Elements of multi-culti in a monoculti city
Prologue, set in the "Brno Tourist Information":
"Are you sure you want to go there?"
"Oh yes. It’s hot and humid. Swimming would be really nice."
"I understand. But I mean: Does it have to be the pool in Husovice? Just between you and me: it’s a Gypsy area."
"Oh, you mean Roma? That’s lovely. I don’t care."
"Strasne je to, strasne! Es ist alles schrecklich, es ist alles so
schrecklich". Paní. Barbora can’t sleep. Tormented, she walks along the
corridor. Up and down, up and down: "Es ist schrecklich, es ist alles
so schrecklich!" Paní Barbora is Czech, but her nightmares are in
German. The language of Goethe, Schiller and Henlein. And of course,
most importantly, the language of ORB, Austria’s national broadcasting
station. For more than forty years, it was the city’s link to the free
world. Now, a decade after the fall of communist censorship, ORB is
still Paní Barbora’s favourite channel.
There is always a second television set working in the flat, since her
husband Jind_ich prefers to watch Czech channels in the sleeping room.
Actually, Jindrich, this enthusiast for old Czech operetta films, is a
German, a Sudeten German. During his childhood, the aunt of the Sudeten
German’s fascist leader Konrad Henlein happened to be his teacher in
the city of Reichenberg. But that’s long time ago: Reichenberg is
Liberec now and Hitlerjunge Heinrich turned into Jindrich Janousek,
retired captain of the Czechoslovak Army. Meanwhile he has forgotten
most of his German. "It is simply too long ago".
There is a third room in the flat, rented to a young guest from
Germany. "Es ist schrecklich. Es ist alles so schrecklich!" The guest
can’t sleep either. "Why does she speak in German to herself? Is she
talking about me?" Up and down, up and down. He listens anxiously.
The young German’s day starts in one of the most remote outskirts of
the city. Our friend is German, but from a new generation! This means
he is too late. Dr jur. Albrecht Janda, the man he is going to visit,
is Jewish. From a very old generation. What Albrecht Janda probably
hates most are youngsters who think that they can arrive whenever they
"You’re too late, my friend. More than twenty minutes!"
"I’m sorry. You know, the buses…"
"And you know that my whole daily program is ruined now?"
"Your program for the day? But your daily program would normally
consist of lying in bed."
"Oh no. Not today. I was planning to go into town. There were many
things I wanted to do."
The very old and the very young man communicate in German. The old
one speaks with a slight Vienna accent, which gives his slow and
old-fashioned speech even more dignity. Albrecht Janda grew up in the
high society of Vienna. His father was a Jewish banker of Moravian
descent, his mother a Hungarian Jew. They sent their son to a
kindergarten, where the young boy was educated in French. In 1918, the
family returned together with thousands of other people of Czech origin
from Vienna, the starving capital of the fragmented Austrian empire, to
the newly founded Czechoslovakia. Albrecht Janda was then five years
old, speaking both German and French perfectly, but not a single word
of Czech. He still remembers how hard he had to learn the language to
succeed in secondary school, where a part of the lectures was
mandatorily taught in Czech.
"There is a second volunteer coming to visit you."
"Will he find the way to my place?"
"I will bring him, since he is new in town and doesn’t speak Czech."
" Do you mean to say that you think you speak Czech? No, what you speak
is not Czech. Czech is a very difficult language. You would have to
study very, very hard. But everyone knows how lazy you are. I know how
hard it is to learn Czech, because I did. But people say, that even I
still speak it with an accent."
Mr Janda’s young guest came into the city to help. To help the
small group of Jews that happened to survive the period when the city
was ethnically cleansed by the generation to which the young man’s own
grandfather belonged. But also, to help those who came to the city as
strangers: Roma who came from the eastern Slovakia after the war,
during which the original Moravian Roma culture had been destroyed, and
in more recent days, refugees who had ended up in the Czech Republic on
their journey to the golden West. To help correct a little bit of what
has gone wrong this century. "And what do you do in the rest of your
"I visit other old people and I work for a Gypsy organization."
"For the Gypsies? This is very surprising to me. Our Jewish community,
what strange ideas they have! Now they are trying to convert Gypsies! A
complete waste of money."
" But I am not doing Jewish missionary work. How could I, without being Jewish?"
"You’re not Jewish? What are you then?"
"At least according to my documents I am Catholic."
"A Papist! Our Jewish community, what strange ideas they have! They sent me a Catholic!"
Since 83-year old Mr Janda is confused and physically weak, he is
dependent on help to meet most of his daily needs. Every morning, an
employee from the City Social Services comes to help with his personal
hygiene. Food is brought in old-fashioned aluminium dishes, to be
warmed up by his wife. The most necessary services are secured, but
still there is a lot for his young friend to do: shaving, from time to
time taking him to a hairdresser, but first of all, providing him with
a weekly bath. This procedure is complicated, since it requires both
men’s full will and energy to overcome the steel edges of the bathtub.
"My friend. Do you know how to add?"
"You know, there are still some cases I didn’t manage to finish yet. I
think it concerns the years 1965, 71, 72 and maybe 1974. The files must
be somewhere right next to the bed."
"I can have a look at them. But it is very long time ago. Do you really think that these cases still matter?"
" Of course they matter. What do you think? I have to assume every day, that the tax inspectors could knock on my door."
Following a long family tradition, Albrecht Janda decided to study to
be a lawyer. He attended the law school at Charles University in Prague
and opened his own office in Brno. The enforcement of anti-Semitic laws
after Hitler’s suppression of the Czechoslovak state destroyed the
young man’s hopes. In 1942, together with his family, he had been
deported to Auschwitz. He survived four years of terror, but lost most
of his family. Today, he speaks only seldom about those years. His
words are unclear and he often mixes up fragments of different stories.
"Did you think about not returning to Brno, but going to Israel instead?"
" No never. Why should I? My people were waiting for me here."
" How was your return?"
"I came back to my house in the centre. The back part of the house had
been destroyed by a bomb, but my flat still existed. During the war, a
German officer had used my flat. When I arrived, it was empty. But one
day, some rogue turned up who pretended that he had been living in my
flat before the war. I had an axe next to the door. I threatened him.
There’s no doubt, I would have killed him if he hadn’t have
disappeared. You have to realise that we, the people who came back from
the camps, were still very brutalized by the horrible things we have
The fact that the young volunteer belongs to the nation which
murdered Mr Janda’s family seems not to matter in the young man’s
relationship to Mr Janda and the other holocaust survivors he visits.
Before the war, most of the Jews in Brno belonged to the German
speaking half of the city. Of the few who survived, most maintained
contacts to the German-speaking world. So did Mr. Janda. In his
bookshelf we find the works of Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and Heinrich
Heine. For many years he had been working in Vienna, where he advised
Western companies doing business with communist Czechoslovakia.
"The water is getting cold. Time to finish bathing!"
" I get sick when I see the edge of the tub. My legs are so weak. I really doubt, that I can manage."
" You will. I’ll help you. After all, we managed it together many times. Why shouldn’t we manage it today?"
" You know, my friend. The other times were Jewish. Today we are going to see, how it works in the Catholic way."
"Gulas s knedliky, a Pivo prosím." Lunch in "U Sudu", a worker’s pub in
one of the city’s oldest industrial areas. An old man sits next to our
young German man.
"From Germany? I grew up in a village not far away from here. Before
the war, half of the people living there were Germans. But later we had
to throw them out. It had to be. By supporting Hitler they betrayed our
"But not all of them voted for Hitler…"
"Maybe not all of them, but most have never been really loyal to
Czechoslovakia. I remember my medical examination for the Army.
Sometime in the twenties, the early years of the first republic. All
the young boys, Czechs and Germans, drove together with the richest
farmer’s son in the farmer’s cart to the barracks in Brno. It was an
amusing ride. During the whole ride, our German companions were singing
German Army songs. And we, the Czechs sang with them. Why not? We were
young, no one really cared about politics. "Ich hatten einen Kameraden,
einen besseren findst Du nicht…" You know the song?"
"Not really. Germany has changed very much since then."
"Our village life changed as well. In 1945, we had to throw out our own
best friends. It ruined our village and my own life. We had been such
good friends before. But there’s no doubt that it had to be done."
The flat of Jan Holub Eng. and his wife Marie, a retired
couple living in a green suburb of Brno. Jan Holub has the title of an
mechanical engineer. Actually, not only this, but the couple’s
appearance in general seems to be very Czech and rather untypical for a
Roma family. In fact, it is not really a Roma family, since Mrs
Holubová is Moravian and only her husband is of Roma descent. But for
him, he says, being a Roma never played an important role. This is not
really true: it was only because of his Roma origin that he was
deported to the Gypsy camp Hodonín in 1941 and later to Auschwitz –
Mr Holub doesn’t want to talk about his time in the camps: "This is
very long time ago. A very bitter time. It is better to forget about
it." But his wife starts to explain theatrically what happened in
Auschwitz to the young German: "The German should know how it really
was. Mengele, the camp doctor, stood on the ramp. With a gesture of his
hand, he decided about life and death. Left? To the gas. Right? Work!
You still had a chance. Did they teach you this in your schools?" The
voice of Mrs Holubová got very infuriated, but also her husband becomes
angry: "Maria, shut up. How could you know? You weren’t there."
The few who came back from the extermination camps found themselves
alone. By destroying their family structures, the holocaust had robbed
them of probably the most important part of their existence. For many,
this meant a life in bitterness and depression. Others, like Mr Holub,
managed to assimilate completely. When the young German asks him about
his opinion about current Roma politics, Mr Holub’s analysis sounds
balanced but neutral. He is informed, but it doesn’t seem to be
something that concerns him personally.
Currently, there are more than 10.000 Roma living in
Brno. They or their parents came from Slovakia, where the war-time
persecution had been less strict and systematic. Most of them live
concentrated in some quite notorious proletarian areas around the city
"I am a German volunteer. Maybe I could help here with something? You
know, it would be for free."
" Let’s see. Every afternoon, children from the neighbourhood come to our centre. Do you have experience with children?"
"No. But I might try."
"OK. Try. Let’s start right now. But be warned: our children can be wild."
At 2 o’clock, huge amounts of Roma children enter the social centre’s
building. The centre’s chief introduces the volunteer to the children:
"This is your new teacher." Then he disappears behind the scenes. The
children are nice and behave respectfully to the new German teacher.
They shake hands politely and introduce themselves to him: "I’m Honza."
"I’m Karel." "I’m Roman". They have surely already recognized that the
new teacher with the nice smile is a rather nervous one. He asks, with
a faltering tongue, if the ladies and gentlemen Roma children would
like to paint some nice pictures. It seems to work! The children raid
the store cupboards and after two minutes, everyone is painting wildly
on a sheet of paper.
But it does not continue that well. Our teacher ends up in negotiations
with smaller clusters of children who try to extort some money from
him. "My brother has a gun." "We know where you live". "Bring the
money, or you won’t survive tomorrow!" The teacher smiles and smiles
without really being sure if these seven-year old gangsters are making
fun of him or not. In the end, it is the chief of the Social Centre who
had to throw out the whole wild crowd.
"Young volunteer. If you want to continue, you’ll have to change your strategy."
Back in the flat of paní Barbora and pan Jind_ich. In our friend’s
room, ORB can be heard through the room’s left wall and a Czech
operetta through the right. Before the war, Brno hosted three ethnic
communities. In the city centre, Germans had their own shopping street,
Czechs had another one. There was a German theatre, and a Czech one.
German, Czech and Jewish sports associations, and so on. The Germans
and most of the Jews spoke German. Together, they made up about half of
the city’s population. The family of Miss Barbora belonged to the other
half. But she grew up in a mixed neighbourhood, and the relationships
within her family also didn’t strictly follow ethnic lines.
"In my family we had always considered ourselves to be Czech, everyone
spoke both Czech and German. The only exception was our aunt Friedl,
who spoke Czech very badly. She had married into our family from an
almost pure German one. In 1945, during the first days after the
liberation, the rioting mob pushed her into the deportation track. She
survived the camp near the Austrian border, in which many other
expelled Germans died. Somehow she managed to get to Vienna, were she
lived alone for many years. She wrote one application after another to
be allowed to return. Finally, the communists agreed. But the Vienna
adventure had been too much for the old lady. She died soon after
coming back. At least Friedl is now buried among her people."
And how did the story with the swimming pool end? Do you
really need to know? It is still Thursday, our young volunteer wants to
go there at the weekend. Go there on your own, if you want to know now.
You might be surprised.