Graves Ought to Have Crosses and Names

David Vondráček on the importance of honoring Germans killed in postwar Czechoslovakia




So where are all the Sudeten Germans buried that were killed in post-war Czechoslovakia?



In the first few years after the war there were between 40,000 and 50,000 ethnic Germans living here. Of those, around 8,000 were murdered and the rest died of malnutrition, typhus and as a result of the trauma, often by the time they had got to Germany or Austria. If we leave out all the marked graves in Pohořelice, Teplice nad Metují and Postoloprty, we have around 3,000 people, the remains of whom are scattered across the country. There are dozens of unmarked mass graves and there are hundreds of other sites holding the remains of fewer than 20 people, particularly in the Orlické hory (Eagle Mountains) and north Bohemia.


Why Orlické hory?


The cruelest atrocities took place in these mountains. They say that while the American [liberators] didn't allow the killing of civilians, the Soviets were sick of fighting and let their Slavic brothers kill anyone they wanted to. The villages in the Orlické hory are quite scattered with long distances between them. There were plenty of would-be guerilla fighters who followed this logic: If you kill a German, then he won't be able to reclaim the house you've just taken over.


You yourself grew up in the border area. What did you learn about the expulsion of the Germans there?


Both of my grandmothers were German -- one Carpathian, the other Sudeten. In 1938 they married Czechs and after the war they paradoxically ended up in the border area living in houses of Germans who had been forced to abandon them. When I was a kid, my grandma used to whisper in my ear in her broken Czech that I couldn't tell anyone that she's German. Her brother was expelled to East Germany and we later learned that his six-month-old baby died in the detention camp because the mother was so stressed she lost her milk. As a child, I didn't know how to analyze these things. But my family never talked about it. Nonetheless, because you carry your emotions from childhood through to adulthood, I returned to the issue later in my life. I have also realized that history is gray, not black and white.


The number of witnesses of postwar events has been steadily declining and newcomers to the border regions have no idea what happened there after the war. So it will be harder, day by day, to find out where all these graves are.


You are looking at it too much as a journalist. In fact, we happen to be only at the beginning of the process of the greatest demographic change in the history of Europe. It is only now that the third generation of Sudeten Germans has begun discovering their own origins -- they could be from Romania or from Ukraine or anywhere. People are also asking themselves why they happen to live in a Sudeten house. Searching for one's identity, where one comes from and what your roots are is a universal thing. Only now, free of any ideology, can we learn the stories of people who were involved in postwar events. We are beginning to ask what it means to come from Central Europe and if, by chance, we share the mentality, lifestyle and values of those who had to leave this area after the war.


And we might also ask how to connect to all that. Thanks to the elimination of borders in this region, people have become aware they can be a Czech patriot and, at the same time, a Central European, and that their friends are the offspring of Sudeten Germans. And time plays no role here.


Why are we becoming more interested in postwar events only now?



There are two processes taking place. First, the 70-to-80-year-old relatives of murdered Sudeten Germans have begun to look back on their lives and realize that their father lies buried somewhere in the Czech Republic. Whole generations of them have tried not to think about it for decades because they couldn't deal with it, and they wanted to integrate into German society as quickly as possible. Thanks to the passage of time and because there aren't ideological and state border barriers anymore, they have finally begun to deal with it.


So have the Czechs, because they feel bad about it. These are people who witnessed the killings personally and know there are innocent people buried outside their villages. Coincidentally, last week I received a letter from a lady from Lysá nad Labem [north Bohemia], saying that she has been carrying the memory of a mass grave of German children who were held by force in one of the local farms. It is a four-page letter describing a grave somewhere near the local woods and the lady would like to do something about it. In July 1945, she was asked by a German woman to bury her child, who had died of hunger. So she did.


But do we have a chance of discovering the truth? There aren't many witnesses anymore, no one paid attention to this topic for decades and we often rely on information that isn't completely ideology-free.


Personally, I find the truth in the story of the men who were involved in making this history. It's not my ambition to find a generally valid truth. I want to work with people's stories emotionally, in such a way that even people burdened with hardcore ideologies can understand that life is more complicated than they think. From a selfish point of view, I am doing it to understand it myself.


The first documentary film in your postwar trilogy, Killing in the Czech Way (Zabíjení po česku), has caused a stir. People accused you of being funded by the Sudeten Germans. Have you changed your approach for your next documentary?


At the beginning of the film I stress the reason why the Germans weren't wanted in this country. There is a historian, Toman Brod, talking about it in the film. He experienced the Nazi violence himself and yet maintains a humanist view. The first documentary film was aimed at promoting the issue. This time I wanted to go deeper and analyze individual stories. I chose places based on these.


I often wonder why Killing in the Czech Way has stirred such emotions. A number of people have dealt with the issue for 20 years now! So why? It might be because I used the only authentic film footage there is showing the postwar killing of German civilians. It might be the power of the footage that people find disturbing.


Germans feel guilty about starting World War II. Should we feel guilty about killing Sudeten Germans?



I think we should. We understand that times were hard, though. But let's follow the Ten Commandments, meaning "thou shall not kill". We should accept the fact that there is no collective blame. That can't be ordered by the state, though. I can't imagine that it would be a process organized by the state. It wouldn't work in our country like Denazification did in Germany. Everybody has to go through this on their own -- I don't have a recipe for dealing with [the expulsion of Germans].


What are we missing then when a large part of the Czech society refuses to deal with the issue of expulsion?



As one of the protagonists says in the film, we can't bring up our kids in truth [without it]. If they don't know the history of their city, their fellow citizens and everything that happened, they can't grow up to be responsible and tolerant citizens.


Can we talk of a typical Czech culprit?



These were often guerilla units that were formed after the war and that plundered everything they could. They were frequently people that were involved with the Nazis and, after the war, they knew how to get back into power again. This element steals and kills in all societies, should the legal system allow them to do it. But [then-President Edvard] Beneš didn't know these people would want to get into power. Oftentimes these were the same people who were responsible for [the persecution of non-Communist, pro-democratic politicians] in the 1950s.


You are visiting all kinds of places that have unknown mass graves. Do they have something in common?


At the end of the day, it turns out that people living in these places know about them. The third postwar generation is more open because they want to have a deeper relation with their own region. They have to cope with this dark side of their history to be able to understand their own identity. On the other hand, there are people -- either Communists or those who still believe in the socialist Beneš-like spirit -- who regard Germans as lifelong enemies.


What lessons should we take from that?


We can have different opinions about the expulsion but we should honor dead people and recognize and mark their graves. This would be a highly symbolic way of dealing with a period that invites thousands of different interpretations. We might be Communists, nationalists or bitter Sudeten Germans but, as people, we should all agree that sites containing dead bodies should bear crosses and carry the names of the killed. People will get used to it and it will become part of the landscape like it has in east Bohemia, where the hills contain memorials from the Prussian-Austrian war. It is part of our history and we can't run away from it.

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