Travel after the pandemic #17: Prague, Czech Republic
Through the troubled eyes of Franz Kafka
Kafka was born into an upper middle-class Jewish family on July 3, 1883 at U radnice 5, a house on the corner of Maiselova and Kaprova streets, a border between Staré Město, which is the Old Town, and Josefov, the heart of the Jewish community. He lived there with his parents for two years.
The original building has long since been torn down. A gaunt-looking modern bust now commemorates the site, next to which is the Franz Kafka Exhibition, a modest display retelling Kafka’s life simply but effectively with photos, artifacts of Jewish Prague and a timeline of his 40 years.
Prague at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and German was Kafka’s first language, despite his Jewish roots and Czech background. As a boy he lived from 1889 to 1896 in the Dům u Minuty, the Minute House, at Old Town Square no. 2, by the Astronomical Clock. The building is part of the Town Hall on Staroměstské náměstí (the square), and its black and white façade is decorated with scenes inspired by biblical and mythological scenes, as well as themes from contemporary Renaissance legends.
Kafka’s life is inextricably linked with the Old Town Square, which forms the historic centre and focal point of city life. His place of birth, his school, his university, his parents’ apartment in the Oppelt House are all there. Kafka moved with his family to the uppermost floor of this house at Old Town Square no. 5 in 1913, by which time he was ill with tuberculosis,
After four years of elementary school, Kafka went up to the German National Humanistic Gymnasium in the Goltz-Kinský Palace at 12 Old Town Square. This now houses collections of the National Gallery. Kafka’s father had a small kiosk on the ground floor of the palace.
After eight years in the German-language gymnasium he took his Matura exams in 1901 and was declared ready to study at the University of Prague. He studied law and received his doctorate in 1906, but in 1907 he ended up working with an insurance company while all the time just wanting to write.
For some time he lived in an apartment, by all accounts a pretty substandard place, within the building that now houses the American Embassy over in the Schornbornsky palac at Tržistì 15. The building has a Kafka plaque. He also lived for a time in another street off Staromětské náměstí, Týnska 3.
His favourite sister, Ottla, lived at Golden Lane 22 in the Prague Castle district and he is reported to have written his short stories in her front room. It was a quiet place to write and many of his significant works were produced in the tiny house, now occupied by a souvenir shop.
Ottla was later shipped to the Terezín concentration camp in north western Bohemia from where in 1943 she volunteered to accompany a trainload of children to a destination which later turned out to be Auschwitz, where she met her death.
Franz was the Kafka’s family only surviving boy, two other sons dying in infancy. His other two sisters also died in concentration camps. Kafka had a difficult relationship with his father, a successful businessman, who was reported to have a strong temper and didn’t understand or appreciate his son’s creative side nor desire to write. This relationship seems to be reflected in many of Kafka’s stories, which often see the main character fighting against some sort of strong, overbearing personality.
Kafka worked for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Company (Na Poříčí 7), today the Hotel Century Old Town. Another hotel connected to his work is the former Grand Hotel Evropa on Wenceslas Square. One of his first public readings was held here (then called Hotel Erzherzog Stefan) in 1912. He read from “The Judgement”.
The long hours and exacting requirements of the Assicurazioni Generali, however, did not permit Kafka to devote himself to writing. In 1908 he found in Prague a job in the semi-nationalised Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. There he remained until 1917, when tuberculosis forced him to take intermittent sick leaves and, finally, to retire (with a pension) in 1922, about two years before he died.
In 1923 he made the big decision to move to Berlin so he could focus on his writing. The tuberculosis he had struggled with for years returned and he travelled to Vienna for treatment, dying aged 40 in Dr Hoffman’s sanatorium in Kierling near Klosterneuburg, a picturesque village a few miles outside Vienna, on June 3, 1924.
Like many a struggling artist, Kafka was not appreciated until after his death. Most of his work was published posthumously by his good friend and literary executor Max Brod, who plays a large role in why we even know who Kafka is today. Stories published before his death include the popular “The Metamorphosis,” “Before the Law” and “The Judgement” along with a few collections such as “Mediation” and “A Hunger Artist”.
His self-doubt though led him to struggle with his writing and publishing and he begged Brod to destroy any unpublished manuscripts after his death. Brod did not, and instead went on to publish Kafka’s “The Trial,” “The Castle” and “Amerika”, among others.
Kafka’s writing had a great effect on German literature and his popularity there was much greater than in his home town. In Eastern European countries living under communism, however, Kafka became a popular underground read, as citizens could identify with the heavy-handedness of bureaucracy and faceless organisations.
His body was returned for burial in Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery (Nový židovský hřbitov, in Czech). Aficionados can make a pilgrimage to his grave, N°137, where he is buried next to his parents. There are typically a few fans visiting to commemorate the man. Many lay small stones on the grave, according to an old Jewish custom. Some leave personal notes.
A bronze sculpture in honour of Kafka was unveiled in December 2003 next to the Spanish Synagogue in Josefov. However, there is a more monumental (literally) monument to the writer outside the Quadrio shopping centre at Národní 26, it’s a huge reflecting, rotating Kafka head. Designed by local artist David Černý, it is 11 metres tall and made up of just over 40 moving chrome-plated layers.
The Kafka Museum opened in summer 2005 in the former Herget Brickworks building on the Lesser-Town bank of the Vltava River. It offers an in-depth look at Kafka’s connection to the city. The museum presents Prague as a city full of the strange tales that were influential on Kafka’s work.
To make a trip to Prague completely Kafkaesque, businesses have cashed in with such as the Hostel Franz Kafka and the Franz Kafka Café. However, in Kafka’s times cafés were the place for intellectuals to meet, and one of the writer’s favourite haunts was Café Louvre, a traditional place at 22 Národni Street.
Arches and cream and pink walls with neo-Roccoco plasterwork characterise the café’s bright, airy interior. Overall, the effect resembles that of the opulent yet cosy coffee houses typical of the Habsburg Empire at the turn of the 20th century. In its heyday, numerous such institutions existed; today Café Louvre is one of the last. Pop in with your favourite Kafka book.