By Judy Maben, 16-traveler and 11-time Vacation Ambassador from Sacramento, CA
I flew to Prague with a mystery in my pocket. It was the beginning of our O.A.T. Jewels of Bohemia: Czech Republic, Slovakia & Hungary adventure, and I was looking forward to glorious Austro-Hungarian architecture, good food, great wine, interesting histories, and meeting people who could tell me about their experiences in both WWII and the Soviet occupation. But mostly I wanted to learn the meaning of a small silver charm I had inherited from my father.
At the beginning of the American involvement in WWII, my father was sent to England to help prepare for D-Day. He was billeted with a Czech couple who had escaped from their native country just after the Nazis invaded. At the beginning of the occupation, the Nazis were anxious to get rid of Jews any way they could, including allowing them to leave the country if they could provide the required documentation. Much of the Czech government also fled, many to England. My father’s Jewish hosts were able to supply all their records to the Nazis, even their dog’s license, which allowed them to leave Czechoslovakia and settle in England. When my father left England for Belgium, the man of the house gave him a silver charm that he said would protect him from Nazi evil. It is a bizarre good luck charm…a Jewish man dressed in traditional clothes, yarmulke on the back of his head, hanging from a rope, tongue out, neck broken. How, I wondered, could this be good luck? I thought someone in Prague might know.
Prague is a jewel box of architectural styles from Renaissance to Baroque to Art Nouveau. But the city’s outer edges, like those of all cities in central Europe that came under Soviet power, are defined by stark, boxy concrete apartment houses and utilitarian government buildings. Inside the edges, the city’s leafy green boulevards are flanked by beautifully ornamented buildings, witnesses to Prague’s artistic past.
Like most European cities, Prague’s past is written on its face. Most importantly, a river—the Vltava—runs through it, dividing old town from new (or “lesser”) town, and linking Prague to many other European cities. In history, of course, “old” and “new” are relative. Starting from somewhere around 800, the city grew with the help of protective knights and good King Wenceslas I (who was really only a prince or maybe a duke). The main square of the city, which is actually a broad boulevard almost a mile long, is named for him.
In the 14th century the Czech’s most famous king and head of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles IV, built up much of the city and spanned the Vltava with a beautiful bridge, now named for him. This brought the working part of the city into connection with the older, living part. Now the bridge is lined with statues of saints and other famous folk, and trod upon by the multitudes of tourists who wander through the city. The most famous saint is St. John of Nepomuk, crowned with a 5-star halo. His likeness can be found on bridges all over the Czech Republic, as he was thrown into the river by an outraged king who resented his political meddling. The guides will tell you that John refused to reveal the confession of the queen. Hm.
Our city guide took us by bus to the other side (the “lesser”) of the river so we could admire the beautiful cityscape of Prague. The garden we, along with lots of locals, walked through was preserved by the Nazis so they could have a training ground for the Hitler Youth Group. Now it offers lovely views of the city, a place to run your dog, and small squares where you can enjoy coffee with your friends. This is a big coffee town.
We joined the tourist hordes crossing the Charles Bridge, past the vendors hawking their paintings and jewelry, and an elderly jazz band. A lively scene. Lots of beggars too, on their knees, foreheads to the ground, hands clasped prayerfully and pointing toward their caps, hoping for coins.
In the old town, we admired the gothic and art nouveau architecture. Because the Nazis just marched into town, Prague was never bombed, preserving a fairy tale collection of churches, homes, shops, spires, and higgledy-piggledy winding lanes of cobblestones.
We had lunch in the historic Jewish quarter, which gave me the perfect opportunity to explore the meaning of the silver charm. After lunch, I asked about it in several synagogues, antique stores, and even in the Jewish library and museum, but no one had ever seen anything like it. Surely it wasn’t the only one ever made. Our local guide, who also guided in the Jewish quarter, took a picture of the charm on her phone and texted it to her guide network to see if they might know something about it. They came up with the theory that it was a symbol of antisemitism carried by Jews during the Nazi occupation to prove they were NOT Jews. Protection perhaps, but still a mystery.
Any ideas from O.A.T. readers out there?
Perhaps you’ll uncover the mystery of this good luck charm when you travel to Prague for Jewels of Bohemia: Czech Republic, Slovakia & Hungary.