“Operation Ř” – How the Communists targeted Czechoslovakia’s nunneries

Teodora Kubinová, photo: Anna Vrhelová / Czech Radio

Seventy years ago this week, having already shuttered Czechoslovakia’s monasteries in the spring of 1950 and interned thousands of monks in “concentration cloisters”, the Communist authorities turned their anti-religious fervour to the nation’s nunneries.

In two waves, from July to September 1950, over 4,000 nuns were forcibly removed from convents across Czechoslovakia and taken to detention centres under an operation dubbed “Operation Ř”, after the word for nuns, “řeholnice”.

In the next stage, roughly half of those nuns, the relatively young and able-bodied, were forced to work in newly nationalised factories or in the fields. Among them was Sister Teodora Kubinová, now 96 years old, who had joined a convent in České Budějovice shortly after finishing primary school.

At first, Sister Teodora, then 26, was forced to work in a textile factory in Trutnov, along with hundreds of nuns from various orders and congregations, from Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, she told Czech Radio.

Operation K,  photo: archive of Moderní dějiny project

“Then they took us to Varnsdorf, where we had to work in a hosiery factory. They sent the older sisters to Brumlov. There were such huge machines and in Vansdorf – it was really the worst. Some guys would undress between our machines. It happened to me once, and others shouted at him he should be ashamed to do that in front of a sister.”

The labour was hard, the hours long, the rations meagre, and harassment by foremen and regular workers constant. All the while, the Communist authorities pressured the nuns to formally leave their orders, and their every move was controlled. Still, they kept their faith, and prayed in secret, Sister Teodora recalls.

“But each had to pray alone. And we could not be seen with a Bible. That’s how it was for maybe twenty years.”

In April 1950, the regime had launched the more notorious “Operation K” (as in kláštery, monasteries). In the course of just a single day, 1,240 monks were arrested, in an action cynically explained as meant to ensure their own protection against the “wrath of the people”.

To provide an ideological justification for that operation, the Communists organised one of the largest Czechoslovak show trials of the period, involving superiors and important monks. In all, 10 prelates of monastic orders were arrested, tortured, and sentenced to prison for treason and espionage. The sentences, based on forced confessions, were delivered a week before “Operation K” was launched.

Internment camp,  photo: Czech Television

“Operation Ř” came months later, but the measures against the nuns – whose work seemed less threatening to the Communist regime than of priests and monks –  were just as thorough, over time. Convents not engaged in charity work were emptied, women’s orders, unlike the men’s, were not banned outright. They simply existed in a legal vacuum, making it impossible to take on new members.

In a later stage of “Operation Ř”, the authorities concentrated on reducing the number of hospitals and institutions in which many thousands of nuns were still working, aiming to gradually exclude them from society.

Still many nuns, Sister Teodora among them, found work in social care institutions. After the Prague Spring, she was allowed to move to Opočno, where she helped care for mentally handicapped and disabled children until 1992, when she returned to České Budějovice, to help restore her old order.