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Rohan Island Exhibition

Nature, history and its people

A gradual transformation awaits the area of Rohan and Libeň Island over the coming years. The exhibition tells the story of a river whose branches and meandering course through Prague have created many islands. One of these was Rohan Island, today entirely connected to the bank. Extensive alterations during the 1920s redirected the main course of the River, turning channels into dead arms and filling in the area around Libeň Bridge. During the flood of 2002, the river showed its strength, returning to its original bed and flooding the entire area of the old river floodplain. That is why the original riverbed of the Vltava should be restored and remain undeveloped, and Rohan Island again become an actual island. Ten stops will take you through almost the entire 56-hectare area. You will discover a river landscape with wildlife and people connected to the memory of this place, its history and culture. 

You can explore the exhibition as you wish. All at once or in parts. Moving quickly or slowly, riding a bike or perhaps jogging from one station to the next. Any time of day, whenever you’re in the mood. And you can bring along your family or significant other, grandparents or grandkids. Children certainly won’t be bored because there is a playful task at every station. Keep in mind, however, that the variety of the exhibition only partially reflects the diverse character of the area.

 

The exhibition is part of the preparations for the Rohan and Libeň Island Concept study that, under the guidance of IPR Prague, will bring together experts and local stakeholders to create the vision for the gradual revitalization of the area that will not only serve for leisure activities but also must meet the needs of flood protection for Prague. The Concept study will be the result of an international tender with competitive dialogue that will involve locals and experts from all over Europe. You can find more information about the project here.

 

Find the map of the exposition here.

1. Former Karlín docks

Karlín Port, golden ship and silver lion

The village of Karlín (Karolinenthal in German) was founded in 1817 on a former hospital field, with Špitálsko the name of an official Prague suburb. Every city had fields somewhere beyond its gates. Often the fields belonged to hospitals. Like Prague, London also has its Spitalfields. The hospital fields between the Poříčska Gate of the New Town and Libeň acquired their name sometime in the 13th–14th centuries in reference to the hospital of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star by the Church of St. Peter at Poříčí. Another hospital was by the new Church of the Conversion of St. Paul (1504), roughly at the site of the former Těšnov railway station or Pobřežní Street. 

The river has encroached on this area several times. In 1432 there was a flood that left all of Špitálsko under water. Perhaps after this flood, but certainly by the mid-16th century, the Vltava was separated from Špitálsko by several flood drifts which over time – partly with human help – developed into islands, including the island (1537), that would later be named Rohan after the master carpenter. Later regulation of the Vltava then made it one of the largest islands, although only temporarily. When the riverbed was redirected, it was joined by what was originally the left bank, Maniny, and on the north end it was connected to Libeň Island. The original riverbed became a ditch that which was filled in during the 1950s, making the island a playground for future developers. 

The historical emblem of Karlín is just as remarkable as this Prague neighborhood. A silver lion stands on a golden ship at the steering wheel. It is one of the last traces of the long since vanished Karlin Port. In 1822, Prague’s first large port was created by modifying the river branch between Rohan Island and the banks of Karlín. The impulse for doing so was the issue of the “Elbe Navigation Act”, guaranteeing free passage all the way to Hamburg. The branch was 600 meters long, over 22 meters wide, and rarely froze in the winter. The boats anchored there were not even threatened by high water during the frequent floods.

First sailboats were anchored here, later steamboats. Small Vltava scows and larger Elbe scows also stopped here. In the nearby Ruston machine works they also produced the first paddle steamer, the Bohemia, which ran its test trials between Karlín and the Libeň weir in May of 1841. Houses here were commonly given names alluding the cities of Hamburg or Leipzig. Today, perhaps the last reminder of the port is the Hamburg Pub. 

Probably nobody was better at capturing the long-gone atmosphere of the streets of Karlin in the late 60s than songwriter Vlastimil Třešňák: “Karlín, port of boyish gangs, where the “white” and the Roma community mixed. Also the first music for me. On Pobřežní St., there was a railing where the hooligans and greasers hung out. Hair done up with pomade, boys three or four years older than me and they played rock´n´roll on guitar. They would spit on the street. I would go get them beer from the Hamburg Pub and they would let me sit on the railing with them.”

2. Přístav 186 00

Empty spaces and urban planning 

Places like Rohan Island allow for unexpected experiences and meetings or playful activities, i.e., everything that cannot happen in controlled public and privatized urban spaces. Next to the cycling path growing on old backfill and broken concrete is a diverse community of weeds, meadow grass, wind dispersed tree species and people. Here, the known and unknown overlap, there is tension and harmony, freedom and uncertainty in the vague terrain. This represents the actual value and opportunity of the space, not a shortcoming.

If we regulate such areas, we lose potential creativity. If we let things go too wild, then the city takes on the extremely unpleasant mantle of a dangerous jungle. If all wildness disappears, the city becomes monolithic, controlled, boring and hardly livable. We tend to deal with any problematic areas by eliminating them, instead of carefully refining them and incorporating them into the complexity of the whole. To some extent, cities need a layer of wildness and unpredictability. 

But without planning, the city first crowds out whatever is physically close to it, the nearest periphery, the suburban landscape, but later engulfs everything. It grows through new development wherever there is empty space, it cares nothing about the context and memory of places. Rapid construction, asphalting, fencing and cheap landscaping are not beneficial, but are guaranteed to destroy the vibrant diversity of spontaneously growing wild and creative communities, whether of nature or people. 

Cultural hub, Přístav 18600 was created spontaneously by several friends on the land of the former switchyard of the Karlín-Přístav train station that, after its demise, became an illegal dump. Now it is a place of most unconventional beauty that also has an element of transience. It is shaped by the people who meet here and their intertwining social spheres. The place gradually changes over time. It is an example of how to cultivate the natural places of the city, where you can enjoy the nearby river or the color of the flowering weeds, sit with a beer and shoot the breeze while the kids dig in a pile of gravel. 

3. HolKa Ferry

The Prague meander and Rohan Island 

The waters of the Vltava River flow from south to north. This direction has been deeply ingrained in the psyche of local peoples since at least the Early Bronze Age some four thousand years ago. The Vltava River connected the wilderness of the Bohemian Forest to the coast of the North Sea, and people related to the river as to a Being. 

At the turn of the 20th century, the river became a shipping channel with high, granite embankments. But as the railroads began to replace the rivers for shipping, the Vltava lost its miraculous character. People stopped drinking local water and turned their bodies and souls away from the river.

Around Zbraslav, the Vltava emerges from a canyon and spills out into the softer shale of the wider Prague Basin. Below Prague Castle, the river flows through the softest shale of all. The Letna strata lets it go no further and directs its course back towards Prague’s Libeň neighborhood. From there it turns back to the west and Stromovka Park, creating the Prague meander. It is such a distinctive feature in the center of the country that it is noticeable on maps of Bohemia as a whole.

A river flowing through a bend must take a longer route. The pressure from upstream increases its rate of flow. It then slows down again and deposits sediment, gravel, sand and clay. If we drew the meander as the letter “S”, the greatest sedimentation, the best fords and the most islands would be right in the middle. 

This describes the formation of the islands in Karlín and the Troja Basin. But in Libeň itself, islands were formed from what was once a mottled and muddy confluence with the Rokytka Creek that changed during floods. The islands had gravel cores, sand on top and a little mud. Vegetation grew quickly there. This is the story of Rohan Island. 

The world is warming, more water will evaporate, and people will increasingly need rivers because the summers will be hot. The river will probably become a Being again and, in keeping with the nature of water, will help all living things. Then again, there will be cycles of destruction, so that something else can be built. The Vltava is an eternal flow, constantly changing river floodplains and the destruction of future floods.

Václav Cílek, geologist

4. Invalidovna

Imagination of the outskirts of Prague

Vysočany, Libeň, neighborhoods in Prague, 

whoever comes at night is the son of death

Vysočany, Libeň – the outskirts

Music and text Jiří Dědeček 

In the city, Rohan Island is adjacent to Libeň, Palmovka, Vysočany, Maniny and Karlín. The area of the “island” itself was for many years a forgotten backwater on the outskirts of the city. The strange poetry of the industrial suburbs fascinated avant-garde artists in the early 20th century. The new arts of photography and film explored the interplay of light and shadows, while paintings sought the averted gaze of the city and everyday people. From 1922-27 war veteran and photographer Josef Sudek lived in Invalidovna. Here he created his cycle of photographs titled “From Invalidovna”, in which he masterfully worked with light. 

On the corner of Kaizlovy sady and Křižíkova street lived another young photographer and filmmaker Alexander Hackenschmied. His short film Bezúčelná procházka (Aimless Walk) was an unprecedented, revolutionary phenomenon. For the first time in film history, someone created “film as art”. The artist worked with unusual composition; he turned the camera off its axis, played with motifs of reflections and doubles. Together the sound and image create a harmonic composition. 

The city and the landscape that it artificially creates became the central focus Group 42, a group of artists and writers during the Second World War. They created a kind of new urban mythology - they painted courtyards, long walls of crumbling plaster, tenements, street lamps, abandoned gardens and ruins in an attempt to capture the present moment in all of its mundane transience. One of the workers at the enormous ČKD factory in Vysočany in 1952 was Vladimír Boudník, a graphic artist and writer. On na Hrázi Street in Libeň lived his friend Bohumil Hrabal. Hrabal personified Boudník in a character he called the tender barbarian: “You don’t say, doctor, why Paris must be beautiful, almost like Libeň, maybe even like Vysočany." On the crumbling walls of his neighborhood, Boudník would see and then outline shapes reminiscent of human faces or animals, just for the pleasure of passers-by, but also to reveal the magical poetry of the city.

5. Urban wilderness

The original riverbed separating Rohan Island from the bank has been filled in with meters of backfill, construction debris and flood alluvium. When the river was redirected, it was torn away from Karlín and separated by a strange landscape that became a kind of inner urban periphery. Nature gradually took over this space, which became taboo and people were afraid to come here.

Places of former human activity that are spontaneously colonized with plants and wildlife are referred to as “new wilderness”. These places are often not considered to be wild, but they have a unique esthetic.  Even though this “uninvited” nature is devoid of landscape management, it undeniably provides the spontaneity and mystery that is so often lacking in the planned spaces of our lives. Perhaps that is why people are flocking to Rohan Island and similar “urban wildernesses”. The area is laced with a vibrant network of walking paths. Elderberries, pheasants and partridges thrive in the ruins, while animals and humans find shelter here. On a quiet walk one may encounter a hare, hedgehog or grass snake. The song of the nightingale has even sounded here. A landscape reminiscent of a savannah has now been established on Rohan Island. Grasses, especially bushgrass, do not allow the seedlings of shrubs and trees to grow. This keeps the flood plain clear of trees, yet retains diversity. Sunny spots with mullein and viper’s bugloss alternate with boggy patches or tall stands of cane, sunflowers and Canadian goldenrod. 

6. Gone are the bells

How the bells became casualties of the Second World War

Conversation with Ondřej Boháč, geographer and director of IPR Prague

During WWII the Nazis confiscated most of the bells in Czechoslovakia. How did that happen?

Two large requisitions of bells took place in our country during the First and Second World Wars. The second time occurred during the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1942. Bronze bells are very pure and the chemical composition of the metal is the same throughout Europe. It is the easiest, fastest way to obtain raw materials for the war industry. Nothing needs to be mined or processed. All you have to do is break the bells and melt them down.

At the order of the imperial authorities, bell owners were obliged to remove all bells from bell towers and belfries at their own expense and bring them to Prague.  A gathering place in Ostrava was set up for Moravia, but the bells there were then transported by train to Prague and Maniny (the part connected to Rohan Island), where all the requisitioned bells were collected. Historical photographs document the incredible quantity confiscated.

How did people take it?

Naturally, it was very painful for them. People risked their lives to hide bells or they cut deals with the Nazis. Some handed over their family jewels, for example, just to leave the bells in place. Bells have long been associated with the human spirit; they serve us our entire lives from birth to death. We hear them during weddings, funerals and major events, they warn us of danger. Before, especially in the countryside and small towns, they structured people’s daily lives. In that sense, Maniny became a kind of cemetery where the entire city came to mourn. There was a lot of weeping. It was very hard.

And then what happened to the bells?

Officials sorted the bells into categories A, B, C or D depending on their age, quality and historical significance. The Germans only managed to take away category A and B bells, the newer yet still quite valuable bells cast in the 19th century or after the First World War.  Most of the category C bells remained in Maniny and were returned to their bell towers after the war. The oldest and most valuable bells, category D, remained in place. That is why in Prague and the rest of the republic we have a number of Rennaissance bells.  The most well-known of these is the Zikmund Bell at the Castle. But hardly any from the past 250 years remained; 9,800 bells were taken from Maniny to Hamburg and then directly to factories, where they were broken and sent directly into melting furnaces. We have practically forgotten about these events, which were followed by forty years of communism and the communists didn’t cast any bells. In that respect, it is a very powerful place that reminds us of a great cultural theft.

Should some kind of memorial to the bells be erected?

I would really like that. When we look at historical photographs, what happened in Maniny is actually unbelievable. It would be beautiful to place a bell on the banks of the Vltava, which would ring at noon, for example. When bells ring, we know that something extraordinary is happening, the sound of bells is deeply ingrained within us. If we counted one kilogram for every bell taken, then there could be a bell there weighing 9800 kilograms. Dozens, maybe hundreds of bells are still missing in Prague. Their sound is missing, both here and throughout the republic in general.

Are you a campanologist?

No, I’m a bell ringer. 

And where do you do that?

At the Church of Our Lady before Týn.

How does one become a bell ringer?

I used to attend Týn Church with my parents, which is how I got into it. Our group of bell ringers works in the Old Town. There are eight or nine of us, all different ages and from different walks of life. It’s a special little community.

7. Landscape of mystery

Jaroslava Znamenáčková has lived on Libeň Island for thirty years.  After a failed marriage, she ended up on the street. At first, she lived here in a community of homeless people. Thanks to the help of Miloslav Černý from Czech Ports. Now she watches and cleans Port Libeň and its environs, where she lives with her family, and together they take care of rescued goats, hens, as well as dogs and cats.

“I’ve lived here for 30 years now. We call it Libeň Island.  I don’t have to go anywhere for vacation, I’m on an island all year round. And I wouldn’t want things to change much here. If you take a close look around, you’ll find that it’s a sanctuary for people and animals. Before the dumps were here it was a quiet place, flowers blooming everywhere. Now it’s a mess with the trucks.

My favorite place is on the banks on the Troja side of the island. We’ve got little chairs there. At four in the morning, you’ll find old men fishing there. In the summer, we watch the sun rise and the fish jump. We also fish, but we let them go. If you want the big ones, you should try the Rokytka and use live bait. We caught a two-meter-long catfish, we call him Mr. Sumec. There’s a spot where there’s an old sunken wooden boat, covered in mud. Mr. Sumec lives below deck. He’s so big that when a duck is swimming by, you just see a lot of bubbles, then there’s a big wave like at the sea and he snaps up the duck and eats it. But fishing isn’t just about fish, there are toads, you see all the birds, the different woodpeckers. Where else can you see that in Prague? Nowhere.  It may be dumpy and run down here, but it’s all still here...”

8. Gallery in the grass

This building was built in 1930 according to the design of architect Otakar Novotný as an atelier, where sculptor Václav Žalud and Jan Lauda were to have created a statue of Jan Amos Komenský for the City of Amsterdam. The monument was never completed, although Lauda worked on it for a long time. Following his death, his protege Zdeněk Němeček purchased the building and Libeň Island thus became the childhood playground of his son Jan Němeček. Today the atelier is home to Olgoj Chorchoj, an architectural design studio founded by Jan Němeček with Michal Froněk. In the words of the founders: “Olgoj Chorchoj is a mythical creature. For Mongolians it is a demon, the embodiment of evil. We chose the name just for fun, and as a kind of affirmation of the East.”

Listen to designer Jan Němeček talk about Libeň Island and studio Olgoj Chorchoj.

9. Outdoor school of Eduard Štorch

Eduard (Sachem) Štorch (1878–1956) – dream of the most beautiful life

From 1926–1934, teacher, writer, amateur archaeologist and scout Eduard Štorch lived out his dream: On Libeň Island he and his students built a “children’s farm”, where for part of the week teaching took place outdoors. Students helped with the construction, they raised sheep and vegetables, and spent their free time here. After school, the farm was also open to the public. In the summer, camps were held here and a swimming area was open.

Štorch, who taught at a city school on Jindřišska St., was an advocate for educational reform, and therefore sought a suitable location for a year-round outdoor school. As he himself writes in his book Children’s Farm in 1929: “In Prague it is not an easy task. However, I have managed to exceed all expectations. I have discovered Libeň Island, beautiful and practically abandoned, with everything we could hope for: meadows, trees, sand, swimming!... In the spring of 1925, I leased more than fifty acres of grassland along the "Old Docks" from the Provincial Administration and made this available to our school students. There was a nice grassy field and swimming pool there. The boys immediately made primitive huts in the bushes and set up camp."

Štorch organized and financed the operations of his children’s farm by himself (with the exception of gifts from President Masaryk) and devoted all his time to it, making no distinction between family and school. In 1934 his lease was not extended and he was no longer able to find a new location for the project due to the conservative tradition of the school system and an injury he suffered during a ski course in 1935.

Štorch’s efforts are responsible for the appearance of Libeň Island today. When the river was regulated in the 1920s around Maniny, the state expropriated all land, including Libeň Island. At that time, Štorch contacted officials with the idea of setting up a children’s district to be used for the physical education of Prague’s youth. There was no interest in the project, however, so Štorch himself divided the area into smaller sections and convinced organizations like the Scouting Association, the Czechoslovak Red Cross, the Domovinu and Svépomoc associations to occupy individual plots. 

Štorch had a vision of school as one great family, where people learned in a natural environment, sharing in the operation of the school, farm or household. Students would gain knowledge and skills naturally and to good purpose in all areas. He led his scout troop in the same way and was known by the nickname of Sachem. He joined the eubiotics movement and adhered to these ideas for his entire life. 

10. Old Jewish cemetery

That was before the war. That was after the war. In between was the Holocaust. 

I live in Libeň in the apartment where I spent my childhood. I went to school in Palmovka. In Blanik Park (today Dr. Václav Holý Square) we played marbles, hopscotch and jumped rope. I went on walks with my mother down the lane along the Rokytka all the way to Troja. I skated on the rink at V Mezihoří, in the autumn I flew kites at Kotlaska. There would be fairs in the big space behind the Sokolovna. We went to the Libeň synagogue for prayers. We learned Hebrew from an illustrated textbook. On the first page was the great garden of Gan Eden – the garden of paradise where Adam and Eve lived. We read about Cain and Abel, Noah, the great flood and other biblical stories.

Beginning in 1939 we were subject to all the anti-Jewish regulations. I couldn’t go to the park, to the playground, to the skating rink, to the swimming pool or even to the theater. I was expelled from school. From 1941 I had to sew a yellow star of David on my clothes that said Jew. My childhood ended on December 10th, 1941, when I was deported with my family to Terezín. I spent nearly three years there. Daddy told me: “Draw what you see.” Today, my children's drawings are known all over the world as valuable documentation. 

I survived Auschwitz, Freiberg and Mauthausen. After the war I returned with my mother to Prague, where nobody was waiting for us. I was fifteen and a half. My most recent exams were from the 4th grade of elementary school. I studied at Libeň high school and a secondary school of graphic arts at the same time. In 1950, I received two diplomas. I wanted to paint. I enrolled at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in the Department of Monumental Painting under Emil Filla. I expressed my experiences and feelings from the Holocaust through my artwork. I have traveled all over the world, not as a tourist but on trips associated with exhibitions of my drawings and paintings.

I have lived to an age where I forget what happened yesterday, but the memories of things long past are becoming more and more intense. It would be a shame if they disappeared. According to tradition, I visit graves. When the children were young, they asked why we put flowers on one grave and stones on another.

 Helga Hošková-Weissová drew what she saw as a little girl in the Terezín ghetto.

The text consists of excerpts from her autobiographical book Nobody was Waiting for Us (Jota, 2020).

 

Media partners: Radio 1, Radio Wave, Radio DAB Praha

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