On the one hand, marking off one’s territory is said to be a basic human trait, and on the other, there is nothing that comes so naturally to people as defying a boundary and exploring the other side. The Czech/German/Polish tri-border is an excellent example of this.
There is a village there called Oldřichov. At least part of it, on the Czech side, is called that way today. It’s sliced lengthwise by a creek, the north side of which is known as Kopaczow, Poland. That, though, has only been the case since what people ominously call “the last war,” before which it was Ullesdorf, and marked the border of two Saxon noble estates. But the annals show that things here were once named in Sorbian – it lies, after all, at the historical tip of the lands of the Lusatian Serbs, the Slavic Wends. This mesh of cultures here goes back as far as written history, and when I came to Oldřichov I found them celebrating it with an event they call the European Fair.
“This village has always been divided along some lines: Austrian/Saxon, Czech/Polish... but what we want is to live together, and that was the reason why we started celebrating this European Fair. And it makes me very happy that both the previous inhabitants, who live in Germany today, and the current Polish and Czech residents of these communities have met here to recall their history in this divided community that they now share together.”
That was Hedvika Zimmermannová, a Hussite pastor who organises the cross-border fair, and whose Czech-German name I might add perfectly shows the lay of the land. All three borders here came tumbling down at midnight, three days before Christmas in 2007, when the countries implemented the EU Schengen Agreement. Mayors all along the edges of the Czech Republic took up two-handed saws with their counterparts across the border, and literally cut through the borders that divided them to the delight of mingling crowds.
“It was very, very cold, that night. We gave all three mayors files for sawing metal and they cut through the border blockades, right at the stroke of midnight! We honestly must have been the first in the country to tear down the borders”
The fair at the tri-border was about unity, symbolism and more unity. After a lot of trilingual speeches, the joint planting of a ginkgo tree (symbolic with its cloven leaves), and the erection of a trilingual information table, the multinational neighbours enjoyed some traditional Polish soup and German pastries, and gave in to what I supposed was a shared appreciation for techno music.
And that was not the end: there was a joint Catholic-Protestant mass (the border of Catholic Austria and Protestant Saxony having once run through here too), and before sharing a few beers in the pub on the Bohemian side, the Polish and Czechs squared off for a game of football. The Polish side at least seemed game for any outcome:
“This is a big football event for our two small villages, Kopaczow and Oldřichov. We do it every year. And we win every year as well! But we might let the Czechs win this year – it would make them happy. They did win once actually, and they bought the beer afterwards, so beer could be the decisive factor.”
The honest glee of people at the fair was lovely, but the genuine will for unity on the Czech-German-Polish border is the upshot of a hard history - not just the decades of physical restrictions imposed by nationalist and communist governments on people who were and wanted to be friends, but the psychological boundaries created by the horrors of the Second World War, and its aftermath of enmity and lose-lose justice. Mr Dietmar Brendler, who the fairgoers refer to as its guru, learned much about the division of nations when he was 12 years old.
“I left this village with my sister, my father, my mother and my grandmother in June, 1946. Czechoslovak partisans came and said ‘You must go, you must go away’. Why? Because I was German. I was a German, and all Germans had to go to Germany. With 50 kilos of baggage, and most people had to leave in two hours. It was very bad.”
Zlata Berklová is a Czech who also lived in Oldřichov in 1946, and also remembers clearly when the Germans were forced out of the area.
“Most everyone were women here in 1946, the men were in the army or were in forced labour in factories I guess. But we got on absolutely normally together, the Germans who lived near our farm had a daughter who was a little older then I was. Their father’s name was Josef, and when his name’s day came around my mother baked cakes for him. And I remember he was so moved by it, he just started weeping. He said he would never have expected that from a Czech.”
That family disappeared one day, as did hundreds of thousands of others along the Czech and western Polish borders. After the war, the Polish were given the eastern edge of Germany and a new tri-border emerged. But no sooner did its Czech inhabitants begin relations with their new neighbours across the creek, than towers and barbed wire cropped up along one border that the Soviets essentially controlled both sides of.
“We lost a cow and it’s calf once when they ran off across the road to Poland, and this man named Rajský told us ‘don’t worry about it, I’ll get them back for you, I know where to cross the border’ and so on. Well, they caught him of course and carted him off to help rebuild Warsaw. We got the cow back, but not the calf.”
If nothing else, the imposed isolation of 40-plus years fostered another facet of human nature: suspicion of the unknown. That was the feeling that defined much of the details of foreign relations between the post-communist and western states all along the iron curtain in the decade after it fell. It’s hard to get Pastor Zimmermannová to talk about the mood then because she is reticent even to recall it.
“It was complicated because people didn’t know each other and they had preconceived opinions of each other: that they were all smugglers, that everyone just wanted to buy things in their country on the cheap. There was lots of prejudice, people here on the borders didn’t like each other much, but it was because they never had the chance to. If you crossed the border you were searched, so you were already in a bad mood when you got there. But now the opposite is true, we can go where we want, we don’t stand border queues to visit our friends, we don’t show passports, or report what we’ve purchased… The atmosphere has changed, and with it, the attitudes towards the other countries.”
The 76-year-old Mr Brendler was a sinless victim of the wrath of war at the age of 12, but nonetheless - even more than half a century later - an obvious impetus in his starting this cross-cultural rendezvous was catharsis.
“We had a good life from 1945 until the next year, and the Czech people were very good to us. Very good. And today, I went to the daughter of the Czechoslovak farmer in Oldřichov, who lived in our old house. And we are friends!”
Some Sudeten Germans want this land back...
Some people do, what do you say to them?
“No. Few, few, few few people. Only old men.”
You don’t have bed feelings from the German resettlement? You don’t have bed feelings about history?
“No. No. It’s over... It’s over.”
At the fair that Mr Brendler started, the Czech mayor met his Polish wife; their children have attended school in both countries and have trouble remembering which words they shouldn’t use in one country or the other. Life goes on, whatever the trouble people periodically make for themselves, and in this corner of the Czech Republic the moustached Polish brass-band plays the – originally German – EU anthem, and it couldn’t be more fitting.
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