While some people prefer to book guided tours of all the sites on their trips, or even book their entire trip with a tour group, we generally like to explore on our own, so are pretty picky when it comes to taking tours. However, if there is one tour not to be missed, I have to say it is the WW2 walking tour in Prague. Those of you who know me may be thinking I'm a bit biased - and I probably am! The Holocaust and World War 2 are particular interests of mine, and I've spent years studying them both independently and in graduate school. It is rare that I learn something new from a tour or museum meant to educate the general public (you know, people who don't have their own personal library of Holocaust and genocide books). So why go on it? Because, whether or not you have extensive knowledge of this time in history, like I do, or just are vaguely aware that there was this guy named Hitler, you will get something from this tour that you cannot get from any book.
The tour begins at the Powder Tower. Once you find your guide (s/he'll be holding an umbrella), you'll begin your walking tour of the city, stopping at significant points along the way. Our guide was Marek, and he was everything you'd want a guide to be - nice,
informative, and entertaining. Marek did a great job of not only communicating the history of the time period, but also illuminating the perspectives of the Czech people. This seemed particularly important to me, as the perspectives of local, non-combatant citizens are often lost or overlooked. And, especially in this case - I don't think Czech history can be understood without recognizing the experiences of a people who not only lived under occupation, but experienced a profound sense of betrayal from the international community in how it came about.
The tour itself does not always stop at the same sites, but no matter
which particular sites you end up seeing, having the history put into context is absolutely fascinating. You can read about it all you want, but without the tour, you'd probably never recognize the bullet holes on the side of a non-descript building, and know that those bullet holes came from an altercation between the Nazis and the Czech resistance, or be able to identify which seemingly ordinary building in the center of old town once served as the Nazi headquarters in the city of Prague. Nor would you ever get the chance to venture underneath the old clock tower into the original
bowels of the old city streets which now resides under the old square in this beautiful city.
We entered the underground through a small door inside the clock tower which opened up to a room housing the remnants of a burned cross from the
Prague uprising on May 7th, 1945. Marek took us through the winding cave like passage ways that snake through the underground, all the while explaining how certain rooms were used by the Czech resistance as prisons, while others were for weapon storage. There is something very powerful about being in a place in which history unfolded, and having a physical understanding of the space in which it occurred. (Isn't this partly why we memorialize at the site at which an event happened?)
One of the things pointed out on the tour that I found most interesting (and in fact, had been anxious to come across) were the stolpersteine, or "stumbling blocks".
Stolpersteine are small brass markers found embedded in the cobblestones and sidewalks throughout the old town. These markers each say the name of a Holocaust victim and details of their fate, and are placed in front of houses and buildings that used to be their homes. They are found throughout many European cities, and it is estimated that there are hundreds all over the Czech Republic as of today. As memorials, stolpersteine are somewhat controversial, as many feel that stepping on the names of victims is disrespectful, but I find them to be compelling and important. What is so effective about them, to me, is that they remind us not only of the death and destruction that took place - something crucial to remember - but about life as well. When faced with a "stumbling block", it is impossible not to look around and think about the life that particular person led. In a time period of history where victims are reduced to numbers by merit of the fact that there are too many to conceptualize, I think bringing the focus to an individual life, even for a moment, is a worthy act of remembrance. I often tell students that the Holocaust was not 6 million Jews killed, but one plus one plus one, 6 million times, and this memorial is a testament to that.
As I mentioned, the tour doesn't always stop at the same sites. I was hoping to see the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius (the site where the assassins of Reinhard Heydrich hid out and took their last stand), but it didn't happen to be on schedule that day.
However, when I asked Marek about it, he told us to stick around after the tour and he'd give us some more information. Well, not only did he give us more information - he helped us get tram tickets, accompanied us all the way to the site, and helped us to get tickets at the group rate. In the above picture you can see the bullet holes still pocking the wall of the church as well as candles that are still being placed for these Czech heroes over 50 years after the event took place. The small window above led to the church crypt where the rebels were cornered by the Nazis. Being unable to reach the Czechs with gunfire, the Nazis put a hose into the window and started pumping in water to drown the men.
On the inside of the crypt, you are able to see a memorial to the men, read their story, as well as see where they spent the last few hours of their lives. One of the most remarkable things inside the crypt, is that you can see that the men even tried to tunnel out of the church, left evident by the large square hole in the lower wall where people still leave thank you notes, poems, travel journals as well as offerings to the young men. Eventually after exhausting all escape options, the paratroopers sent by the Czech government, who were at the time in exile, committed suicide to avoid capture.This is a powerful site, not to be missed whether included on the tour or not.
Traveler tips: The tour takes about 2 hours, and you pay at the end (bring cash - and enough for a tip - it's well deserved). Wear comfortable walking shoes and bring an umbrella in case of rain!