The story of the Czech “Bethlehem”
Czechia has a Bethlehem. No one knows when and why it got its biblical name, but it is a unique quarter of 200-years-old log cottages in the town of Hlinsko. Formerly a center of pottery making and later weaving, it is now an open-air museum, protected by the Czech National Heritage Institute.
Walking among the beautifully preserved and reconstructed cottages in the Bethlehem quarter of Hlinsko, the museum director Ilona Vojancová takes me on a history tour. Making ends meet has never been easy in the Czech-Moravian Highlands. Modesty and frugality were a necessity rather than a virtue and that was reflected in the local place names:
“Hlinsko” got its name from pottery making. In Czech “hlína” means “earth” and the expression was used for clay, too. So, “Hlinsko” is a name derived from an ancient traditional craft plied in this town. Even here in Bethlehem, the first houses that were built in the second half of the 18th century were home to potters and their workshops. But as people started preferring metal household utensils especially during the industrial revolution in the 19th century, pottery was no longer a viable economic activity.
That is when weaving took over. The stony fields and the relatively rough climate in the Highlands region of the Czech Republic were never suitable for crop farming but proved good for flax or linseed growing. So, you could say, that “hlína” (earth) and “kamení” (stones) are really symbols of this landscape. People had to work very hard to make even a meager living.
Ms. Vojancová is the best guide I could ask for. She was actually born here and spent a large part of her childhood right in this part of town:
“As we are walking on, you can see three small cottages still standing on our left-hand side. There used to be another three cottages on the right-hand side that were, unfortunately, demolished. There used to be many narrow alleyways and corners, where we, as kids, could play hide-and-seek, chase each other.”
Ilona Vojancová grew up in the 1960s and 70s when the communist party ruled the country. They were trying to change the whole society into a uniform mass of people living in standardized apartment units in concrete blocks of flats. There was no place for old traditional housing quarters such as Bethlehem. So, the local communist leaders came up with plans to have the whole area bulldozed. They tried to label the locals who refused to move out as backward, reactionary uneducated individuals who did not know what was good for them. Their efforts were in vain:
“There was definitely no stigma attached to Bethlehem. It was not a poverty-stricken or neglected part of town. Some of the most respected townspeople lived here in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, some of them were town councilors, even one mayor was from here. I already mentioned the weavers and some of them were quite prosperous craftsmen, even businessmen. In short, people who were on the top tiers of local society.”
Luckily for Bethlehem and its inhabitants, even communist countries applied some degree of landscape and heritage protection. The part of the Highlands region within which Hlinsko and its Bethlehem are located was recognized by law as a special location in 1970:
“When the “Žďárské vrchy Protected Landscape Area” was declared, Bethlehem was mentioned as a significant part of the local heritage. Legally, this short note in the founding documents did not mean any kind of real protection. However, the local communist bosses became a little hesitant and did not want to bulldoze a “significant” part of the town. “
The second thing that helped was the attention that some of the nationally recognized painters who came from Hlinsko gave the area: such as Mirka Zychová a Bohumír Komínek. They already lived in Prague and managed to form a similarly thinking group of artists and other people interested in preserving Bethlehem. They started something we would today call a PR campaign.
“Then there were several articles about Bethlehem published in some of the most prominent magazines in the 1980s. This helped to create public awareness. It was the only thing that prevented the insensitive local leaders from sending in the bulldozers.”
So, the Czech Bethlehem in Hlinsko became first a conservation area and later part of an open-air museum. Ilona Vojancová does not like the word “Skansen” which is still often used for such an institution. She would like to see this part of her town preserved, restored but swarming with locals, not just a showcase for tourists:
“I can imagine Bethlehem as a living part of town as I remember it from my childhood. We are still trying to achieve that. When we prepared the long-term concept plan for Bethlehem we tried to incorporate this idea. We are trying to attract individual small private investors. In other words, we do not want our museum, funded from taxpayers‘ money, to be the only investor. We can already see some results. Some of the construction plots that were empty were sold and their owners can build houses that conform to the traditional character of this place. So, for example, over there, you can see two replicas of the old houses that were built but not as private residences. They are planned as a kind of bed and breakfast establishments. But we certainly encourage people to build their private residences here, as well. And some owners who had been using the original houses as recreational second homes actually returned and live here permanently.”
Ilona Vojancová’s vision may take years to materialize, but one thing is certain: the Czech Bethlehem in Hlinsko withstood the plans to be bulldozed and erased from memory. And it is a great place to learn about the way of life of people in this part of the Czech Republic.