Thursday, July 24, 2008

Oberpfalz, Kreis Waldmünchen 23.12.99: Boehmerwald and Dark Heart of Europe

When did I last write in this journal, and what has happened since then? Well, yesterday a trip into the Czech Republic to visit the archives in Pilsen.

Hermann S. drove us early, before sunrise, to Waldmünchen, where we met Georg. It was magical to see the snow-covered hills and little villages in the half dark.

Georg and his wife Resi met us in their house, both looking rather worried, she above all. We gave her presents, which she only half-acknowledged as she fussed over Georg, handing him a lunch (their word, pronounced German-style) she had prepared. Georg told us later she was concerned about road conditions, and both worried about the car being stolen. It was also his first trip driving to Tschechien; he’s gone before, but always with someone else driving.

The border crossing (just the other side of Waldmünchen) was a little tense. Normally, they only look at his passport and wave him on, Georg said. But Steve’s passport they took inside their station, and we waited a full five minutes as they . . . what? Checked some computer database? And why? Do Americans come into the Czech Republic and cause trouble? Or did they suspect he was not a bona fide American?

Georg says things were considerably friendlier when the border had just re-opened. For various reasons, tensions are now re-asserting themselves. The mix of surface joviality with underlying brutality in the border guards: it always makes me nervous, and cast a pall over the trip into this former Soviet fiefdom.

Almost immediate after we entered Tschechien, Georg showed us the site of a former Böhmisch (i.e., German) village which the Czechs razed completely when they expelled all Germans in 1946. There’s no sign of it now, at least not under the snow. Evidently, to keep the border secure, brush was allowed to grow up all along the border, and according to Georg, an electric fence was erected the length of the border.

The ridge of mountains that form the beginning of the Böhmerwald is another barrier, and must be part of the reason (the natural reason) that the Grenze between Bayern and Böhmen ran just here. The people, at least the German-speaking ones, were, after all, the same as the Bavarians. Borders are often such unnatural divisions that it helps to find a natural barrier to justify them.

In the snow, the mountainous, forested area is pretty, but also a bit forbidding. Without modern means of travel, it must have been very forbidding. Even yesterday, there was beaten-down snow on the roads. I can understand Resi’s apprehension: had it snowed again before our return—or, worse, rained—these roads would have been well-nigh impassable.

There’s a stillness in the woods I notice often in middle-European areas, here abetted by history. Passing through the Böhmerwald, one feels as if one is entering the very heart of Europe—I’m tempted to write, “the dark heart.” I had read the day before that the east-west watershed of the continent does run very close to Steve’s ancestral village, Weissensulz. That makes the heart metaphor more compelling.

And Georg tells us that the forest-and-mountain-chain acts as a weather barrier, blocking the very cold weather from Russian in winter. The barrier also blocks wet weather from the Atlantic, so that Böhmen has drier, sunnier weather in summer than Bayern has. Georg maintains that the Böhmisch farmers were outstanding, and had larger, more prosperous farms than their Bavarian cousins had.

The weather barrier manifested itself almost immediately, as we drove into heavy fog for miles and miles, the east side of the forest. Here, one begins to wind through small, very grim viallages, most of them at one time German, although one we passed through had always been Czech, according to Georg, who also says that the German villages were at one time prosperous, cheery, well-maintained.

Not now. Now, all these places—anyplace we saw en route to Pilsen—look like the backside of nowhere. I try to imagine the life of, say, a teenager in such a place. At least in winter, everything seems dirty, deprived, geographically, culturally, and spiritually closed in. Perhaps some other, more appealing, life is going on inside the apartment buildings and houses we passed, but not in the street—not to my eye, at least.

On to Pilsen: also exceedingly dirty, industrial, and forbidding, though the downtown squares by night, as we left for our drive back, were pretty, with Christmas lights and lots of people shopping in the evening. The city seemed more active by night than it was by day, when we arrived.

Steve had good luck in the archives, as he, Georg, and I pored over 18th- and 19-century records of the Weissensulz parish and its mother parish, Heiligenkreuz. We were able to follow the Steinsdörfer line back into the 1600s, always in Weissensulz, where Steve’s ancestors were scribes, teachers, then sievemakers and farmers.

I got little feel for Czechs and Czech culture on this quick trip. The people we met in the archives were friendly, trying out a few words of English and laughing at their attempts. We had to communicate in German. They, the way they live, seem lost somewerhe in the 1940s or 1950s. There’s just not anywhere near the level of material comfort you find in Germany, where everything’s so cushy and well set-up, or in the U.S. At least, if the material comfort’s there, it’s not immediately apparent to the eye of a casual observer.

And everywhere, all over Western Bohemia, industrial pollution hangs like a heavy gray curtain, compounded in winter by the brown coal (or so it’s called in German) the Czechs burn. Its foul smell is everywhere; you can’t even shut it out of the car, as you drive. It’s one of the reasons so many buildings are begrimed.

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