Vojna Memorial a chilling reminder of 1950s communist horrors

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An icy gale and drizzling rain pound upon new grass and gravel near the Vojna Memorial: located in the Pribram region of Central Bohemia Vojna was a prison camp that first housed Nazi criminals, then opponents of Czechoslovakia's Communist regime. Ironically, prisoners jailed there included some of Czechoslovakia's finest, who had fought for their country during the war, only to ultimately be branded as traitors and western spies. Today, Vojna serves as a most chilling reminder of one of the darkest chapters of Czechoslovak history.

Former prisoners at the Vojna Memorial, photo: CTK
Musicians play Shostakovich at the opening of the Vojna Memorial: 17 buildings where prisoners were kept, spreading out below a hilly countryside. Visible are barbed wire fences, look-out towers, and an infamous concrete cell (the bunker) where prisoners were handed down special punishment: kept in chilly conditions for days, sometimes as many as twenty at a time. Prisoners, unable to stand upright or lay down, had no choice but to crouch - awake or in sleep. There was no relief.

One of those who remembers life in Vojna is Jiri Zenahlik, a lieutenant during the war who was imprisoned by the communists in 1952. He survived to old age in part, he says, in the hopes of teaching young people about the past. It happens that sometimes they don't want to "believe" the story he has to tell:

"I was sent to Germany during the war as a forced labourer, but I managed to escape to France. I then returned home with the Americans' 14th armoured division. For all my service to my country I was labelled a traitor and a spy and received a death sentence in 1952. I was 26 years old. I spent 23 days on death row, but ultimately my sentence was reduced. I was then sent to various prisons and camps, including this one."

Former prisoners at the site of the former labour camp, photo: CTK
Vojna was not just a prison, it was a labour camp: hard labour in hazardous health conditions at a uranium mine. Under such dreadful conditions it's hardly surprising many died.

"The conditions were dreadful working in the mine. Many of us didn't make it through. To this day I still get regular check-ups for cancer - I want to be around as long as I can, I want to teach young people about that time, to show them that democracy and freedom have a price. I spent eleven years, six months in prison. The whole time my wife waited for me. She never gave up."

Jiri Zenahlik points out that thousands of innocent people received brutal sentences from high courts or people's courts and he is adamant that this dark period in the country's history must not be forgotten, at the risk of repeating it. That is one lesson the memorial and camp certainly hopes to teach, a point repeated by many at the opening Wednesday, including Culture Minister Pavel Dostal, who said he hoped the memorial and site - which is fully accessible - would be visited by the young. Another visitor, Milan Paumer, known for a particularly dramatic escape from Czechoslovakia in the early 1950s in which he and others shot their way to freedom, agrees the lesson must not be lost.

"Now I have the chance to really see what was happening and what was going on during those "socialistic years" and I'm glad they opened this place. I just hope that people will come and see it with their own eyes, and I'm talking about young people, who didn't go through these horrible years. Also schools, so that pupils will see what was happening over here."

Visiting Vojna is a far from cheerful experience but it is a necessary one. Otherwise, as survivors say, the past could easily be glossed over, not least by communist sympathisers today. Had the camp lain forgotten, or been bulldozed to the ground, some might be more inclined to downplay or even forget the suffering of the past.