My wife Elke and I are departing Benke, Moravia in the November evening’s chilly darkness. I am on an emotional high, such as I have never experienced. What a truly marvelous day this has been! My thoughts are overflowing with the day’s events. Benke is in a region formerly called Sudetenland. It is a place I never thought I would visit. It had been hidden behind the Iron Curtain during almost my entire adult life. Both my parents were born and raised in Sudetenland. To say I was confused as a child about my German-speaking parents and their homeland is an understatement. By the time I had attained the age when I could comprehend, whenever the matter of their homeland came up in conversation, it was always sadly mentioned that Sudetenland had “disappeared”. It was emphasized…..”even the people are gone.” I did not understand the notion. How could land and rivers and bridges and trees and mountains and culture and heritage.…and even people “disappear”. My parents attempted to clarify matters to me (and to my sisters) when questions were posed. As with most parents answering deep, philosophical questions posed by their kids, their clarifications always tended to exceed my ability to remain attentive. The explanations were too long and complicated. As a result, I just never got the story properly fixed in my mind. And then, as we all do, I grew up needing to overcome my own personal set of demons presenting their own dragons to slay and mountains to climb. Life went on.
Then in 1989, the Wall came down in Eastern Europe and it became possible to travel to Sudetenland. The region attracted me like metal filings to a magnet. I jumped at the first opportunity to visit Sudetenland that presented itself. Over the years, I had sporadically learned much about Sudetenland and its history. Where and what is it today?
As typical throughout the last century, the region in the central European provinces of Bohemia and Moravia that formerly had been called Sudetenland was in flux even as we returned this evening to our hotel room. In less than two months, it would become a part of a new country (again). In the 20th century Sudetenland had been a part of seven different governments of six different forms. When my parents lived here, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My parents were born Austrian subjects. In the aftermath of the German-Austrian Alliance’s loss of World War I, the region became a part of the First Czecho-Slovak Republic. Via the famed Munich Agreement of 1938, the Sudetenland was ceded to Adolf Hitler’s Fascist Germany by the allied Italian, French, and English victors of WW I to assuage Hitler’s threats of war. Hitler’s Nazi Germany absorbed Sudetenland and then the rest of Bohemia, Moravia, as well as Slovakia in 1939. After World War II, there was a Soviet military administration of the region. Then, briefly, a “democratic” post-war Czechoslovakian government surfaced. The Soviets under Stalin could not countenance democracy within their sphere of influence. So the Soviets inspired a Communist putsch in 1948 and imposed a new Communist Czechoslovakia (CSSR). That regime crumbled from internal decay in 1989. Then a post-communist Free Czechoslovakia (CSFR) evolved. That current government was coming to its end. In six weeks and effective January 1, 1993, the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia would become a new country called the Czech Republic. On the same date, Slovakia would form its own Slovak Republic. No wonder I was confused about this part of the world. I don’t think most Czechs and Slovaks can keep their history straight.
Why had I been told that the people were gone? In 1945-46, during its brief and so-called “democratic” Edvard Beneš regime, the native, ethnically Germanic, Sudeten population was cruelly deported. It was not only the Nazis who performed racist acts in those days. 3,500,000 birthright Czech citizens were expropriated of all property, real and personal, and herded into open railroad cars and exiled forever. It was the first post-war instance in Europe of what would come to be known modernly in Bosnia and Kosovo as “ethnic cleansing”. All my European relatives were Sudetens. All were deported to Germany. All lost everything. Their possessions were gone and their hopes and dreams were shattered. Destroyed was the historical connection to their heritage and stolen were the access rights to their homeland. Figuratively and literally, their homeland disappeared. Not so indirectly, my heritage and homeland of ancestry also disappeared. I do not have a German heritage. I have a Sudeten Moravian heritage.
All these ancient issues bubbled to the surface again when the Wall came down. Why was I so attracted to Sudetenland? What did the region hold for me? I was intrigued by the continuing historical mystery of the entire situation. My lingering, personal lack of clarity about Sudetenland begged for a resolution. What did the region look like? Was anyone left who remembered members of my family? Was there anything left of personal significance to me? Were family and ancestral homes still standing? I had many questions in search of something in Sudetenland. Of what that “something” consisted…….was a matter about which I had no clear focus. Yet, because of that “something’, I had felt compelled to come here.
Benke had been my father’s hometown. This morning as Elke and I had approached Benke, I had been extremely excited, but, at the same time, extremely nervous. This was unknown territory. I did not understand a single word of Czech. I couldn’t even say hello. What would I do if the people in the town spoke only Czech? If I met a friendly soul there willing to help me, how would we meaningfully communicate? I foresaw spending exhausting hours burning up valuable time merely trying to convey why I had come.
All my concerns had proven groundless. In an unbelievable stroke of good fortune, we met a native villager at the town sign as we halted to take a photo of it. He had seen us approach and watched us take our picture. He hailed us in flawless, non-Czech accented German. This friendly, gregarious, full of humor personage introduced himself as Otto Körner (Koerner). Incredibly, we shared the same last name. I was thunderstruck and momentarily taken aback.
Otto is a recently retired Sudeten. He had married his ethnic Czech wife Ludmilla (Lida) as a twenty year old in 1945. It was to prove to be the only way to escape the still secret, impending Sudeten expulsion. He had continued to live in Benke (renamed Benkov) and there raised his family in the ensuing, almost 50 years. As a young man, he watched his own blood relatives and his fellow Sudeten villagers being deported in 1946, probably never quite grasping it would be forever. Who understands “forever” at age twenty? Otto cheerfully served as our tour guide for the entire day. He remembered the site of my grandfather’s house, No. 22, and helped me find it. He vaguely remembered my grandfather Gustav living there. Otto was 15 when Gustav died. He remembered No. 22 as “Viktor’s house”. Viktor Körner (no relation to either of us) had rented one side of the double house for many years. Otto regaled us with stories of Viktor. Viktor was the town’s raconteur and bon vivant. He had townspeople convinced No. 22 belonged to him! Otto did not remember my father. My father had left for America (1922) before Otto was born (1925). My father inherited No. 22. After the deportation he had refused to pay land taxes to the Communist authorities. They had demolished the dwelling in retribution. Otto directed us around Benke showing us its sights. He indicated where the school had been, where the Gasthaus (pub) had been, where the cemetery is and where the town’s landmark chapel is. Otto invited us to join him and Lida for their noonday meal. He introduced us to his sister Valerie and later in the day, we were invited to her home near the chapel up the hill from Otto. She had also married an ethnic Czech. Valerie treated us to an Abendbrot (evening snack). The two are the only remaining Sudetens in Benke. We spent an enthralling day as Otto’s guests. Elke and I stayed until well after dark. We have maintained contact with Otto to the present.
These thoughts of the day’s events flood my mind as we return in the pitch dark to our hotel room in Schönberg (renamed Šumperk). I am driving on a narrow, unlighted road. There is an unfenced, open field on my right and dense woods on my left directly off the road. The visit to Benke has been a most remarkable experience and an unbridled success. I doubt if I have ever had so much fun on a single day in my life. While I am preoccupied with my thoughts, a young deer bolts out of the blackness of the open field and into the field of my headlights. The deer stops abruptly and blankly stares at me frozen by surprise. Desperately, I slam on my brakes. The tires screech leaving rubber on the road as I frantically swerve to the left. I do not hit the deer. The animal bounds off into the woods on my left. I breathe a sigh of relief.
It is not an earthshaking event. However, I interpret it as a symbolic perfect ending to a perfect day. Nothing is going to be allowed to ruin the day containing the most fascinating experience of my life.
All that had occurred yesterday. Today, Elke and I are again returning in the evening’s darkness to our hotel room in Schönberg. We are coming back from our visit to Ebersdorf. The farm village had been the hometown of my mother, Ottilie Scholz Koerner. As we had approached Ebersdorf (renamed Habartice) earlier today, I had had the identical feelings of trepidation with which we had approached Benke yesterday. In Benke we had met Otto. It was inconceivable that we would meet a similar person in Ebersdorf. The likelihood of that occurring was infinitesimal. One simply does not win two lotteries on consecutive days.
Yet, that is precisely what happened! We met Olga Veverková and her mother, Berta Weiser. They had witnessed our auto’s slow approach to Ebersdorf through their kitchen window. Under the most improbable of circumstances and without our being able to initiate contact with them, they sought us out and made contact. Olga bounded down her front steps and waved us into a parking space in front of her home much as would a parking lot attendant. She spoke broken, but understandable German. She invited us out of the chilly November air and into her home. Her mother was the sole remaining Sudeten in Ebersdorf. Olga’s father was an ethnic Czech. That is how Fr. Weiser (since divorced) had escaped the 1946 expulsion.
Frau Weiser still spoke the Sudeten German Ebersdorfian dialect of my mother. Her word usage and speech pattern as well as their cadence and intonation made it sound as though I were listening to my mother speak. The sensation was aurally bizarre. However, a greater surprise awaited me. It seems Frau Weiser is the daughter of the village’s former innkeeper. When Fr. Weiser was a very little girl (circa 1916), her busy parents often needed a Kindermädchen (babysitter) for their young daughter. That very accessible babysitter (she lived right around the corner of Eberdorf’s main intersection) was my mother! Fr. Weiser was in her early twenties when my mother emigrated to America (1931). Fr. Weiser recalled her vividly and even knew her nickname. Astonishingly, Fr. Weiser remembered the names of all eleven of my mother’s siblings. My Uncle Josef built the home, No. 103, in which she and Olga were living. Meeting Fr. Weiser was quite exhilerating.
We spent the rest of the day as guests of Olga and her mother. Olga later gave us a grand tour of Ebersdorf and pointed out its landmarks. The tour included a special opening of the village’s church for our viewing. The unlocking was coordinated with the village’s keeper of its keys and afforded a glimpse of the Church’s interior. The church had been used as a storage facility under godless Communism. We returned to Olga’s house well after dark. She prepared a welcome platter of tasty foodstuffs for us. It consisted of sausage, breads, sweet rolls, and choice of tea or coffee. Since the Fall of the Wall, expatriate Sudetens are increasingly returning to visit the towns of their births and youths. Olga has instituted a Guest Book for their use. Elke and I contributed eagerly to Olga’s book. I was the first American to sign it. I wrote a short paragraph in English and German explaining who I was and why I had come to Ebersdorf. Now other visitors can remember my mother, as well. We bid farewell to Olga and Fr. Weiser and departed from Ebersdorf. I was in an up mood that could only be equaled by yesterday’s emotional high.
These thoughts of the day’s events flood my mind as we once again are returning in the pitch dark to our hotel room in Schönberg. I am driving on a narrow, unlighted road. There is an unfenced, open field on my left and dense woods on my right directly off the road. The visit to Ebersdorf has been a most remarkable experience. In fact, it perfectly complements yesterday’s visit to Benke. To have so meaningfully connected with both of my ancestral villages was what I had anguished over might be so completely impossible. While I am preoccupied with my thoughts, a young deer bolts out of the blackness of the field and into the field of my headlights. The deer stops abruptly and blankly stares at me frozen by surprise. Desperately, I slam on my brakes. The tires screech leaving rubber on the road as I frantically swerve to the right. I do not hit the deer. The animal bounds off into the woods on my right. I breathe a sigh of relief. It is precisely the mirror image of yesterday evening.
It is not an earthshaking event. However, I interpret it to be another symbolic perfect ending to another perfect day. Nothing is going to be allowed to ruin the trip containing the most incredible experiences of my life.
Oddly, we spotted only two deer on the entire trip. Yet, it is quite fitting how these two otherwise innocuous events play a role in my dearest of memories.
Copyright © 2007 by Frank Koerner