Tag Archives: Europe

Prague: off the beaten track in Vyšehrad

An index to the Prague series appears on the first post.

For my final full day in Prague, I opted for a hike to the top of Vyšehrad, a hill castle guarding the south river approach to Prague.  This area is considerably less visited by tourists than is true of the Old Town or the castle (Pražský hrad).  I was unsure what to expect, but I felt sure that my legs would appreciate one last stretch before the train and flight back home to South Africa!


I loved these bright colors.

My stroll took me through some of the key historical buildings of the New Town.  I have already shared a photo of the New Town Hall, but I am sure I have not mentioned the delightful orange and white building next door to the Saint Stephen (Svatý Štěpán) church (built when New Town was new).  Just to the west, I encountered the large public park in front of New Town Hall.  I headed south to encounter the substantial Church of St. Ignatius (Kostel svatého Ignáce).  As I stepped into the vestibule, I encountered a homeless person, asking for change.  Since I had no Czech currency left other than some minor change, he was disappointed, and he responded with a phrase I recognized from reading spy novels (loosely translated “oh my god!”).  In the image below, I have shown the interior of St. Ignatius at the left.


Two Prague churches: St. Igantius (left) and the Benedictine Emmaus Monastery (right)


Who doesn’t need stillness from time to time?

It is plain that the church on the right places a much lower value on decoration!  As you might have anticipated from the photo caption, the next site I visited was the Emmaus Monastery.  I had not seen any tourist literature directing me to the place, but a helpful sign directed me to the entrance.  The friendly docent refused to let me pay the full adult admission and insisted on student admission instead (which was handy, since I only had a little pocket change).

I walked through the door into nearly total silence.  The square cloister was very peaceful, receiving only indirect light from the enclosed courtyard.  The pamphlet I had received at the entrance gave a helpful map explaining the art in each alcove.  The images were very old, dating from the creation of the abbey by Charles the IV in 1347, and the monastery had suffered bomb damage during World War II.  Restoration on the art has not yet returned its former glory.

I was strongly moved by the peace of the cloister.  After a quick look at the nave I included in the comparison above, I paused at the corner of the cloister for just a moment.  I sang a song for my friends back in Nashville.  The reverberations were very comforting.  I continued on to a small chapel that I had missed on my initial walk.  I was astonished to see the image of a spear head that I had last seen in Warsaw!  This chapel had once featured sacred relics believed to be from the Crucifixion, specifically nails from the cross and the spear that had pierced Jesus.  The art in this small chapel has been restored to a much greater extent than in the cloister outside.


A refurbished chapel in the Emmaus Monastery


This massive gateway dates from 1841.

Having spent some time with the transcendent, I was ready for a bit of a slog.  I trudged south along the evocatively named “Na Slupi” in the cold wind.  It seemed to be picking up speed, and a few snow flurries came my way.  I came to a rail underpass that was my route to the Vyšehrad access.  The roads led steeply uphill.  Soon I encountered the massive brick gate (cihelná brána) of the rooftop fortress.  I nearly fell on my backside trying to get a photo; once I stepped away from the roadbed, I was slipping and sliding on ice.

I should explain that Vyšehrad was prominent in the ancient history of Prague and regained standing in medieval times.  The castle atop Vyšehrad was the ducal seat of the Přemyslid dynasty during the 10th century, before Prague Castle was constructed on the opposite side of the Vltava River.  The area’s rebirth came about after the New Town extended to the south in the 1350s.  After the ancient fortress fell into ruin, a new Baroque fortress atop Vyšehrad was established after the Thirty Years’ War, in 1654.


The church looks pretty great for being nearly a millennium old!

My first stop inside the walls was a visit to the Rotunda of St. Martin.  The rotunda represents an ancient type of church architecture that pre-dates Gothic cathedrals by half a millennium.  St. Martin was constructed during the reign of Vratislaus II, who died in 1092.  The building has been decommissioned and renovated a few times over.  Its walls still contain a Prussian cannon ball from 1757!

I wandered south to the most external gate of the walls, Tabor Gate, originally built in 1655.  The information center was closed when I walked past, and most signs that I observed were in Czech, so I felt somewhat unsure of what I was seeing.  As I followed the walk back north on a bluff to the east side of the Vltava River, though, I was treated to some really lovely views of today’s Prague.  I saw a private boat harbor to the east side of the river, and ice had covered the entirety of its surface.  Soon, though, I came across some ruins.


Libušina lázeň was a medieval Gothic lookout tower.


The St. Peter and Paul Basilica

Legends surround this place, as well.  After the warrior Čech settled in this area, his son Krok produced three daughters.  The youngest daughter, Libuše, was famed for her wisdom and prophecies.  She was selected as leader for the land, as a result (and gave her name to the tower shown above).  When people complained that a woman should not lead by herself, she prophesied that her white horse would lead her servants to Prince Přemyslid, who would become her husband.  Soon thereafter, the happy couple launched the first dynasty that ruled Bohemia from Prague.

Even before the creation of the New Town, a church had stood at the crest of Vyšehrad.  The 11th century church was remodeled in the second half of the 14th century and again at the end of the 19th.  St. Peter and Paul has been an important part of Prague history as the political leadership shifted between Vyšehrad and Prague Castle and as religious leadership has shifted among the three principal churches of the city (the others being St. Vitus and Our Lady before Týn).


Final resting place of one of my favorite composers

The graveyard adjoining St. Peter and Paul came into vogue during the 19th century, and a quick walk through the grounds will show any number of beautiful memorials and tombs.  The classical composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana are both interred there, and I recognized Jan Neruda, a writer and poet, as well.  It seemed strange that this place at the edge of the city would have regained this prominence at such a late date.


King Wenceslaus looks out on a magnificent view of his city.

I was glad, though, that I could finish my visit to Prague at Vyšehrad.  My final moments of tourism saw me slipping and sliding across the icy hill top.  At last I reached a lovely equestrian statue of St. Wenceslaus.  It dates from 1680, when it was crafted by Bendl for the Prague Horse Market.  This area was subsequently renamed “Wenceslaus Square;” the statue currently standing outside the National Museum was a later replacement.  I think that the dukes, kings, and emperors who have ruled Prague would be delighted if they could see it today.  I know I was!

Prague: a millennium of Jewish community

An index to the Prague series appears on the first post.

The Jewish community of Prague gives one of the best glimpses of the city’s rich history.  The Jewish Museum in Prague uses the community’s most historic buildings to tell the story of Judaism in Bohemia. The architecture and exhibits reveal a community in long dialogue with the gentiles of Bohemia.

Since I visited many parts of the community in the course of my day, I will start with a list of the sites, along with their dates of construction and the exhibits at each.

Site Founding Exhibit
Old New Synagogue 1270 (none)
Jewish Cemetery 1439 Graves spanning 350 years
Pinkas Synagogue 1535 Memorial of the Shoah
Maisel Synagogue 1592 History of Bohemian Jews I
Klausen Synagogue 1694 Jewish Customs I
Spanish Synagogue 1868 History of Bohemian Jews II
Ceremonial Hall 1906 Jewish Customs II
Jubilee Synagogue 1906 (none)

Maisel Synagogue

My first stop on the tour began telling the history of Jews in Prague.  Their part of the city was frequently given the named “Josefov.”  Jews first came to Prague during the tenth century from the Alps to the southwest, or from Byzantium.  Their history in Prague was an uneven one.  After initial settlement below the castle in the “Lesser Town,” Jews began consolidating the “Old Jewish Town” at the bend of the Vltava River during the 13th and 14th centuries, partly because of physical attacks from gentiles.  To see how extensive this community became, I suggest you look at this 1804 map.  As I had seen previously in Berlin, the Jews of Prague were key to financing the kingdom, either through personal loans or through taxes imposed on its wealthiest citizens.  Persecution and pogroms damaged the community, as in other cities.  In 1577 and later, Emperor Rudolph II made living conditions for Jews in Prague much better, turning some of the verbal protections for the community into laws.


This model of Prague, containing >2000 buildings, was constructed of pasteboard by Antonin Langweil (1791-1837).


A statue from the Maisel of Rabbi Loew, meeting death

The Maisel Synagogue now features a large TV to showcase a 3D computer animation of Prague that highlights historical buildings in Josefov.  The animation has been based upon an enormous paper model of Prague that is now on display in the Prague City Museum.  The Maisel is also helpful in understanding other sites on the tour.  For one, the oldest tombstone from the Cemetery (dating from 1439) is exhibited there.

I was particularly glad to see that some figures that were equal parts history and lore were included in the Maisel display.  I had encountered Rabbi Loew before in a special exhibit on the Golem.  The historical Rabbi lived from 1525 to 1609, and his Talmudic writings and mentoring were quite significant in shaping Jewish thought.  The legends surrounding him, however, are other-worldly.  He was said to have brought a statue to life through his wisdom, but when he failed to give it a day of rest on the Sabbath, it went out of control.  He disabled it and then hid it in the attic of the synagogue.  He was rumored to have escaped from Death by snatching away the list with his name on it.  In the statue shown here, Death catches up with him by hiding in a drop of dew on a rose given to the Rabbi Loew.

Pinkas Synagogue

I was not altogether sure what to expect as I entered the next building.  The second-oldest surviving synagogue in Prague has been entirely given over to a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust (sometimes called the Shoah).  80,000 names of citizens from Czech and Moravian Jews have been painted in fine script on the walls.  It is a very somber walk.


The scale of loss is hard to countenance.

I looked up toward the vaulted roof for a respite.  The building was really beautiful.  When I climbed upstairs, I encountered a small art gallery.  It featured “Art in Extreme Situations,” a presentation of art works by children who were learning the stories of children deported to the Terezin ghetto in 1941-1944.  I was glad to see that the Czech education system is reminding this generation of the atrocities committed through the hatred of minorities.

Old Jewish Cemetery

The exit from Pinkas leads directly to the famed Jewish Cemetery.  Graves were located in this location as early as 1439.  The area is absolutely crammed with graves; more than 12,000 are packaged into the area.  Apart from three and a half centuries of use, this cemetery grew as other Jewish graveyards were closed; the community was compressed into an ever-smaller area.


A place of peace

The clouds had enclosed Prague all morning, but the sun peeked from the clouds as I walked around the cemetery.  It was a needed moment of uplift after the Pinkas Synagogue.  When I reached the tomb of Rabbi Loew, I paused for a moment to admire the rampant lion atop his marker.  It felt good to put a pebble on his tomb, like I had touched a figure from deep in history.  This tomb was erected just two years after Jamestown was founded in Virginia!

Klausen Synagogue and Ceremonial Hall


The beautiful vault of Klausen Synagogue


The Ceremonial Hall is a lovely structure.

The exit of the cemetery leads directly into the next part of the museum.  The Klausen Synagogue and Ceremonial Hall both exhibit materials associated with Jewish tradition.  I really liked the Klausen displays.  Since I grew up as a Southern Baptist, I did not get a thorough grounding in Jewish tradition.  I appreciated a document that explained the relationship between aspects of the Jerusalem temple and the synagogues.  Why, for example, are the ends of the wooden rollers on which a Torah is wound frequently modeled after pomegranates?

The adjoining Ceremonial Hall may be a much more recent construction, but its beautiful building seems like it comes from an earlier time.  The exhibited materials emphasize funeral rites for the Jewish community.  I liked a set of diagrams that showed the most common symbols from gravestones and their interpretations.  The lion I had seen on Rabbi Loew’s tomb, for example, implied a connection with the tribe of Yehuda (Judah).  Throughout the hall, though, I was continually distracted from the exhibits by the lovely artistry of the floors, arches, and windows.


For just a moment, nobody was walking on this mosaic!

The Old New Synagogue


I was glad for a moment in this sacred space.

My next stop was not part of the museum, but anyone interested in Jewish history would visit it.  The thirteenth century synagogue was not the first in Prague, but it is the oldest still standing.  One legend has it that the Jews were led to this spot by an elder, who told them that God would provide the community a synagogue.  The Jews dug into the ground and uncovered this building, ready for service!  Perhaps this story accounts for its odd name.

Because it is still used for services, I was required to don a kippah (sometimes called a yarmulke) to cover my head.  The men’s prayer hall has retained an ancient style for its structure (women listened from another chamber).  A central well is surrounded by an inner ring of wooden seats, and the walls are ringed by another set  of wooden seats.  The outer walls have bronze candle holders with reflectors to guide the light downward.  An odd metal framework extends out from the central area.


The men’s prayer hall


13th century architecture looks somewhat out of place in its current surrounds.

The Spanish Synagogue and the Jubilee (Jerusalem) Synagogue


Looking toward the vaulted ceiling

Today’s Jewish community in Prague is quite diverse.  The site of the oldest synagogue in Prague was taken over in 1868 for the construction of the Spanish Synagogue.  Its design may reflect the influence of Sephardim.  The ornate interior is something from another world.  The seating on the synagogue floor was blocked off, presumably for services.  The upstairs, however, had considerably more information on the history of Bohemian Jews.  In particular, it features information on Jewish involvement in publishing and the arts.  I was glad to see Franz Kafka getting credit for his work.  A statue right outside the Spanish Synagogue also stands in tribute to him.

Another synagogue is not included on the tour for the Jewish Museum in Prague, but it should not be missed.  The Jerusalem or Jubilee Synagogue was built at the same time as the ceremonial hall above, but its style could hardly be more different.  Its facade is distinctly Art Nouveau, simply popping with bright colors!  The lines, on the other hand, are more Moorish in architectural influence.  Sadly, the building was closed for a couple of months around the time I visited; apparently the space was quite challenging to keep heated during winter months.


It’s almost like a piece of wedding cake!

I was very fortunate to get this tour of Jewish history while visiting Prague.  I appreciate that you took the time to read my account of it!

Prague: Old Town, New Town, and Revolution!

An index to the Prague series appears on the first post.

A walk in Staré Město, the Old Town, of Prague is essential for anyone enjoying the city for the first time.  The Gothic rooftops, narrow passageways, and hidden churches are all delights for the tourist.  The twenty-three years that have passed since my 1994 visit, though, have transformed this district to fill it with swanky restaurants and souvenir shops and boutiques catering to both well-heeled tourists and backpackers.  Knowing just a little bit of history helps to bring this city back to life!


The monument to Jan Hus stands guard before Týn Church


The Horologe, last refurbished after WW II

The image above shows the northeast side of the Old Town Square.  I tell the part of the story of Jan Hus below; his statue forms a substantial island in the square, and the Church of our Lady before Týn is one of the images that has lingered in my mind for the twenty years since I last saw Prague.  A great cluster of tourists, however, may frequently be found at the south corner of the square, especially as the top of the hour draws near.  They come in order to see the mechanical show from the Horologe, a beautiful clock that was first constructed in 1410 by a collaboration between clockmaker Nicholas of Kadaň and astronomer Jan Šindel.  A local legend tells the story that the town council was concerned that the clockmaker would build such a clock for another city.  The legend relates that one of the council members sent men to the maker’s home and blinded him!  He apparently had his revenge, however, by crushing part of its mechanism.

Old Town sits inside a bend in the Vltava River, opposite Prague Castle.  The oldest construction has been dated to the ninth century.  The Town was once surrounded by a moat, but this ditch has been covered by an arc of major streets: Revoluční, Na Příkopě, and Národní (Revolutionary, “On the Moat,” and National).  Starting in the tenth century, the Old Town became home to a substantial Jewish community.  Eventually, their district became a ghetto in the northwestern part of the old town.


The Charles Bridge is a very cold and windy place to eat your pain au chocolate.

As I mentioned in the prior post, Charles IV (1316-1378) transformed Prague.  The Charles Bridge (Karlův most) was built to connect Old Town to the castle district across the Vltava, replacing the twelfth century Judith Bridge.  Since the bridge connects the castle and city, it has played a key role in combat in this area.  The Swedes were defeated on this bridge at the close of the Thirty Years’ War, and the Prussians were defeated there in 1744.  The bridge was hardly the only addition, though.  A greatly expanded city area was surveyed for construction, quadrupling the city’s area.  By the fifteenth century, it was the third most expansive city in Europe.


At left, the Old Town Hall (1338), looking at the side opposite the Horologe; At right the much later extension of the New Town Hall (the original tower stands to the right of this yellow wing).


Weapons from the Hussite Wars

The New Town gained a new city hall (Novoměstská radnice) in the 15th century.  This city hall played a strange role in the drama playing out among the king (Wenceslas IV, who drowned John of Nepomuk), the Pope (Alexander V), and Master Jan Hus, a preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague.  Jan Hus had encountered the writings of John Wycliffe, an Oxford theologian who argued that scripture was the key source of authority for Christians.  The resulting Hus sermons led to complaints from German scholars at Prague University to the Pope, but the king sided with Hus.  The German scholars left Prague for other countries.  When Alexander V became Pope, he announced an interdict against Prague while Hus lived there, but the city shrugged it off.  When he railed against the sale of indulgences, though, the king stopped supporting him (since the king received some of the funds).  Hus was eventually drawn to the Council of Constance under a safe passage, but he was immediately arrested and eventually sentenced to a fiery death at the stake.  Since he was a much-beloved figure throughout Bohemia, many rose in rebellion.  The Hussite Wars were the result.  In 1419, Hussite radicals threw the seven members of the town council from the high window of the New Town Hall, to die atop Hussite pikes.  This became known as the “First Defenstration” of Prague (the first of three).


Church of our Lady before Týn, as seen from the East end of the Prague Castle

These wars led to the ascension of George of Poděbrady as king of Bohemia.  He had some rather forward ideas for the time, such as the unity of Europe.  I appreciate him most for his celebration of the Church of our Lady before Týn, making it the principal church of Prague rather than St. Vitus (sequestered inside the castle).  I simply love the building, and for me it is the symbol of Prague.  I was very unhappy to discover that it had been closed to visitors, due to the cold.  I came back to the Old Town Square at 9PM to catch its Sunday night service because I wanted to see its insides so badly!  The church interior is dominated by black and gold.  A sixteenth century carving of the baptism of Jesus was close to my seat, and I gave it a closer inspection after the service.  While I could not take photographs, I have captured some memories that I hope to retain until my next visit.


The Powder Gate feels almost menacing.

Certainly, Prague has enough towers and statues to go for days.  I enjoyed the ghost of Don Giovanni outside the opera house where Mozart premiered this piece.  The eleventh century Powder Gate once protected one of the entrances to the city of Prague.  Now it stands astride the main road leading from the original moat to the Old Town square.  In the “City of a Thousand Spires,” one can hardly walk any distance without finding a new marvel.


St. Wenceslaus looks down from the National Museum toward Old Town.

Prague: Castles, Cathedrals, and Communists

Index to Prague series

  1. Castles, Cathedrals, and Communists
  2. Old Town, New Town, and Revolution!
  3. A Millennium of Jewish Community
  4. Off the Beaten Track in Vyšehrad

With three days padded onto my Austria trip, I could take the train east for three hours to Budapest or north and west for five hours to Prague.  As you may already know, Hungary is now governed by Viktor Orbán, whose right-wing populist government has undermined democratic norms in that nation.  I decided to go to the Czech Republic, instead!  My train ride there was perfectly lovely, cutting through mountain valleys laden with snow, with more arriving as I passed.  The railway deserves its standing as a World Heritage Site!


The train traveled at 60 kph through the mountains and then accelerated up to 160 kph in the plains.  The train to Prague cost only 54 Euros!

For my four nights in Prague, I stayed at the Hotel Prague Star.  Located in the New Town (Nové Město) area just five minutes’ walk from the National Museum, the hotel offered affordable rates.  It shared a street with several night clubs of a shady nature (the type that spams the tourist district with images of under-dressed women with the word “censored” appearing in strategic locations).  The flashing neon lights ensured I found the correct street when I slogged home after a long day of tourism.


Prague Castle is massive, stretching the width of this panoramic photo (4 images combined with Hugin).

My first full day in Prague took me to the massive Prague Castle, perched atop a hill to the northwest of the Prague Old Town and across the Vltava River.  The castle dates from 880, when it was constructed by the first historically attested Duke of Bohemia Bořivoj I, from the Přemyslid family.  One of the first structures one sees when entering the castle is the magnificent basilica of St. Vitus.


The box at the right contains a saint.

The castle contains the final resting place of multiple saints, but St. Vitus may be most known for its chapel commemorating the great-grandson of the castle builder: Saint Wenceslaus!  As Duke of Bohemia from 921-935 (he began his reign at age 14), Wenceslaus controversially favored the adoption of Christianity in Bohemia.  His younger brother conspired to assassinate him, driving a lance through the Duke in the killing blow.  He then succeeded Wenceslaus as Boleslaus I the Cruel.


St. John of Nepomuk was important in establishing the seal of the confessional.

The most magnificent memorial in St. Vitus’ Cathedral is devoted to Saint John Nepomucene.  As a vicar-general, he heard the confession of the queen.  King Wenceslaus IV (who ruled several generations after Saint Wenceslaus) wanted to know what the queen had been confessing to her priest.  The vicar-general was unwilling to divulge that information.  He was subsequently tortured, and eventually the king drowned Saint John Nopmucene in the Vltava River.  I was quite surprised to discover that the lineal descendant of one saint had martyred another!


St. Vitus Cathedral was finally finished in 1929, 600 years after it was begun!

To visit Prague is to see the hand of Charles IV (1316-1378).  His father headed the House of Luxembourg, and his mother was the last member of the House of Přemyslid.  In 1346 and 1347, he inherited the county of Luxembourg, was elected king of Bohemia, and was elected king of the Romans (though it didn’t “take” until he was re-elected in 1349).  By 1355 he was king of Italy and the Holy Roman Emperor.  Ten years later, his coronation as King of Burgundy united the Holy Roman Empire under his leadership.  Charles IV selected Prague as his capital, and he expanded the city to include the “New Town” (where my hotel was located) and founded what became Charles University.  Because of Charles IV, one frequently learns that Prague buildings were first constructed in the 14th century.

I had opted for “Circuit A” tickets to the castle, which also included a tour of the oldest hall of the castle, a museum celebrating its long history, the Basilica of St. George, the Golden Lane, and the Powder Tower museum for the castle guard service.  The Old Royal Palace was a bit confusing.  The chamber, its chapel, and the stone steps that were made for horseback arrivals were largely empty, and few signs explained what I saw.  It was clear, however, that the Palace had been remodeled so many times over the years that the structure was a bit of a pastiche of styles.  I would love to have a photo of its beautifully decorated ceiling, but no photographs were allowed in the Old Royal Palace or in the castle museum.


The Basilica of St. George sits directly behind St. Vitus.

The facade of the Basilica of St. George was probably its nicest aspect.  The Romanesque church contributes the two towers that one can see to the right of the Gothic St. Vitus in the skyline panorama above.  The walls are much thicker than one sees in Gothic cathedrals, and the windows are much smaller and higher up.


A church has stood here since 920.

The Golden Lane is down slope from the royal part of the castle.  The small houses line the inner side of the outer wall, almost like the artisan homes that lined the walls of the Tower of London.  Local legend has it that the most promising alchemists of the 16th century worked in this area.  Today the buildings have been collected by a running hall on the upper floor, and galleries line the sides to sell replica weapons, showcase suits of armor, remind visitors of the horrors of medieval torture, or reveal updated uses of the buildings.  For one, Franz Kafka kept residence here for two years to write in peace.


Housing a family in such a small dwelling would be a challenge!

I was delighted at the view from the eastern end of the castle, and yet I was ravenously hungry.  I descended the hill and stopped at Tom’s Burger.  That burger and fries entirely hit the spot!  Based on a recommendation by my server, I tried the “Czech version of Coca-Cola,” called Kofola.  I was smitten!  The closest parallel in my experience is the amazing taste of sasparilla.  For the remainder of my time in Prague, I sought out the beverage.

On my walk, the advertisements for the Museum of Communism had repeatedly caught my eye.  My favorite was a teddy bear clutching an AK-47.  Happily, the museum was quite easy to find, at the intersection where Wenceslaus Square touches the Old Town (above a McDonald’s actually).  I appreciated their large Communist-era statues and could not resist a photo with that old scamp V.I. Lenin.


I think the scarf really complements this look.

The museum documents another statue on a scale that is hard to credit.  Around 1950, the government of Czechoslovakia began construction of a sculpted group of people standing behind Joseph Stalin that soared almost 16 meters high.  It was unveiled on May 1st, 1955 (the sculptor committed suicide the day before).  On February 25, 1956, however, Khrushchev gave a key speech decrying Stalin’s “cult of personality” as incompatible with communism (Stalin had died in 1953).  In the aftermath, monuments celebrating Stalin were considered distasteful.  Only seven years after its construction, the Prague Stalin Memorial was blasted apart by 800 kg of explosives!

The movie room for the Museum of Communism was a useful overview of the resistance to communism in this country.  The Prague Spring (1968) seemed to suggest that some freedoms could be possible in Czechoslovakia until a Soviet invasion ended those hopes.  Civilian protests were broken up with considerable violence from the police and troops.  The video showed a representative of the government being interviewed on state TV.  He claimed that “mild means” were used to disperse the crowd.  “They are our citizens, and we treat them as such.”  The juxtaposition of onscreen violence with “mild means” was jarring.  The video also introduced me to the Plastic People of the Universe, whose music exhibited much greater freedom than the official style of “Soviet Realism.”  The group members were arrested in 1976.  The artists of Charter 77 (including Vaclav Havel), however, generated some significant pressure for their release.  The Charter 77 artists, of course, were under vigilant attention from the government thereafter.  The fall of communism came rather suddenly to Czechoslovakia in the Velvet Revolution.  As a 1989 saying had it, Communism took ten years to fall in Poland, ten months in Hungary, ten weeks in east Germany, and ten days in Czechoslovakia!


I visited the memorial of Jan Palach on the anniversary of his death.

On my final full day in Prague, I decided to follow a lead I had found during my visit to the Museum of Communism.  I had read the story of Jan Palach, a young idealist who had become so distraught at the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 that he decided to burn himself to death at the head of Wenceslaus Square.  The memorial to him is in two parts.  A plaque below the equestrian statue of Wenceslaus I bears his name as well as that of Jan Zajíc, who chose the same death for himself a year later.  Just outside the National Museum, a cross has been embedded in the pavement, with the surface rippled by several inches.  I was surprised to discover that the cross was covered in flowers and lit candles.  By happenstance, I had arrived at the cross on January 19th, the anniversary of Jan Palach’s death.  I saw two delegations from government ministries arrive with fresh loads of flowers, and a gentleman took considerable pains, despite his limited English abilities, to convey to me that this memorial was one of special importance.  I could only pause for several moments’ quiet at the memorial.

Semmering, Austria: Proteome Informatics on the upslope

At the start of 2015, I was incredibly fortunate to attend the Midwinter Proteome Informatics Midwinter Seminar at Semmering, Austria.  Although I did not initially know many of the participants, I have subsequently become friends with many of them.  In some cases, we have even written papers and grants together!  I was thrilled to return to Semmering on January 8, 2017 to attend a sequel to this meeting, this time sponsored by the European Proteomics Association.  Our group had nearly doubled from fifty-six to one hundred and five!


January 14, 2015 (Schneeberg appears in the distance behind us.)


Jan. 11, 2017 (photo courtesy of Marc Vaudel)

Despite its small population (below six hundred permanent residents), Semmering is actually an interesting place.  The town is named for the eponymous pass through the Northern Limestone Alps.  The area gained special prominence in 1728 when Emperor Charles VI of Austria completed a road over the pass, a feat commemorated by a hefty monument near the ski resort.


The 18th century monument bathes in the Zauberberg night lights.

One hundred twenty years later, the pass served as a key railway connection, tying together “Lower Austria” and Styria, one of the nine federated states of Austria.  The stylish and well-engineered construction of this railway has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.  The railway reaches almost 900 m above sea level.  The tracks employ tunnels and graceful bridges through a ruggedly beautiful terrain.  These rail links accelerated development in the area, making Semmering a major resort destination.

Our conference had grown so much in size that we occupied almost the entirety of the Semmering Sporthotel.  A feature that I particularly enjoy about this conference is the chance to create new tutorials for a crowd of advanced researchers.  In 2015, I premiered a half-day workshop on the subject of algorithms to identify post-translational modifications.  I asked this year’s organizers what kind of tutorial they would most like.  They responded by asking what I was working on right now.  I described my work in preparing sequence databases for identifying proteins of non-model organisms, starting from RNA-Seq experiments.  They replied that this would be just great.  I found it was a very useful exercise to learn the individual methods well enough to teach them to others.  In the end, approximately 35 students worked through the resulting half-day tutorial.  We were pretty challenged by the weak Internet service at the hotel, split across so many users, but most of the crucial steps were possible with data I had provided via USB drives.


My diagram of extant search engines from two years ago

Two years ago, I had chosen a somewhat controversial topic for my plenary lecture (one given to all the attendees at once rather than a subgroup).  In “The Hard Stuff: MS Bioinformatics Moves Beyond Protein Identification,” I argued that the era of publishing new database search engines for proteomics was drawing to a close, since more than thirty such tools have now been published!  I urged them to look beyond these basics to find challenges in non-conventional identification: MS/MS scans containing evidence for multiple peptides, proteins that vary in sequence from a database reference, and peptides bearing complex modifications like glycans or non-ribosomal peptides.


A banner image from my 2013 review of quality control

This year, I decided to spend some attention on a question of importance since I am chairing a quality control working group for the HUPO-PSI.  What types of biological mass spectrometry are not well-served by existing quality control approaches?  I discussed some of the existing efforts in quantitative mass spectrometry within Spectrum Mill, SProCop, and MSstats.  I contrasted this situation with the emerging fields of data-independent acquisition, in which superior reproducibility is regularly claimed without metrics that could substantiate those claims.


Jan 13, 2015: Johannes Griss and I discover our shared sense of humor. (Photo courtesy Lennart Martens)

With two meetings at Semmering under my belt, I must say I am hooked.  These meetings remind me of the lovely RECOMB Computational Proteomics meetings at UCSD from 2010 to 2012.  The quality of attendees is really substantial, and the free-wheeling conversations are highly entertaining and educational.  I must also say that there is nothing quite as thrilling as sledding down the designated path of the ski slopes head-first (NOTE: this posture is discouraged), the way I lost my lens cap in 2015!  If you are in our field, I hope I’ll get to see you at a 2018 meeting!


Johannes Griss introduced me to Almdudler, a lovely tonic that is the taste of Austria for me.

Pebbles for the Warsaw Ghetto

I was walking next to the Ogród Krasińskich park when I saw something that sent me back to memories twenty-four years in the past.  Of course, when one wanders Berlin, he or she expects to see a marker showing the former location of the Berlin Wall.  The wall commemorated by this marker in Warsaw, however, is less well-known:


Trigger warning

One of the first classes I took at the University of Arkansas was the honors colloquium in the Literature of the Holocaust.  Professor Mark Cory transformed my knowledge of the Holocaust from “Hitler killed a bunch of Jews” into a much fuller understanding.  I will not forget books like Jerzy Kosinski’s Painted Bird or Art Spiegelman’s Maus.  My final class paper, however, covered the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto.  I had just stepped on a memorial to the reality behind that paper.  Right behind me I observed a memorial column that showed the area covered by the Ghetto.  Previous visitors had placed pebbles atop the structure.  I found myself a pebble and added it to the top.  I knew I needed to tug on this thread of memory.


Where would this marker lead me?

I consulted my tourist map and saw that a museum from the Jewish community lay nearby.  I walked in that direction and soon found the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.  Prominent banners showed that it had been named European Museum of the Year for 2016!  Just outside the museum, two monuments have been raised to the memory of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto.  The one placed there in 1946 is easy to miss, a disc of rock with metal lettering; pebbles appeared here as well.  The other memorial is impossible to miss.


Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, 1948

I entered the museum and visited some of the research areas.  The museum offered a tourist map of Warsaw; this one was specific to sites of Jewish memory.  It would come in handy during the following days.  With that, I moved into the permanent exhibition.

Like the Berlin museum, the Polin Museum was good at portraying the history of Jews within Poland.  I enjoyed large wall paintings of medieval cities, each with quotes discussing the involvement of Jews in the towns.  The first mention of Jews in Warsaw dates to 1414, when Jews accounted for about 5% of the population.  Because Christians were threatened with damnation for collecting interest (usury), Jews frequently occupied this economic niche.  The community, however, frequently suffered from exclusionary policies.  This text, coming from the 1267 synod of Gniezno Archdiocese in Wrocław, reminded me that Apartheid has a very, very long history:

We hereby order that the houses of any Jews living in the Gniezno Archdiocese be next to one another or joined, so that Jewish and Christian homes be separated by a fence, wall, or ditch.

I really enjoyed a large reconstruction of some of the medieval cities of Poland.  A projector played video from above onto the white models.  I thought I recognized the skyline of Krakow in one of them!


Do I spy Wawel Castle?

I believe the pièce de résistance for the museum was its recreation of a highly decorated synagogue from 17th century Gwoździec.  Intricately painted wooden synagogues could once be found all across Poland, but these priceless artifacts were mercilessly burned by Hitler’s death squads.  The one at the museum was recreated from old photographs and architectural drawings.  The bimah (altar) was created a full scale, while the roof was made at 85% of its original size.  You can see all kinds of designs in the art, from zodiac to surprising animals!


Such joyful colors!


…and then I looked up!

With a step into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history moved from one of a growing community to a group under attack.  By the time the Nazis held Warsaw, regressive laws had compelled the Jews to live in overcrowded conditions in just a few neighborhoods.  The large ghetto and small ghetto were linked by just one pedestrian bridge across Chłodna Street; correspondingly, the museum breaks its exhibition into a larger build-up of the historical pressures, a bridge, and then a smaller area devoted to the bloody uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto.  The pressures this community came under were intense:

We are imprisoned within double walls: a wall of brick for our bodies, and a wall of silence for our spirits. –Chaim A. Kaplan, Scroll of Agony (1942)

As was commonly the case, the Nazis in Warsaw sought out members of the Jewish community that they could exploit as collaborators.  Abraham Gancwajch and twelve others formed “the Thirteen” of the Office to Combat Profiteering and Speculation– Jews serving the purposes of the Nazis.  In the end, these individuals were killed by either the Germans or by the Jewish underground.

The Germans had developed their plan for the “Final Solution” at the 1942 Wannsee Conference.  Correspondingly, they began inducing people living in the Ghetto to board trains for “resettlement,” for example by promising bread and marmalade to volunteers.  The Jews began developing plans of their own.  The Oyneg Shabes Archives began placing archives of special texts into metal boxes and milk cans.  Their first archive was buried in a school cellar in August of 1942.  I was moved to see some of those boxes on display in the museum along with this quote from 19-year-old David Graber: “What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground… I would love to live to see the moment when the great treasure is dug up… Neighboring street besieged.  We are all feverish. We prepare for the worst. We hurry.” This community expected only death. Tellingly, the display of the Archive boxes appeared at the bridge separating the display area.

In July of 1942, the Jewish Fighting Organization was established in response to the increasing deportations.  Along with the Jewish Military Union, these individuals did their best to mount an armed response to the Germans, especially after the Nazis entered the Ghetto in force in April of 1943.  This poem by Władysław Szlengel helped to capture the bravery of these fighters in the midst of incredible despair:

Hear, O you German God,
How we Jews pray in our ‘barbaric’ homes
With crowbar or pole in hand.
We ask you, Lord, for a bloody fight.
We beg for urgent violent death.
Before we die, let our eyes not see
The railway track receding,
But give our arms a precise aim, Lord,
To bloody those blue-grey uniforms,
Before our throats give out their final,
Silent cry, let our eyes see
In those brazen hands, fists holding whips,
Our own so human, ordinary fear.
Like purple, blood-brimming flowers
From Niska Street, and Miła, and Muranów
Our rifle muzzles blossom fire.
This is our Spring! Counter-attack!
The heady wine of battle intoxicates!
These are our partisan forests–
Back alleys off Dzika and Ostrowska Streets…
Our battle cry– six letters– blazes red,
A word, a battering ram: REVOLT

The Germans were not expecting this level of resistance when they entered the Ghetto. After initial fighting, the Nazis changed tactics, burning the buildings of the Ghetto one by one. On the eighth of May, 1943, the fighting came to an end with the discovery of the bunker where the commanders of the Jewish Resistance. The leaders all committed suicide rather than face capture. Approximately 13,000 Jews died (in addition to thousands of others who had already been shipped to concentration camps).  As many as three hundred Nazis had been killed by the resistance.

October 22, 2016

On my final day in Warsaw, I decided to add two last visits to honor the bravery of the fighters.  I wanted to visit two sites denoted by the map of Jewish sites in Warsaw.  My journey was hindered by two factors.  The first was my large roller bag, bumping over the cobbles and pavers.  The second was the gloomy cold rain, which had escalated with each day in Warsaw.

I started by walking southwest on Senatorska, and soon the road became Elektoralna.  It seemed quite a long time before I reached Chłodna, but then I reached sidewalk markers for the Ghetto wall.  I reached a marker of my own height, along with four end-posts to mark the positions of the footbridge suspensions.  I particularly liked a modern feature; each post had a “ViewMaster” stereoscope that would let one alternate through four different historical views of the bridge connecting the two Ghetto areas.  The museum related that these bridges were exploited by Nazi sympathizers to catcall and otherwise humiliate the captives of the Ghetto.


This bridge now honors those who were humiliated before.

I also wanted to visit a remnant of the original wall.  I trudged another kilometer in the rain.  The map gave the entrance as being at 62 Złota Street.  When I passed through the transom there, I was quite shocked when a fit young man stood in my way and began asking very pointed questions about my identity and motivations.  I asked to see his identity card, and he flashed a card from his wallet that implied some vague sort of official status.  He calmed down once I showed my passport and explained that I was headed to the train station next.  The Jewish community has learned to be vigilant in response to many vandals and terrorists who defile their heritage sites.


Imagine being walled off from the rest of the world by this.

The pictures I had seen of the Ghetto wall had understated its size.  It stretched upwards thru two complete stories.  A group of high school students stood inattentively as a guide explained the wall’s significance.  I saw a few bricks had been replaced after they had been removed to Jewish museums as far away as Houston.  Soon I had a moment to myself at the wall.  I reached out to touch the wall, remembering those who had been isolated by it.  On the way out, the security guard was far friendlier.

Fighting a desperate battle? Recruit some Poles!

For today’s post, I would like to highlight three situations where Poland produced warriors par excellence.  The three crucibles for this alchemy span centuries, but each pitted Poland against enemies who had a significant power advantage.  The first is the 1683 siege of Vienna.  The second incident, from 1794, involved a hero of the American Revolutionary War after his return to Poland.  The third is a tale of resistance against the Nazis near the end of the Second World War.  Without further ado, here are three key stories of Poles at arms!

Jan III Sobieski


Jan the Third is honored in a throne waiting room of the Royal Castle.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was an unusual elective monarchy (perhaps this is what George Lucas was thinking!).  Some ten to twelve percent of its population qualified as the “nobility,” and these nobles elected the king and the sejm (parliament).  The royal election of 1674 was the one that awarded Sobieski the crown.  At the time the prior king died, Sobieski had just won a victory over the Ottomans at Chocim.  This was something of a lift for the nation, which was still rebuilding from the Deluge, a period of campaigns in the mid-17th century that had cost Poland-Lithuania a third of its population and reduced the population of Warsaw by an order of magnitude.  At 44 years of age, Sobieski had been serving as the Grand Hetman of the Army since 1668, and he was the only major candidate for King who actually came from Poland!  (If you are curious about his life, I might recommend this part-history / part-romance).


You do not want these fellows charging you on a battlefield.

As king, Jan III was able to make significant updates to the army, reorganizing it into regiments, swapping out pikes for battle axes, and updating the cavalry to use hussar and dragoon formations.  The winged hussars were a rather special type of unit, as you can see from this armor hanging in the Military Cathedral of the Polish Army.  These heavy cavalry had metal frames mounted to their shoulders that were covered in feathers.  While this might seem silly rather than threatening, contemporaries learned to dread the odd whistling sound that these massed cavalry produced on a charge.  These military modifications were put to the test during a 1683 offensive by the Ottomans against the Holy Roman Empire.

The Ottomans had been vying for control of inland Europe for quite some time; actually, their first siege of Vienna had taken place in 1529 under Suleiman the Magnificent.  In 1683, the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha led a massive force back to the city.  The Holy Roman Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were unsure about its destination, so they had signed a mutual protection pact.  Vienna was nearing the end of its resources when Jan III Sobieski led the forces of the Commonwealth (70-80,000 in number) against the besieging force (initially 170,000, but leaving only about 70,000 to guard against such an attack).  Because the Ottomans continued pressing their attack on Vienna while attempting to repulse the Poles, the battle turned out disastrously for the Ottomans.  Most of Europe would remain under Christian rulers rather than becoming Muslim.  Today, one can see memorials of Jan III Sobieski throughout Warsaw, but I made a special trip to Łazienki Park to see his equestrian statue.


Why is he dressed as a Roman?

Tadeusz Kościuszko

Our second warrior has strong ties with the United States, but he only came to my attention via a Polish researcher in the field of machine learning.  Tadeusz Kościuszko was one of the brightest scholars in his studies at the Royal Military Academy of Warsaw, so he became an engineer (this is the same route that Robert E. Lee would take a century later).  In 1776, he was so moved by the words of the Declaration of Independence that he came to the colonies to assist in the Revolutionary War.  He was assigned to design defenses for several locations, and his collaborations with key officers of the American revolution, including Benedict Arnold, Nathaniel Greene, and Daniel Morgan led to key actions that eventually turned the tide against the British.  After the War, however, he languished in the United States for some time while waiting for the new government to pay him for his services.  He became 20-year friends with Thomas Jefferson, who had penned the words that had so inspired him.  His monument in Plac Żelaznej Bramy (Iron Gate Square) features inscriptions from his service in the American Revolution.


One of the side statues is captioned “Saratoga / West Point.”

In Poland, however, Kościuszko is more known for his efforts to prevent Poland from being destroyed in 1792 by the Russian armies under Catherine the Great.  The Polish king capitulated, and Kościuszko spent much of the next two years whipping up support of an uprising against Russian control.  In 1794 he returned as the Commander in Chief of the army.  His forces made a difference in the “Kościuszko Uprising,” holding back a siege of Warsaw, but he was wounded in the Battle of Maciejowice, and the uprising could not continue without him.  He lived the remainder of his life in exile.  Poland suffered its third partition just one year after his final defeat.

The Warsaw Uprising


The priest’s mournful expression tells the tale.

Poland spent much of World War II under domination by the Nazis and Russians.  The response of its leadership was to form a government in exile, which was located in London from 1940 to 1990 (this government did not accept the one created by the Soviet Union in Poland as it became a Soviet satellite).  At one time, the government in exile was able to field 100,000 troops to support the Allied cause (much as did the Free French under de Gaulle).  Their brightest hour came just two months after “D-Day,” the Allied Invasion of Normandy, when Russian troops reached the eastern border of Poland.  The Polish Underground Home Army created an uprising in the Polish capital to deny the Nazis a solid base to defend.


Warsaw Uprising Monument, part II

The massive statues that decorate the square opposite the Military Cathedral of the Polish Army tell the story quite evocatively.  Operation “Tempest” started out quite successfully, plunging much of Poland into contested territory.  The Home Army was even able to maintain control of central Warsaw for a time, anticipating the arrival of the Red Army from the east.  At this stage, however, it is worth noting that the goals of the Red Army were quite different from those of the Home Army.  The Red Army intended to create a government based on the soviet system, while the Home Army intended a return to western-style democracy.  The Soviets were not far from Warsaw when they simply stopped advancing.  The Germans had launched a major offensive to retake Warsaw from the Home Army, and the Soviets did not continue toward the city until the Home Army was entirely destroyed.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Warsaw remembers those who have lost their lives in battle at a beautiful monument in Piłsudski Square (also notable for a 1979 visit by Pope John Paul II).  The monument is the only remaining fragment of the Saxon Palace that stood here until World War II.  I was gratified to see that battles both ancient and recent were remembered at the site.  Poland’s military history runs into the distant past, and no doubt we will see its soldiers on the world stage in the future, as well.


An eternal flame and earth taken from notable battlefields solemnizes this site.