Native sons and daughters of Zatec (Saaz) return to mark a millennium of recorded history


Better known abroad by its German name, Saaz, the region of Zatec north of Prague is world famous as the home of wonderfully aromatic hops, which are used to add flavor to Czech beer but also to European, American and even Japanese brews. This month Zatec celebrated one thousand years of recorded history -- much of it turbulent.

A high school play re-enacting one thousand years of the history of Zatec gets underway in the local theatre of this sleepy Bohemian town. Hundreds of "rodaci" -- natives of the town -- have returned for the millennium celebrations this September.

The first known recorded mention of the town of Zatec, which lies about an hour north of Prague, was in the Theitmar of Merseburg Chronicle of 1004. King Premysl Otakar II, by royal charter, recognized Zatec as a feudal town in 1256 and over the next couple of hundred years, it because an important centre not only of trade, but of learning.

Medieval Zatec
Around the year 1400, Jan of Zatec, the author of the "Ploughman of Bohemia," was rector of the town's School of Latin. The town remained loyal to the Hussite, or Protestant, movement and in 1421 repelled the armies of the second Crusade. By the 16th century, Zatec was among the most populous towns in Bohemia.

But King Ferdinand, who took over as Holy Roman Emperor in 1619, made a point of Catholicizing his empire and with the onset of the Thirty Years War, many inhabitants of Zatec were forced to flee. With help from Maximillian of Bavaria, the Czech Protestants were defeated at the Battle of While Mountain, west of Prague.

In June 1621, twenty seven rebel leaders, including Maximillian Hostalek, then mayor of Zatec, where executed in the Old Town Square in Prague. Among those who with Zatec roots who returned to mark the millennium celebration was a descendent of the unfortunate mayor, who himself fled the town some 350 years later, because of Communist oppression, first to the United States and later to South Africa.

"My name is Jerry Hostalek; my Czech name is Jaroslav Hostalek. [Speaks in Czech]."

Jaroslav Hostalek
You mean the mayor of Zatec, who was executed during the Thirty Years War?

"That's correct. He was executed at the Old Town Square, next to, is it the 'Atomic Clock'? There is a plaque there where you can see his name.

The Astronomical Clock in Prague.

"The Astronomical Clock. Yes."

So you are related to him?

"I am related to him, yes. Which we didn't know because, obviously, the records in Europe are very difficult to get - Thirty Year's War, religious records, all were held at the churches in Europe and therefore they disappeared, mostly, because churches were destroyed."

"And eventually — I'm being told only by one of my cousins in Prague that he had to travel to the Hapsburg museum in Vienna and confirm that it is in fact true."

The Czech humourist, playwright and actor Zdenek Sverak is perhaps best known abroad for his starring role as the amorous cellist in the film "Kolja," who during 1980s Communist Czechoslovakia agrees to a marriage of convenience with Russian woman, and unwittingly become the guardian of her five-year-old son.

But before breaking in to theatre and film Zdenek Sverak taught high school here in Zatec for many years and was among the guests of honour at the millennium celebrations.

In his trademark understated manner and with self-deprecating humour, Mr Sverak dodges a question from the moderator, saying his wife had told him inquiries into his life in Zatec would be "funny but fair."

I caught up with him at a reception after the show.

"Both my children were born here. I am not a native of Zatec but I gave Zatec two natives, a son and a daughter."

And was there something about the character of the town itself that contributed to Mr Sverak's sense of humour and love of the absurd?

"[Laughs] Well, I don't think it had much to do with Zatec; If I am funny, then well, I suppose one is born that way. But I taught here a number of years and I think if Zatec remembers me fondly it is because I used humour in my lessons."

One part of the town's history not portrayed in the production was that of the Second World War. Before the war, Zatec was known as Saaz, and about 95 percent or the townspeople were ethnic Germans, whose families had lived there for centuries.

After the war, the vast majority of the three million so-called Sudeten Germans, living in the border regions of the former Czechoslovakia, were treated as Nazi collaborators and expelled from the country. Many thousands of Sudeten Germans died violent deaths during the expulsion and many more died from hunger and untreated illnesses contracted during or after the massive exodus.

Ute Reiff came for the Zatec millennium celebration with about 70 other members of a Sudeten German cultural group based in Nuremburg. She was born in Zatec, or Saaz, where her father was director of the high school up until the end of the war.

"In 1945, my father and all the men had to come to this main square. There were about 1,000 or more men and they were drive to go on foot to Postelburg and about 800 men were killed there, were shot there, and were buried in mass graves."

 Transfer of the German-speaking minority from Czechoslovakia
"I was six and my brother was nine and with my mother we had to go to a camp. And there we had to stay until February 1946, for eight months. And many, many children starved because we had not enough to eat."

Ms Reiff is now studying Czech. She has often visited Zatec and helps promote German-Czech cultural exchanges.

Another member of the Nuremberg group, Gudrun Lindhart, says she is also looking to build bridges with Czech people in hopes of healing old wounds. Ms Lindhart was three-years old when her family was forced to leave the country and still finds it difficult to speak about the expulsion.

"My parents were farmers here, until '45. We had to go. We had to go. I can't remember all. My grandmother - my mother's mother - died, and we don't know where. We can't find out. It was a very, very hard time because this land - it was our land, together. All people, not only the German, not only the Czech."

The final act of the Zatec high school students' presentation offered some hope for such a vision. It was a wish for a bright future for the town's next millennium, presented in Czech, German and English.

This was an amateur high school play and the microphone gave out during that final speech.

The Zatec students' wish:

"In the common European house, we should cooperate and communicate together ... because this town deserves something better for the coming one thousand years."