Political Prisoners Trip to Jachymov
Contrary to the fact that I regularly eat cheese even though I am severely lactose intolerant, I do actually want to be happy. When I signed up for the Political Prisoners trip to Jachymov, I knew it was not going to be a weekend full of lighthearted laughs and unicorns. Yet I also knew meeting with former political prisoners imprisoned during the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was going to be an experience I wanted, and needed, to have.
We began the first day by visiting an old uranium mine where prisoners were made to work which quite frankly blew my mine. We hiked up a replica of horribly steep steps afterwards to visit the nearby site of one of the political camps.
This trip was unique in that NYU paired with Czech high school students who accompanied us on the trip. In the weeks leading up to the trip, each NYU student attending was paired with a Czech student whom they corresponded with. We had to edit a text they had translated from Czech into English. Then at each site where a particular section of the text took place, we read it aloud.
After reading the first excerpt at the camp Svornost, we hiked through the woods to an idyllic lake OR SO WE THOUGHT. The lake (pictured above) is a man-made lake created by political prisoners at the order of the communist guards. The guards wanted the Czech national hockey team (who were imprisoned there at the time) to teach them how to skate, and prisoners had to keep the lake clean of debris. We hiked past the lake to another political prisoner camp where a former prisoner, Mr. Tomík, was waiting to talk to us about his time in the camp.
Mr. Tomik had not been back to the camp since his escape in 1955. He dug a tunnel over the course of three months and escaped with nine other prisoners in November of that year. In order to keep the tunnel undiscovered by guards, they covered it with wood shavings since they dug it in a workshop in the camp. When they escaped, they sprinkled spices to hide their scent from the guards’ dogs. The escaped prisoners made it the woods, but eventually the group split. Mr. Tomik passionately told us how he was shot while trying to cross over to his next destination. He ran until he passed out; he woke up to a dog sniffing him. Mr. Tomik was taken to a prison in Slovakia where he was held until the prisoners were eventually liberated. His original crime? He was simply part of Catholic affiliated sports teams. He also was found playing with unloaded guns he discovered left behind by soldiers during World War II,and communists claimed he was attempting to protest the regime.
Later in the night, we released two lanterns in honor of the political prisoners and all those wrongfully imprisoned today. I was a bit concerned that we were going to start a forest fire considering we were in the mountains and literally surrounded by forest on all sides. I checked the hotel room (which had a winning combination smell of pickles and old people), and there was no smoke detector in the room. So after a sleepless night checking the window for flames, we went to a museum with a floor dedicated to political prisoners. There we met with the second former political prisoner, Mr. Mandrholec, who spoke with us.
Mr. Mandrholec was thrown in prison at age 19 for smuggling prohibited literature. He was placed in solitary confinement for eight months and was only given food every two to three days. He was made to walk laps around his tiny cell during the day and suffer through interrogations during the night. Despite the fact that these two prisoners have been through horrid conditions and had years of their young lives robbed from them, their classic Czechoslovakian humor shone through. The older prisoner joked that although the other had a cane, he was still younger so he could carry his beer for him.
After the museum, we listened to the leader of the Boy Scouts in the Czech Republic speak of their years of persecution. The Nazi regime shut them down once and the Communist regime shut them down twice. Many Boy Scouts were also imprisoned in political camps basically for living life as decent, caring human beings.
We then visited the Red Tower of Death which is the processing plant where uranium was turned into powder, stored, and shipped off to Russia.
During the start of this trip, I was complaining about the cold weather, the poor wifi in the hotel, and the lack of vegan options for breakfast. Yet the prisoners had no socks, no guaranteed way to communicate effectively with their loved ones, and they were sometimes given unsubstantial food only every three days. Meeting with the prisoners certainly put everything into perspective. While I will still exercise my right to complain, I recognize just how much worse it could be.
So with uranium dust covering my shoes, new appreciation floating in my brain,and the pathetic Czech excuse for pizza churning in my stomach, I headed back to Prague.