Czechs rebound swiftly after record August flood

Prague's famed handmade marionettes tell a tale of recovery, but some cultural treasures will be lost forever.

Last August, a torrent of muddy water swept through Pavel Truhlar's marionette shop in the middle of the night. Soon after, the sign above its door was sticking up forlornly from the flood.

Today, Mr. Truhlar perches on a rickety stool in his tiny workshop, carving minute features into a knot of wood that will someday become a doll's head.

"You would never know this place was totally destroyed five months ago," he says, surveying the store bustling with other artisans bent over precise needlework, two lively puppies, and customers from four different countries.

Still, the flood took its toll on the Shop Below the Lamp, located along an alley nestled against the massive haunches of the Charles Bridge in central Prague. "We were only able to save the stone walls and the roof beams," says Truhlar. "Everything else had to be rebuilt."

The floods of August 2002 will go down in Czech history as the worst in a millen- nium. Whole sections of the capital, Prague, were inundated. Roads, bridges and the subway system were ravaged by a sea of brown water. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed, and several villages were washed clean off the map.

Yet life has now almost returned to normal. Only a few hundred of the more than 250,000 people displaced by floods are still living in provisional shelters, thanks to extensive government housing programs. Of 17 subway stations damaged by the deluge, all but six are up and running. Government flood recovery has cost nearly $3 billion, spurred on by the need for swift reconstruction in this city that depends on tourism for much of its income.

The most lasting damage has been to the cultural and academic infrastructure of Prague, a Central European center of ancient universities and theaters. Thousands of books and valuable manuscripts stored in cellars are still waterlogged, while dozens of small theaters and art galleries lie in ruins.

With the limited finances of the cultural field, their recovery has been slower. Most of the books will be lost forever, experts say, and many theaters and galleries are still floundering, looking for reconstruction money.

One exception is Truhlar's shop, which offers a livelihood to some 50 artisans and professional puppeteers.

Because government funds have concentrated on housing, Truhlar and his colleagues pulled their shop out of the mud with assistance not from the state, but from 30 artists and other friends of the well-known shop. It took the volunteers three months to disinfect and dry what was left of the building and the puppets stranded there.

"There are dozens of shops with mass-produced puppets in Prague, but there is no other place where artisans can come to sell handmade marionettes and actually make a living at it," says Tomas Balek, a craftsman who spent much of last fall helping to clean and rebuild the shop. "This is important to our culture because each marionette is a personal expression that we send out to the world. This place was well worth saving from the flood."

Even so, reconstruction cost Truhlar his life's savings of $10,000. Meanwhile, tourism dropped off sharply after the floods, leaving the artisans with little income.

"It has been a very tough winter, but we have pulled through the worst of it," says Hana Tejnicka, curator and cashier at the Shop Below the Lamp. "Mr. Truhlar has too many people counting on him to give up, but I don't know what we would have done without all the help from our neighbors. Somehow catastrophe brings out the best in us, and people who wouldn't normally take the time to greet each other were digging side by side in the mud to save our homes and shops."

Now that it is all over, Truhlar cheerfully tells visitors how the floods came, as if it were a children's fairy tale played with puppets.

"Once upon a time, I was relaxing in the mountains, and one of the artists called me from south Czech [Republic] saying that a huge flood was coming and it had already devastated his city [Cesky Krumlov]," he says in a singsong.

"I rushed back to Prague, where the good angels, our friends and artisans, were rushing around to save the puppets from the approaching flood. We put sandbag barriers in front of the shop and went home satisfied that we had done all that was needed."

Then, the tale takes a grim turn. The flood waters rushed over the tiny defenses and left the shop a wrecked shell, reeking of sewage and covered in contaminated mud. Yet, while dozens of buildings along the river have been condemned as uninhabitable after the floods, Truhlar's shop sits on thousand-year-old foundations fashioned from medieval stone arches that even this torrent could not budge.

"No one believed the flood could be so severe," says Tomas Stolba, one of the artists who designs fairy tale princes and princesses for the shop. "It was a nasty shock, but history has given us plenty of hard knocks, and we will just pick up and keep going. Our old marionette traditions will survive, too, because they too have deep and strong foundations."

Exactly how and when marionettes became known in the Czech lands is a mystery, but they have been an important part of Czech culture for centuries.

Puppets were used in religious processions and in traveling theater shows in the Middle Ages, while in the 19th century they were a significant tool in saving the Czech language from extinction.

Today, through tourist customers who come into the shop, the marionettes spread a bit of Czech culture all over the world.

Ms. Tejnicka still remembers a time when most Czech families had their own private marionette theaters.

"This is Krakonos, legendary Czech king of the mountains," she says, deftly manipulating the limbs of a wizard-like figure made of the creamy wood of a linden tree. "I used to play with one like this as a child, and [actress] Susan Sarandon took a different Krakonos to New York. Now, that I call the good part of globalization. She shouldn't hesitate to visit to Prague again.

"We have recovered from the floods," Tejnicka adds, "and we are ready for the world to come back."

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