The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 3/My Impressions of Bohemian Character

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My Impressions of Bohemian Character

By DONALD BREED.

 

Among the qualities of the Czechs and Slovaks that I learned to respect and appreciate during five months’ residence among them last winter, nothing was more striking than their bravery. I am not talking now about the gallantry of the soldier on the field of battle. That I know only by hearsay. I mean the really amazing fortitude of the civilian population, men and women, in the face of great present odds and deprivation and a future which, though hopeful, was full of uncertainty and grave difficulties.

The most immediate and pressing of the problems which faced the people of Prague at that time was the obtaining of the ordinary necessities of life: food and clothing. As I walked through the streets and squares of Prague last January and saw pinched faces and patched clothing, the lack of these essential things was painfully apparent. Some weeks ago I read an article in an American magazine which contained the judicial statement that “of all the large cities of central Europe it now appears that Prague has been this last year one of the worst sufferers from famine.” I can only say of the author of that article that he took a very long time to find it out. Yet his placid ignorance was shared by millions of Americans who were acutely sensitive to the cries of distress from France and Belgium, but knew nothing whatever of the plight of our allies in central and eastern Europe. A great deal of the blame rests with American journalists who busily wrote reports of prospective revolutions that never materialized and street rioting that never took place, but said nothing or only a little about the famine in shoes or milk.

If I refer now to the dark days of last winter, it is not because I want to revive unhappy memories. The late news from Bohemia indicates that, with reasonable economy and some imports, the coming months are going to be a comparatively safe and easy time. But the trying times so recently lived through are worth remembering, because they furnished opportunity for a rather unusual exhibition of popular courage. The visitors to Prague who lived in the big hotels or sojourned in palaces did not see very much of this quality in the people. We who lived with them in their homes and shared their fare saw it every day, and we saw, too, the philosophical humor with which they accepted their hardships.

For instance, I remember an official in the press bureau who had a family to support and an income of a very few hundred crowns a month to pay for everything. He used to get up early in order to walk to his work at the Hradčany and, before leaving home, he breakfasted cheerfully on a piece of black bread without butter and a cup of coffee-substitute. He took his lunch with him in his overcoat pocket. It consisted of more black bread and a hard-boiled egg or possibly a piece of cheese. He came home at night to dinner about half past seven and usually had a hearty but simple meal: a large dish of potatoes or dumplings, sometimes cabbage instead of potatoes, bread and tea. Twice a week perhaps he had meat. When white flour was forthcoming, he had koláče or buchtičky filled with poppy seed or marmalade. Once in a great while he would bring home candy for the children, but that was a riotous piece of extravagance. And when the dinner was over, he would frequently go to his overcoat pocket and take out the mid-day luncheon which he had not eaten, remarking to his wife with a comical affectation of astonishment: “See here, will you! I forgot all about lunch, I was so busy. Never mind; I will have this for to-morrow.”

There were certain fruits and vegetables which had not been in market so long that they had become only a memory to the people. For instance, there were no oranges. The troop train on which I traveled from Padua to Budějovice halted at almost every small station in the former Italian war zone, and at every stopping place small children came down with cakes and oranges to sell. At one village my friend Tvrzický leaned out of the window and bought a number of oranges. Later on in Prague I saw a little girl of three clutching one of these golden spheres given her by Mr. Tvrzický and eyeing it with wonder, not unmixed with suspicion. It was the first orange she had ever seen.

People who were even moderately well-off had hard sledding enough, and there was introduced into their households economy that was at the same time pathetic and laughable. They wore shoes that had been patched and repatched, until they were real curiosities. Their best clothes were of pre-war make and more than one young dandy gave up shirts altogether and contented himself with false bosoms and camouflaging pair of cuffs. But it was not in Vinohrady or on the Hradčany that one saw actual privations. To behold these it was necessary to go down into Žižkov or Vršovice. There I saw the real ravages of the long war, and the cost entailed upon a section of the population which knew nothing of international intrigue or diplomatic maneuvres and would perhaps struggle vainly for years to overcome the setback given them by the great conflict.

In one bare Žižkov flat of two rooms I visited a woman who was living with her family of five small children. The youngest was about four, and the oldest not more than eleven. The eleven-year-old boy was a sturdy lad with an appearance of good health, but the others were pale, thin little mites, so fragile that it seemed scarcely possible they could grow up into healthy adults. It was bitter weather, but they had no fire in the tall porcelain stove in the corner, and three of the children wore only a single garment. All except the eldest boy were as white as chalk, and their bodies were covered with sores, the result of undernourishment and improper diet. The mother wept quietly as she told her story. Her husband, who had been a barber, and had earned a very fair living, had been obliged to go into the army, and he was not among those who had later gone to Siberia. She had not heard from him for many months. She did not know, whether he was living or not. She got a pittance from the government and eked it out with her own small earnings, but even when they had money they could not always buy food with it, for the food was simply not to be had. The city government was helping them a good deal by supplying them soup and vegetables at the public kitchens . . .

As I have already said, the busy people who ate three satisfying meals a day in the restaurants of the big hotels, not caring what they paid for the fare, knew nothing about Žižkov or Vršovice. One man, a foreigner, said to me: “It makes me impatient to hear these hard-luck stories about food shortage. Of course, this is not what we would be getting in America, but after all there is enough nourishment to keep a fellow going.” And he gazed with equanimity at the smoking dinner set before us on the white-covered table in the pleasant cellar of the Representační Dům . . .

The dislocation of their usual manner of living did not prevent the citizens of Prague from extending the most lavish hospitality to their guests. They did not have some things to offer, but what they had they invited strangers to share in the freest way. I have never seen anything like it. More than once I wondered, in a troubled sort of way, what these friends of mine would think about American hospiality, if they ever came to New York or Chicago.

When I reached Prague, it was very difficult to get good hotel accomodations. I mentioned this to a gentleman I had met several times in one of the government offices and he immediately exclaimed: “But why did you not tell me of this before? Of course, you must come and live in my house!” I thought that would be a very pleasant arrangement, but expected naturally to pay for my room. I discovered that this was not his idea of the arrangement at all. He wanted me to be his guest, not merely in name, but in fact. I found out later that I was only one of many Americans in Prague who had been treated in the same cordial fashion. Fortunately I was able to conduct myself so that I was not a burden to my host. But I was enough of an American to be very much surprised at first and considerably touched by this generous and unbusinesslike treatment.

This is not an isolated case. Everywhere that I traveled, from one end of Czechoslovakia to the other, there was the same liberality and kindness. In one small manufacturing town I found banners gaily flung to the breeze in the town square and principal thoroughfares, and when I asked the cause of the evident celebration, was informed, that the streamers had actually been hung there in my honor. That is a distinction to which I fancy I will never be treated again in all my life. But I appreciated it nevertheless. It was in the towns and villages that I made some of my best friends. The Bohemian peasant is a very much more interesting type than your citizen of Podunk, U. S. A., whose chief intellectual interest in life consists in going down to the railway station “to see the train come in.” The Czech villager likes to dance and sing, and is in his element in social gatherings. He is usually well-posted, too, on all the legends and tales of history which concern his neighborhood. If there is an old castle in or near his town, he is particularly eager to have you visit it, and what he does not actually know about it he can frequently make up.

This brings me to another characteristic of the people as I saw them, but I approach it with a certain amount of reserve and a feeling that I am treading on ground that is not very familiar to me. If there is one quality of the Bohemians that Americans may find hard to understand, it is their pre-occupation with the past. They have a passionate interest in the history of their nation that we, in spite of our undoubted admiration of the Revolutionary heroes, know nothing about. A Praguer talks with as much fervor about Charles IV. and the days of Žižka, as a Chicagoan displays in describing the electrification of the Illinois Central or the proposed widening of Michigan Ave. People born west of the Atlantic are much more interested in future things than those that have already passed into history. My friends in Czechoslovakia may have been interested in the future, but they were easily sidetracked when discussing it and diverted to enthusiastic accounts of events that transpired in the fifteenth century. More than a few times I have been perplexed by this habit of looking backward. For instance I asked about the probable continuance of the unemployment wage and was told the story, how Charles IV. built the “Hunger Wall”. I do not know, whether this reveals a national failing or whether it merely shows an aptitude for profiting by experience which we Americans patently lack. I only know that it was a very obvious thing to me and one that always interested and sometimes baffled me.

There, is another respect in which the Czechs—and as far as that is concerned, most European nations—differ radically from Americans. The best description of the dissimilarity was given me by a prominent Bohemian-American who came across the seas, when he was very young. We had been talking about the charms of life in Prague and I had said that the Bohemians seemed to get more out of life than New Yorkers and Chicagoans, and that I thought I should like to go back some day and live there for a long time. He looked sceptical and sighed:

 

“Yes, some day,” he said, “but only when I am rather old and want to take life in a very leisurely way. Bohemia is not really the place for any young man.” He shrugged his shoulders. “There is not enough opportunity, and the mass of the people lack initiative.”

 

That is perfectly true. Compared with the business life of any American city, the commercial activities of Prague are lackadaisical. Shops and offices close for two and sometimes three hours in the middle of the day; the entire tramway service occasionally ceases to operate in order that the motormen and conductors may have a meeting, and the revision of railroad time schedules is delayed for weeks and months simply because the public does not care enough to make a vigorous protest. That this state of affairs is not due to an inherent weakness in the nature of the people is shown by their brilliant success in business, when they are transplanted to this soil. It must be, then, the result of the central European system and traditions. There is a general stagnation of enterprise, and the Great War has multiplied this evil a thousandfold. Right now, when there is the greatest need for alertness and energy, there appears to be the greatest lassitude and indifference. The prevailing feeling is one of discouragement. Capitalists look aghast at the wreckage of industry produced by the war and wonder helplessly, whether it can be set right again within the lifetime of any man now living. They see railroad communications destroyed, telegraph wires down, raw material unobtainable and markets problematic and inaccessible. On the other hand, labor looks on doubtfully and says: “Reconstruction is not our affair. That is the job of the capital. In the meantime we must live and you must pay us good, fat wages. If I choose to work, well and good; if I don’t, the government must help me out. What else is a government for?”

There is no use trying to disguise the situation. It has got to be remedied, although just how the solution will come, very few commercial prophets will be competent to guess. America is bound to help and will unquestionably do so, in spite of the efforts of some of our reactionaries to keep us out of participation in world affairs. But how soon the vanished credit of Europe will reappear and how it will be coaxed back into being, it is difficult to estimate. The inspiring thing about the present chaotic state of European finance and industry is that it must be put straight, and because it must be, it will be. The attractiveness of possible things is not to be compared with the lure of the impossible, when necessity demands the accomplishment of the impossible. But that is a purely American point of view. The American leaps cheerfully to the impossible; the European looks on in dismay and says: “But the effort required is too great! Is it really worth while?”

That seems to me the greatest obstacle to progress in Czechoslovakia today: the disposition to say “It is too much, it is impossible.” This is a much more serious obstacle than Alois Muňa and his bolshevist ring ever were.

Here is one actual case in which I encountered this devastating spirit. I was talking casually with a gentleman of Prague about the railway system of Prague which is utterly inadequate for the traffic. “At least there should be more cars,” I suggested. “If a new type of equipment is impracticable at present, at any rate more of the sort now in use should be ordered.”

“More cars,” said the man, with a comical look of helplessness. “Have you considered, my friend, where these cars could be got today?”

“Right here in Bohemia,” I said. “I have just been talking with a steel mill director who complained that his plant was almost idle because of the lack of orders for car wheels, springs and coupling parts. Other concerns are undoubtedly in the same shape. If electric appliances of one sort or another simply cannot be had, at least trailers could be built. No farther away than Kladno you could get all the iron and steel parts necessary.”

He interrupted me, polite but unconvinced. “But where would you get the money to pay for them,” he asked, “and where would you get the coal to run these additional cars, when you had them?”

I gave him up, just as he gave the problem up. And I had not even told him what was really in my mind: bigger and up-to-date equipment for the street railways and, before long, a subway system, with a main tunnel from the Harrachovo Náměstí under the Vltava and by way of Ferdinandova Ulice to the foot of the Václavské Náměstí, whence one spur would run to Žižkov and Vinohrady, while the other would proceed, via the Powder Tower, to Karlín. On the other side of the river there would probably be two spurs also, one from the Harrachovo Náměstí through Smíchov, and the other to the Hradčany with a station on the summit connected with the tube by a deep elevator shaft. Utopian nonsense this, enough to make the stony countenance of the Jungman statue break into broad smiles. Yet I have just read with interest of how Herbert Hoover brought food supplies to the starving Montenegrins by stringing wire railways up the mountain sides. The difference between the American and the European is that one takes the greatest interest in trying to surmount the insurmountable, while the other, with riper experience and a more mature point of view, is startled by the prospective difficulties of the situation. And the Czechoslovaks are thoroughly Europeans, although probably, no people display greater ingenuity or adaptability outside of their homeland.