Cancerous land

1. Lom u Mostu. Year Zero

Lom u Mostu was once called Bruch. It lay in the north of the Czech Republic, it was inhabited by Germans, as were the vast majority of the cities and villages of Sudetenland. When, in 1920, the victors divided the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy with reference to the right of self-determination of peoples, the German minority of Bohemia belonged to those few “less equal” peoples, to which it was not allowed to exercise that right. Although the representatives of the three million strong Sudeten German minority declared their intention to join Germany in the event of the dissolution of the Monarchy, on the order of President Masaryk the Czech army marched in, and asserted the much older right of the winner. The Sudetenland remained in Bohemia.

Once more the Sudeten Germans got to know the right of the winner. When, in the spring of 1944, the Soviet army marched into Bohemia, the Czechoslovak government, which had been declared winner, thought it was time for the Endlösung of “the German problem”. President Beneš in his infamous Brno and Prague speech declared the German minority collectively guilty, and called for its liquidation. The Bohemian Germans were deprived of all their rights and property, their personal documents were replaced with a “German card”, they were forced to bear a white armband as a discriminatory sign and to do humiliating public works, in many places mass violence and bloody pogroms were committed against them, and in January 1946 all the Germans across Bohemia were put on trucks and trains, and deported fom the country. More than two hundred thousand people lost their lives during the action.

Many of the Germans in Czechoslovakia were against Hitler. Their “German cards” and deportation papers were stamped over with the label “Anti-Fascist”. Nevertheless, they were also deported under the pretext of the collective guilt of the Germans. From Reinhold Fink’s Zerstörte Böhmerwaldorte (The destroyed villages of the Bohemian Forest), 2006, his grandmother’s deportation paper

Settlers from the entire territory of Czechoslovakia were recruited to the Sudetenland, now empty of Germans, with the slogan “Let us reconquer the borderland!” Most of the settlers were landless serfs, who were attracted by the possibility of ready-made wealth, and after they consumed it, they moved on. The once-rich German villages became dilapidated within a few years, a great part of their houses and suburban farms were ruined. By the 1990s, two hundred and sixty villages had disappeared in the Sudetenland (and further eight hundred and one in the Böhmerwald in Southern Bohemia), but not without any trace: anyone who knows the way can still find the remnants of the houses and the stumps of the church towers, grown over with forest.

Settlements in the coal region of Duchcov before 1944 and today. The large white patches are surface coal mines

In Lom u Mostu, today nothing reminds you of the German past. Or, better to say, there is one thing. On the only monument in the town, in front of the church, on the place of a former World War I memorial to the deceased of the village, a Nazi eagle is tearing at the defenceless Czechs, and the names of Nazi concentration camps run around the edge of the base. The statue, which, judging from its design, reminiscent of Constructivism and Art Deco, was erected shortly after the deportation of the Germans, and formulates for the new settlers the new official history, based on Czech martyrdom, and does not leave space for any Czech-German joint history or the German past of the region. A new era begins.

Another monument of the new time stands opposite the church. Once it might have been built as a house of culture, since that time it has carried on its facade, the proud inscription: VLASTNÍ SILOU – BY OUR OWN STRENGTH. Today only its ground floor is used, which bears the euphemistic name “Restaurant”.

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It is time that produces an involuntary memorial to the German past. The walls, just like in the other countries of the former Soviet bloc, started to crumble in the nineties, or perhaps it has been only since then that it is not considered necessary to destroy or to hide under plaster any more the ghost signs which come to light, the marginalia of previous peoples and history. On the edge of Lom, along the road to Mariánské Radčice, there is a two-storey house, according to its labels a former restaurant, which, judging from the multiplicity of its layers, repeatedly changed hands and names before the war. Three snarling dogs guard it, the barking calls the owner out. “When was this house built?” I ask him the preventive question. “In nineteen hundred two.” “And what was the name of the restaurant? I cannot read it.” “How should I know it? It was not even a restaurant, it was a brothel. Do you understand? A brothel.” And, nevertheless, finally, the suspicious question slips out: “Why the hell do you take photos of it?”

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2. Libkovice. Landscaping

Mariánské Radčice was called Maria Radschitz before. In its church they venerated the miraculous wooden statue of the Virgin Mary since the Middle Ages, and on the great feasts of Mary they led pilgrimages here from the Cistercian monastery of Osek – the former Ossegg – six kilomters away. The pilgrimages were first mentioned in 1278. Over the centuries, the pilgrimage developed its own path, away through Bruch, and back through Liquitz and Herrlich. The path was lined with medieval image columns, Baroque chapels, crucifixes and votive columns.

The reconstruction of the former Ossegg – Maria Radschitz pilgrimage road. “L” is for the town of Liquitz/Libkovice, and “V” for our viewpoint on the surface coal mine (see below)

This area is one of the largest brown coal deposits of the Czech Republic. The deposits extend seventy kilometers long and twenty kilometers wide from the town of Klášterec to the German border. References to its mining were made as early as the 15th century, but its real exploitation started in the middle of the 19th century. Local entrepreneurs opened a number of mines in the region, also marked on the above pre-war map, which were an important source of local employment and wealth.

After the war, with the deportation of the former population, and the new, Communist approach to nature as an opponent to be subdued, every obstacle was cleared from starting surface mining. Thousands of acres of hillsides were scraped down, together with dozens of centuries-old villages built upon them. The surface coal mines have hitherto swallowed more than a hundred towns, but the exploitation of a further nine million tons of coal still under ground will require the depopulation of even more settlements. Bu the original inhabitants of the towns, who would have fought for their survival, have been deported, and the new inhabitants, who received their homes as a gift of the state, are not strongly bound to them. Instead, they rejoice if they are relocated from the rundown German houses to newly built city homes, and so the process goes on essentially unimpeded and without much controversy. “What can we say? Money lies thick under the ground, and they will take it out of there, whether we like it or not.”

We are walking from Mariánské Radčice towards Osek on the former pilgrimage road, on which once the villagers set out to ask for protection from evil, and on which now evil has set out towards the villages left without protection. Our guide, Michal, soon goes off the road. We arrive at a lake. “When I first came here, someone let his Newfoundlander dog swim in the lake. I asked him whether the water was clear. He said: how could it be clear, if a railway station is at the bottom?” The railway station was flooded with ground water continuously pumped up from the coal mine after the town belonging to it, Libkovice, earlier Liquitz, was eradicated in the 1990s.

Liquitz was first mentioned in 1186. Until 1848 it was owned by the Cistercian monastery of Ossegg, and in the second half of the 19th century it became a mining town, with two thousand three hundred inhabitants. Since the turn of the century, ceramics and glass production had also become important. Its liquidation was ordered in 1989, some months after the Velvet Revolution, and the demolition gradually took place from 1993 on, after several years of wrangling and protests. At last, its church, from the 14th-century, was blown up in 2002. Mining has not yet begun here, because it still falls outside of the boundaries of surface mining set by the government in 1991. Nevertheless, the government is likely to broaden these boundaries just in the coming months under pressure from the mining lobby, and the new mine will absorb the ruins of the town.

The church in 1998, before the demolition, and its place today

The pilgrimage road runs past old concrete foundations, the ruins of a camp of seventy years ago. According to the locals, it was a concentration camp built by the Germans, but this is just the adaptation of the collective memory to the ideal history. In the reality, it was a prisoner of war camp in the final months of the war, where the displaced Germans were held in detention for months, before being deported, including all the monks of the Cistercian monastery of Osek, led by Abbot Eberhard Harzer.

Remnants of the camp, detail

The houses of the town have already been bulldozed, its asphalt torn up, its trees uprooted. All the remnants of these these have lain in large mounds for years, deer run among them, darting away as we approach. Here and there, we walk on fragments of a concrete road, along which fruit trees still produce sweet plums and sour apple. We have enough to eat of it. Near the site of the church rubble, some meters from the road, the remains of a former fountain hides among the trees.

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Photos of the former town of Libkovice from the site Zaniklé obce (Disappeared settlements). Below: The last village assembly, the demolition, and the place of the village today

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After the village, the pilgrimage road is interrupted, engulfed by the mine. An embankment crosses it, on the top of it runs a pipeline pumping ground water from the mine, it is accompanied by a dirt road for the cars of the security guards. Beyond the embankment, a leveled and flooded land, coated with mud and hardened clay, rises to the half-cut hill, from where you have a breathtaking view over many acres of lunar landscape. You see no men, only the kilometers-long spiraling conveyor belt, which with a monotonous clattering brings up the coal from the bottom of the two-hundred-meter deep pit. The only living creature is a wild boar, looking for food at the foot of the hill, which then catches the smell of us and gallops away. We take a pictures of each other in the pose of Caspar David Friedrich’s wanderer contemplating on the destruction.

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Dusk, the sun goes down. Cold wind rises. We go back. Somehow we fall into the scope of the security cameras, alarms sound along the conveyor, security guards arrive by jeep. At the sight of the lost hikers they cheerfully chat with us for a while, then they show us the shortest road to Mariánské Radčice, on the former pilgrimage road through the remains of Libkovice. We set out on it.

3. Mariánské Radčice. The feast day

The pilgrimage church of Maria Ratschitz was first mentioned in the breve of 1289 of Pope Nicholas IV, where he allowed forty days of indulgence for the pilgrims coming here. The Cistercians of Ossegg enlarged it at the end of the 17th century, adjoining to it a monastery-size parish building for the numbers of pilgrims. The vault of its cloister are decorated by emblematic paintings representing the titles and epithets of the Virgin Mary listed in the Litany of Loreto. On its walls, scenes follow one another in a long line, each with a different miracle of Mary helping those in distress. Above the scenes there were once German-language descriptions, which have now been illegibly whitewashed.

After the expulsion of the Germans, the church and the parish were closed, and they started to decay. Only after 1989 were the expelled Germans given the opportunity to repair it at their own expense, like most of the monuments in the Sudetenland and Böhmerwald.

A curious small open-air museum is set up in front of the gate of the parish. With the gradual spread of surface mining, they collected here from the devastated area and the engulfed pilgrimage road the smaller church monuments, crucifixes, statues of St. John of Nepomuk and image columns, like the deer moving uphill from a flood. But they might not be saved. The boundary of mining is just a few hundred meters from the village, and it is rumored, that with the widening to be foreseen in the next months, Mariánské Radčice will also fall within the mining area. For the moment, nobody knows anything for sure, and the villagers apathetically face the eventuality of liquidation.

Map of the original sites of the replaced monuments

There is also an information board in front of the parish gate. Among all the information boards of the area, this is the only one which was written in two languages, Czech and German, and the only one referring to a “German-Czech history”. The board only says briefly, how great a value the underlying brown coal represents, and how beautifully they will rehabilitate the land after 2030, with the completion of surface mining. A two-hundred-meter deep lake will extend on the 930-hectare mining site, whose surroundings will serve the purpose of recreation and entertainment.

The patron feast of the church is 12 September, the name day of the Virgin Mary. On this day, a Mass is held in the church, which is completely filled. The faithful are nearly all Germans, who come home for this day from Germany, Austria, or even farther. The choir is German as well, just like the organist, who plays on the synthesizer brought with him, as the organ of the church has long since disappeared. The Mass is celebrated by two bishops, one from the local Czech diocese, the other from Germany. Both of them say a sermon, first in Czech, then in German.

The name day of Mary has been a feast in the Hapsburg Monarchy since 1683, when they repelled the Turks from Vienna on this day. It has always been considered a mainly German feast, therefore it is no wonder that the Czech bishop speaks instead of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, more honored in Czech and Slovak lands, whose feast will be three days later, on 15 September. He tells the Czech-speaking faithful, that as Mary took part in the suffering of Christ, so we should feel empathy for the suffering of thouse around as. The suffering of the sick. Of the refugees. And of the displaced.

Then the German bishop continues. He speaks of the suffering of the displaced, of the deportation, of the homesickness. And that in spite of everything, we must be able not only to feel the suffering of others, but, like today, also feast together with them. None of them mentions names of nations, but the handful of Czech and Germans who gathered here in the church, in the shadow of devastation, know well whom they refer to.

Consolatrix afflictorum – Comforter of the sad. Detail from the fresco series of the cloister illustrating the epithets of the Virgin Mary

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