The weather accurately reflected the mood of this trip. Fog, rain, and biting cold combined to make this both a memorable location and an impactful immersive experience. The Political Prisoners Trip brought us to a small town called Jáchymov (which lies on the German Border). Though it is now a popular spa retreat, this region is home to a variety of mines, and former prison camps (many of which have been completely lost to the elements).
Tour of Štola č. 1 mine
After an early departure from Prague, and fighting the weekend traffic headed to the countryside, we finally arrived in Jáchymov. Our first stop was a tour of an abandoned mine. This particular one was an exploratory mine used to determine viability for uranium mining. Luckily for us, this particular mine was determined to be relatively uranium free and therefore safe for exploration. That being said, we did have a geiger counter with us. It was our constant companion throughout the trip, more for our piece of mind then anything else. Although, we did get some high readings from a hole in the ground and a stone wall, as well as mineral samples from a museum. As we walked through the mine we learned about the region’s relationship with silver mining. Afterwards, we returned to the museum and watched a short documentary about the political prisoners and labour camps in the region, as well as attempts to reconstruct digital 3-D models of the camps.
Hike Around the Former Labor Camps: Svornost, Nikolaj, and Rovnost
By this point, it was raining heavily and around 42 degrees fahrenheit. Dressed in a heavy winter coat, waterproof hiking shoes, scarf, gloves, winter hat, and thickest sweater I brought with me from the States, I knew that the hike ahead was going to be an interesting and unforgettable experience. As we hiked from location to location is was amazing to see how little of the original camp structures remain — most of what is clearly visible was rebuilt by the museum. Unfortunately, there are several inaccuracies with what was reconstructed which one of the professors pointed out — the watchtowers are facing outward when they should be faced inward overlooking the camp, and the height of the fences is drastically shorter than they actually were due to current restrictions caused by overhead power lines. Overall, the hike was around 6-7 miles, but was cut short due to the inclement weather.
Dinner and Story Time
That evening we had dinner at a nearby ski resort and were treated to a story from Mr. Kopt (a former political prisoner). He discussed how he became involved in the anti-communist/Soviet movement and how became a political prisoner. Afterwards, we lit several paper lanterns in memory of those who died and suffered as political prisoners.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we set off for our first stop of the day: the Jáchymov museum. This museum has a bit of everything: a section on minerals from the region, a section on currency, a section on silver mining, and a section about the camps. At the political prisoners exhibition, Mr. Kopt elaborated on the previous night’s story in great detail. His experience as a political prisoner included harsh working conditions, construction of secret radios inside the camps and he even told us how he came to be pardoned. (If you have time, I really recommend looking into how these radios were made and hidden).
Saint Florian's Chapel
Our last major stop was at St. Florians Chapel in Kladno, CZ. This chapel has a memorial dedicated to those affected by political violence, and part of the display features the stations of the cross as interpreted by a political prisoner who died in one of the camps.
One of the constant themes throughout the trip was memory, and the difficulty we face in remembering and confronting the past. As the hike illustrated, the physical objects that often serve to codify memory and act as lasting testaments to the past are not immortal. They can all too quickly be lost to time and weather. The past can only be preserved by people. Unfortunately, the willingness of people, especially victims, to remember the darker parts of their nation’s history is limited. This is not a problem unique to the Czech Republic. There are things that scar a nation, that leave a lasting mark on its citizens and its identity. It makes sense that people would try to forget and move on.
But, even though it may be difficult, it is important to remember the past. It is important that people act with haste. By the time society as a whole agrees that they should preserve memories of the past (oral histories especially) the ability to do so will have long since passed. After all, oral histories require the living to tell their stories. Time has taken its toll on the camp ruins which have all but vanished, and it does the same to the survivors.
Special thanks to Tomas Bouska and his NGO Political Prisoners! This organization has done a great deal to advocate for the preservation of important historical sites, and archive the oral history of former political prisoners. To find out more go to http://www.politicalprisoners.eu/.