When we planned to visit Bohemia I did only think of the region as a great hiking area. When we have finally been there, I became aware of the regions history and it struck me again like it did some years ago.
I wanted to share the photos and what I wrote down when I went to my fathers birthplace in Moravia, a former German speaking area in todays Czech Republic, North of the Austrian border with Austrian culture, food and accent. It’s a very personal history and I try to put it in a general historic frame. But first my history.
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I grew up with some pictures. Some of them were exposed in the living room of my grandparents and countless stories surrounded them. Stories of a house and a farm, a village, animals, teachers, children roaming in the vast forests, in the fields and at the lakes, stories of great celebrations and hard work. Those stories were always accompanied by a nostalgic and distant gaze that appeared quickly but was immediately wiped away.
Also stories of war were told. Of loss and escape. Of hunger and cattle cars overcrowded with humans. And of a homeland that continued in those pictures and stories, but ceased to exist in reality.
Like many other families, my fathers family had to leave Moravia one month after the end of WW2, the place they called home over countless generations. A group of people came to the village, held a gun to the head of a neighbor and told everyone they had to be ready to leave in two hours. My grandmother, 31 yrs at the time, packed up their lives into the stroller of my dad: photos, documents and my grandpas suit – something decent to wear when he came home from war captivity. Then they left their home – accompanied by threads – forever.
Together with my dad (1), my aunt (4), her mother, her sister and her baby and some other relatives, they headed walking to the Austrian border. Fortunately the border was near and they were spared the destiny of many other people from the region, who suffered thirst, hunger, typhoid fever and death on those strictly supervised death walks.
In Austria they were lucky again. A longtime farm labourer of my grandma had married a deceased farmers wife, and they lived in a tiny room at the farm for several month. Then they were collected again and crammed into a train. No one told them where the train would go to and after it started to head to the East, my Grandma said: They are bringing us to Russia. After a long journey they arrived in Germany, in the region where I was born. Where they lived as strangers for a very long time, maybe forever.
I knew all of that, but I did hardly notice it. Maybe because I grew up with it. Maybe because when I was finally there, day to day life had become normal again – at least externally.
Only this gaze which was wiped away quickly and the short silence which was connected with it, could have told me the whole story.
Now I was there. At the only place of my childhood which I have never seen before. I stood on the beautiful place in the middle of the town, which I knew very well from the stitched painting in the living room of my grandparents. A place brimful of memories. I sat in the kitchen in which my grandma feeded my dad and talked to the very gentle people who live there today and knew nothing of the past of there house and their village. I visited the cemetery and found gravestones with my family name on it.
And in an clouded and moonless night, in this area where the villages don’t carry the names anymore which I knew from my childhood stories, during a drive through the misty Moravian forest full of mushrooms, deer and rabbits, I imagined what would have happened, if global politics wouldn’t have intruded into my family history. But this imagination was far to complicated.
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Bohemia and Moravia were once part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. After the Empire ceased to exist (after WW1) the german speaking people who lived there since generations where sawn as intruders. Czech speaking mayors where installed in areas with 98% German speaking people, at schools, Czech was introduced as main language. The Sudetenland was “given” to Hitler in 1938 and he installed the so called “Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren”. Chamberlain and others thought, they would prevent a war with this action. Czechs were now badly treated by the Germans. After war they craved for revenge and their exiled president Edvard Beneš enacted laws especially for the treatment of the German speaking community. “Germans” could be mistreated and killed without fear of consequences and their property could be dispossessed. Until today those laws are effective.
From a historic viewpoint those acts are quite understandable. No one is as guilty for this outcome as Hitler-Germany is. But I still have so many questions. When I was in the villages surrounding Krásná Lípa in Bohemia I saw all those beautiful more than 100 years old houses which were once owned buy other people who were violently expulsed from there homes after WW2. And I asked myself how it is, to live in a house like this, maybe even in the in furniture of those who left. From whom I only know, that they haven’t gone deliberately. Did they receive a visit from the former house owners in the years after WW2? Are they aware of what happened? What is their view on history?
My grandparents lost their home, there childhood places and maybe even part of their identity. As millions of other people did after war. My questions are also about the psychology of the people who were refugees once and today. And the psychology of the following generations. My psychology. Is there still something of this loss left in me?
When I stood in this place in the middle of the town which I only knew from the stories and pictures of my grandparents, I started crying. I felt, that this is my memory, too.