Witnesses looked on in anguish as the murky flood waters of the Vltava River surged over Prague, one of the world’s greatest literary cities-home of Kafka, Kundera, Hrabal, and Havel.
For thirty-six hours before the flood reached its peak on Wednesday, August 14, sirens screamed and loudspeakers boomed, warning residents to abandon their homes in the lower town. Bridges were closed. Doors and windows were boarded up and sealed off with silicon; sandbags were piled before every entrance. Some of the makeshift attempts at protection were more symbolic than functional: sheets of pink plastic taped over windows. Yet the denizens of the Golden City remained calm. In one bookstore a sign was posted “Closed for Technical Reasons,” followed by a series of exclamation points. Meanwhile municipal workers and volunteers packed away priceless artworks and rare books and carried them to the upper floors of libraries and museums.
In the old ghetto, concern focused on the Jewish cemetary, the final resting place of Rabbi Loew, creator of the Golem, the precursor of Frankenstein. What would the flood wash out of the old cellars of Prague’s magic heart? The alembics of the Cabbalists? Priceless medieval manuscripts? The clay body of the Golem himself? Yiddish writer Monia Ovadia remarked that the flood seemed to be “a horrible joke of the Golem gone berserk.”
Although severe flooding was also occurring in other major cities in Northern Europe, the Prague flood, like the London Blitz, or the bombing of the Twin Towers, immediately assumed mythic proportions in the international press, which attests to the cultural importance this city has held for centuries.
Now that the waters have receded the destruction caused by the worst flood in 150 years can be assessed. So far twelve deaths in the Czech Republic have been counted, and fifty thousand people have been driven from their homes in Prague alone. Although the European Union, the US, and other nations have pledged generous aid to help restore devastated infrastructures, damage to the country’s cultural heritage is beyond estimation. The foundations of many historic buildings have been structurally damaged; some buildings in the Karlin district-Prague’s first suburb, built in the 18th century immediately outside the original city walls-have collapsed. The 660-year-old Charles Bridge is at risk. The National Theater was damaged, as was the Philharmonic Orchestra. Thousands of volumes in libraries in Prague and throughout the Czech Republic have been destroyed.
The Prague Post, Prague’s Anglophone newspaper, has instituted a special Flood Relief Fund to aid school and community libraries. Money will be used to purchase books and rebuild damaged structures. Concerned writers and readers around the world can contribute to this fund by visiting the Web site at www.praguepost.com or sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.