Identities, Cultures, Texts in East-Central Europe: Prague and Krakow

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Meeting Information
Location: Prague and Krakow
Days: every day of the week
Time: varies
Extension: 5592, 6178
Office: FPH G15, ASH 106
Office Hours: See Hampedia profiles
Home Page: NA
Technical Information
Course Level: 200
Course Number: 271
Course Capacity: 12
Course Website:

Editing Identities, Cultures, Texts in East-Central Europe: Prague and Krakow is a Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies class taught by Jim Wald and Polina Barskova.


Course Description

Two cities with complicated histories, rich cultures, and promising futures will become case studies for this unique opportunity in global education. Among the theoretical foundations of this course will be the ever-shifting paradigm of center and periphery in relation to the European political and cultural power. The Czech Republic and Poland, although tracing their roots to ancient kingdoms, are the products of a series of dramatic changes that occurred in less than a century: heirs of republics created after the collapse of the multiethnic Habsburg Empire in World War I, occupied or annexed by Nazi Germany, and then subjugated by the communist Soviet Union. Today, both are members of NATO as well as the European Union. Prague and Kraków, though less famed in the west than Paris, London, or Berlin, were unique and powerful hubs of European culture and history: the homes of the two oldest universities in Central Europe; the seats of ancient monarchies; cultural centers that were home to or attracted figures as diverse as Petrarch, Copernicus, Mozart, and Kafka. The multiethnic character of these cities contributed both to their cultural dynamism and to periodic social tensions. Both cities were home to Slavs and Germans, and to thriving Jewish communities from the Middle Ages until the Holocaust. Both cities, renowned for the beauty of their setting and architecture, survived World War II physically almost unscathed, and are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The overarching framework of our program will be the dynamic of authority and resistance, particularly in the modern and contemporary era: How and why do given groups attempt to assert their authority? Why, when, and by what means do others resist? This theme is particularly germane to territories whose historical experience has been characterized by dependency.

Or, in the words of Polina Barskova, this course has “a certain aspect of eclecticism.”

Thursday, May 21

Arrival in Prague, settled down at the Hotel Olga.
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Excursion: Prague Walk

Dr. Svobodova

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A jetlagged motley crew went exploring some of the most popular tourist attractions, such as Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral.

Dinner was consumed at a Czech restuarant serving tasty traditional food.

Friday, May 22

Lecture: Who are the Czechs?

Prof. Borivoj Hnizdo

The Czech Republic has a population of 10 million, which is not huge but not tiny either. And yet, Prague has the character of a small provincial town, due to its close proximity to Germany. As a whole, Czechs are very pessimistic, a legacy of their time under Communist Soviet rule. One defining aspect, especially in contrast to Poland, is the religious affiliation of its population: 2/3s of Czechs are Atheists. Czechs are very nationalistic and see themselves as a Celtic nation, Bohemia. The Czech language defined their culture in a fundamental way, which is embodied in their literature. As such, the Czech Republic was seen as a "nation of letters" in the 18th and 19th centuries; intellectuals were seen as being in solidarity with the common interests.

Lecture: Introduction to the Hampshire Course: Czech History and Identity

Jim Wald and Polina Barskova

  • fragments from "I, City" by Pavel Brycz (Twisted Spoon Press, Prague, 2006) these collection of "Prague poems" will be our introduction to the present moment of relationship between the legendary city and its inhabitants (poets)--how can we enter this labyrinth /palimpsest of historical events, personas, emotions?
  • Derek Sayer, The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000): "Bearings," and Chapters 1-2 (pp. 5-52)

Saturday, May 23

  • Sayer, Chapters 3-4. Introduces a multitude of topics, names, and places. What argument is he trying to make regarding Czech's attitudes toward and use of history, architecture, and the arts? That is, how are these things connected with identity? What patterns do we find? Do they change over time?

Concert: Collegium Vocale 1704: G.F. Handel

Held at Tynsky Church.

Sunday, May 24

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Excursion: City as a Work of Art 1

Prof. R. Sedlakova

Renaissance Prague, hidden spaces, architectural modernism, evolving urban life. Professor Sedlakova took us on a winding journey through underground spaces and corridors, encountering intricate mosaics, stained glass windows, and hidden cafes.

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St. Wenceslas on a dead horse.

Monday, May 25

Excursion: Jewish Town

Dr. Svobodova

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Discussion: Prague as Multicultural City: Czechs, Germans, Jews

Polina Barskova Location: Café Meduza (Namesti Miru)

  • Franz Kafka, "Jackals and Arabs" (from the Kafka Project)
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  • Franz Kafka, "Letter to His Father" This famous document can furnish material for almost infinite commentary. Our concern here is chiefly with the cultural issues that it raises, the section beginning with the sentence, "I found just as little escape from you in Judaism" in the latter half of the text.
  • Franz Kafka, "A Report to an Academy: Two Fragments" (from the Kafka Project)
  • Sayer, pp. 82-118 What does Sayer mean when, referring to a passage from Kafka's diary (p. 87), he says "a place where at that date a ride on a streetcar was also a journey through uneasily intersecting zones of class, language, ethnicity, and (since Kafka was Jewish, and in the language of the day) 'race'"? How do the selections by Kafka and our other readings for today fit into the argument that Sayer is trying to make?
  • Virtual Jewish History Tour of Prague (from Virtual Jewish Library): an overview of Jewish history that will provide useful background for today's events and readings.
  • Chayim Bloch, The Golem: Mystical tales from the Ghetto of Prague, trans. Harry Schneiderman (Blauvelt, NY: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1972), 50-71,125-33. Recommended only. The legend of the Golem is the most famous cultural legacy of the Prague Jewish community, so you should at least have an opportunity to acquaint yourselves with it. Enjoy.

Milan Kundera: “The small nation is one whose very existence can be put into question at any moment: a small nation can disappear and it knows it.”

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Depiction of Franz Kafka, by sculptor Jaroslav Rona. Kafka saw his everyday life as empty, thus he rides upon his own shoulders simply observing everything.

Tuesday, May 26

Excursion: City as a Work of Art 2

Prof. R. Sedlakova

Meet at Masaryk Statue at Castle

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Why dig out the cannon balls? Remnants of a 17th Century Swedish attack.

Lecture: Czech Philosophy

Prof. Erazim Kohak

  • Jiřina Šiklová, "The 'Gray Zone' and the Future of Dissent in Czechoslovakia," 352-62
  • Excerpts from Václav Havel, "The Power of the Powerless" (1979) and György Konrád,"Antipolitics" (1984), in Gale Stokes, ed., From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945 (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 168-74

Prof. Kohak on Prague: “We produce much more history than we can consume.”

A highly abbreviated history of Czech national identity: God’s People defending God’s Truth, re-Catholicization, humanism, Communism, Democratic Socialism, defense of freedom and human rights, consumerism. A rather grim ending to a fascinating past. What does the future hold? Prof. Kohak feels that you don’t want a world filled with isolated individuals; you need roots in a cultural community. The world must be based not just on tolerance, but upon enjoyment of multiplicity. The state as a nation is obsolete; it just functions as an administrative unit. You need cultural communities with shared histories and futures, in order to have goals higher than the satisfaction of basic needs.

Wednesday, May 27

  • Sayer, Chapter 7

Lecture: Political History and Philosophy

Dr. Petr Just

In the Czech Republic, the “left” is socialism/Communism, and the “right” is conservatism/liberalism, which is jarring to American notions of these terms.

Two months ago, the Czech government was unseated by a vote of no confidence for the first time ever, with the masses swinging to the left end of the spectrum. Some big issues are Communism versus anti-Communism, libertarian versus socialized approach to economic reform, and entry into the European Union.

For Dr. Just, a key issue is the lack of proper education on history. This generation’s teachers learned history during Communism, and thus never objectively learned the history of the second half of the 20th century.

Lecture: Czech Cubism

Dr. K. Prusova

At Museum of Modern Art.

Thursday, May 28

Lecture: Prague as Urban Environment: Culture and History (II)

Jim and Polina

  • Sayer, 154-63
  • Jaroslav Hašek, excerpts from The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War , trans. Cecil Parrott (NY: Thomas Crowell, 1974): "The Good Soldier Švejk Intervenes in the Great War," and "Švejk Goes with the Chaplain to Celebrate a Drumhead Mass," and "Epilogue to Part I, 'Behind the Lines,'" 3-30, 125-33, 214-16. What is one to make of a work such as this? Is it political? moralizing? cynical? Why might the absurd have been a response to tragedy? On Hašek, see Sayer, 158-60. Why does he discuss the novel in this context? What does he mean when he refers to controversies over its portrayal of Czech character?

Kundera: “Optimism is the opiate of the people.”

Excursion: City as a Work of Art 3

Prof. R. Sedlakova Location: Vysehrad and Namesti Miru

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Shadows of the past.

Friday, May 29

Travel Day to Krakow

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  • Davies, Heart of Europe

Dinner at Bee restaurant beside Hotel Oberza.

Saturday, May 30

Excursion: Krakow Old Town and Barbican

Ms. A. Sababady

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Sunday, May 31

Lecture: Poetry and Politics

Jim and Polina Location: Massolit Bookstore

  • selections from "Spoiling Cannibals' Fun: Polish Poetry of the last Two decades of the Communists' Rule"

The study of poetry is very different from math; the emphasis is on interpretation and critical thought in its exploration of relative truths. “Hitler’s First Photograph” makes us ask ourselves, what can we become, and what should we become? One of history’s most interesting questions is “What if?” Living in the present moment and making decisions is terrifyingly exciting and important because you are crafting history, and you cannot go back and change it. In “Report from a Besieged City,” even as the chronicler writes history there is a sense of the absurd, the myriad of histories, as the historian shapes the history with every decision he makes about what to write; “facts only are valued on foreign markets,” no emotions play a part in the dry timeline he records.

Excursion: Wawel Castle

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Monday, June 1

Lecture: Polish Political History 1

Dr. Jakub Basista

  • Davies, Heart of Europe,pp, 1-5 to get an overview, and then Chapters 4 and 3. Read as background for Prof. Basista's lecture. Use your judgment as to when to skim and when to read in greater detail, but you should come to the class with some basic understanding of Polish history.

Dr. Basista gave a fascinating in-depth overview of Polish history. The topic of the lecture was “How We Outlived Communism.”

The Black Madonna

In 1966, under First Secretary of the Party Wladyslaw Gomulka’s Communist reign, the churches wanted to celebrate 1000 years of Polish Christianity. They intended to have a portrait of the Black Madonna (a popular icon in Poland) travel to all the churches in Poland. However, Communists arrested the painting. Thus, the frame traveled the country, and the people worshipped an empty frame.

Poland was the only country in the region with only one religion after World War II. 95% of the population was Catholic. Back then, the Church was the only asylum for the opposition. Poland continues to be deeply religious into the present day.

Tuesday, June 2

(lectures held at Przegorzaly Castle)

Lecture: Polish Identity

Prof. Z. Mach

Polish identity at its core is cultural, not political. Thus, patriotism is not associated with loyalty to the State. Since identity so firmly consists of cultural elements, anyone who was not a Polish-speaking Catholic was not seen as a Pole. It is difficult to create a Polish state, as there is no space for minorities. Over time, language has taken a more central role, since not all Polish people actively practice Catholicism any more.

World War II was seen as Polish suffering, Jewish role in history became taboo. Auschwitz museum was first built as a Polish martyrdom museum.

Lecture: Polish Gender

Prof. K. Zielinska

Polish political parties are virtually all what Americans would call right-wing. There is widespread reinforcement of traditional patriarchy. Presently, only 20% of women use legal contraceptives; a very restrictive anti-abortion law was passed in 1993, so there are many underground abortions.


Jim and Polina

Wednesday, June 3

Lecture: Polish Political History 2

Dr. Jakub Basista

The “Solidarity” trade union played a key role in the social movement against Soviet Communist rule.

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Vintage “Solidarity” poster.

In 2003, 77% of Polish voters were in favor of joining the European Union, so in 2004 Poland joined the European Union.

Excursion: Nowa Huta

Ms. A. Sababady

Thursday, June 4

Excursion: Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau

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  • "Chronological Table" of the Holocaust, from Gerhard Schoenberner, The Yellow Star: The Persecution of the Jews in Europe 1933-1945, trans. Susan Sweet (NY: Bantam Books, 1979), 215-18. Read through the chronology and look for patterns. What do you see? What changes over time?
  • Eva Hoffman, Shtetl: The History of a Small Town and an Extinguished World (NY: Vintage Books, 1999), 1-19
  • selections from Jiri Weil, "Life with the Star"
  • Arnošt Lustig, "Infinity," from his Street of Lost Brothers, in in Lawrence Langer, ed., Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology (NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 357-77. On Lustig, see Sayer, 228. On the episode of the "family camp" (Lustig, p. 362), see Sayer, p. 224.

Friday, June 5

Lecture: European Union

Dr. Magda Gora

The strong desire to “return home” was the primary argument for joining the European Union. Poles had long since viewed themselves as part of the West (“east of the West”). Joining requires a long and painful transition period, in order to meet their extensive standards for entry.

Dinner and Concert

Klezmer House

Saturday, June 6

Travel Day to Prague

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Monday, June 8

Lecture: Appeasement, Occupation and Resistance

Jim Wald and Polina Barskova

  • Peter Demetz, Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), pp. 159-74 (on theater in Terezín and the Heydrich assassination)
  • Sayer, Ch. 6
  • Selections from Master of Spies: The Memoirs of General Frantisek Moravec (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975): Chapters 8-10 ("Our Ally France," Plan Green," "When the Generals Cried"), pp. 96-126. These memoirs provide an insider's picture of the crisis culminating in the Munich Agreement.
  • Miroslav Ivanov, Target: Heydrich, trans. Patrick O'Brian (NY: Macmillan, 1974), 155-61, 226-30,285-92.

Lecture: War, Resistance, Literature

Jim Wald and Polina Barskova

  • B. Hrabal, Closely Watched Trains
  • Demetz, Prague in Danger (second selection)

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Statue in housing built during Communist rule.

Lecture: Modern Czech Jewish History

Prof. Jirina Sedinova

There is a horrifying circularity in Czech Jewish history. At least three serious expulsions of the Jews occurred in the past, with the same series of events each time: identification, deprivation of property, concentration, and finally, expulsion or liquidation.

Tuesday, June 9

Day Trip to Karlovy Vary

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We spent the day relaxing in a luxurious old spa town.

Wednesday, June 10

Lecture: From the Prague Spring to Charter 77

Jim Wald

  • Sayer, pp. 286-88, 313-18, on Kundera,
  • Václav Havel, "Peace: The View from Prague," New York Review of Books, 21 Nov. 1985, pp. 28-30
  • Ivan Sviták, "Before the Occupation: The Political Crisis in Czechoslovakia," Ludvík Vaculík, "'2000 Words': A Statement on Democratization," Zdeněk Suda, "The Invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968," in Lyman Legters, ed., Eastern Europe: Transformation and Revolution, 1945-1991. Documents and Analyses, Sources in Modern History (Lexington, MA and Toronto: D. C. Heath, 1992), 206-22
  • Milan Kundera, "The Tragedy of Central Europe," in Gale Stokes, ed., From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945 (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 217-23
  • Charter 77, in Gale Stokes, ed., From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945 (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991),163-66

Lecture: Dissidence and Literature

Polina Barskova

  • Hana Pichova, "Photographer Armed and Dangerous" from "Art of Memory in Exile: Nabokov and Kundera"
  • Miroslaw Holub, "On the Contrary" and other poems

According to Polina, your chance in life to turn into decent human beings simply requires reading myths on the odd days, the Bible on the even days, and Homer on the weekends.

"Monster" comes from the Latin "monstrare," "to show." What  is a monster? What do they show us? Monsters always have some human aspect. This arose in our discussion of "The Minotaur on Love," by Moroslaw Holub.

"Brief reflection on a fence" explores the symbolic meaning of a fence, and concludes "a truly perfect fence/is one/that separates nothing from nothing,/a place where there is nothing,/from a place where there's also nothing."

Lecture: Dissident Culture and Political Leadership in the Czech Lands

Prof. Jan Sokol

Censorship has succeeded when the censor is no longer needed.

Prof. Sokol, an old-time dissident himself, discussed Czech resistance. Nowadays, old-time dissidents have trouble enjoying freedom. Many are people who cannot love without having an enemy. In a way, they are like soldiers who were at war for a long time. They don’t want to discuss the past and have trouble communicating with others.

Music and Musicology

Prof. Tony Ackerman

Location: his flat in Prague 6 Tony played several pieces on his seven-string guitar, and discussed the Buchta Theory: “Czech art, like the Czech people, never bursts out in an orgy of self expression – rather it folds in on itself, and waits for us to work our way to it.”

  • Tony Ackerman, “The Buchta Theory and the Perina Syndrome”

From “Little Brother, Close the Gate”:

Little brother, do not cry Those are not ghosts Those are just soldiers They arrived in square, iron caravans

Thursday, June 11

Museum Lecture: Cubist Art/Architecture

Prof. K. Prusova

At House of the Black Madonna

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After seeing a photo of this during the talk, I scribbled down the address and found my way to this odd building.

Excursion: Cafes and Culture

At Black Madonna Café, Louvre Café, Slavia Café

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Traditional Czech pastry gone Cubist. “Kubisticky Venecek,” or “little coffin.


  • selection from Peter Demetz, "Prague in Black and Gold" (314-64)
  • V. Nezval, ABC
  • selections from A. French , "The Czech Avantgardists"
  • Sayer, Chapter 5. This will provide background on the place of modernism in the cultural and political realms.

Surrealism: one of the rare moments when poets didn't want to take themselves too seriously.

From "Panorama of Prague," by Tr. E. Osers, a Czech Avantgardist:

Like berets thrown into the air,

Berets of boys, cocottes and cardinals

Turned into stone by the sorcerer Zito

At the great feast;

Berets with Chinese lanterns

on the eve of St. John's Day

When fireworks are let off;

Yet also like a town of umbrellas- opened skyward as shields against rockets

All this is Prague.

Lecture: Repression, Resistance, and Exile

Jim and Polina

  • Reading: Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
    This was our final class, which gave it a slight air of melancholy. This classic of 20th century Czech literature was a good conclusion; we could connect with the book on a deeper level, having walked the streets of Prague and studied its history and culture. We could connect the scattered references to places, people, and times with all that we had learned thus far. One topic that arose was that of "eternal return," a concept we had touched upon several times before.

Friday, June 12

Trip to Kutna Hora

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Plague Column of the Virgin Mary Immaculate, built in thanksgiving after the end of a plague.

Saturday, 13 June

Farewell Dinner at Potrefena Husa

Sunday, 14 June


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