President Havel supports campaign to breathe life back into Broumov region

Statue outside Broumov Monastery

Earlier this week President Vaclav Havel spent a day in the Broumov region, a rugged, mountainous pocket of land which juts out from the country's north-east border into neighbouring Poland. A good two and half hours from Prague on winding minor roads, the region is well off the tourist trail for both Czech and foreign tourists and receives little in the way of investment or attention from the media. But a group of local inhabitants are determined to put Broumov - home to a collection of unique 18th century churches and a wild, poetic landscape - back on the map. Rob Cameron accompanied President Havel to Broumov, and brings back this report.

The mayor of Krinice Martin Sleis, Krinice-born Erich Ahnsorge, and President Vaclav Havel attend a brief ceremony at the 'Gate of Time' monument in the village of Krinice
The region of Broumov is both underdeveloped and under-populated - a casualty of Czechoslovakia's painful 20th century history. Before the Second World War, the region was home to a large German-speaking community, who toiled in the surrounding fields and worshipped in the local churches. After the war, however, they were expelled from Czechoslovakia, part of the two and a half million Sudeten Germans who were 'relocated' to Germany and Austria in retaliation for perceived collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. Erich Ahnsorge, aged 75, was born in the village of Krinice, and he was there to welcome President Havel when he arrived.

"I was born here, I went to school here, and I lived here until I had to join the army when the war started. I've lost contact with my school friends from the village who I knew before the war - I'm 75 years old - but I still like to come back and I know lots of young people in the village. I live in Bavaria now, but my heart is still here, in Krinice."

Statue outside Broumov Monastery

Petr Bergmann is from Centrum Broumov, one of the groups involved in organising President Havel's trip to the region. He says Broumov suffered heavily with the deportation of the German-speaking community.

"The region had double as much inhabitants when the original inhabitants - the German inhabitants - were living here. Now a lot of these buildings are destroyed, and even whole parts - even one village - have disappeared."

interior of Broumov Monastery

One of the most visible effects of depopulation is the state of the local village churches. Broumov was once an important centre of religious and cultural activity - the region was administered for seven centuries by Benedictine monks. They ordered the construction of some ten unique churches, designed and built by the famous Dientzenhofer father-and-son team of architects. But with the departure of the German community the churches were neglected and fell into disrepair, and that neglect was compounded by the Communist persecution of the Church. With the help of organisations such as the Broumov Region Renewal project those churches are now being renovated and given new leases of life as galleries and concert venues, but Petr Bergmann says the region's spiritual and cultural identity has also suffered heavily.

"I'm not that worried about religion in particular, but more about the spiritual and cultural damage which was done in this region. And the tradition which was here, a very strong spiritual and cultural tradition, is just missing. So to build a new cultural society here is very difficult because we are starting from zero."

steps leading up to the Chapel of the Virgin Mary of the Snows, Hvezda

Starting from zero, maybe, but Petr Bergmann is optimistic that with the help of non-profit organisations such as his and high-profile support from people such as Vaclav Havel, life can be breathed back into the Broumov region.

And for more about Broumov and the famous Dientzenhofer churches, tune into Spotlight in a few weeks' time or see the Broumov website.