When you walk around Prague, you don’t have to go far to find a statue or bust of a woman. I was lucky enough to get to go on a walking tour of The ‘Famous Women of the Czech Republic’. This tour told the stories behind invisible women we walk by with little regard. You know when you see a bust on a wall with a name and you just glance by, well that is no longer the case, I have learnt some fascinating things about women who walked these very streets in Prague.
The guide herself is very enthusiastic, she knew so much and actually had to stop herself getting carried away, aware of the fact that we needed to keep to a timed plan.
We met at Karlovi Namesti next to the statue of Karolina Svetla, who is the author of the famous Czech story ‘The Village’. Karolina was not encouraged at school despite being gifted, her teacher approached her parents and basically said if she were a boy, she would be a genius but it would not be healthy for a girl to have such stimulation. Karolina was forbidden to learn languages, literature or mathematics, instead she was encouraged to prepare for ‘her duties’ as a woman. However destiny can be a cruel mistress and she would have a wicked twist when her first and only child died at three months. The depression that followed was harsh, it resulted in her physician suggesting she stimulate her brain, she then took up writing. There is so much more to this woman and what she did for the betterment of other women in her time, it is well worth a google search, as space here is limited and there are other worthy women to mention.
Other interesting women were; Wencesles’ Mother, St Ludmilla who was killed by her daughter-in law, basically in a holy power struggle. It is told that she was strangled with a scarf so that no blood was spilt, all the statues of Ludmilla have her wearing a scarf. We learnt about Emma Destinnova, the famous opera singer who had enormous success throughout Europe and in New York, who died in 1930, her bust is to be found on Malostranska Namesti, There is Bertha von Suttner, she was the first woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, born to the Kinsky family in Prague, later moved to Vienna to work for Nobel and can be found on the 2€ coin in Austria, she is considered one of the first intellectual Pacifists. The woman on the 500 CZK Krouna note is Bozena Nemcova, a writer in the final phase of the Czech National Movement, they sort to write novels in Czech language not the formal language of German. She had a very interesting life, died poor but had the kind of funeral reserved for royalty. There are many more interesting women to be found throughout the city, Libuse – who married a ploughman and is the Mother of Prague and the Czech people from the 7th Century. Milada Horakova who studied law and set up resistance against the Nazis, she was imprisoned at Terezin the prison camp for Jews from the Czechoslovakia. She was sentenced to death by the Nazis but it was changed to life imprisonment. After liberation at the end of WWII she was politically active against the Communists and was sentenced to death on charges of treason in 1950. A massive tragedy to have survived one dictatorship only to be condemned to death again by the next. The artist Toyen a member of the surrealist movement, famous amongst artists and women of her time and currently her art is being displayed at the Kampa Museum of Art in Prague. Milena Jesenska who studied at the Minerva school, the first school for girls in the Austro-Hungarian empire in Prague that actually taught useful stuff, not just sewing and ironing. Milena’s husband was not earning much money, she decided to supplement the family income with some translation work. Most books were still being written in formal German at this time. She worked on a short story translating it from German to Czech by a little know author called Franz Kafka, they had a bit of thing for a while but Milena would not leave her husband. This was the first translation of Kafka’s work. She later divorced her husband and married another, she worked as a translator and editor. During the Nazi occupation she worked for the resistance movement, was arrested, imprisoned and sent to prisons in Germany, she died in Ravensbruck from kidney failure in 1944.
Finally Madeleine Albright, on whom we finished the tour. Her family were originally from Smichov in Prague, just down the road from where I live. Her father was a diplomat and during the Nazi occupation the family moved to England, where he worked with Benes in the exiled Czechoslovakian government. Madeleine actually appeared in a propaganda film on refugee children. After the war they family moved back to Prague, her father still working as a diplomat was moved to Belgrade. The Communist way of life made things difficult and eventually the family left Southampton, England for the USA in 1948. It was not until Madeleine became known politically that people started to dig around in her heritage. She had been Catholic, married an Episcopalian and joined his part of Christianity, only later did she find out that her parents were Jews and three of her grandparents had been murdered as part of the holocaust. When asked what she is – her reply was that there are many things that make up Madeleine Albright, she is of Czechoslovakian Jewish heritage, was Catholic, is a Wife, Mother, Grandmother, Politician and all these things go into making her who she is. You are not to be defined by one part of you. Her favourite quote which I like is ‘There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women’. There are more quotes and more tremendous women from this part of the world.
It really is quite crazy to think all the above amazing women have walked around these streets or seen the river and experienced Prague in so many different ways. Here I am, a woman walking around getting my own unique experiences of this beautiful city.