Vrchní Orlice (close to Bartošovice v Orlických horách)
Hradec Králové Region
The Orlické Mountains (Orlické hory in Czech) cleave to their namesake, the eagle, by soaring gently but surely to great heights; the highest point, Velká Deštná, claims 1,115 metres from the sky. Despite the elevation, the valleys on both sides of the range are very hospitable, with many small villages sprawling up and sheltering down in the mountains’ shadows. Many places in the Orlické Mountains, a natural barrier between the rest of the Czech Republic and Poland, lie right on the Divoká Orlice, a river and an international border. This is no English Channel or Mekong River; an effortful jump would see you safely translated to another country. The border is uneventful and uninteresting, and plays no great part in the lives of the area’s inhabitants, who cross it when they need to, and don’t when they don’t.
Wind back the clock to 1900 and the divide becomes even less noteworthy, as people on the river’s two banks then spoke the same language, German – or rather Glätzlich, a local variety of Silesian German. What did split the valley was legal nationality; the north bank, now Poland, belonged to the German Empire, while the land south of the bank, including the Orlické Mountains, was part of the Kingdom of Bohemia, a crown subsumed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even still, the political intrigues of the very distant capital cities of Berlin and Vienna cannot have had a great effect on the riverside villages, not at least until 1914, when the region had its sons sent into the hells of the First World War.
Caught behind woods and water is a cluster of hidden houses and a stout church that barely cling on to the name Vrchní Orlice. It sits within a slight bend of the river, in perfectly bucolic surroundings; pine forests, manicured fields and a bubbling brook, the Hadinec, roll down to the Orlice. Today, it is peaceful, pristine and very empty. However, Vrchní Orlice, formerly Hohen-Erlitz (what an ominous parenthesis – that a village should be formerly anything), has known horrors.
In 1918, through the birth of Czechoslovakia, the south bank of the Divoká Orlice found itself in a new country – one without an implicit German hegemony. The Orlické Mountains and their German-speaking inhabitants were part of the Sudetenland, a term that grew in use and importance during the interwar years, to match the increasing ethnolinguistic tensions in the nascent Czechoslovak state. The problems of the Sudetenland were both nationalistic and economic, and many eagerly looked to the Nazi Party in neighbouring Germany for support. This tense situation found its tragic culmination in the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, followed by the occupation of the rest of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939.
In 1945, with Nazi Germany defeated, came the Beneš Decrees and the state-sanctioned removal of the German-speaking population of Czechoslovakia. Many were forced; many fled first; many never got to try. Hohen-Erlitz was abandoned.
The Church of St John of Nepomuk in Vrchní Orlice stands as a witness to this turmoil. Much like the surrounding area, it wears its story on its sleeve; at first glance, you behold a grand Baroque edifice, with two rows of squat, fort-like windows. The church has a natural strength and pride, but its facade is ragged and decaying. Entering through the gloomy atrium and under the upper stalls, the vast space reveals itself. It is plain, yes, but nonetheless theatrical in its form; the eye easily surrenders its gaze to the apse and altar, canopied by a starry sky of faded azure blue.
Golden chalices, monograms (IHS) and even faint murals slowly emerge from the peeling plaster, together forming an impression of sophistication and wealth. The three teetering tiers of wooden pews suggest a very large congregation when it was first built in 1712, though by 1930, the village population had decreased to 239 people.
Today, services are rare, but the church is in no way without friends. It is cared for by volunteers from the nearby village of Bartošovice, who raise funds for the church, and who recently restored the roof. They have hung verses from the Bible on the walls and have built a rudimentary altar that feels urgently sincere in its simplicity. If open, a rare and unpredictable occurrence in the Czech Republic, the church is yours; you can freely climb up dusty steps into both the upper pews and the rickety tower.
What cuts the cruellest is the sight of the small surrounding graveyard. It is littered with headstones, broken and askew, now mocked by the verdant vitality of the May climate, yet each still displaying a little of their original elegance. Their inscriptions are all in German, silver Gothic letters gliding over sea-black marble; in tears and desperate hope, they demand Ruhe (repose) and Himmels Frieden (heaven’s peace) for their departed loved ones, admitting only auf Wiedersehen until later reunion. The vivacity of a community is truly best revealed among its dead, who bear witness not only to past life, but also to present loss of those left behind.
Where is that community now? They are scattered so far, as broken as the bricks of their abandoned church. Where are the children of Josef Wohl, known forever as a good husband and father? Who now grieves for Anna Jaschke, who died aged a mere eleven days? Who even remembers her? Her parents, distraught, engraved their pain upon her headstone in 1929; under a thin veneer of guarded poetry, it reads like a howl of confusion, a futile attempt to make sense of the inexplicable.
Liebe Eltern tröstet Euch!
(Dear parents, console yourselves!)
Ich bin beim Gott und bitte für Euch.
(I am with God and pray for you.)
Der liebe Gott wird es schon wissen,
(Dear God will surely know,)
Warum er hat mich Euch entrissen.
(Why he wrested me from you.)
Such grief as theirs deserves to flow from source to story, losing strength but not substance as it moves through the community that understands it, takes it and bears it. Just as graves, at first harsh cut wounds, fade in time and merge with the earth, so too should loss slowly dissipate, adding to the communal narrative in ever quieter and more endurable ways. At Vrchní Orlice, however, this was not allowed to happen. The lasting, gnawing feeling is of a community interrupted. Flowerless graves halt time at 1935 at the latest, frozen in the past, forsaken by modernity, and leave a story eternally incomplete; the proper flow of life, death, life and death was severed by anger, resentment and cruelty.
The cost of hatred is life.
Danny Bate 2020
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