I have just spent an unsuccessful ten minutes searching for a page of the Sunday Observer that I cut out to keep. Strangely, it too was about loss – a long pink column to the right of the page, blank below the name of a female poet who was at Terezin.
Some years ago we were driving through Europe to Italy, aiming to see as many extravagant Baroque or Rococo cathedrals, churches or palaces that we could find on the edge of Europe, recently ruled by communist regimes. Having read works by Franz Kafka, I was keen to visit Prague. We were enjoying a slow journey south wandering off direct routes into the countryside. No accommodation has been booked to avoid the anxiety of having to arrive at a set place and time and risk a landlady’s silent disapproval. So we happened on a silently beautiful 18th-century square of Palladian buildings.
Palladio designed unostentatiously beautiful mid-sixteenth century buildings in Vicenza and elegant country retreats nearby, richly decorated by the painter nicknamed Veronese. Thomas Coke, later the Earl of Leicester, and his companion, the maverick painter and designer William Kent from Bridlington, studied and sketched them during their 18th-century Grand Tour. On his return the Earl, with Kent’s help, designed Chiswick Villa on the Thames near London and his Norfolk country seat, Holkham Hall. They created the 18th-century Palladian style that inspired other great British country houses and superb townscapes in Edinburgh and Bath.
This same style of architecture was recognisable in the empty, haunted square we found on our way to Prague. Intrigued, we decided to linger there and booked a room in a run-down guest house, the only place we could find that offered a room and a meal. I recall a sort of vegetable hotchpotch accompanying a stringy sausage. Our hostess sat most of the time behind a counter carefully tearing two-ply paper napkins in half before wrapping them round a spoon and fork for her guests – just us, though a young couple were leaving the dining-room when we entered. We had an unsettled night, disturbed by thumping in the room next to ours. The wall seemed to be made of cardboard tin-tacked onto lathes.
The following morning, we left the establishment bleary-eyed to wander around the deserted Palladian square, examine the fine brickwork and read the notices by doors. A shiver. This was where the inmates had organised a school, there a dispensary next to what seemed like a small hospital, above it a dormitory for children, further on a gymnasium … wandering on we came to some large ovens. There must have been a lot of people to need so many loaves. We were reading notices for a community that had disappeared. Where? We turned out of the square through an opening next to the ovens to find railway tracks, now overgrown.
If only I could find that sheet of paper that I had cut out to remember the name of the woman poet from Terezin at the top of the blank pink column. She would have started her last journey from that place of tragic beauty that I can never forget.