Civic groups seek to save historic prison, internment camp, and Jáchymov uranium complex for future

Former prison in Uherské Hradiště, photo: Michal Stránský / Memoria

In this week’s Czech History we will be looking at three civic initiatives to try and save aspects of the country’s past where the state and other institutions have failed to deliver. The projects all relate to aspects of Czechoslovakia’s totalitarian past, in particularly as regards the Jáchymov complex of uranium mine camps, though the history of the Uherské Hradiště prison, and the Svatobořice internment camp go back a lot further in the past. Leading members of projects aimed at regenerating all three sites got together recently at a seminar hosted by Prague’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes to talk about what they are doing.

Petr Slinták,  photo: archive of Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes
First off was Petr Slinták of the Memoria initiative which for several years now has been pushing for the core of the Uherské Hradiště prison to be conserved at least in part as a memorial to the Communist era prisoners in particular who were imprisoned there. The prison had an infamous reputation for beatings and torture of prisoners with the spotlight put on conditions there by one famous trial of former guards after 1989. The imposing building, owned by the regional court administration, is now mostly empty or used for storage. But the Memoria initiative have succeeded in focusing attention on it nationwide in recent by getting permission for memorial services, films, theatre presentations, and exhibitions held at the site. One of the leading members, Petr Slinták, takes up the story.

“The prison is interesting in as much that it charts the 20th century. It was established during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy under the Habsburgs. It functioned under the First Republic. It was here that protesters from the so-called Hodonín strike, who were demanding better social conditions, were incarcerated. Then there was the Protectorate and anti-Nazi struggle. After the war, there were the so-called retribution courts where collaborators and traitors were judged. It was during that time that the most people were executed, between 1946 and 1948. And then the prison became well known for its use by the national security service (SNB) for those opposing the Communist regime or who were out of favour with the then regime.”

Former prison in Uherské Hradiště,  photo: Michal Stránský / Memoria
As the face of the Communist regime changed from the Stalinist inspired conformism of the 1950’s, to the hesitant reforms of the early 1960s and more daring reforms of the later 1960s, the demand for prison capacity at regional centres such as Uherské Hradiště started to wane. Petr Slinták again:

“The prison functioned until 1960 and it was then closed. Since then it has been gradually falling to bits. The atmosphere though is still more or less conserved as it was in the 1950s and 1960s.”

So, the imposing building is now largely without a function though access is still difficult because it belongs to the local regional court authority. Memoria believes that its actions have already paid off with a shift in local opinion away from the view that the prison building should be demolished and done with. Now the best hope seems to be for a dual use of the site as court facilities and a museum to the totalitarian past with European funds hopefully available for part of the transformation.

The prison is interesting in as much that it charts the 20th century.

“There has been a lot of verbal support from a whole lot of different politicians, ministers, senators. The problem is that no-one has taken up the theme as one that could be fulfilled long-term over several electoral periods and the governments that come and go. As a civic initiative there is a limited amount that we can do. Talks are still going on. This building is right in the centre of the town and it has a conservation order on it. The current situation is of course unsatisfactory for the town itself. We would like there to be an architectural competition from which a quality proposal could be chosen. We can take inspiration from nearby countries such as Germany, Romania, and the Baltic States where similar buildings have been turned into museums. There is inspiration for this to be done.”


Former Svatobořice camp,  photo: Petr Slinták
The second site seeking to make a comeback has, on the face of it even more of a challenge. Svatobořice is a town of little distinction today southeast of Brno. An internment camp was created also by the Austro-Hungarian authorities there for the refugees fleeing from the fighting at the start of the First World War. Over time the collection of buildings at the camp found a new use under the newly created Czechoslovkia. At one time between the wars it was a collection place for Czechs and Slovaks waiting to be cleared for emigration to the United States. It was briefly used by the Czechoslovak government to house the Heinlein and Sudeten hardliners and later under the Nazi Protectorate to keep family members of those who had gone to fight with the Allies or for the families of prominent members of the resistance. It’s estimated around 3,000 people passed through the camp between September 1942 and the end of the war. One of the sisters of Slovak communist and later Czechoslovak president, Gustáv Husák, was interned there. Other celebrities included the sculptor Otakar Španiel and musician Václav Kaprál.

Little remains today to signpost what happened there or the nearby camp cemetery. The camp was used again to house Greek communists who were fleeing the civil war in their homeland after the end of World War II. Most of the efforts to gather the facts and conserve what remains at the site has been led by locally born Jan Kux. Thanks largely to his efforts a museum there should be opened in September 2016.

Jáchymov camps

Reconstructed trail in Jáchymov,  photo: Czech Television
The last of the three sites is the infamous Jáchymov collection of uranium camps. The camps initially used German prisoners of war and those imprisoned for collaboration during WWII. But the demands of the Soviet Union to get hold of uranium in large quantities to develop its own Atom bombs meant that other sources of labour would soon be needed. Under Communist Czechoslovakia, the main source was opponents of the regime, with gulag styles camps developed and human beings regarded as largely disposable parts of the production process.

The camps became infamous but at the sites today it’s hard to piece together the scale of what happened there. One reason is that many of the wooden barracks quickly built by prisoners quickly fell apart when the complex was closed in the 1960s. Other buildings have crumbled away or the sites sold off into private hands. A complex of chalets now occupies the site of one camp. And there has been little local, regional, or national effort to put the Jáchymov complex on the map. Jáchymov itself on the far northwester border with Germany represents what looks like one of the most run down towns in the country with scattered initiatives to improve the situation lost in the general decline.

There has for a long time been a silence, unfortunately even after 1989.

Tomáš Bouška is a chairman of the non profit initiative Političtí Vězní which seeks to collect and give life to the recollections of political prisoners and has been involved in the moves to recount the story of the Jáchymov camps. He sums up the situation the group has faced.

“I think this is exactly an example of a place that is unhealed. That means there is a rich past, there are lots of troubles and traumas from the past and we simply have to deal with it and we have to try to heal the place. There has for a long time been a silence, unfortunately even after 1989. There is only one public event that was introduced by the Confederation of Political Prisoners and apart from that, which is actually a small gathering, I would say a small family gathering of political prisoners, there is nothing else happening around Jáchymov. The place itself, that is 12 former Gulag camps, was more or less untouched since the 1960s. That means there are lots of trees, lots of meadows, in the middle of the mountains. Of course, nature is very powerful. We tried to change this by trying to bring people into these places, and by getting the attention of the media, and the wider public.”

The efforts have met with challenges at a local level and the cash and time limitations of a group of volunteers to make an impact. But they already have some success to show. Tomáš Bouška again:

Tomáš Bouška,  photo: archive of Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes
“We have reconstructed the original trail. We have installed new information tables. The knowledge trail has 12 stops and they are slightly improved, we would say. There is richer content, there is more context, and there are also several quotes from the eyewitnesses, the former political prisoners. There is also a QR code which connects the very place with a website which is also available for foreign visitors. That means there is text in English, Czech, and German that is available on the website.”

One solitary confinement cell has also been repaired and 3D images made of some of the camps to better illustrate their format and scope. Bouška says the group hopes to restore other buildings and extend the trail but the basic challenge is to greater public awareness at what happened at the camps to the more than 70,000 people who were forced to suffer in the Jáchymov hell.