Human Flower Project

In the Month of Květen

In the Czech Republic, May is the month of flowers—literally. Let a thousand ironies bloom.


Bergenia cordifolia blooms in the Jewish cemetery outside Třebíč, Czech Republic, May 2009

Photo: Human Flower Project

Vacations come in pairs: there’s the fantasy that gets you out the door, then the welter of realities—strange bedcovers, clouds, vegetables and diphthongs—where you land.

Expectation and outcome don’t need to match. If they did, then fantasy alone would do (e.g. the vacation-implants of “Total Recall”). But fantasy is required. Without it, you’re on a work trip or we’d all stay home, bitching and pecking our blackberries.

Our trip to the Czech Republic began with a new friend, journalist Tomáš Němeček. Since we met in Austin three years ago and he presented us with fantasy-spawning Bohemia, Jan Reich’s grand, moody book of photographs, Tomáš has gone on to shower us gently with postcards: he sends flower stamps, arch observations from his own holidays, and nuggets of surrealism: “According to ancient Czech tradition,” he wrote one Christmastime, “gifts are brought by the invisible baby Jesus. (For supermarket managers, it’s hard to use in marketing).”

Primed by all this, our vacation was clinched with one Czech word: Květen. It means “flower.” It also means the month of May. The trip scheduled itself.

While away, we took a break from writing or editing for HFP though not from documenting floral customs. There are many in this part of the world, especially during Květen. Over the weeks to come, we’ll be scattering stories from our visit but there’s too much to hold onto. So, several handfuls of petals now…


Memorial to the 1945 Prague Uprising, May 6, 2009

Photo: Bill Bishop

We came into Prague just before the national holiday Den vítězství or Den osvobození, May 8. It marks the end of World War II and the liberation of the Czech Republic from Nazi occupation, 1945. By May 6, when we arrived, there were already ribbons and wreaths in the Old Town Square, at the base of the town hall tower famous for its astronomical clock.

Like so much of Czech culture, “Liberation Day” is a complex, ambivalent occasion, layered with consequences, shame and power. For Prague’s official “liberators” were Soviet soldiers, vanguard of the next new oppressive regime. Gen. George Patton’s forces had taken the western region, advancing as far as Pilzen, but by prior arrangement with the Soviet allies, the Red Army would “do the honors” in Prague, taking credit and much more May 9.

imagePraguers welcome the “liberating” Red Army, May 9, 1945: a display at the Museum of Communism

Photo: Human Flower Project

Which is why Czech liberation, for decades observed on May 9, is now celebrated May 8. By that date, the Czech resistance had already wrested a ceasefire from the Germans occupying Prague and the larger peace treaty had been signed. The Czechs have observed this as their rightful V-Day since the end of Soviet occupation.

The plaque pictured above, dedicated in 1995 (post-Velvet Revolution), honors not the Red Army or even the end of the war, but the Prague Uprising – May 5-8 and “those who gave their lives for freedom.”

At the Museum of Communism in Prague, (which might more accurately be called the Museum of Anti-Communism) the Czech Legion and local resistance forces are credited with the city’s liberation. The poster at left shows what the curators would term Soviet propaganda – a young woman dressed in traditional Moravian embroidered costume, thanks soldiers of the U.S.S.R. with bouquets, May 9, 1945.

In the city of Brno, May 9, we found wreaths laid at a monument to the Red Army.  And elsewhere in the Czech Republic? We wish we knew. A worthy human flower project would document when and how, and why—with which sorts of floral arrangements—Czechs across the nation mark this moment in their history, the end of one oppressive era and the outset of another.

The whole business of belief is a curious subject here. The simplest affirmation, more often than not, comes with the prickle of a joke, something undercutting or aside. The Czechs seem to relish their status as the most atheistic of all European countries. We found a couple of polls confirming this and also heard the declaration enough times, from enough reliable sources, including Tomáš, that we’ll accept it.

Plus we have first hand evidence: in two weeks of traveling, we came upon more beautiful, locked, and empty churches in the Czech Republic than we ever thought possible. As our traveling companion noted, here is a superb “religious infrastructure” that’s been abandoned.

imageRhododendron in bloom below the pilgrimage church of St. John Nepomuk, Zelena Hora

Photo: Human Flower Project

May 16 was the Feast Day of St. John of Nepomuk, the national saint of the Czech Republic.  The ever skeptical Czechs admit that the man who was pitched off the Charles Bridge in Prague, 1393, may or may not have been the martyred John, who refused to disclose the queen’s confession. And his tongue, preserved as a holy relic at the Prague cathedral, may or may not contain brain cells.

We visited his pilgrimage church, the stunning and completely eccentric compound at Zelena Hora, two days before his feast day, and there was nothing special going on. A group of teenagers listened to a talk about the church’s star-shaped design, baroque ornamentation and tongue-shaped windows, but this isn’t Italy or Mexico. No flagellating penitents crawling to the church door or heaps of floral offerings. Outside in the five-sided churchyard cemetery, a lone caretaker toted her watering can, and in the newer cemetery down the hill, a rainbow’s worth of rhododendron were in bloom.

Back in Prague, on the feast day itself, we heard of no great celebration up at Sv. Vitus Cathedral (owned not by the Catholic Church but by the Czech state). Around the base of St. John’s mournful statue on the Charles Bridge someone had laid two quite respectable bunches of red roses, and let it go at that.


Pebbles and wild forget-me-nots, both memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Třebíč

Photo: Human Flower Project

Having been oppressed by three and half centuries of Hapsburg Catholic rule, its Jewish population confined, then herded away and killed under Nazism, the Czechs are perhaps not so much atheistic as anti-religious. Yet unbelieving is not unfeeling. Their cemeteries overflow with floral tributes, fresh-cut, fabric, stone, and wild. The month of May glorifies the Jewish cemetery outside Třebíč, patches of Bergenia cordifolia (thank you, Allen Bush!) blooming before many of the newer black marble markers. There are 11,000 graves here; older headstones on the far hill are interspersed with low growing daisies and twinkling forget-me-nots. Who wouldn’t be grateful to lie down here—no matter what they believe?

imageA majka decorates the roadside square of Štěměchy, Czech Republic

Photo: Human Flower Project

Between Třebíč and Telc (both UNESCO World Heritage sites) we came upon another Květen tradition, the maypole or majka. This maj in Štěměchy held up an evergreen and circular wreath, both decorated with ribbon.

Located between two international tourist destinations, Štěměchy appears to be working up its medievalism, perhaps reaching further back to pagan customs, too. Whether the maypole here is a local totem, recreational dance accessory, ancient rite of spring, or sight-seers’ lure, we don’t know.

This being the Czech Republic, it could be all of the above, or none or—most likely—some combination with a sardonic smile attached.

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