I Saw Czechoslovakia

by NORA WALN

1

DURING the autumn of 1945, while I was at General Patton’s Third Army Press Camp at Bad Weissee in Bavaria, I accepted an invitation to revisit Czechoslovakia. I was to travel by jeep with Jack Duncan of Akron, Ohio, who drove me on all long trips.

The berries were red on the mountain ash, and the leaves of the maples were turning crimson and gold, the Sunday morning I started. As I rode in sunshine towards the border, memories were with me. Because of my husband’s interest in the folk music of Slovakia, Moravia, and Bohemia, I had traveled with him to many parts of Czechoslovakia in the years before the entry of the Nazis, and had been charmed by the natural kindliness, the musical talent, and the democracy of the people. They were industrious, intelligent, and good homemakers. In 1937 we spent the summer in the home of a family who lived at Veseli-nad-Morava, not far from the little town in Moravia where Thomas Masaryk was born. Those were four of the happiest months of my life.

Neither my husband nor I had been in Czechoslovakia since the early spring of 1938. But we had been close to the nation’s martyrdom because of two children who came to our home in England, where we lived through the war. They were from Prague. Their mother, a writer and broadcaster, had helped to make my House of Exile available in Czechoslovakia; their father, a leader in the Sokol, had worked steadily against Nazism and was in the Republic’s army, ready to go into action, when the Munich Agreement occurred. (The name Sokol is derived from the Slavonic word meaning a falcon — the emblem of courage and determination and freedom among all Slavs). I had met these parents only once when they sent me a wire of great trust: “Will you take our children?”

My husband agreed that I should reply, “Yes.” The children had never seen us, nor we them, until they arrived in Buckinghamshire on Saturday afternoon of September 2, the day before the British declared war on Nazi Germany.

They were fair and lovely, a boy and girl aged three and five. These children were just two of several hundred Czechoslovakian children quietly given hospitality in the British Isles. All came to stay until Nazism should be cleared from their land.

And many adult Czechoslovakians came into exile in England to work from there for the liberation of their nation. Sometimes during the war the radio in our home was used by groups who wanted to listen to what was broadcast to the world by Nazis from within the land that had been their liberal, humane nation. Those were tragic hours.

Never shall I forget the steadfast courage of these exiles, young and old. There were times when the names of relatives taken in reprisal were given. The Nazis made threats and reported their cruelties. It seemed as if some who listened could not bear their pain, and yet they did. When their capacity for endurance was near its end they would sing: “Hospodine pomiluj ny — Have mercy upon us, O Lord.”And then always: ”Kdoz jste bozi bojovnici — Ye who are God’s warriors,” a song rhythmic and melodious, which has in it a strength beyond its words.

No matter what was done by the invaders of their land, they kept on with their work and their plans. All were unshaken in resolve. They would go back. The day would come. Even the lilttlest held to this. I knew something of the purpose of missions to the United States and to Russia. I heard things concerning the underground movement. I rejoiced when the Nazi control was broken. And this November, as I came near to the frontier of Czechoslovakia, a nation of people free again to make their own government, I wondered, “What shall I find?”

A barrier so light that a child could easily lift it was all that closed the road where Bavaria and Bohemia meet. There one must halt and show credentials. The frontier was marked where it was before the bargain made at Munich. The barrier was a sapling fresh cut from a roadside grove. The chips still lay where they had fallen by the tree’s stump.

“Welcome to my country,” said the boy who unbarred the road. He was a Czechoslovakian of nine or ten years and spoke English. “We are glad to be able to welcome visitors again.”

A short way within the frontier, I saw three people wearing arm bands of yellow cotton cloth — an old woman and two young boys. They were sitting on a log by the road. Not far on, there were others — a middle-aged couple and a young girl. From then on I saw people wearing this cotton arm band, in yellow or white, more frequently than I saw them without it. On inquiry I learned that they were Die Geächteten — the Outcasts.

“Their position today is decided by what they did yesterday,” explained a man without an arm band. “They have to go. We cannot build our nation with them in it. Die Geächteten are scattered throughout our nation, with the majority of them in Bohemia. The difference between the outcast and the citizen is not a difference of race, Slav against German. It’s a clash of ideas. Those who are to go are not going because they are German. They are going because they are Nazis.

“Some of the Germans are to stay. All those who were loyal to the ideals by which we live are welcome among us. Great care has been taken in giving the arm band. However much some protest their innocence, we know who is guilty. Our investigations have been thorough. The band is worn by persons who by their conduct brought on the Munich Agreement, provided steppingstones for the Nazi occupation, and accepted benefits from that occupation, including the double ration cards given to the Herrenvolk — Germans who class themselves as superior to people of other race than their own.

“The Germans settled in Czechoslovakia,” he went on, “are all industrious people. The outcasts are millers, farmers, factory hands and factory workers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, lawyers, and people from every walk in life. The forebears of some of them settled here centuries ago. Their outcasting is an uprooting, an exile from a beautiful part of the earth. They are to be sent over the border into Germany in an orderly manner as soon as possible. We hope to be rid of the lot of them before spring.”

Bohemia, the northern part of Czechoslovakia, is indeed one of the loveliest parts of our earth. It is a land of high hills, wooded slopes, green pastures, small rushing rivers and streamlets that leap over falls. Through the centuries men have come in and made their homes in this protected region. They have been people hard-working and thrifty. Only the industrious and prudent could long exist in its climate, which is severe in winter. There are well-tilled farms, many little mills, and industries round which small towns cluster. Everything is trim and clean. It is a place which it would be hard to leave if one’s home was there, and the people sentenced to go had a look of self-pity.

On talking with several of them, I did not find any repentance for alliance with Nazism, truthfulness about that alliance, or any spirit of effort to comprehend what citizenship in Czechoslovakia requires. Those who now wear the arm band once possessed all the privileges of citizens, but they did not have the will to be free or the character to support the principles on which the Republic was founded. They took up Nazism. Through blind obedience to a Leader, the Nazi can feel a mystical elation; through subordination, take flight into a haven of refuge. Once there, the Nazi has no moral responsibility.

The Republic of Czechoslovakia was founded on a belief in human equality. All are equal in rights and in responsibility; men and women share alike. Citizenship does not allow the possibility of flying the banner of the nooked cross over one’s home or factory and having no knowledge of the concentration camp other than fear of landing in it. Mental alertness and heed to conscience are demanded of everyone. The Czechs are concerned with the growth of the human spirit. This is plain in their music, their paintings, and their literature, as well as in their Constitution.

A few days earlier I had read a newspaper announcement which as I journeyed across Bohemia I saw was a fact: “Preparations for the transfer of the two and a half million Germans still living in Czechoslovakia are now completed and will go into operation as soon as the big powers give their consent, the Office for Settlement of Borderland Transfers said today.”

Already many had gone. There were empty houses and barns and mills left just as people walked out of them. Everything was orderly. Clean curtains at the windows. Dishes in the cupboards. The winter wood cut and stacked by the kitchen door. In the mills the tools were oiled and tidy.

“Those who must go can take away only what they can carry in their own hands,” an old woman explained. She was a German who had been in the underground movement against Nazism and she thought it necessary to “uproot and clear out the traitors.” I made no progress with her when I tried to convince her that what was being done would not solve the problem, since these people must be reeducated. All she was concerned with was getting them out of the Republic of Czechoslovakia.

2

As I traveled I passed the marks of war — bomb holes, the frame of a burned-out train with the skeleton of the engine and passenger cars still upright on the track, a jeep without wheels, wrecked trucks, the remains of automobiles. All the wreckage had been pushed to the sides of the road. Some had tumbled down a steep bank towards a river. The machinery had the appearance of having been searched over. The lamps and the cushions were gone from cars. A man with a team of cream-colored oxen had stopped by one wreck and was searching in it.

“There is good material in the machines of war,”said he, “and I need parts to fix up my old plow.”

Although it was the Sabbath, people were working. Formerly in Bohemia Sunday was the day of church and outings. Traveling through these lovely hills, one would be charmed by the beautiful costumes, a blaze of color, worn by men, women, and children out in small parties — a school with the teacher, family groups, courting couples — all enjoying one day’s rest in seven. I hope it will be so again next year. Now, after the long, cruel years of occupation by the Nazis, there was need to work night and day to put things in order before winter set in. The weather is similiar to that of New England. If fuel and food are not prepared, people suffer hunger and cold. In some villages, I saw people working who wore the outcasts’ arm band; in other places outcasts stood about idle, looking unhappy, and citizens went by as if they saw none but other citizens.

Many people were gathering firewood, picking up fallen branches, occasionally cutting a tree, loading what they gathered onto small, hand-drawn carts or carrying it away in heavy loads on their backs. Old men and women as well as younger folk and children toiled at this work. Several people were tilling the fields, using old-fashioned tools sometimes drawn by horses but usually by slow-moving oxen. Three attractive girls mowed with scythes, stepping forward with grace as they cut a last crop of grass from an upland field. Potatoes and turnips were being taken up, the belated harvest assisted by American soldiers with trucks that hauled to home cellar and market storehouse much faster than carts could.

At six in the evening we came to the bombed city of Pilsen and stopped to have supper at the headquarters of the Twenty-second Corps, U. S. Army. The papers we needed in order to go farther were signed, and Jack Duncan refilled the jeep with gasoline. A short distance beyond Pilsen, Soviet soldiers with machine guns shouted to us to halt. We gave them our passes, printed in Russian, Czechoslovakian, and English. An officer came and took the passes away. We waited.

There was no awkwardness between us and our guards. We stared at them and they stared at us, as the alert do when keenly interested and unashamed of their interest. We are the citizens of the two largest and strongest unions of people in the world today. As nations we have come face to face and we have yet to get acquainted. Our curiosity is mutual and natural. When we meet individualy or collectively, neither is yet certain that the other is trustworthy. Only personal acquaintanceship can help build an international friendship between us. The only way to a better understanding is through a better knowledge of each other.

Our Soviet guards began a game with us in which we joined. All of us tried the tongues we knew, seeking for a common language with which to exchange thought. We had no success, but it filled the time of waiting with amusement, and our defeat at it caused us to be dependent on reading each other’s faces, an art often neglected when words can be exchanged. We had to wait about ten minutes before the Soviet officer returned and we were waved cheerfully forward towards Prague. We had no further halts within the Republic of Czechoslovakia. From then to the end of our visit we went where we chose, unhindered by Czechoslovakians or Russians.

The moon was up when we reached the rocky heights above Prague and looked down on the beautiful city built on the banks of the Moldau. Soon after we were there, it was as if I had never been away. I found the hospitality of the Czechoslovakians as warm and pleasant as it had been each time that I had gone into their midst. Food was scarce. The coffee was not coffee. But everywhere the conversation was interesting. Home doors were open; friends were invited in. What people had they shared. Everywhere there was talk of books, acting, painting, music, radio, and films. Several Russian playwrights, poets, and novelists were visiting Prague and added to the discussions. I liked all those I met.

All day and far into the night the streets were filled with lively people, people happy to be free to talk, laugh, and sing. The theaters were playing to full houses, giving plays ancient and modern, each with a lesson for the present. Two galleries were having exhibitions of work done by living artists. People thronged to the opera to hear Bedřich Smetana’s The Brandenburgs in Bohemia sung with passion.

Everywhere people discussed politics openly and frankly, and constantly they spoke of a revolution by law taking place in their country, an attempt to make a democratic socialism. And frequently they talked of the disloyal Germans and Hungarians who formerly had full rights in the Republic. Most hearts were hardened against them

“They betrayed us. They must go,” declared my host one afternoon.

“Sometimes I wonder whether we are not treating them the way Nazis treated people,” remarked his wife. “Whenever we have won victories, we have succeeded through moral superiority rather than through physical power; and whenever we have succumbed, our defeat has been due to lack of spiritual activity and moral courage. That is what our great men have taught us. Hus, Chelčicky, Komensky, Palacký, and Masaryk have said it through the centuries. I do not feel sure about what we are doing.”

3

THE visitor to this part of the world,” said the Soviet soldier speaking Mongol, “sees considerable that is ridiculous and some things that are sublime.”

“That is the case wherever a man goes,” responded the corporal as he gazed into the fire.

The third man, older than the others, gave his attention to the goose roasting on a spit above a bed of red ashes. The bird was turning an even brown, the skin crisp. Above us the autumn sky was a clear blue with wisps of fluffy white. The air had nip enough to make silling by a fire comfortable after a long ride in an open jeep.

Potatoes were baking at the other end of the fire from the goose.

It was food Czechoslovakian grown. The Soviet Army has the Oriental custom of living off the land. They have no abundance of home supplies to bring along from their native lands, as we of the United States have; and their rapid advance against the Nazis would not have been possible if the Army had not been content to live simply on what they could find wherever they went. The meal cooked here was for seven soldiers and two guests. It was my hosts’ only cooked meal in two days.

“ You are right about the sublime,” commented the cook out of a long silence. “The Major was telling me yesterday about his trip into Prague and a picture in color which he saw in an art gallery. He went to a show of modern paintings because he heard that the Czechoslovakians have painted several pictures of us. He desired to look at ourselves as others see us. He saw a variety of pictures. Some of heads of men, showing their character in their faces. Some of battle. One of the Victory Parade. The one he liked best was called ‘The Arrival of the Russian Army.’ It was done by a man called Kamil Lhotak.”

“Did he explain it?” queried the corporal.

“He did. He made me see it by his words — I who can’t see a picture of life when I look at a painting. This Kamil expressed an idea about men and the earth. He is a painter who understands our relation to earth as well as a Mongol. He made men and their equipment small on a plain which stretches away to infinity behind them. There is movement in the painting. Now our great Soviet Army is advancing — advancing over a green plain. We are shown strong as the grass and frail as the grass. There is the brevity of life and the eternity of life in it. That’s sublime.”

The goose and the potatoes were ready. We were quiet while we ate. When our hunger was satisfied, the soldier who had spoken first spoke again. “Now, talking of the ridiculous, one of the ridiculous things of life is that people who might enjoy being friends are kept apart by ignorance of each other’s eating customs. You are comfortable here among us, and we are at ease to have you, because, although you come from the West, you have our manners. How is that? ”

“I learned on the plateau,” I answered. “I spent a pleasant summer with Mongol friends who took the trouble to teach me — so that I should not be a disgrace to them when we rode to visit their friends. It wasn’t easy to learn to put my meat in my mouth in a chunk and then cut it off with a slash of the sharp knife. My nose is longer than a Mongol nose.”

“We watched you just now,” the corporal laughed. “I knew how sharp my knife was when I lent it to you.”

“In some ways our Mongol manners are polite,” continued the soldier. “We carry our own eating tools — the knife in its belt sheath, the bowl in our girdles. We bring our own eating utensils and wash them ourselves. Goose of course can be eaten in the fingers.”

“I gave her boned pieces on purpose,” remarked the cook.

“There is one thing I want to do while I am in this country,” put in the soldier. “That is, to make friends among the Czechoslovakians. I can speak a Slavic tongue. I have learned Russian and I find that I can understand the Czechoslovakians. I should like to go into their homes when invited.”

“Have you been invited?” asked the corporal.

“I have,” came the prompt answer. “The man with the nice house — third on the left — has asked me to dinner.”

“Have you accepted?”

“Not for a definite date — not yet.”

“Why not?” I pressed him.

“It’s a matter of custom. I’m a Soviet soldier. I don’t want my Mongol manners at his table. I have pride. I should like to eat as my host does before I enter his house for a meal.”

“Have you tools?”

“Yes — a plate, a cup and saucer, glass, knife, fork, spoon, and table napkin. Would it be an impertinence to ask you to share your knowledge with me — if it happens that you have knowledge of how a Czech feeds at his table?”

“There can be no impertinence between the sincere. You need this knowledge just as I needed to learn how to eat as others eat. in China and then in Mongolia.”

So there on the side of the road I taught him what I knew, and he learned faster than I did years ago in his native land.

“Thank you,” he said, when he felt confident of his skill. “The world is growing small with all these scientific secrets man is discovering — motorcars and airplanes and the ways of faster travel we shall soon possess. It will be useful to know more than one’s own customs if one wishes to cultivate friendships.”

“The Germans,” remarked the corporal, “when they spread out, seem to like to exterminate or reduce to bondage. They glorify war and domination. We Soviets don’t like war. We can fight relentlessly, but when we don’t have to fight, we don’t. Differences of language, custom, costume, and thought are interesting.”

Some time later I was talking with a Czechoslovakian, telling him of this incident, and asking him how he felt about the Soviets whom I saw spread out over his country.

“They won’t stay,” he said. “They will leave our nation as soon as we are ready to take over. They did a great job in helping us get back our freedom; and while we have to feed our liberators in a season when we are short of food, still it has been good for us to share with them. What it has cost us to have them has been more than repaid in the opportunity to know them.”