Ford, roadstead, grave. Jan Palach Square across the centuries

Prague lovers of classical music are lucky twice. Not only do they live in a city where music has been interpreted at the highest worldwide level for centuries. Moreover, whenever they step out of Rudolfinum, the impression of their sonic experience helps them complete the wonderful view of the Prague Castle silhouette, rising dramatically from the level of the undisturbedly flowing Vltava river. Did you know that the people of Prague had been enjoying this view daily long before music production even took place in the concert halls?

24.11.2023 | Author: Jakub Kožíšek

Jan Palach Square is one of the artistic, intellectual and social epicenters of Prague. It is delimited by three important buildings: the University of Applied Arts, the Faculty of Arts of Charles University, and Rudolfinum, which houses the first Czech orchestra and a gallery of modern art; the fourth side of the square is open and offers a wonderful view of the Prague Castle panorama.

However, the place was important long before these buildings were built there. The historian Richard Biegel proves in the Rudolfinum: Chrám umění (“Rudolfinum: The Temple of Art”) book, on the basis of the old town streets orientation, that the area of today’s Palach Square was the hub of entire early medieval Prague. It was precisely there where a ford, possible to cross the river with and get from the Old Town to the Castle and the settlement below, was located.[1]

The square lost its function after the Judith Bridge and subsequently after the Charles Bridge constructions in the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, respectively. The main intersection of Prague turned into a periphery for centuries. “From the irregular natural bank, there rose a low development of houses, corrals, and other buildings connected with the wood storage, with the potassium nitrate production and other economic purposes,” Biegel described the area, which was also adjacent to the cemetery serving the Jewish ghetto.

After all, the nomenclature proves what function the place had in the life of Czechs’ ancestors. The location was called Rejdiště (“Roadstead”) as there used to be a stable with an open space that served as a training ground for riding horses. And, even before, the people of Prague used to make appointments simply – on the Na břehu (“On the Shore”) street.[2] After all, Na rejdišti (“On the Stable”) and Břehová (“River Bank”) streets, which separate Rudolfinum, the Prague Conservatory, and the Faculty of Law, are still apparent on Prague maps.

Rejdiště became the event center again only thanks to the transformation in the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. The main moments that made today’s “Palacháč”, as the square is colloquially known in Czech, once again one of the main squares in Prague are perhaps the construction of the iron foot- and subsequently the bridge, public buildings led by Rudolfinum and also, understandably, the Prague sanitation in general. Funnily enough, however, the former ford crossing was prepared for its central and exhibition role – as it was written deep into the city's urban genome.

“He Fell in the Last Seconds of the War”

Transformations of the forms, but also the names of the square, neatly illustrate the course of modern Czechoslovak history. During the First World War, it bore the name of Empress Zita, the wife of the last Austrian emperor Charles I. After an independent state was established, the square was renamed after the founder of the national musical tradition, Bedřich Smetana. At that time, as it is well known, Rudolfinum served as the Chamber of Deputies of the Czechoslovak National Assembly.

After the German occupation during the Second World War, the forbidden My Fatherland author had to give way to Wolfgang Amadeus, preferred by the conformist regime. It was Mozartplatz that witnessed the first major act of piety on the Vltava banks. The Nazi regime organized a torture trial here for the victims of the Allied air strike on Prague which took place in February 1945.

The square experienced the same scene again three months later. In May, the Red Army soldiers who died in the battles at the very end of the Second World War were buried here. For example, the story of Colonel Georgy Ivanovich Sakharov, who senselessly passed away in the chaos of the war’s last days, along with one hundred and fifty other people, is well known in Czechia.

The tragedy occurred in the town of Hrotovice, not far from Třebíč, the biggest town of the namesake district, at a time when the remaining German units were retreating through the area. “The Russians had several soldiers signaling where the liberated territory was so that their own ranks would not be bombed. It was one of these soldiers that fell and was not replaced by another. In Hrotovice, the local radio announced that people would go to the square to welcome the liberators. Without signaling, the Russian pilots thought it was the enemy and dropped three bombs on Hrotovice,” the Memory of Nations website explains the cause of the event.[3]

The highest-ranking Red Army soldier that died in Hrotovice was the commander of the 208th Dvina self-propelled artillery brigade, Sakharov. After his death, he was loaded onto a tank and taken to Rudolfinum where he was buried on May 10. At that time, the photographer Tibor Honty captured the memorial act and called it “He Fell in the Last Seconds of the War”.

It is one of the iconic images of the end of the war in Czechoslovakia, which, of course, could not be unused by communist propaganda. After all, in the 1950s, in honor of the fallen “liberators”, the area in front of Rudolfinum was renamed again and poor Smetana had to leave the signs for the second time: Krasnoarmějců (“Red Army Square”).

No Red Army soldiers are buried in front of Rudolfinum today. Already at the turn of the spring and summer of 1945, the first ones of them, including Colonel Sakharov, were moved to more suitable final resting places. His girlfriend arranged for the remains to be transported to the Baikove cemetery in Kyiv where Sakharov had wished to be buried.[4]


© Hrotovice museum

Rudolfinum has experienced mourning once more. In January 1969, however, neither the Nazis nor the Soviets said goodbye to their hero. Here, hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovakians paid tribute to the student Jan Palach who set himself on fire in protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968 and the subsequent social lethargy.

A day after his death, a silent procession with black banners and state flags passed through Prague. Eyewitnesses usually point to the “depressive and unnatural silence” enveloping the city at that time. People converged on Wenceslas Square from where they headed towards the river. When the crowd arrived at the Faculty of Arts the students spontaneously renamed the square after the deceased. The handmade sign was guarded by a volunteer patrol.

Palach’s alma mater also became the target of a procession five days later after the funeral ceremony in the Karolinum of th Charles University. A massive procession numbering, according to estimates, about 200,000 individuals came to the square near Rudolfinum once again which had already been decorated with the typical Prague red enamel plaques reading “Náměstí Jana Palacha” (“Jan Palach Square”). Of course, they disappeared soon.

The square could not be officially renamed until after three decades. After the Velvet Revolution, there was a spontaneous renaming of streets with the most blatantly pro-communist names. Such a case is the Red Army Square, which was transformed overnight into Jan Palach Square. With the fall of the regime, enthusiastic citizens took to the streets and crossed out the original name themselves. This time, however, the official authorities recognized the act of the people and, since then, you can find Rudolfinum at Jan Palach Square on the maps. Unfortunately, it cannot be said that it is a dignified and a representative place in all respects.

A square without a square

The current state of the open space is uninviting, as the successive Prague municipalities have been recognizing for years. In the middle, there stands a concrete outlet from the underground garages due to which the square is used almost exclusively around its perimeter. When it rains it is a superhuman task to walk from the metro or tram stations around the square to the concert hall without soiling one’s shoes for social occasions. Not to mention the busy road with traffic lights and their waiting times, preferring motorists to many stressed latecomers catching up to the concert.

The people of Prague have already heard many square reconstruction plans from their elected representatives. They are all based on the same design. Already two decades ago, the city launched a competition in which architects Václav Králíček and Stanislav Makarov won. Five years ago, the design was revised to reflect current urban trends. Since then, Prague councilors have been taking over the baton in negotiations with the owner of the underground garages, asking for preservationists’ opinions and considering where and how to direct the traffic.

The date of the start of the work is still moving. Former mayor Adriana Krnáčová claimed that digging would begin in 2020, though it did not happen. The current deputy mayor of Prague, Petr Hlaváček, announced that the reconstruction would begin at the end of 2022, but even this deadline will not be met. The municipality is now talking about the second half of 2023.

“Currently, the municipality has reached a definitive agreement on the square and the adjoining streets forms, coordinated with subsequent projects, such as the reconstruction of Virgin Mary Square. There is an agreement on the form regarding traffic solutions, historic preservation and green solutions,” municipal spokesman Vít Hofman could inform about at least partial progress.

Unfortunately, realistic visualizations of the agreed form of the square mentioned by Hofman are not available yet. We can therefore only offer the “pre-final” version to readers. However, it should be noted that, among the variants that Prague has shown to the public since 2016, a layperson may not see fundamental differences at first glance. It differs primarily in whether or not there is a flagpole in the middle.

Netflix Is Constructing Here

That the square reconstruction does not have to be a task for several decades has been demonstrated by the Netflix company. The US audiovisual giant chose Prague to shoot The Grey Man thriller starring Hollywood’s Ryan Gosling. The square in front of the Rudolfinum became one of the filming locations. The filmmakers did not like its appearance. However, it sufficed to place a stylish fountain with steps at the exit from the parking lot, help the trampled lawn, put the paths in order, and the whole place became a promise of what this location could and should be in the future – the most beautiful square in the Czech Republic.

Sure, Netflix only built the sets in the location. In addition, the construction obscured the view of the Prague Castle from the side of the Faculty of Arts, thereby deprived the square of its genius loci. For a permanent solution, many would certainly welcome more greenery and a space to sit and enjoy free time. It is inspiring, though, that a few workers were able to bring the square to a decent state in about a month. Or maybe a little frustrating?

[1] Jakub Bachtík, Lukáš Duchek, Jakub Jareš (edd): Chrám umění Rudolfinum
[2] Jiří Čarek, Václav Hlavsa, Josef Janáček, Václav Lim: Ulicemi města Prahy od 14. století do dneška
[3] The Memory of Nations
[4] Hrotovice Museum: