The Czech Republic's most famous celebrity is probably Franz Kafka — the writer who penned "The Trial," "The Castle" and "Metamorphosis," the story of a man who turns into an insect. In creating these stories, he also gave the world the adjective "Kafkaesque" — the sense of hopelessness created by mindless bureaucracy.
Kafka had several significant romantic relationships in his short life, the last with a young Polish woman named Dora Diamant, whom he met in 1923 at the holiday camp in Germany where she was working. The two moved together to Berlin and lived there until Kafka's death the following year. Following his instructions, Diamant burned some of his papers, but his friend Max Brod preserved others so that they could be published, making Kafka's name a household word today.
In 2003, an American writer, Kathi Diamant (probably no relation), published a book about the Kafka-Diamant relationship titled "Kafka's Last Love." When she organized a research trip this past spring to look for additional letters between the two that had been confiscated by the Nazis, this bookworm could not resist the temptation to go along.
In Prague, where our adventure began, we could not walk down a street or turn a corner without seeing Kafka's influence and the city's pride in its native son. The Old Town Square, which he once remarked encompassed his entire life, is especially rich with Kafka memorabilia. He studied law at Charles University and held jobs at the Assicurazioni Generali and the Workers Accident Insurance Institute. Franze Kafky Street has been named for him, and a cafe takes his name although there is no evidence that he ever drank so much as a cup of coffee there.
It's questionable whether he had Prague Castle in mind when he wrote "The Castle," but for a time he wrote in a small apartment that had been rented by his sister Ottla on Golden Lane within the castle complex. Today the tiny blue edifice is a bookshop where his books can be purchased, but in the castle's earlier days, the rooms along this street were home to alchemists, hence its name. Scholars do believe the Gothic towers of St. Vitus Cathedral, which lies within the castle walls, is where part of "The Trial" takes place, and Josef K., the protagonist of that novel, crosses the statue-studded Charles Bridge, which lies below, the night before his execution.
At the New Jewish Cemetery in the suburb of Strasnice we placed stones on Kafka's grave, as is Jewish tradition dating to the 40 years the Israelites spent crossing the desert. Here we heard the touching story of how Dora, collapsed in grief on Kafka's grave the day of his funeral, was ignored by his father, who disapproved of their relationship.
Several sights worth seeing have been erected since Kafka's death. The most significant are two Franz Kafka Museums — the more traditional collection of documents in Namesti Franze Kafky, and the spectacular (and controversial) Franz Kafka Museum in the Mala Strana area. Also a repository of important manuscripts, letters and photographs, this museum presents material that allows the visitor to get a glimpse into the world as Kafka might have seen it. The walls are black. Photographs are viewed through water and behind screens. Some displays perch on shelves that spring from piles of rock. In one video installment the shadow of the viewer is incorporated into a surreal film. In another, row upon row of black glass filing cabinets depict Josef K.'s "endless office." Near the Jewish Quarter, the Franz Kafka Monument, designed by Jaroslav Rona, depicts a man sitting on the shoulders of a headless body, a motif that turns up in more than one of Kafka's works, especially a story titled "The Description of a Struggle."
While Prague was central to understanding Kafka, there was more to be discovered. Our motor coach rolled through the Czech Republic and into Poland, with Kathi Diamant reading relevant passages from her book to us along the way. One stop was in Benzin, where Dora had lived with her family on the first floor of her father's suspender factory and acted with a local theater group.
After that it was on to Krakow, where Dora's father shipped her to be educated in a Jewish school after he married his second wife. Instead, Dora discovered a more secular way of life that she preferred and ran away to Germany. After tracking her down once, her father gave up and mourned her as dead.
While we were in Krakow, Miriam Shekter, Dora's first cousin once removed, joined our group. Now an architect in Copenhagen, Denmark, she had never actually met Dora but had heard stories from her father about Dora's being the black sheep of her family. As we headed to Berlin, she kept us entertained with anecdotes about her famous relative.
Once we'd arrived, we were joined by Hans-Gerd Koch, a leading Kafka scholar who took us on a tour around Berlin to see the places important to Kafka and Dora during their brief time together. The most significant was 13 Grunewaldstrasse, the only address the couple ever shared, in the now-upscale suburb of Steglitz. The pleasant brick and cream four-story house looks much the same today as it did in pictures from Kafka's time except for the plaque that marks it as a spot of historical and literary interest.
Nearby is a botanical garden where Kafka and Dora walked when he took breaks from his work. He was ill with tuberculosis and nearing the end of his life when they lived in the neighborhood, and in notes from that period he comments that he often had to stop what he was doing in order to rest.
The morning we walked through the same garden, I had drifted off from the rest of the group and so had Miriam, who caught up to me and slipped her arm through mine.
"Let's imagine what Kafka and Dora might have said to each other," she said playfully. "I think she'd say, 'There's a great show on. Let's go to the theater,' and he'd say, 'I'm sorry. I don't feel well. I think we need to go home.'"
It was a magical moment and the perfect cap to a trip in which I'd learned so much about this legendary writer and the woman who brightened the end of his life. But how unfortunate that Miriam was almost certainly right.
IF YOU GO
Kathi Diamant's book, "Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant" (Basic Books) tells Dora's extraordinary story with Kafka and beyond. Another Kafka Project tour (www.kafkaproject.com) is being planned for 2010. A similar trip would be easy to organize on your own, especially in Prague.
Our guide was Edita Machova, who will tailor her tours to a client's wishes. She showed us all of Prague and taught us its history as she guided us from one spot to another that was important in Kafka's life. (www.private-tours.net)
Public transportation is dependable, inexpensive and easy to use, so if you opt not to go with a tour group, you'll easily be able to get around.
However you craft your visit to Prague, be sure to finish off one of your days with a traditional Czech meal of meat and dumplings, available at many restaurants in the Old Town Square, and a walk across the Charles Bridge for a nightcap at the Caf? Marnice.
Glenda Winders is a freelance travel writer. To find out more about Glenda Winders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.