An all-encompassing, if sometimes daunting account of life in Prague during the six-year Nazi occupation.
In his follow-up to Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes from the Life of a European City (1997), Prague-born historian Demetz (The Air Show at Brescia, 1909, 2002, etc.) covers a vast amount of political and cultural material, veering between scholarly and autobiographical approaches. The academic analysis is at times intimidatingly dense, but readers who persevere will be rewarded with rich, balanced profiles of significant figures ranging from Konstantin von Neurath, the Nazi-installed leader of Bohemia and Moravia, to Franz Kafka’s beloved Milena Jesenská, an essayist who was active in the resistance movement. The half-Jewish Demetz, who lost several family members in concentration camps, also includes detailed descriptions of the impact on Jews’ daily lives of Nazi racial policies, which could be as petty as bans on the purchase of fruit and coffee. On the cultural front, Czech films, literature and music are viewed mainly through the prism of the era’s political climate; Demetz discusses at length, for example, the role jazz played in inspiring members of the resistance. These meaty scholarly sections would have been more effective if they had been tightened. The book really shines, however, in the haunting accounts of the author’s childhood and youth, including a 1944 stint in Prague’s Pankrác prison: “In the morning, when the guards banged on our door, the oldest of us had to shout ‘Alles gesund” [All are healthy],’ but that did not stop the guards from rushing in to dunk our heads in the toilet bowls or taking us out to the corridor to do special gymnastics.”
Deftly mingling subjective and objective material, Demetz shines a bright literary light on an important piece of political and cultural history.