Meeting Brno celebrates “unity in diversity”

Photo: Pavla Horáková

For the second year now the city of Brno has hosted a week-long festival commemorating its rich multicultural past. The Moravian capital, once home to large German and Jewish communities was deprived of its minorities during and in the aftermath of the Second World War. Under the umbrella title “Meeting Brno” the festival’s multiple events try to shed light onto some of the glorious as well as painful moments in the city’s history and discuss the issues of guilt, revenge, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Die Schatzis,  photo: Pavla Horáková
Die Schatzis – a German yodelling duo – are singing to passengers on a tram in the centre of Brno. Doreen Kutzke and Therese Marcinkiewicz were among the hundred plus performers who took part in this year’s Meeting Brno, lasting over the course of ten days, from May 19th to 28th in various venues around the Moravian capital.

The festival’s founding mother and programme director is the bestselling Czech author Kateřina Tučková.

“Meeting Brno is a multicultural festival. We are now in the second year and we introduce high culture and also low culture, we organise discussion forums and also some special events where people from different countries meet with the citizens of Brno or the South Moravian region. The main programme of this year is the meeting of the descendants of Brno Jewish families who were involved in the textile industry. From the beginning of the 19th century, the families Tugendhat, Löw-Beer or Stiassni lived here, however in the middle of the last century a lot of them didn’t survive the Holocaust or had to emigrate and their property was confiscated. We invited them to this festival to meet with the Brno authorities and also with the Brno audience to a discussion forum to discuss this sensitive topic. And I have to say that it was really very successful. Members of the families, now in the second or third generation, were very happy that so many Brno people invited them, welcomed them and were so interested in their sad stories.”

The first major event of the festival was a march in the footsteps of the local Germans who were driven out of the city to Austrian borders on the last days of May 1945. The participants now symbolically walked in the opposite direction from the village of Pohořelice back to Brno to a gathering spot from where the march took off 72 years ago.

Kubíci,  photo: Pavla Horáková
Another emotional occasion was the reunion of the descendants of the Jewish industrialist families that gave the city some of its most remarkable architectural gems, such as the Tugendhat and Stiassni villas, and helped to turn it into one of the major centres of the textile industry in Europe. Invited by the Brno authorities, the descendants took part in a public debate at the city hall and also went on a tour of the nearby towns where their families had originally hailed from and where their ancestors had started their first small businesses from scratch.

“The festival brought together people who are invited just to spend time in Brno, like the descendants of the Brno Jewish families, and the number of this group is 110 people from all over the world. They came to Brno, the city of their roots, from four continents. Some of them are from Australia, Canada, USA, also from Venezuela and Brazil, so they really travelled a long way to come to Brno. And around seventy artists and guests who are involved in the discussion forums are joining us to perform during the week. Last year 11,000 people joined the weeklong festival and this year it seems that it will be more people than last year. We are looking forward to the end of the festival to counting. I hope it will be doubled.”

A giant scaffolding was raised in the middle of a park on one of the city’s central squares bearing the headline Unity in Diversity in four languages. Its outline was the exact shape of the ground plan of the former Deutches Haus – the German Building, a majestic community and cultural centre of Brno’s German population which stood there between 1891 and 1945. Having been turned into one of the Nazi headquarters in the city, it was damaged during the allied bombing and fighting in May 1945 and finally demolished in August of that year.

Photo: Pavla Horáková
The construction served as a makeshift stage for a number of concerts and performances but also as the festival’s meeting point. On Wednesday and Thursday it was the starting point of a special event called Šalina Music Tour, “šalina” being the local slang term for tram. Initiated by the internationally recognized Brno-based artist Kateřina Šedá, the tour brought together around 50 musicians and performers who got on Brno trams and played and sang for the passengers for two days. Kateřina Šedá launched the tour on Wednesday morning in front of the former Deutches Haus.

“I believe the most important people are sitting here in the audience now. They are the musicians who will for two days try and improve the atmosphere on trams. I hope the annoyed faces that we know from public transport will brighten up and enthusiasm will prevail. I had organised this event in Helsinki and it was my longstanding wish to bring it over to Brno and I am grateful to Kateřina that it was possible to make it happen with the help of the transport authority. It’s great and I think it will serve as inspiration to other cities. Various types of bands will appear on the trams, Roma bands, musicians from Ukraine and Germany. Passengers are strongly encouraged to take photos and make videos of the bands, to interact with them.“

The yodelling duo, Die Schatzis from Germany, said a few words before hopping on a tram and taking passengers by surprise during their daily commute.

Photo: Pavla Horáková
“It’s so nice and fine for us to come to see Brno for the first time. So we are glad, we are looking forward to playing on the tram.”

“I also wanted to say I’m very happy to be here. I spent a lot of time in my childhood in the Czech Republic. We lived in Prague for half a year. I haven’t been here for the last twenty years. But it’s a pleasure to share what we love doing with you and to meet other musicians from the other neighbouring countries. I’m very excited, I love it, thank you.”

Of course, Die Schatzis sang in German as one of the tour’s goals was to try and revive the former linguistic diversity of Brno. Tram passengers from Brno were also treated to some folk music from closer to home. The band Kubíci playing south Moravian folk music entertained the unsuspecting commuters for a full hour and a half, three times a day, changing tram lines back and forth, its musicians having to hold their balance in the moving vehicles.

Apart from the city and municipal authorities, the festival is supported and backed by a multitude of organisations, both Czech and international. Its director and founding mother Kateřina Tučková.

“We are supported by the city of Brno and the South Moravian Region. We are also supported by the Ministry of Culture, the Czech-German Future Fund and the Goethe Institut. These two joined us because this festival is part of the Czech-German Cultural Spring which celebrates 20 years of the signing of the Czech-German Declaration. And then we have a lot of small supporters, such as the Brno House of Arts or the Brno Philharmonic or the Museum of Roma Culture, Amnesty International and a lot of other co-operators and supporters. We are very thankful because without them such a big festival couldn’t happen.”

Reconciliation efforts in this country usually don’t go without controversies and protesters did show up this time, too, voicing their disagreement with the idea or form of Czech-German reconciliation. Festival organiser Kateřina Tučková again.

Photo: Pavla Horáková
“Part of the Meeting Brno festival is also the March of Reconciliation where we recall the so-called Brno death march which happened in May 1945. In this Brno death march, 20,000 Brno women, children and old people were expelled from Brno because they were of German language and German culture. Usually at the end of this March of Reconciliation there is a small demonstration. This year there were about thirty people who shouted and protested against our march which consisted of 400 hundred people. So nothing terrible happened, but yes, some demonstration usually happens.”

This year’s Meeting Brno was an eventful week in a blooming city with a colourful and proud history, a city which is now confident enough to acknowledge and celebrate its nearly forgotten great sons and daughters of German and Jewish heritage, as well as come to terms with the shadows in its past.