A poignant meeting between past and present


I made a special trip to a local church near Mariánské Lázně recently. The occasion was an annual mass to commemorate the church’s patron saint. Such things are not my usual scene. The service was in both Czech and German. And the event has become a sort of annual meeting point for the Sudeten Germans forced to leave their homes in the surrounding villages after WWII and the Czechs that followed them into the mostly empty frontier region.

The number plates outside the church said it all: Nuremburg, Frankfurt, Ingolstadt and from all over western Germany. There were less cars this year, we were told by two women and one man from Wurzburg who regularly make the annual trip. One of the women went to the local school when she was around six.

We had previously met others who have came back to their past. One woman was evacuated to a nearby saw mill as a school girl from the bombing of Berlin. Another evacuee, now living in the Ruhrland just left a short note.

I was not sure quite what to expect from the service and wondered how much it might be tinged by the troubled past. But on this, as on other occasions when I have met returning Sudeten Germans, there were no recriminations. The past was left in peace, like their generations of ancestors whose tombs still dominate the graveyard of the hilltop church. In this they are perhaps lucky. Other graveyards in the area have been cleared of their German tombs.

The only Sudeten German I have met with some recriminations was, ironically, left behind because his work skills were judged to have some national importance. Perhaps it was more difficult to stay than go.

We had hoped to meet up at the service with the head of the family that owned a nearby water mill until the end of WWII for around 300 years. He is still active and in his mid-eighties, we are told, but this year did not appear.

I am not quite sure what we would have said to him or how he would have perceived the mill’s latest owners, myself and my Belgian girlfriend. The mill, which doubled as a farm, is now, it must be admitted, a shadow of what he might remember. It was once the focal point for trips from Mariánské Lázně around a century ago when the spa town was the fashionable focus for the world’s rich and famous.

Some of those rich and famous would take coaches out to the mill where they could enjoy the mill’s own café, band and adjoining botanical garden. The spa-loving King of England, Edward VII, and famous Polish opera singer Ada Sari, were apparently among the visitors.

The cafe and band stand seem to have disappeared in the late 1940’s or 1950’s. The pension, built over a sty in 1926 is now being renovated as is the mill. Wet rot has got to the inner mill wheel and its surroundings, the outer wheel has long gone. The land and pond that used to belong to the mill have been split up and parcelled out. Even the stream that used to run by the mill has been diverted to better make way for some chaty.

There were once half a dozen such mills in the valley, but this is now the only one that remains, more or less, in its original form. We have resolved to attend the service again next year. But hopefully before then, with some trepidation, we will have hooked up with the last of the former mill owning dynasty.