I had been invited to Prague to commemorate 90 years since my grandfather Hermann Ungar died aged only 36 from sepsis. He was a Czech Jewish writer who was beginning to build a reputation for himself as a formidable talent amongst the Prague and Berlin literary circles of that time, which included Kafka, Stefan Zweig, Bertolt Brecht among other illustrious names. At the last minute the dates were changed but I had bought tickets and booked the hotel so off we went.
The plan is to meet a couple of contacts and to visit Ungar’s grave in the Jewish Smichov Malvazinky cemetery. We arrive in brilliant sunshine and make the obligatory trip over Charles Bridge to the Old Town Square – still can’t find the ‘somebody’s farted statue’. En route we meet a parade from the ‘bring back the monarchy party’ – a local group of nutters who believe that all Czechia’s ills would have been solved by retaining the Empire – hence the posters of Franz Josef, Rudolf of Meyerling fame and one of the many Charleses. The centre is teeming with tourists, many Chinese but even a huge Indonesian party.
We drop in at one of Ungar’s favourite haunts, the Louvre café, for a cuppa. The billiard room where my grandfather used to watch the players every weekend is still there. Then a quick pass by the apartment my father grew up in on the Masayrk Quay, opposite where we scattered his ashes.
The next morning after a nice supper with our old friend and genealogist Julius Muller, who has been such a great help to me over the years, we set off to meet the curator of the new exhibition being planned at the Spanish Synagogue.
This is to include 54 Czech writers, 25 German-speakers and 29 Czech, one of whom is to be Hermann Ungar. We discuss how Max Brod effectively ruined Ungar’s reputation after his death, having once been such an admirer. My grandmother ill-advisedly allowed Ungar’s diaries to be published in which he was rude about Brod who, it turns out, was an contraversial executor of Kafka’s estate. As we remarked nothing remains of Brod’s own writings – which says it all. Jealousy perhaps?
We are in the Jewish quarter so go and pay our respects in the Pinkas synagogue to the Holocaust victims including many of our relatives. It is always sobering to see their names etched on the remembrance walls. Ross has to don a kippah.
We wander back over the bridge, past a statue of a Czech national treasure, Dvorak, through the Wallenstein Palace gardens, now the Czech Senate. A peacock struts proprietarily among the formal planting. Ungar’s first play, written aged 8, was a production called Wallenstein von Mir based on his vicious murder at the hands of the Hapsburg emperor. Ungar is everywhere in Prague!
In the early afternoon we meet up with Thomas Schneider, the academic who has arranged for us to visit the grave. The taxi takes us to the Christian side, where relatives are busy sprucing up the graves of their loved ones; one group has even taken squeegees to shine up the marble. I have never seen so many flowers. Arriving at the gate to the Jewish part, we find it firmly locked. We even contemplate climbing over, but it is far too high.
Back through the Christian cemetery where Thomas engages various attendants in conversation; we find a telephone number but the caretaker says he is not available. This is crushingly disappointing – I have even brought some flowers; not at all Jewish but I think Grandfather Ungar deserves them.
We decide to pass by one last time, and lo and behold there appears an angel. A young woman in flowing robes is unlocking both gates to let us in. We are mystified. She smiles enigmatically, says she has seen us – and disappears. Once inside I find the grave that I had identified in 2012, but it really is not in the right place…back then I thought it had been moved, as it does not look like the photos taken in the 1960s of its position.
So we set to work in the 1929 vintages clearing ivy from graves that might just be contenders. Extraordinarily one of the first graves I find is of Dad’s maternal grandfather, Heinrich Stransky, who died in 1933. A huge granite edifice; poignantly there is pace for his wife Pauline – just a big blank as she was transported to Treblinka and murdered there in 1942.
In the end we count the holes where the lettering would have been and compare to the old photos and decide it fits, so I lay the flowers on the grave.
We take a bus back to Smichov and I find the house where my father was born and where they lived when Ungar died. Ross has never seen many of these sights so I hope it’s of interest to him!
Early on our last day we hike up to the Castle, where Ungar worked as a diplomat before resigning to dedicate his life to writing. Sadly a few weeks later he succumbed to a burst appendix and died. A lesson to all hypochondriacs – no one believed he was seriously ill. It is a crisp autumnal morning and Prague looks stunning set out below us, its red roofs standing out amidst the haze.
Despite not talking at the seminar it has not been time wasted; I feel a real affinity for this city and look forward to the next visit when the Spanish Synagogue exhibition opens. by that time I hope my book about my family The Boy from Boskovice will be published!