Visit to Prague and Lidice
Jackie Reynolds Full Field Report
(Downloadable Full Version-Lidice Trip Field Report FULL)
Our research project uses as a case study the relationship between Stoke-on-Trent and the village of Lidice in the Czech Republic. This relationship is rooted in the support given by the working people of Stoke-on-Trent to the ‘Lidice Shall Live’ campaign, initiated by Sir Barnett Stross, to help to re-build Lidice after its destruction by the Nazis in 1942. Critically, the relationship is expressed through the medium of arts and culture, and our study examines why we would choose the medium of arts and culture to link distant geographical communities in ways that foster empathy, compassion and understanding. An important part of the design of our project is a research visit to Lidice to attend the annual commemoration of the Tragedy, and to take part in the arts and cultural events that take place at this time. We wanted to take a mixed group of academics and creative practitioners, including our filmmakers, and to meet creative practitioners in Lidice to explore ideas for a new project to be informed by the outcomes of this research project. This is an account of that visit.
The visit took place 12th-15th June 2014. The team who travelled out to the Czech Republic included Jackie Reynolds and Janet Hetherington (both Senior Researchers); Kimberley Watson (Scholarship Enterprise and Research Projects Coordinator, photographer and actor; Cathie Davies (visual artist working with communities), Darren Teale and Suzanne James (filmmakers). Tony Jones (community and participatory photographer) also played a key role in planning and reflecting on the visit, but was sadly unable to join us on the trip for health reasons.
We left the university for the airport hotel the night before the early morning flight. One of the valuable aspects of such a research visit is the opportunity for group reflection on the project so far, and such reflection began as soon as we embarked on the taxi journey, and continued as we shared our first group meal before getting an early night ready to get up bright and early the next day to be at the airport for 5am, ready for our 7am flight.
Thursday 12th June
Our hotel was in Prague, which is around 15 miles from Lidice. After a smooth flight, we dropped off our bags at the hotel and began exploring some of the well-known tourist spots in Prague, to orientate ourselves and to get a feel for the cultural heritage of this amazing city. Darren and Suzanne took along the film equipment to capture the context of our visit. A group of councillors from Stoke-on-Trent, and the Lord Mayor of the city (who were also in Prague to attend the commemoration event in Lidice), joined us for this part of our programme, and gave us some valuable suggestions of places to go and routes to take.
Having purchased our travel tickets, we took the tram up to the Prague Castle complex, calling in to admire the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral.
We enjoyed a healthy lunch of fried cheese and chips (!), before gradually making our way down towards the wonderful Charles Bridge, with its collection of craft stalls, street performers and artists. One of my personal favourite things was the Prague Love Locks. In contrast to all the formality of the ornate buildings, each one of these padlocks represents the story of a couple’s love. The padlock is fastened to the railings, and the two keys thrown into the water below, to represent the couple’s everlasting love.
I also loved the enthusiastic jazz band that was performing on Charles Bridge. They were all older performers. Their music created a fantastic atmosphere, and we lingered on the bridge enjoying the sights and sounds for some time.
Eventually, with aching legs, we jumped on another tram, and visited the Parachutist pub, which contains many photographs and maps concerning the free Czech army during the Nazi occupation. We ended our first day in Prague with a shared meal at a restaurant near to the hotel, where we made our plans for the next day of the trip.
Friday 13th June
After breakfast at the hotel, we began our second day in Prague. We had all been tasked the night before with finding a visitor attraction in Prague that was of interest to our research. We unanimously agreed that Darren’s suggestion of the Dox Centre for Contemporary Art. http://www.dox.cz/en/ Their motto is in itself a reference to cultural value:
“In an age where growing numbers of people tend to think dangerously alike, art’s capacity to suspend, even for a moment, our habitual ways of seeing, may well prove to be of its greatest value.”
We were very lucky in that a new exhibition called ‘Frontline’ had just opened at the Dox, commemorating the 100 years anniversary of the beginning of World War 1. Even more serendipitous was the fact that a large part of the exhibition was centred around people’s personal stories, which was perfectly in keeping with the focus of our research. Staff at the gallery kindly agreed to allow us to film within the exhibition. Moreover, Zuzana Masna, PR and Development Assistant at Dox agreed to be interviewed on film, about the exhibition. We had always hoped to be able to include the perspectives of creative practitioners in the Czech Republic as part of our research project, so we were delighted by this opportunity.
The main exhibition space contained an impressive site-specific installation by Slovak artists Bohuš and Monika Kubinský,in which two battle linesconfronted each other.
The first was a trench wall, evoking those of World War I conflicts, and the second was a line composed of fragments from authentic anti-aircraft bunkers from World War II. The anti-aircraft bunkers contained miniature musical boxes, with tiny handles for visitors to turn. As we looked around the exhibition, Darren filmed our responses to what we were seeing, which resulted in some interesting group reflections being captured as part of our research data.
The second part of the exhibition, in the upstairs gallery, included diaries, drawings, photographs and other items from those who were involved in World War I. These artefacts were apparently donated after an open call on Czech Television as part of the making of a documentary series entitled ‘Report on the Great War”. There were also short films of family members of those involved being interviewed about the involvement of their ancestors. There were English subtitles, which made this a highly engaging part of the exhibition for several of us as we sat and listened on headphones. It was particularly interesting to see some of the informal photographs of troops in World War I, as these contrasted with the more typical formal shots of soldiers in their regiments.
The visit to the Dox Gallery was highly interesting, thought provoking and valuable for our research. It was early afternoon by the time that we eventually made our way back towards the centre of Prague, ready to make our first visit over to Lidice.
We travelled by metro and then bus journey to Lidice. A substantial bus stop provided reassurance that we had disembarked from the bus in the right place!
Lidice is a place surrounded by open fields, in contrast to the city environment of Prague. On our arrival, we split up to explore the different parts of the village. I was drawn to the rose garden, where I sat and absorbed the peacefulness of the place.
Others in the group were filming and photographing the different areas in the village. We were delighted to meet Luba Hedlova, Curator of the Art Gallery in Lidice, and Ivona Kasalicka, Manager of the Lidice Memorial Museum, both of whom had been very supportive to us in our planning of the visit. We were also honoured to be invited to a reception event hosted by the Mayor Of Lidice, Veronika Kellerova. Civic representatives from Stoke-on-Trent were present and it was a good opportunity to chat to people informally about the weekend ahead and about our research project. In particular, we met Sylvia Klanova, whose Mother had designed the remarkable statue of the Children of Lidice. She began to tell us her Mother’s remarkable story and agreed to be filmed the following day.
Throughout the afternoon, we had heard the lovely sound of singers rehearsing for the evening’s performance, and we were looking forward to this special part of the commemoration: an outdoor classical concert to honour the victims, survivors, and those bereaved by the tragedy in Lidice. Children’s choirs began the concert by singing the National Anthem. The concert itself demonstrated the power of music to unite people of different cultures: we had no understanding of the language used in the concert, yet we were able to remain fully engaged in the performances and in the emotion of the occasion.
After the concert came what was for me the most moving part of the commemorative events. The audience moved to stand in silence, looking out over the site of the original village. A candle had been lit at the site of each building in the village, and then the names of the 88 children who were deported from Lidice to concentration camps were read out over the speakers. All of this occurred in a setting illuminated by one of the brightest moons that I have ever seen. We eventually made our way back to Prague with much to reflect on from our first visit to Lidice.
Saturday 14th June
Saturday morning was an early start for us to make our way back to Lidice for the most formal part of the commemoration weekend. On arrival back in the village, we made our way down to find the memorial wreath that we had ordered prior to our visit. As it drew near to the start of the ceremony, military officers came to pick up our wreath, and escorted us to lay the wreath and to join the assembled gathering. A military band was playing throughout, and there were speeches and other formalities as part of the occasion. Due to the language barriers, it was for us a time of quiet reflection and of simply being a part of this remarkable experience.
When the ceremony had ended, we spend some time visiting other parts of the memorial site, such as the statue of the Children of Lidice, and talking to each other about the experience of being in Lidice and taking part in the commemorative events.
After lunch, we met Luba Hedlova in the Lidice Art Gallery, where she had kindly agreed to be filmed showing us around the gallery. We asked her to focus particularly on the ‘stories’ that were linked to the art works. We had a most interesting conversation with Luba about the meanings of the art works; the way in which the gallery runs; the ways in which people participate in the gallery, and about future ideas for projects that we could work on collaboratively. Following the filmed discussion with Luba, we met with Sylvia Klanova again, and filmed her talking about her Mother’s story, and of the ways in which the statue of the Children of Lidice had been seen to generate empathy and compassion across geographical divides.
It was early evening before we eventually made our way back to Prague, to enjoy a shared meal and to prepare ourselves for the next and final day of the visit.
Sunday 15th June
We allowed ourselves a slightly later start on Sunday morning, but then got to work after breakfast, taking part in a filmed research discussion on the balcony of the hotel restaurant. In doing this, we were experimenting with using film in a variety of different ways for the benefit of our research project. In particular, we felt that the discussions of the research team, in which the researchers reflect on and try to make sense of the data, was a valuable stage of the research process that is normally not captured. We therefore wanted to include the essence of some of our discussions in the project film.
After our filmed session, we decided to explore a little further afield in Prague, making our way to the Old Town. We saw famous attractions, such as the Old Town Hall Tower and Astronomical Clock, and enjoyed watching street performers and eating ice-cream!
Having enjoyed an hour or two of simply being tourists, we returned to our hotel ready to collect our cases and make our way to the airport ready for our return flight to East Midlands airport. Little did we know that our flight was to be subject to a very long delay, and it was dawn the following morning before we eventually made it home, all rather exhausted but having had an unforgettable experience that would contribute immensely to the outcomes of our research project.
Cathie Powell-Davies Friday Field report
Prague Friday 13th June 2014
Friday morning saw us take on the Prague Metro and venture away from the well-trodden tourists routes to Dox. Founded in 2008 the Dox Centre for Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design sits in Holesovice on the outskirts of the city centre. Nestled amongst a post-industrial landscape of contemporary and functional architecture it is a dramatic contrast to the baroque and gothic styles we had seen yesterday.
We had come to see the ‘Front Line’ exhibition an installation by Slovak artists Bohuš and Monika Kubinský commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of WW1. On the ground floor was a mock-up of a trench made from sandbags, slightly claustrophobic and clinical. The uniformity of the bags and the cleanliness of the piece made it far removed from the realities of WW1 trench warfare. Perhaps this is what the artists intended. In terms of empathy and compassion how can we even attempt to understand what the soldiers must have gone through? Should we even attempt to do so?
The second half of the exhibition; up turned anti-aircraft shells containing small hand operated music boxes. The exhibition literature informs us that the soldiers crouched in these tiny reinforced concrete cocoons ‘waiting to die’. Again it seems impossible and almost condescending to pretend that we can imagine how they felt. Is an empathetic response always appropriate? I imagine these young boys (probably mostly in their early teens) and feel distraught. I try to imagine their fear, their bold attempts at bravado, their innocence, their homesickness. I can imagine all these emotions and I have a sense of deep compassion when I consider that I am probably the same age their mothers would have been. I have to walk away as we film inside a shell which plays Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’ as it all becomes too overwhelming but can I walk in their shoes? I conclude that I cannot and should not. To claim to do so belittles them and as I said I had the option of walking away.
Upstairs is the second part of the exhibition, a collection of photographs, diary exerts, drawings and artefacts lent to Dox by the families of WW1 & 2 soldiers. Accompanying this are video interviews which tell the individual’s stories as told by their descendants. The interviews are in Czech with English subtitles. Although I don’t speak a word of Czech I automatically put the headphones on. The rhythm and tone of the voices made the videos come alive and a group discussion afterwards revealed that we all felt the same way. Hearing the voices mattered even if we had to read the subtitles to make sense of the dialog. There was something very important which occurred through the act of listening, a deeper understanding, a human connection.
The traditional thank-you concert in honour of the victims of the Lidice tragedy
In the evening we were honoured by being invited to attend the annual memorial concert in Lidice which commemorated the victims and the bereaved and paid tribute to not only the survivors but also some of the Czech Republic’s most celebrated musicians and performers.
The concert began with a children’s choir made up of local schools performing the Czech National Anthem and continued with traditional folk and classical pieces performed by 3 operatic singers accompanied by a pianist and a violinist. As the concert drew to a close the names of the 88 children who lost their lives during the atrocity were read out as candles marking the places where each house had stood were lit.
The concert was a much grander event than I had anticipated. We spoke briefly to the Major of Lidice before the event and I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed my walk through the village’s rose garden earlier. She proudly informed me that the garden contains over 700 different varieties of roses from all over the world. I felt the same sense of pride as the concert’s compare introduced each piece and as with the video interviews in Dox, the language barrier was not an issue. As the concert ended and the candles were lit the realization that it was names being read out made for an extremely moving experience that I feel privileged to have shared.
At the end of an emotional and thought provoking day my final thoughts are that empathy is something we can strive for but can never completely achieve. It is inappropriate and perhaps slightly naïve to assert that we can ever truly feel what others have experienced. However, the human condition is such that we each have the capacity for deep understanding and solidarity without a common spoken language. The desire to connect enables us to transcend language and cultural differences and bridge the widest of geographical divides.