Showing posts with label Plzen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Plzen. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

WWII was worse for Central Europe than even our histories and memories tell us

Sometimes reading about the evil of the Holocaust it seems so over-the-top that it's all one can do to take in the enormity of all of the killing and dehumanizing that went on in the concentration camps.  Try to imagine this though, it's even worse than everyone thought.

Anne Applebaum, writing in the New York Review of Books, in an essay called "The Worst of the Madness" says that the camps may be the predominant preserved historical artifact of carnage. but much worse carnage occurred elsewhere, for example, in the killing fields of Central Europe. Those killings are less likely to be officially commemorated, remembered, or written about [probably because there is nothing to look at like photos or an actual camp].

Ms. Applebaum also argues that with two dictators, Hitler and Stalin, operating ruthlessly in the Central European theater, it accelerated and exacerbated the carnage of the other. The author argues that each side should expand their notion of guilt of what deaths they may have caused.

She says even the United States can't walk away from revising our notion of participation.  That we weren't involved in just a "Good War" as Americans like to think of it.  She suggests it was more morally ambiguous because Central Europe and the East were left to experience 45 years of totalitarianism.

I found that hard to take because I think Americans would have loved to liberate to the east of Pilsen, but deferred to the Soviets in thanks for their help.  It's true that we Americans would probably never imagine an entire region of the world getting walled off and it's inhabitants being treated like prisoners.  As an American of the next generation, reading about it all just increases my respect for all of those in Central Europe that coped, and perished, due to "The Worst of the Madness."

Thanks to David Brooks, opinion writer for the New York Times, for alerting me to this magazine essay.  He chose it as one of the best of 2010.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Easter Weekend in Plsen

One of the most beautiful times I had in the Czech Republic last year was when I went to Plsen on Easter weekend to visit Hana, my longtime pen pal of twenty years.  We had started writing letters back and forth years ago, when an organization called World Contact Network was looking for Americans to correspond with newly-freed Czechs adjusting to the West.

I had fallen in love with the Czech Republic watching the Velvet Revolution on TV and was deeply fascinated by any nation so cultured as to elect a playwright for President.  I had to know more about Czechs!  Hana and I began writing and eventually Hana's daughter, Lenka, came to live with my family for a time in America.

I took over 250 pictures of my weekend trip to Plsen! I had looked forward to this day so much. Hana and I had raised kids at the same time. We both divorced about the same time.  We taught each other so much about each other's countries.

Unfortunately, on the train back to Prague, a train employee asked everyone in my compartment to switch to a new compartment. In that move I lost my camera. I don't know if I left it on the ledge, the seat, or someone took it out of my bag.  I was sooooooo disappointed because I had such a wonderful weekend there.

Hana and her family went to great lengths to show me a fabulous time in their city. It's taken me over a year just to accept that I wouldn't have those pictures to share with this blog post because I felt the loss so deeply.

Hana and her son picked me up at the train station.  I went first to meet Hana's parents and to see her son's village home which he was renovating.  Jiri took me out to the backyard to see the animals he raised for food.

Have you ever heard of the animal Nutrea?  I hadn't.  Hana's son, Jiri, said their meat was very tender to eat.  There were four or five pens with 2-3 animals in each. I thought "wow, I'm really in a European village now.  Hana's family is actually raising their own livestock in the backyard!"  Later, I laughed about how exotic and foreign I thought this was at the time, because it turns out that a very hip, very growing trend in Madison, Wisconsin where I would subsequently move, is to grow chickens in the backyard.  Madison has a whole web site for chicken farming aficionados called "Mad City Chickens."

On Saturday, we started with a tour of the Brewery Museum.  It was fun to see how beer has been created throughout the centuries.  After a tour of the museum, everyone gets a free beer.  We had ours on the back porch of the museum and put all of our new knowledge to work tasting a rich Czech beer.

Later, we went downtown to walk around lovely Plsen.  There was a wedding outside the fascinating, centuries-old Main Hall and I tried not to take pictures but it was hard!  Everything was sunny and blue, the bride was beautiful, and I was in the middle of a picturesque town square in the middle of Europe!  Eventually, they dragged me over to the beautiful church,  St. Bartholomew Cathedral, that's right in the Main Square.  We went inside to see the baroque interior and to climb the steps to the top of the tower.  I have no idea how roofs in the Czech Republic ever get done because the steep angle would terrify me if I was a roofer (thank you to those of you who are; I appreciate how dangerous it is and am grateful that someone else takes it on).  It was fun to see all of Plsen from every side and to look down and see the Plsner beer tent and all of the other kiosks set up to celebrate Easter.  We climbed down and had a Plsner beer in the Plsen beer tent in the middle of Plsen.  Gosh darn it, I want a picture of that!

That evening, Hana and her sweetie, took me to the Plsen Opera House for an evening of opera.  It's cozier than the Prague National Theatre (I haven't been to the Prague Opera) and it's just as beautiful. Again, it kills me that I can't show you the pictures because Europeans create the most breathtakingly beautiful performance spaces. Wait, have I been in other nation's performance spaces?  No.  Let me revise that to what I have personally witnessed.  Czechs make the most gorgeous performing spaces!  Everyone was dressed up too. We looked great! It was nice.

The next day we ventured out into the countyside to see Kozel Castle.  If I could have teleported my mother from Colorado to that chateau for their tour, I would have.  It was divine! My mother would have gone absolutely nuts seeing that place.  It was a hunting chateau in the middle of an idyllic lakefront setting.  The home was beautiful, yes, but it was the lightness of the decorating that I would have loved for my mother to see.

Every room in that hunting chateau suggested "play."  The ceramics and the dishes were exquisite! In each room, there were fresh flowers in manor-sized containers.  It was worth it to go on that tour just to see a gorgeous, resplendent arrangement of flowers in each room on that elegant scale over and over again. With most tours, the tour operators wouldn't go to the trouble of giving you the feeling of being in the room as it was meant to be at the time using fresh flowers.  But the people who run this castle did.  Fantastic! The final room was the best of all.  We walked into a magical family-sized theatre.  I could just imagine the people putting on a play for each other's amusement in the 1830's.  Oh, it was painful not to have my mother by my side for that tour! She would have just appreciated it so much. And I can't even show her the pictures!

After that fabulous experience, we went into town to a new brewery and restaurant that had started in Plsen.  I would share the name of it with you but where would I get that guessed pictures.

I went home on Sunday night.  If I had been more educated about Czech Easters, I would have known I would be expected to stay through Monday.  Monday is also part of the Czech Easter holiday.  I did not know that though until Prague friends asked me why I came home early.  Now I know.

I had a WONDERFUL time at Hana's.  It was so meaningful to connect in person after all those years of letters.  It's my pen pals who really continued and built on my initial fascination with all things Czech.  If you can't see a picture of Hana and her family, I hope what you can feel is their hearts: open.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

My History with Czechs (part three)

One of the delights of knowing Czechs back in 1992, was hearing stories about Czecho love for Americans thanks to Patton's Third Army. An American man who had the pleasure of being one of the first Americans representatives in western Czecho after the Velvet Revolution gave a speech at my Rotary Club about what a privilege, an absolute utter privilege, it was to be one of the first Americans accompanying the American ambassador into Plzen when truth could be spoken for the first time.

All the Czechs greeted the official party with fantastic enthusiasm along the roadside waving flags and smiling. It was a love fest. All sorts of hidden American souvenirs came out of hiding from Czech attics and garages, even Jeeps and tanks, because the Czechs were not allowed to say that the Americans had done the liberating of Plzen in WWII -- not the Red Army. Here was the proof!

Little Lenka said Czechs knew it was a lie but that is what the Soviets demanded new generations be taught. She said one thing that proved to young people that it was not the Soviets who liberated Plzen is that the Soviets could never provide a decent explanation for who all the black people were in pictures from that time (American soldiers).

I love those stories. All of it makes me reverently proud of my country.

Friday, May 2, 2008

My History with Czechs (part one)

It's very hard to know or remember now, just how forbidden and mysterious everything was behind the Iron Curtain before it fell. Americans didn't know much about the people and places involved. All the news that seemed to come from there was always produced with a "minder" in tow, so therefore suspect.

It's also hard to remember just how completely mind-blowing it was when the Berlin Wall fell. It turned out nobody in those countries believed anything their governments were spouting. I never thought I would see the fall of the Berlin Wall, never even dreamed it was possible, and when one country after another demanded change, it was incredibly moving.

No people's story was more moving than the Czechs. I remember how they would gather in Wenceslas Square and demand their freedom. Their ability to achieve all of that, with deliberate and collective non-violence was simply awe-inspiring to me. It still is. I believe 500 years from now, 1,000 years from now, future Czechs will savor that moment of themselves at their finest.

The Velvet Revolution made me want to get to know these mysterious people, and as corny as it sounds, reach out my hand in friendship. Welcome to the world! I signed up for a pen pal exchange started by a Minnesotan who was equally inspired by the new freedoms to connect. I began a correspondence with a woman in Plzen named Hana and a woman in a small town near Karlovy Vary named Lenka. We dubbed the woman near Karlovy Vary "Big Lenka" to not confuse her with Hana's daughter.

It was deeply interesting to hear about their lives and all the changes they were going through. Instantly, entrepreneurial tendencies surfaced. During communism, the lady in Pilzen's husband had worked at the giant Skoda Works. It sounded like the sort of place that would be featured prominently in a May Day poster celebrating labor -- communist heavy industry and dreary beyond belief.

Big Lenka's husband began his own business as a truck driver. He was ripped off by a business partner and it made me sad that their first experience with capitalism was one of the pitfalls. But both couples persevered. I enjoyed being the "entrepreneur cheerleader."

We invited the oldest daughter of the couple from Pilzen to come live with us for a summer to experience American life and enjoy our daughters. I truly believe we changed her life. She came to America speaking hardly any English and learned mostly from my children. At that time, Little Lenka was 15 years old.

What I think Little Lenka enjoyed learning most, and what changed her life forever, was the American idea of delaying marriage until one had first invested in oneself with college and independent single life. She asked questions about this idea constantly. All of her friends back home would be married with babies on the way by age twenty. She decided the American way of delaying marriage was better.

Talk about entrepreneurial! Little Lenka immediately sought and received a scholarship to attend an American school when she got back home. Then she sought and received scholarships from generous Czech Americans to attend university in the United States. She went to Rotary clubs all over the American Midwest to talk about the evils of communism and how great America was. No pay involved. Just gratitude. She then married an American. I'm embarrassed to say that I have lost touch with her and her family. Nonetheless, I'm proud of the role we played in changing this young woman's life.
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