a corner that looks out over the Vltava River and up towards the castle, it is a striking piece of architecture.
On one of my visits to Prague in 2007, I spent an entire night out walking the city, trying to take in everything and seeking out something, despite not knowing what that something was. Wandering through the dark streets, I was coming to grips with the profound sense of loneliness that creeps up around you when you are alone in a large city, surrounded by a million people who you would never know. I remember walking out past an alley and ending up on the riverfront. I stopped to watch the water lap up against the pillars of a bridge – and there was “the dancing house.” I guess the name of the Dancing House provides all you need to know about the building – it is supposed to represent two dancers (it was originally called Fred & Ginger after Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers).
I can still remember my fascination and awe as I tried to wrap my mind around the modern stylings of this whimsical house that seemed out of place among the classical and baroque buildings. Communism had left an ugly stamp in the architecture of the country, leaving most cities with gray concrete boxes for buildings – so imagine my surprise as I found this island of originality. I ended up just sitting on the bridge and looking at the house, then turning around and taking in the view of the castle that was behind me, and just feeling an incredibly strong connection to the city. The lights playing across the river and the sounds of the early morning took me to a place of appreciation that was able to push away that sense of loneliness that was chasing me through back alleys of Old City, and allowed me to find an almost spiritual connection to this strange place.
from my view – Prague, 2007
Now, as beautiful as it is, it never would’ve happened without the disoriented Allied pilots. The Valentine’s day raid leveled the building that used to stand on that corner, and actually killed a number of children whose mother’s life was spared only because she was in a different room at the time. It was a heartbreaking tragedy that Stanislav’s pictures shed light on after decades of silence, and it illustrates our cycle of beautiful destruction – something beautiful was taken away by a meaningless mistake and made room for a different type of beauty.
The irony is not lost on me today, that a wandering and lost American pilot set in motion the wheels of beautiful destruction that led to this wandering and lost American student to find a moment of solace in a lonely city. Maybe it is too much to attribute a transcendent experience to a particular example of whimsical architecture, but on its most basic level, it’s really about beauty – and how our beautiful world can affect our emotions and our sense of self.
Discovering the story about how the dancing house came to be has provided a much richer context for my own personal experience with the house. It had represented something of a personal touchstone on my own journey of self discovery – and now represents something more. It is beauty rising out of the ashes of devastation, a testament to the best and worst of our humanity; it is beautiful destruction.