With a little research I found out that Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery and that it was really only a short metro ride from my hotel. So, after having spent my second evening in Prague reading some Kafka (purchased at the incredible Globe Bookstore, Prague’s biggest English language bookstore and café) and drinking some (well, many) bottles of Pilsner at a local pub, I made plans to visit Kafka’s grave right after the lunch session put on by the conference I was attending the following day. It would be my last full day in Prague and I wanted to see one or two places before leaving.
Although Prague’s metro is only about 30 years old, it looks and feels much older. It’s not nearly as nice as Washington, DC or Lisbon’s metro, but it does the job. Prague’s metro is quite easy to use, possibly because it only has three lines at the moment, which are both lettered (Lines A, B, and C) and color coded, Green, Yellow, and Red respectively. The Prague metro was built by the Soviets and, as with every metro station I have found myself in, some stations are nicer than others. It is only a few minutes walk to the Andel Station from my hotel, which is on the Yellow Line. From Andel it’s a short ride to Musteck where I change to the Green Line and take that all the way to Zeltivkeho Station. Like all metro rides, I found myself in the midst of many different types of people. I am always surprised by how tired people look while taking public transportation, regardless of the time of day or night. I can’t help but stare at people going about their busy lives and, at least for a while, I am part of this foreign city; I’m just one of the thousands of anonymous citizens who come and go each day to our secret destinations. It’s times like this that, I must confess, I feel most at home.
The New Jewish Cemetery was established in 1891 and was built to accommodate enough bodies for a century, or about 100,000. The cemetery was built to reflect the neo-Renaissance style, and from the pictures I have seen it differs quite a bit from the Old Jewish Cemetery. The New Jewish Cemetery looks more like what we have in the United States: carefully manicured lawns, buildings, and tombs that are all well cared for. In short, the New Jewish Cemetery, at least in pictures, carries none of the historical weight that the Old Jewish Cemetery carries. In fact, it looks quite boring by comparison.
When the train stops at Zeltivkeho Station there is a mad rush to the door of the car. As we make our way out a half dozen or so people fight to get in. For a few seconds it becomes more than a little chaotic. Once the car begins to pull out of the station I take a good look around. There are at least two exits and I am unsure which one will take me out closest to the cemetery. I am always a little lost when I attempt to exit a metro station, even ones that I have traveled on several times. I think it has something to do with being underground and among so many people going about at a hurried pace. Perhaps it’s the combined smell of human bodies and train exhaust, combined with whatever food the vendors happen to be selling.
I finally managed to make up my mind and pick an exit. I went up the stairs and came out to a place that put me right across a busy street from a side entrance to the cemetery. Excited, I hurried across the street in the fading afternoon light. I was hoping for enough light to snap a few pictures of Kafka’s grave. When I finally managed to navigate the heavy traffic and get across the street I noticed that the iron gate to the cemetery was closed. I walked up to it and tried to move it forward, and when it refused to budge, backward. I was dismayed, upset, more than a little nauseous, and tired. Through the gate I could see a sign pointing the way to Kafka’s grave. The gate was locked, and I frantically began looking for another entrance. I found a sign, and although it was written in Czech, I could make out that the cemetery closed at three in the afternoon on Fridays. It was just half past three according to my watch.