History, one person at a time

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We all know that history is made up of people, but the majority of histories look at events. People are actors in those events, but we see them only through the lens of a certain time and place.

Sometimes, though, a writer will reverse it. The events are seen through the people. The grand dramas of decades are replaced by marriages, mother’s and father’s burials, and the births and deaths of children.

That’s what happens in a wonderful new book I’m reading called “Women of Prague.” A hundred years ago, Prague was a city of three vibrant ethnic groups: after WWII, it was homogeneously Czech.

There were years of history before that schism, and Wilma Iggers looks at them through the lives of prominent women. She collected letters and diares, translated them, and then analyzed some of them.

What results is a tumultous time in Europe and in Bohemia, related through the lens of marriages happy and unhappy, social events, school openings, and endless funerals.

The book is full of anecdotes that bring the time alive, like the woman who didn’t know that her son was dying until six weeks after he wrote to her, when the censors let the letter through. Or the woman who, despite her worn clothes and tired eyes, was monitored constantly by the police. Or the husband who became violent.

So many stories, so much history.

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