Sunday, November 06, 2011

In the former "Sudetenland"

Most people with an awareness of European history in the 20th century connect the name "Sudetenland" rightfully with events in 1938, when the Munich Agreement regulated that this area of Czechoslovakia was annexed by Germany. But there is a bit more to know than just this single year of Sudeten history. The name "Sudeten" is quite old and refers to mountains at the Northern border of Bohemia and Moravia. German settlers had been invited in the Middle Ages to settle there. Since around 1918 they are called "Sudeten Germans", although this term no longer was limited to the actual Sudeten Mountains, but to all Germans who lived within the borders of Czechoslovakia, after this country was established in 1918. In the years 1945-1947, most of these Sudeten Germans around 3 Million) were expelled from their homes and fled towards West, where most of them settled then in Germany.

Among those were my maternal grandparents. However, I myself grew up in Western Germany and never felt any close connection to that Sudeten region. The "Sudeten Germans" were in my view mostly old people who spoke a strange dialect, cooked a hearty food (meat with "knedl"), went into the woods to collect mushrooms, and met all once a year at a big meeting to remind politicians of their fate.

After the death of my grandparents I collected some of the old photographs which they had brought with them - they are online here. And now when I had the opportunity of travelling in the Czech Republic, I decided that I would pay this region of my ancestors a visit.

After driving towards northeast away from Terezin (which is also linked to the same fateful period in history), the first thing that appeared were large chemical factories. I passed a large "Glanzstoff" factory. Then the road turned into a very rural region, with marked the beginning of that hilly region with its characteristic small post-glacial mountain peaks. Quite impressive and unusual, very bucolic. My first stop was at the little village of Zichov / Schichhof, which I had identified on those old photographs. When driving into the village centre, I felt as if I drove back in time. The houses looked very much the same as they did in the 1930, with the exception that the small chapel had probably become a victim of communism.

Schichhof Village Square in 1936

Zichov Village Square in 2011

Schichhof Village Square in 1937.

Zichov Village Square in 2011.

Some of the houses were newly renovated, while other buildings showed the traces of time. I sat down in the centre of the village and looked quietly around. Some people were working in their yards, I heard some hammering, probably renovation work. One car came along, stopped near one of the houses, a couple got out. They looked at my with some distrust, not quite knowing what a stranger would do here in this remote place. I got up and walked towards them, putting my most friendly smile on. He did not speak or understand English. I took out my phone and showed him the old photograph of his house, I thought he might like to see it. He looked at it, smiled slightly awkwardly, then went away into the house without further comment. Maybe he thought I want the house back?

I moved on to the next town on my schedule: Bilina / Bilin. The buildings were all still there, slightly modernised, but recognisable.

Bilin, winter 1936.

Bilina, autumn 2011.

It began to get dark, and I drove on, because I wanted to reach the hotel before nightfall. I had booked a room in the nearby town of Teplice, formerly Teplitz, and I found it without any problems. The price per night was very inexpensive: 20 Euro including breakfast. When approaching the hotel, I saw why the price might be a bit lower than usual: right behind began a large industrial complex with two huge chimneys. But now on weekend they were off. The hotel itself is actually quite nice, with a few strange quirks: at the reception during check-in, I had to pay upfront for the night. And I had to book my breakfast in advance, from four choices. Next to the reception sat two young women, chain-smoking. They were still there after I had brought my stuff up into the room and had a one-hour nap - the travelling and the sites today had made me quite tired.

I headed out to find something to eat for dinner. First I drove to another town, Osek / Ossegg, from where I also had a few pictures. But the town was larger than I expected, and in the darkness I was not able to identify anything familiar. There was a kind of restaurant, I peeked through the window, but its neon-lit large room looked empty, there was only the chef and one waiter sitting around bored. An elderly couple walked along, they seemed also to look for a place to eat. They also checked out the place, and I decided that I would go into this restaurant if they would. But also to them this neon-lit room did not appeal to them very much, and they moved on. So I also decided to drive back to Teplice and try there my luck.

Frantisek who also had studied in Teplice, had warned me that some parts of Teplice may not be very safe; and it looked like I was just now driving through one of these parts near the train station. But a few blocks southwest, there was the old town centre, and I parked the car there. Saw a very fancy looking restaurant, and they did have a very good and reasonably priced menu. No goose, but I did order the duck.

Later that evening, I made good use of the free Wifi in the hotel to upload some of the pictures I had taken.

Next day the fog had lifted, and the weather was sunny. After breakfast I went again into the town centre of Teplice to have a look at it in daylight. Then I drove on towards North, up the mountains to the border with Germany. A cold wind was blowing over the lonely hill crest. Strange shops where you could buy wheel caps (who needs to buy wheelcaps in the mountains?). I took a small road through the forest down south and moved again to Osek. Then drove further to Duchcov, Bilina, passing the significant Borek mountain (Borschen), Zichov. Czech drivers seem to know exactly where they want to go, and they want to be there as soon as possible. This is slightly opposite of my approach now, as I am not quite sure where to go, nor am I in a big hurry - so I often turn to the side to let cars pass.

These lonely narrow country roads, of which there are still many, seem to lead directly into the past. I slowly drive along, enjoying the beautiful hilly region of this area.

I am glad that I visited this place. Now I can associate some visuals when there is talk about the "Sudetenland". I may come back again some other time, to explore further, as time was quite limited during this visit.

Here two further links, with very interesting content:

An interview with the two Czech authors Matej Spurny and Ondrej Matejka about their books about the Sudetenland. They are members of the Czech group AntiKomplex.
In Germany there is a research group at the Carl-von-Ossietzki-University Oldenburg which is concerned with research about Bohemistic and Sudetistik.
It is such activities which can bridge divides and can bring people together in mutual understanding.

1 comment:

chhaya said...

enjoyed reading this. its certainly a special experience to visit places we heard about/read/saw pictures, but family connection adds 'special' flavor to it. we feel a connectedness with such places, I guess.