The mistaken report of a soldier’s death led to unintentional bigamy
Three ghosts appear on Christmas Eve in Prague’s Malá Strana district. They are not the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, neither are they St Nicholas, an Angel and Devil, nor the Three Wise Men.
The roots of this haunting go back to a domestic dispute in the wake of the Great War. A couple living on Valdštejnská Street was happy until the war broke out in 1914. The husband, named Lubomír, was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian forces and sent off to fight. His service was a far cry from the subversive comedy of The Good Soldier Švejk. The husband, who had a bit of a reputation as a bar brawler, saw bitter action in Serbia, Russia and Romania. Battles are of course chaos, and there is a lot of confusion. Word was sent back to the soldier’s wife that he had been killed in battle in Transylvania, along with the rest of his unit.
The wife, named Klára, went through a customary year of mourning but realized that a life alone was not for her. She had a little income from odd jobs but it was never enough. She set her eyes on a man named Vojtěch who had been rejected from the army due to poor health. Vojtěch had his own shop and had done well during the war, enough that he and Klára could live comfortably. He moved from his room behind the shop into Klára’s house, which she inherited as a widow. Vojtěch was even able to expand his shop now that the back room was free.
Once the war ended, life in Prague returned to normal. It was even better, as Czechoslovakia had achieved its independence. Vojtěch and Klára were getting ready to sit down to a traditional holiday meal of fried carp and potato salad, when someone entered through the front door with a key. It was Lubomír. He was not a ghost or a zombie — not yet. The report of his battlefield death was a mistake. He had been wounded and spent the rest of the war in a hospital.
His name got mixed up with someone else named Lubošek who had the same last name. His case seemed to have indeed been forgotten as he could not get released until the hospital was closed and even then he had a hard time getting a discharge paper with his own name and unit on it. The one thing that kept him going through his ordeals was the thought that one day he would be reunited with his beloved Klára.
The former soldier stood in his doorway and demanded an explanation from his wife as to why she was having Christmas dinner with a shirker and malingerer who did not serve when everyone else was called up.
Klára was speechless at the sight of her first husband, back from the supposed grave. He even looked pale and ghostly, due to his long hospital stay. She grasped at her chest and fell over backward, knocking the shelves of plates and kitchenware down on top of her. The metal and porcelain all toppled on her head and she lay on the floor dead from shock and her injuries with her eyes wide open.
Vojtěch lived up to his reputation as a coward and tried to run away to lock himself in a room upstairs. He tripped on the stairs and fell back down, breaking his neck and other bones due to his already fragile condition.
Lubomír knew that with his reputation as someone with a temper he would not be able to explain his innocence in the midst of two corpses with broken necks. With Klára gone, his reason for living was gone as well. And as a soldier of the Empire, rather than the resistance, he expected little sympathy from a Czechoslovak court. He took his service revolver and shot himself. He never found out about the second marriage or the mistaken news of his death.
The press wrote about the case as a tragic murder suicide, painting the temperamental soldier as villain, but that was not really the case.
Every Dec. 24, the three ghosts of Lubomír, Klára and Vojtěch wander on Valdštejnská Street. Lubomír and Vojtěch argue over who is the rightful husband, and Klára is caught in the middle like the rope in a tug of war game. Klára does not know how to choose between them. They could be freed from haunting if Klára made a choice, but she has been mute on the topic for almost a century.
People seldom see these ghosts, as all decent people are home on Christmas Eve with their families, eating carp and potato salad, and watching classic Czechoslovak fairytale films on TV.
Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I, and fought alongside Germany against the Allies. The Czech units in the Austro-Hungarian forces were quite active on the Eastern Front and there were some units on the Western Front as well. They were plagued with poor supplies and poor planning.
However, some Czech people volunteered on the other side to be in what was called the Czechoslovak Legion, as Bohemians had long sought independence from the Dual Monarchy. There are monuments and a bridge in Prague in honor of the Legions. The soldiers who fought for the Empire, on the other hand, are largely forgotten.
The experience of Czechs in the World War I era are told in the novel The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek with illustrations by Josef Lada. Švejk‘s utter incompetency is seen as a form of passive resistance to the unpopular Empire.
An angry mob knocked down a Victory Column in Prague’s Old Town Square in 1918 as part of a popular effort to remove Hapsburg symbols from public. Efforts to restore it are still met with public disapproval.
Christmas in the Czech Republic is traditionally celebrated on the evening of Dec. 24, although Dec. 25 and 26 are also national holidays. Traditionally, the family has a meal of carp with potato salad, and holiday cookies.
Carp is still sold live on the street from large plastic tubs of water. People can take the carp home live or have it killed on the spot. If people wished to take the carp home live, they would keep it in their bathtubs for two or three days, though that is less common now.
Adults recount how as children they liked having the carp as it meant a few days without having to take a bath. Often the kids would name the carp and play with it, and then be in tears at having to eat their pet for Christmas. Many a family wound up with just potato salad, having freed the rest of their dinner in the river to stop their child’s tears.
There is currently an annual effort by some environmental groups to free carp in the river and have a vegetarian meal instead. The farm-raised carp, however, are not suited to life in the wild or the pollution of natural waterways like the Vltava river.
Valdštejnská Street is not very residential, with several palaces that are now embassies and one that is home to the Senate. One of the former residences is featured in The Tarot of Prague on many of the cards in the Pentagram suit. The house sign of a golden sun in a circle was used for the coin. The House at the Golden Sun, at Valdštejnská 20, was built in the 16th century.
A fire in 1541 destroyed many of the old buildings on Valdštejnská Street, and new ones were built. They became popular with royal staff. Valdštejnská 20 was home to Havel Oberšverder, a chamberlain and silver valet to Emperor Rudolf II, who ruled 1576–1612 and is remembered for his great interest in alchemy and the occult. Havel Oberšverder’s grandson, the painter Jan Kryštof Krystl, also later lived there. Since 1892, the building has been the J. A. Comenius National Pedagogical Museum and Library.
The street is named for Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein (Albrecht Václav Eusebius z Valdštejna), a major military figure from the Thirty Years’ War. He owned a palace and a garden in the area.