Thursday, 30 December 2010

Hussite Video/Slideshow

The Hussites were followers of the teachings of theologian Jan Hus (John Huss) who was burnt at the stake as a heretic. Their one-eyed general Jan Zizka turned his followers from inexperienced peasant farmers into a formidable fighting force. The music is one of their hymns - "Warriors of God".

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Real Good King Wenceslas

There are many myths and few facts about the original Good King Wenceslas.

Let's start with the facts. Wenceslas was Vaclav I Duke of Bohemia from 921 - 935 AD. He was born into the house of the Přemyslids, the first rulers of Bohemia, at a time when Christianity was only just beginning to take hold among the Slavs. His grandfather Borivoj was converted by St Cyril and St Methodius (the Apostles to the Slavs) and Wenceslas was brought up a Christian by his father Vratislav. When Vratislav died Wenceslas was only 13 and his care passed to his saintly grandmother Ludmila. But a power struggle ensued over control of the young king and his kingdom between Ludmila and Wenceslas' mother Drahomira, which resulted in Ludmila's death by strangulation. In 924 or 925 Wenceslas had his mother exiled and took control of his dukedom.

Under his rule Christianity was promoted in Bohemia and the chronicles attribute to Wenceslas great acts of piety. In 929 the army of  the Duke of Saxony, Henry the Fowler, attacked Prague and Wenceslas sued for peace and pledged allegiance to the German Duke. This action together with Wenceslas' support of the Christian church angered many Bohemian nobles who turned to Wenceslas brother Boleslav as an alternative duke. At some point later Boleslav invited Wenceslas to a religious feast and when Wenceslas was on his way to church Boleslav and his allies murdered him

So Wenceslas was actually Vaclav; he wasn't a king but a duke and we can't even be sure of the dates - he may have died in 929 or alternatively 935. History is also unclear about his enemies. Was Drahomira a pagan - the chronicles can't make up their minds. Was Boleslav - well he didn't exactly stop the growth of christianity after Wenceslas' death. What we have here is a pretty typical example of realpolitik in the Dark Ages, with the usual fratricide, invading armies, conspiracies and a dose of religion to boot.  After which we get the postumous and highly unreliable hagiographic royal biographies.

Now for some of the myths -
  • The story of the old man seeking fuel appeared in 1853 - a piece of Victorian whimsy by John Mason Neale. The tune however is older - it's a medieval spring carol.
  • Wenceslas is said to be sleeping with an army of knights under Mount Blanik waiting to ride out to save the Czech nation - though why you would want a leader who failed to defeat the Germans in his lifetime escapes me. 
  • In an extension to the last myth Wenceslas will take the magical sword of Bruncvik from a stone in Charles Bridge, and with the sword he will defeat the country's enemies. Myths it seems are the same the world over.
Well there you go - the real Good King Wenceslas stays as illusive as ever.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


I was waiting for a bus a fortnight ago in Cesky Krumlov. There was quite a crowd of people at the bus stop, but none of them were queuing. That includes me - a Brit! We all milled around chatting, I and a number of others sat on a bench. The bus appeared and still no queue materialised, instead everyone moved towards the bus door and formed a disordered huddle. It was a very polite huddle, but a huddle nonetheless. The only friction arose when some schoolchildren pushed in front of an elderly lady, but they soon were put in their place by a stern word.

Then a few days ago I waited for a bus in Cheltenham. Of course there was a queue. There would have been a queue, regardless of how many people were waiting. In fact the Brits will form a queue of one - I do. There's an empty bus stop, what do I do? I stand next to the sign looking in the direction of the bus. Arrivals at the bus stop then form a queue behind me. If anyone pushes into the queue they are subjected to stares and even the muttered comment "Some people have no manners, really!" But they are unlikely to be challenged.

Such queuing behaviour is relatively easy to read for non-Brits, what is more difficult is the virtual queue. What do I mean by that? Well, a good example is in a pub. In my youth I worked as a barmaid and so had an opportunity to observe it closely. You do not form a queue when you want to buy a beer, but there is a virtual queue. The barman serves people in the order in which they arrived at the bar. To register your presence with the barman you catch his eye, often with a jerk of the head backwards. He will nod to acknowledge you and then you wait your turn. This can be problematic in a very crowded bar, but as a barmaid I soon learned that the skill of remembering the order of the virtual queue is essential.

Once a snooty customer said to me ""When are you going to serve me, I'm an undergraduate of Oxford University?" There was a stunned silence in the bar, fellow students tried to hide and the locals clenched their teeth. Every rule of English behaviour had been broken.

In such a circumstance the barmaid is entitled to lose her British reserve. "And I'm a graduate," I replied, "And you'll bloody well wait your turn."  General cheers. 

I've heard the argument that the British queuing habit is due to rationing. But I think that is complete tosh. Rationing was over 50 years ago and still we are doing it. Plus I rather suspect that under the Nazis and then under the Communists the Czech too would have been used to queuing, indeed Czech bureaucracy still requires it. They just don't do it all the time.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A Visit to Volary

My posts about the history of this part of the Czech Republic don't usually look at the more recent past, but there is plenty of it around here. A few weeks ago, before the snow, I drove over to Volary. I had been through it many times on my way to the Sumava, but never stopped. This time I did.

If you go the cemetary in Volary you will find a memorial just outside the main cemetary along with ninety-six graves.  When the American forces entered Volary they came upon a barracks and in it over one hundred women, starving (their average weight was 82 pounds), ill and indeed dying. These were all that remained of a group of women who had been made to make a 700 kilometre death march from concentration camps in Poland. A few days later the Americans found the mass grave of women who had died of disease or been shot by their Nazi guards. The local German inhabitants were made to exhume the bodies and dig new graves. They were then made to attend a burial service for the women. An account of the US army's arrival with photographs is to be found here 

The graveyard is incredibly powerful, set on the hillside overlooking the Sumava. The spot was so beautiful and peaceful when I visited, that it is hard to bear the knowledge of what happened here. It is a place, like too many in this country, where angels weep. The names of the graves show that the women buried there come from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the USSR, but most moving of all are those that simply bear the word "neznama" - unknown. It is a tribute to the care and work of the US Fifth Infantry Division that so many have names - this is the only cemetary to holocaust victims where there are names at all.

But the last word goes to a survivor Szewa Szeps -

We were sent on the March, some of the girls sick with a fever of 39 degrees. Every day the snow-covered roads became littered with corpses. My sister was in a very bad way. I had to support and pull her along, so that she would not be shot. We marched in the direction of Czechoslovakia and Bavaria. During the march my sister pleaded with me to leave her and continue alone. Frozen, starving and thoroughly exhausted, we managed to drag ourselves along. At night we were packed like herrings in barns or sheds. In the morning those who didn't survive were left behind. Our transport, with its skeletons in rags, caused the local residents in the area to close their windows and to run from us as if from an epidemic. Many of the unfortunate were [simply] shot along our way. 

During the night of 2-3 May, the Germans abandoned us near a forest in Volary (Wallern) in Czechoslovakia. In the morning we noticed that the guards were gone. Me and another person – the only ones who could still continue – left on the first American tank which approached.
The Americans brought us to the local hospital. My sister was in a really bad way, and three days later, on the 9th of May, 1945, she died. She was buried in Volary. On her tombstone, I requested her epitaph be taken from her diary:

“The day of our liberation should just not be a day of bitter sleep.”
But I added:

“The day of liberation, my dear sister, was for you a day of bitter sleep."

 Extract taken from
It is to the soldiers, medics and Jewish chaplain Herman Dicker of the Fifth Infantry Division that the victims buried in Volary are the only victims in any Holocaust cemetery that headstones bears the victims  name.It is to the soldiers, medics and Jewish chaplain Herman Dicker of the Fifth Infantry Division that the victims buried in Volary are the only victims in any Holocaust cemetery that headstones bears the victims  name.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Weekend Shopping

Do not go shopping on Saturday afternoon in the Czech Republic - you will find the shops closed. Never mind Sunday opening, Czech shops as a rule close at 12.00 or at best 1pm on Saturdays. The exception to this is often the modern shopping malls, but your regular town centre shops are closed. Even a city like Ceske Budejovice turns into a ghost town at noon on Saturdays, the streets empty and even many cafes and restaurants are closed. Walking across its huge central square on a Saturday afternoon can be disconcerting - it's almost as if you've walked in to a wild west movie just before the outlaws ride into town.

Cesky Krumlov at first sight bucks this trend - most shops are open. But look closer and you will see that only the tourist and vietnamese shops are open, the in-town supermarkets, chemists, shoeshops, etc are all closed. Even the little supermarket opposite the Castle is closed. And yet the weekend is when Cesky Krumlov receives most of its visitors. You can sit on the bench by the castle gate and watch as bemused Japanese tourists try the door. No matter that the supermarket is missing out on all that trade, the Czechs have always stopped work on Saturdays at lunchtime and disappeared off to their families, cottages and gardens and so that is what they will continue to do. Or they might be engaging in the latest pastime of going in their hordes to the new out-of-town shopping centres.


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