As the diesel train chugged along a valley track surrounded by firs and pine, I peered anxiously out the window for any sign of my station coming up. I’d spent six years teaching English in Slovakia in the 1990s and had travelled widely in the Czech Republic, but I’d never been to this remote part of northern Bohemia.
Now it was September 2003, and I was in Central Europe for a half-year of research and language-learning in Olomouc, the northern Moravian capital some two hundred miles to the east. Pavel, an easy-going student I’d met in Olomouc that summer, had mailed out invitations announcing the “grandest celebration since the arrival of the Sorbs.” Facetious, but also a nod to his heritage: the gathering was to be held at the cottage of his now-deceased grandfather, a descendent of that small Slavic nationality that had settled in the region a millennium before.
It also promised campfires, beer and leisurely hiking in the hills. But I had not anticipated it would include a lesson in pre-World War II history. Nor did could I have guessed that it would take two more decades to put things in full perspective.
Sitting on the train, still uncertain about my destination, I struggled to ask the elderly lady across from me, as politely as I could in Czech, “Can you please tell me when we reach Varnsdorf?”
She smiled. “Certainly. It’s another fifteen minutes. Relax.”
Varnsdorf. That German-sounding name for a Czech town is typical of areas where Sudeten Germans had clamored to join the Third Reich in 1938 – and were expelled from the region after the war.
My phone bleeped. A text from Pavel. Get off in Svor.
Okay. Got it!
A bit embarrassed, I asked my new acquaintance, “Uh, can you tell me when we get to Svor?”
So soon? I scrambled to make sure all my things were together.
The train screeched to a halt and I covered my ears, then hopped off onto the gravel. No platforms here, just weeds growing between the tracks. Pavel was already waiting, beaming as brightly as his bald crown. “Nazdar, Marku! Vítej v našem koutku světa! Cheers, Mark! Welcome to our little corner of the world!”
Or rather, corner of the Czech Republic, nestled in the northernmost nook between Poland and the former East Germany. Here, the Lusatian Mountains straddle Bohemia (the western part of the Czech Republic) and the German state of Saxony. Called Lausitzgebirge in German and Lužické hory in Czech—both names deriving from the Sorbian łužicy, meaning ‘swamp’ or ‘water-hole’—they’re part of the larger Sudeten range which extends eastwards into Poland and Moravia. Other ridges stretch southwest from here up to Bohemia’s westernmost point, then turn sharply southeast until they reach Austria. These slopes have served as a natural frontier for centuries.
Pavel took my backpack, looking oddly simian with his barrel chest and long arms. Then I felt a little guilty for imagining him as an ape: he’d been very amiable – and was even now helping me expand my social circle. He led me around the station, no bigger than a rural post office. We climbed into his gray 1980s Škoda and set off into black-topped roads meandering through fields giving off the odor or fresh manure. As we rounded a grassy knoll, roofs—some black, some terra cotta—appeared from behind the wheat and rye.
“How’d your trip go?” he asked.
“When I bought my ticket I asked for round-trip to Varnsdorf. The clerk didn’t recognize the name. Had to look it up in the system. Then she needs to know which route I’m taking. I say ‘I don’t know the railroads that well.’ She looks up something else, then says, ‘Looks like you need to change trains in Jedlová.’ I said, ‘I guess so.’
Pavel shook his round head. “You’d think the employee should be the expert on the subject.”
“Then,” I continue, “I’m in the train, after two transfers, and the conductor says ‘Your ticket only goes to Jedlová.’ I told him about the conversation with the clerk. He nodded in sympathy, but I still had to pay the extra fifty percent for the rest of the route.”
Pavel chuckled. “The penalty for buying on the train.”
“But please. Přes Jedlovou. Through Jedlová. Not TO Jedlová. I said it right, didn’t I?”
Pavel nodded as we rounded yet another bend. “The problem wasn’t your Czech. Just that Moravians don’t know this remote area of Bohemia. This is Mařenice, by the way,” Pavel said as we approached a town. “About the biggest place around.”
We passed through the center in two minutes.
The mauve, pink and cream Mary Magdalene church came into view, top edge of its façade full of wavy lines and curlicues, like an ornately carved headboard. It reminded me of mission churches in California and Latin America.
Pavel pointed, forearm resting on the wheel. “The Germans who lived here were merchant-class. They could afford to build baroque stuff like that.”
The Sudeten region had been mostly Czech until Bohemian Protestant nobles revolted against the Catholic Habsburgs in 1618. The rebels’ main leaders were executed, their severed heads placed on hooks atop the gate overlooking one end of Prague’s Charles Bridge. Other Protestant landowners were expropriated. Gentry from neighboring Austria, Bavaria, Thuringia, and Saxony were invited to take over their farmsteads by settling the border areas inside the mountain chains surrounding Bohemia. While Germans, particularly of the merchant class, had been in Bohemia for three centuries already, this was an unprecedented Germanization and re-Catholicization. Czechs became second-class subjects in their homeland. And these new inhabitants were by and large the ancestors of those Sudeten Germans so eager to join Hitler’s empire in 1938.
Finally we arrive in Horní Světlá, a village with seventy-five buildings, according to census data, but only forty-three year-round residents. After three months in a town of a hundred thousand, I was ready for a quiet weekend in an obscure getaway.
We pulled up to a white stucco cottage with the steep green metal roof typical of the area. A pasture sloped up from one side. The rest of the party was already there: Radek, a tall, thin art student with close-cropped blond hair, and Petr, a medium-height youth with reddish-blond hair. Biggest celebration since the arrival of the Sorbs? No Slavic maidens with flowers in their braided hair?
Pavel flashed a toothy grin as he opened the pine door and put my bag just inside the entrance. “My grandfather built this place. I inherited it. A year ago.” He paused and cleared his throat. He was a Sorb, you know?”
“Do you speak Sorbian?”
“Some. It’s very similar to Czech.”
“How many people still speak it?”
“Around fifty thousand – and that’s here, in Poland, and in Germany. There were large settlements in those areas going back to the sixth century. Place names still show that. ‘Dresden’ comes from the Sorbian word for thrush.”
Now a grad student in Slavic languages, I was getting an unexpected philology lesson.
“And town names like Chemnitz and Görlitz – they all come from our language. But Poles and Germans, mainly Germans, conquered and colonized our areas starting in the early Middle Ages. We’ve gradually succumbed to assimilation.”
I sighed at the human tendency for powerful groups to dominate others.
We joined the others sitting around a wooden utility spool in a side yard with five fir trees, eating boys-night-in spaghetti with ketchup. (Tomato sauce, at least from a jar, had still not caught on the Bohemia.) We chatted until sundown, which comes early in those hills.
Then we moved inside to a kitchen lined with pine panels and cabinets. A woodstove in one corner burned low – enough to take away the chill. The five of us sat in a nook with a single overhead lamp lighting a local tabloid, opened to an article which I, the non-Czech, struggled to read.
Pavel explained, “They’ve just unveiled a monument to Czech border guards killed here in 1938.”
We rehearsed the basics of the Sudeten Crisis. Hitler demanded that the Sudetenland, which had a majority-German population, be annexed to the Third Reich. Britain, France, and the USSR capitulated in the now-infamous Munich Pact of that September 30, leaving Czechoslovakia no choice but to accede.
“So Czech border guards were ordered to withdraw to the new borders,” Radek wrapped up. “But some resisted anyway and were killed by occupying Germans.”
Around ten PM, we moved our conversation upstairs and sat around an old Tesla black and white TV, amid the cottage’s simple furnishings, under the steeply slanting ceiling. We retired around 11 and slept soundly—until my cellphone rang in the middle of the night to welcome me to Poland. The wind, audible on the tin roof, had doubtless blown that country’s network into range.
The next day, slogging along a largely overgrown footpath, we stumbled upon an old concrete bunker surrounded by ferns and wild grass. The five-foot-tall structure, L-shaped with large rounded corners, was light gray and moss-covered. I ran my hand over its surface, rough due to the coarse gravel in the cement mix. On one side, three steps led down to the threshold of a bulky iron door. We took turns pulling at the handle and finally gave up—it was rusted shut. Lots of ten-year-old boys must have been similarly disappointed over the last couple of decades.
“Czechoslovakia built these pillboxes all along the border in early 1938,” Petr explained.
“Alarmed already by the Austrian Anschluss,” I added. “Wise idea.”
“But of course, they never got to use them. After the Nazi Einmarsch, Hitler visited the area. Stood on top of one and triumphantly addressed the local Germans.”
“And then we had no natural defenses,” Radek added. “The Nazis could just march right downhill into the Bohemian Basin. Which is what they did.”
Yes, the Ides of March, 1939. Hitler’s entry into Prague. Slovakia had already declared independence, becoming a puppet state, and the Czech territories were swallowed up and made into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Czechoslovakia, which some had called “the new Switzerland” when it was first carved out of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, had disappeared from the map.
The next day we tackled Luž, the peak which rose from Pavel’s back yard.
“Now leaving base camp,” he announced with a chuckle. “Our ascent begins!”
After light trudging up several hundred yards of a dusty, gentle slope, we stopped at a mountain inn. Vines climbed the white walls up to the steep red metal roof; window frames, doors, and picket fence were all a dark-chocolate color. Real cozy. Our golden Pilsners arrived with an inch-tall head dribbling over the lips of the glasses and onto cardboard coasters. Slightly bitter, full-bodied regional brew.
“Damn wasps!” exclaimed Radek, shooing the yellow jackets vying for a share.
That was our only care as we sat among the Czech and German hikers lining the smooth-planed but unlacquered benches, replenishing fluids. After a half-hour, suitably recovered from our minor exertions, we moved on.
Oak and linden trees hemmed our path on the right, while the left opened up to a valley with poplars lining a river mostly obscured by vegetation. We navigated rocks of various sizes, careful not to twist our ankles, two or three abreast, occasionally squeezing into single file to allow descending hikers to pass.
“Guten Tag!” they greeted us with polite nods.
“Guten Tag!” we responded. Funny how we always switched to German, rather than they to Czech. Though it’s not so much a matter of political dominance now, just that their language is more widely spoken.
After one group passed out of earshot, Petr joked, “I luff Cherman, don’t you luff Cherman?”
“Ja, ich liebe deutsch!” Radek chimed in.
We continued in this fashion for an hour before reaching the summit, our quads just beginning to ache from the climb. A metal post with a birdhouse-like roof, announced the elevation: 793 meters above sea level.
Pavel laughed. “It’s the highest peak in Germany east of the Elbe.”
“I don’t suppose Bavarians come here for the hiking,” I quipped.
“Not when they have Berchtesgaden and a gazillion other spots,” said Petr.
A half-dozen groups of hikers stood around, mostly in alpine knickerbockers and knee socks. We surveyed the hills on the German side, occasionally turning to look at the bright silver relay tower behind us. People took pictures of each other straddling the white line on the ground marking the German-Czech border. A few sat at a picnic table of heavy split logs, removing their shoes to cool their tired feet.
We descended a path hugging the border on the German side, wary of the momentum that could have sent us tumbling forward at any second. Every little muscle in my ankles ached from angling my feet forward to match the terrain.
“Must be what it’s like to wear high heels,” I joked.
“Or a ballerina on pointe,” said Radek.
After a half-hour, Großschönau, a Saxon town of five thousand came into view.
Petr rummaged through his backpack and grimaced. “I left my passport back at the cottage!”
“I wouldn’t worry,” Pavel said with a wink.
The Czech Republic was due to join the EU in eight months. There was no border inspection. Only an eight-foot-tall, vertically hanging, red, white and blue Czech flag marked our re-entry into the Czech Republic.
At last we saw the subject of our conversation from two nights before: a four-foot-tall chunk of granite. Mostly amorphous in shape, but flat on the side with the dedication. A few wreaths lay at its base. I struggled to make out the Czech inscription:
To the memory of the defenders of this customs post and all other border guards who in 1938 defended democratic Czechoslovakia from the attacks of the Sudeten German Freikorps. We will never forget!
“I thought it was in Mařenice,” gasped Pavel. “But it’s right on the border.”
Petr frowned. “I wonder if the Germans would take this as a provocation?”
But the Germans wandering by only paid momentary notice. Some snapped pictures, then moved on. While few of them, even in this border area, read Czech, they must have guessed what the memorial was about. Not about blaming Germans, but to honor the bravery of a few idealistic souls. Even if they had disobeyed orders to withdraw.
As the breeze cooled the sweat on my brow, I mused on the Lusatian Mountains, their permanence amidst ethnic migrations, political conflict, and border changes. I felt sorry the Sorbs had been largely assimilated, but relieved that at their protected minority status in modern Germany. I’d long been uncomfortable with the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans following the war, a punishment based on collective guilt. But I was more disturbed at the Sudetendeutsche Landsmannshaft, a group of expellees and their descendents which seemed to me to combine indignation over the expulsions with utter disregard for the fact that Hitler had been wildly popular among their number in 1938. Not only had they been trying for decades to get property restored, but also, more recently, to condition the Czech Republic’s admission to the EU on renouncing the Beneš Decrees, the legal basis for the expulsions.
But the Landsmannschaft failed at that effort, and now the borders near Varnsdorf, Mařenice, and Großschönau will remain open to hikers and other tourists who wish to pass freely. The main exception to the open borders, of course, has been COVID restrictions, and those would seem to be largely past.
Looking back on those experiences of twenty years ago—now eighty-five years since the Munich Pact and the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland—my thinking on these issues has evolved in one main regard: the consequences for the Jewish population of the region. I’ve since been involved in a translation project about a family affected by those events of 1938-39. One member, trapped in the Protectorate and unable to get emigration papers, eventually perished in the Holocaust; another fled and joined the Czechoslovak Army in exile in the UK. Oddly, it was more his military service than his Jewish identity that got his family an exemption to the Beneš Decrees once they returned to post-war Czechoslovakia – otherwise they would have been regarded as “Germans” subject to property confiscation and denial of citizenship rights. They eventually emigrated to the U.S.
It may seem an odd footnote to these reflections, but I think it important to note that lessons gained from youthful travel often require the passage of time, and further activities and study, to accumulate a fullness of perspective and context. With that thought in mind, I would like to conclude with a wish for reconciliation among all groups entangled in this history: Czechs, Jews, Germans, Sorbs and others.
Mark Eliot Nuckols is the author of Travels with Ferdinand and Friends: A Centennial Journey Through Austria-Hungary, which also covers issues of border changes, ethnic conflict and reconciliation.Alternative US outlets include Amazon:https://amzn.to/3NhjMpVBN:https://bit.ly/3VduUWN, and Bookshop:https://bit.ly/3oQ8DSY