The Four Corners of the Czech Republic, Pt. III: Zaolzie

Hrčava, photo: RomanM82, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

The location of the Czech-Polish-Slovak tri-border can be described in a number of ways. Geographically, it’s in the Beskydy mountain range. Politically, it’s Silesia, the oft-forgotten “third” region of the Czech Republic, a strip of mixed Czech, Polish, German and Jewish heritage straddling the north-east border. 20th century conflict though renamed southern Silesia “Zaolzie”, a Polish-perspective place name that means “beyond the Olza River”. 21st century reality though has left the names Poland, Slovakia or the Czech Republic with little real meaning. This is after all the Slavic corner of the Czech Republic, where all three cultures, it seems, create a fourth.

What you're hearing is tri-border resident Jindřich Vojkovský speaking what the locals call “the Hrčava language,” and describing the arrival of a Soviet ethnologist to the tri-border village of Hrčava in 1955. The younger residents of this village speak fairly standard Czech with a heavy Slovak accent, the older ones speak this dialect of Silesian. In context, it’s not just a dialect but a linguistic wonder: the language was crafted for use among the three kindred cultures that meet here. There are about 60,000 people who speak Silesian, only several thousand who use the southern dialect and, according to inhabitants of tiny Hrčava, only a few dozen who speak its special variety here. The bastion of the language is the local school, where nine pupils are tasked with keeping it alive.

Hrčava,  photo: RomanM82,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
“In the village of Hrčava we speak only Czech or the Hrčava dialect. At school, the children only speak Czech, but at home they speak ‘Hrčavština’ with their parents. But the young parents speak only Czech with their children.”

The school’s teacher, Ivana Robenková, was raised in this Silesian dialect. Now she teaches it to the children here, alongside Czech and English, using song. Their great-grandmothers, she says, used to sing on a small hill behind the old pub here, where their voices carried well. People who moved here from whichever direction (mostly to marry, it seems) would take up the Hrčava language rather than imposing their own. But that was a different age. The children today grow up with Czech, Polish and Slovak radio and television; they understand the standard speech of 60 million people. Can a miniscule, archaic dialect compete? Now speaking in Czech, Miss Robenkova told me that it must.

“I want to see the Hrčava language maintained, I don’t want it to disappear, but there are less and less people to keep it alive. Some move away, those who moved in from the surrounding states speak their own languages or try to speak Czech - they don’t have any bond to our language. As long as I stay here in this school though I want to make sure that the children know ‘their own’ language, I want the songs sung in it to ring in their ears, so that they can teach their children. We are only a small village, but we have our own culture and customs, and it would be a pity if they were not preserved.”

Hrčava - Trojmezí
The Hrčava language is in part a throwback to the days of Austria-Hungary, when the only borders here were cultural, and the village marked the point where Silesian Slavs met Slovak Slavs. There were Polish-leaning Silesians and Czech-leaning Silesians, but no boundary ran between them, and their inclinations meant little until the empire broke apart and hell broke loose for a while.

“After the break-up of Austria-Hungary in 1918, both Poland and Czechoslovakia laid claim to this region, Zaolzie, as we call it, and there was a horrible period when each nation invaded the region. In the middle of those disputes, Hrčava fell to Poland, in 1920. Its citizens though would have none of it, they had always sympathised more with Czechoslovakia. But the main reason for their wanting to be annexed was the fact that the closest railway stations were half an hour’s walk away in Czechoslovakia, while they were two and a half hours away in Poland.”

Mr Vojkovsky’s train station explanation is unique, because Hrčava’s oral history puts great emphasis on the historic insistence of this island of Czech patriotism on becoming a part of the motherland. An important moment in the oral history of Hrčava was the day that a group of Czech patriots went by foot o’er hill and dale to Ostrava to demand Czechoslovak annexation. But whatever the cause, the fact remains that for most of the 20th century, this tiny spot on the tri-border was the only Czecho-Silesian community with no Polish minority, and to some extent it remains that way today.

Hrčava,  photo: RomanM82,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
“The only school in the area here is Czech, and that is an exception to the rule, because in all of the villages and towns on the Czech side of Hrčava there are minority Polish communities. They have their own schools, the signs are written in Czech and Polish, but not here – Hrčava is different. In fact, the Polish even call it ‘Little Prague’, because Hrčava has held on to its Czech-ness.”

The history of socio-political relations in this ancient community of 250 people are impossibly complex. The beautiful wooden buildings here have been built and rebuilt for a thousand years, regardless of whether they belonged to the kingdoms of Czech, Polish or Moravian kings. If you watched the borders shifting here in fast-forward, you would see a place that rarely enjoyed any true long-term political identity. But it is exactly that that’s given rise to the unique mesh of Slavic culture that - at the moment – is called Zaolzie.

In that context, you have to wonder at the complicated structure recently built to span the tri-border point itself. The point where the three countries come together in the 21st century was in an inaccessible, seasonal river ravine. What crosses it now is a rather complex wooden bridge with paved paths and steps leading from each direction – a lot of effort put into recognising a tri-border that is open to everyone today, a fleeting point in space and time. Today, the border is imaginary, just but yesterday it altered the history of the Silesian community that could not foresee it.

“In 1990, they planted a friendship tree at the spot as a lasting sign of good neighbourly relations, because people always used to congregate there, even before the country was divided, and they still meet there each year. For the 1st of May they put up a maypole and they meet in traditional dress - the Czechs, Poles and Slovaks - they bring tubas, and they cut it down. Then they move to one of the pubs in Hrčava and continue the festivities there. We hold an outdoor mass together at the tri-border point every year. Lots of people from Slovakia married into Hrčava and vice versa, and the same goes for Javořinka over the Polish border. So we know each other, we visit each other. I would say, that all three of these nations get along well together and work well together.”

The Schengen Treaty that tore down the borders of European states was signed in a village like this one: a tri-border community at the Luxembourg-French-German border. I for one left the eastern Czech tri-border, the eastern-most point in the Czech Republic, with a lot of mad, cross-Slavic words ringing in my ears and a feeling of relief for the tremendous ramifications of that treaty in places like this, where national and cultural identities can return to their natural, mingling state.