I’ve just climbed Petřín (320m) for the first time, stopping periodically along the way to gaze out over Praha, toward Pražský Hrad (Prague Castle) and across the Vltava toward Staré Město (Old Town) and Josefov (Jewish Quarter). I’m sitting in a botanical garden, beneath the shade of some pine and grateful for the cool air today. At the bottom of the hill, just off Štefánikova, arranged in procession heading down some large, sloping steps, are a few statues that memorialize the Czechs’ suffering under communist rule.
At the uppermost step, the first (or last) in the line of statues is just a single foot — the first step out of the woods that sheer upward behind. Gradually, the statues, of which there are seven, accumulate more and more of full human form, until, at the lowest step, the clear, trudging, staggering form of a person emerges, frail in brass as the hungry and demoralized flesh of its sorrowful inspiration.
It is a haunting gesture, arms slack but reaching ever-so-slightly forward, feet barely shuffling onward, that reminds me of another memorial, at KZ Mittelbau-Dora, a WWII munitions/labor camp. I visited there eleven years ago, during a month-long trip to Germany. It was with sinking dumbstruck-ness that I looked on those frozen, emaciated faces a decade and more ago, and again today at these so-similar fellow-travelers in misery. There is something hopeful, though, that gurgles up despite, a sense that awful times have past, that, even though there is no promise of never again implied in the unmoving casts below Petřín, or among the heaps left inside Kohnstein near Nordhausen, even though future atrocity will demand memorial on top of memorial, testaments to a dark past that has not yet come to pass, we, humans of difference living side by side, eventually find our ways back out into the light again, if only briefly, and embrace each other in the warmth of the sun.
post-script: I walked back down into town, still somewhat somber after thinking about the memorial and others like it, but was lifted a little by the sweet smell of, yes, roses from a large garden, and of apples in a small orchard sloping down the hillside, and of the kind, lazy happiness of all the people I passed along the way.