by Steven Sternfeld
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.
-Dante, Inferno, Canto I
The true voyage of discovery does not consist in seeking out new lands but in having new eyes.
I’m walking past a series of display panels in Sušice’s Civic Museum, part of a photographic exhibit created by students from twelve secondary schools in the Czech Republic’s Šumava (in English, Bohemian Forest). My dear friend and colleague, Jiřina Helíšková, has been closely involved in this project and she has invited me to attend the exhibit’s opening ceremony and briefly address the students at a colloquium that will follow.
One panel in particular catches my attention. There are two photographs–one taken in the 1930s and one in 2007–of a storefront that I pass in front of each time I visit the Memorial of Czech, German and Jewish Coexistence in Hartmanice, a town just a dozen kilometers up the road from Sušice. Housed in one of the few surviving synagogues in this region, it is indeed a Memorial to coexistence, for today there are neither Jews nor Germans living in Hartmanice.
Though my attention is first drawn to the photographs, it is the accompanying text that really grabs me. In simple and terse language, viewers are directed to two major changes to the storefront since the 1930s: the installation of new windows and the absence of signs in German. This juxtaposition of new windows and missing German signs, as if both were somehow equivalent architectural modifications, startles me. After all, new windows represent a welcome modernization while the absence of signs in German speaks of a controversial and altogether tragic modern reality.
Hartmanice lies in the borderlands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, the three historic provinces of the present-day Czech Republic and an area that for hundreds of years was the homeland of a German-speaking majority population. In the early 16th century, these three provinces, known collectively as the Czech Lands under the Bohemian Crown, were incorporated into the Austrian Empire of the German-speaking Habsburg Monarchy. German would eventually become the language of prestige and power throughout the Czech Lands and over the centuries the Czech language would become increasingly marginalized.
Fast forward some four hundred years to 1918, the end of World War I and the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Overnight, close to three million German speakers become an ethnic minority in the newly founded state of Czechoslovakia. Though they have lived for centuries under the domination of German speakers, the Czech speakers who now control the government do not always demonstrate understanding and tolerance towards their ethnic German compatriots.
In the early 1930s, Hitler begins preparing the way for the expansion of the Third Reich. Playing on the resentment of many Czech citizens of ethnic German origin–known as Sudeten Germans–towards the new Czechoslovak state, Hitler urges unification of the Sudetenland with the German Reich. Then, in 1938 comes the infamous Munich Agreement, when France, Italy and Britain–in the notable absence of any representatives of Czechoslovakia–choose to appease Hitler by allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland. Much to the chagrin and dismay of their Czech-speaking compatriots, many German-speaking citizens, who feel that the Czech-dominated government has discriminated against them as ethnic Germans, welcome their incorporation into das Vaterland.
Though British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declares “Peace in our time” upon his return to London, Hitler is in fact not appeased. The annexation of the Sudetenland is followed within a year by German occupation of the rest of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia and their organization into a Reichsprotektorat. Just a few months later, in September of 1939, Germany invades Poland. World War II has begun.
In the aftermath of the war and with the full support of the Allied Powers at the 1945 Potsdam Conference, Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš declares that the continued presence of a large ethnic German population represents a threat to the integrity and stability of post-war Czechoslovakia. Beneš orders the “resettlement”–read “forced removal” or “expulsion”–of between 2.5 and 3 million Czechoslovak citizens of ethnic German origin, well over one quarter of the country’s population.
On a recent visit to Hartmanice, I met Jiří Jukl, the town’s mayor, who brought home to me just how devastating the Beneš Decrees were for Hartmanice. At the time of the first photograph in the 1930s, there were 12,000 people living in and around Hartmanice, the overwhelming majority ethnic Germans. Today, there are only about 1,200 Czech speakers living there, just one-tenth of the pre-war population. And while there are indeed no signs in German on that particular storefront, there are to be sure signs of the thousands of ethnic Germans, including German-speaking Jews, who once lived Hartmanice: at the Memorial of Czech, German and Jewish Coexistence.
Jiřina and I have left the exhibit together, and we are now walking across Náměstí Svobody (Freedom Square) towards the Sokolovna, the city’s cultural center, where a reception and colloquium will be held. Jiřina has asked me to speak to students and their teachers about Project “New Eyes” ®, the University of Utah’s cultural exchange program that I direct in the Czech Republic. On more than one occasion I have talked with her about what I might want to say about the students’ exhibit and Project “New Eyes” ®. Jiřina has encouraged me to be as open as possible and I have suggested that I compare the notion of “us and them,” one of the themes of Project “New Eyes” ®, with the notion of “now and then,” the theme of the student exhibit. In so doing, I hope to draw some parallels between the history of discrimination and intolerance in the United States and in the Czech Republic.
As we come around the back of City Hall, I mention to Jiřina the “now and then” photographs of the Hartmanice storefront and how I was caught off guard by the commentary which seems to imply some sort of equivalence between the appearance of new windows and the disappearance of German-language signs.
I know I need to tread softly here. The Czechs are both sensitive and defensive when it comes to discussing what in the Czech Republic is officially referred to as the vysídlení (“resettlement, displacement”) of German-speaking Czechs, while just 20 kilometers away, across the border in Germany, the same event is called die Vertreibung (“expulsion”). So critical is this distinction that earlier this year a Czech official was reprimanded by his government when, during a visit to Germany, he referred to the “resettlement” as die Vertreibung when speaking in German.
The Czech government estimates 30-40,000 ethnic Germans died during “the resettlement” while another 60,000 were reported missing; German estimates run much, much higher. When the subject of the “resettlement” is broached, “unfortunate but understandable” is a common refrain heard in the Czech Republic. The Germans had caused immense suffering among Czechs during the years of occupation and, all told, the unfortunate deaths that were the fallout of the “resettlement” were nothing compared to systematic savagery committed by the Germans themselves, who had made death the state’s business.
Jiřina knows from previous conversations that one of my goals in bringing Project “New Eyes” ® to the Czech Republic is to encourage Americans and Czechs to come to terms with the dark side of their own history by examining each other’s history of intolerance. So I feel compelled to ask Jiřina:
“Why is no explanation given that there are no more signs in German for the simple fact that there are no more German speakers living in Hartmanice?”
It is as if I had reached over to Jiřina and ripped off a scab, exposing a raw wound: not a wound Jiřina herself has suffered, but a wound she has inherited, a collective wound that the Czechs have continued to pass down in the generations that have followed the “resettlement,” now over a half century in the past.
“Don’t you understand the problems that come if we keep reminding these children that the people who used to live in their town–in their very houses–were made to leave? Can’t you see that telling them this is like telling them that they have no right to live there, that this is not really their home? How can we do this to children who had nothing to do with a decision over fifty years ago to take away the homes of the Germans and give them to their grandparents?”
I remain silent. Jiřina continues.
“We are such a small country. We are only ten million Czechs and there are so many more Germans. And Germany is such a big country. Why do the Germans always need to move beyond their borders? Is it so wrong for us Czechs to want have our own country?”
Jiřina’s words bring to mind something I recently read during my last visit to the Memorial of Czech, German and Jewish Coexistence. One of the exhibits offers two contrasting views of the Šumava that the Czechs hold in their collective imagination. On the one hand, the Šumava has almost mythical status as the source of the River Vltava (in English, Moldau), the Czech Republic’s most important river on whose banks the capital city of Prague was founded over one thousand years ago. On the other, the Šumava has been seen as a sort of natural barrier shielding the Czechs in this part of Bohemia from the far more numerous Germanic peoples just over the mountain ridges, to the south in Austria and to the west in Germany.
As the westernmost of the Slavic peoples, the Czechs have always lived cheek-by-jowl with their Germanic neighbors. A map of pre-World World II Europe shows the Czech Lands surrounded by Germanic peoples to the south, west and north and looking a lot like a chunky and somewhat loutish elbow poking into the side of its much larger neighbor. But as I listen to Jiřina, that image of an obtrusive elbow morphs into one far more sinister: small fry being swallowed whole by a Haifisch, a shark feeding on its neighbors, never sated, always wanting more.
As we approach the the front steps of the Sokolovna, I realize I’m no longer so sure what I’m going tell these Czech students and their teachers about Project “New Eyes” ®.