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is entitled "Talk of the Town". (Originally published in Heritage Quest magazine; January/February 1998)
[This book uniquely blends discussions of Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, Bohemia, Moravia, World War II, Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany, Edward Benes (Benesch), Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini, Edward Daladier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline, and the European Union (EU). It does so through the agency of Jewish heritage, ethnic cleansing, deportation, racism, German-Bohemian Heritage Society, East European Genealogical Society, Sacramento German Genealogy Society, Gypsies, Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, Carl Jung, Synchronicity, Rod Serling, Washington Irving, Rip Van Winkle, San Diego, Human Rights, Josef Stalin, Waldwick, NJ, Moravian Star, Julia A. Traphagen, and German American heritage.]
Our first day in Sudetenland began with a driving anticipation and ended with a driven exploration.
- - -
I could indeed sense the town had disappeared, even though it was physically present, right there before my eyes and below me in the valley. I stood on a hillside overlooking Benke, Moravia after an enervating 10,000 mile flight from San Diego to Munich. My wife, Elke, and I had driven the remaining 600 miles from Munich to Benke via rental auto. My mind hummed with intense excitement. For the first time, I was in the homeland of my ancestors. I was in Sudetenland. I was experiencing the reality of the factual non-existence of this formerly predominantly Germanic region. The spirituality of both Sudetenland and Benke had disappeared even though this town and all the other former Sudeten German towns were still present. Their collective spirituality could never be retrieved. The heart and soul of this tiny village was now scattered all over the globe. The essence of the life force that had made Benke tick for centuries existed sorrowfully in the psyche and memory and graves of its departed Sudeten German inhabitants. Their town was gone. That flash of comprehension was probably the most significant moment in my life. I sensed a very personal, silent majesty about this place in spite of the fact it was no longer "here". I realized this is from where I stem. I was born and raised in the United States. Yet, a tiny portion of me has always been in Benke. I am not 100% red, white, and blue. The notion jolted the innermost reaches of my being.
Our rented German auto bore German registration. A number of Munich rental firms had refused to rent us a car after we told them where we were destined. I was informed there were too many instances of car thefts there. We finally found a firm and a car. I headed for the city of Schönberg (Czech name: umperk) where my father, Oskar, had been a policeman. Schönberg (pop. 60,000) is in northern Moravia about 20 miles south of the present-day, Polish province of Silesia. We arrived after an all day drive and checked into the Grand Hotel, an abode that belied its name. After getting our bearings, we immediately proceeded on to the tiny town of Benke (Benkov), located south of Schönberg. The town had been my father's hometown. The way to Benke was quite direct. Armed with a solitary, tiny, sepia snapshot, I drove very slowly through the town searching for the house in my picture, No. 22. That house had been inherited by my grandfather, Gustav, and had been my father's childhood home. I did not have an inkling of the house's current condition. I didn't even know if the house was still standing or improved or converted to something else. Since the local house numbers had been assigned by order of construction and not by land plot, all we were able to achieve was to come close to No. 22. We found house numbers in the teens, twenties, and low thirties, but not No. 22. Many houses in Benke appeared not to be occupied at all. The unoccupied dwellings gave the distinct impression of having been deserted long ago because of their extremely dilapidated condition. Those homes that did appear to be occupied seemed to be well cared for. We did notice a man and woman working in their vegetable garden adjacent to their home. They were turning over the soil. I thought I detected a furtive glance from the man that indicated he might have noted my presence. I did not observe any directed motion towards me. Both folks continued working. I thought to myself, "There's a Czech guy who is probably thinking to himself, "Hmmm, more deportees who have come back with some bad feelings to see the land that we Czechs stole from them or their predecessors !"
Benke is a very tiny village. In 1946 there were only 211 people living in the hamlet of whom 196 had been Sudeten Germans. I quickly drove through the whole village in a matter of minutes. At the other end of town, I ascended the mountain behind the eastern edge of the village. Elke waited in the car. I strode only midway up the hill. Despite the gathering dusk, I attained a panoramic view of Benke. I snapped a photograph of the town and valley to preserve the moment. I walked up the steep, dirt trail/road that was situated between dense woods of pine, oak, and birch trees on the left and an open, hillside farm field to the right. I could easily visualize and sense Pa at the age of 7 or 8 or as a young adult often climbing the same path. I later discovered a similar photo of Benke that he had taken from approximately the same spot!
The tranquil evening air had a brisk, refreshing, autumn feel to it. The view below me was enchanting. I had not expected a scene this beguiling. The smoke emanating from the homes' wood fueled fires settled in a layered haze in the basin of the valley below while its pervasive aroma wafted up to where I was standing. It smelled good. Symbolically, the layers of smoke were forming a stairway from my past.
Ascending the stairway and approaching me were all the ghosts of my heritage. The reality of who I am really hit me here. It was a kind of cram course in heritage awareness. It was an experience of finally finding the roots of the Körner family tree, but simultaneously realizing that the tree, far more than symbolically, had been struck by lightning in 1946. My family tree had been irrevocably and irretrievably damaged. All male ancestors on Pa's side had come from this very town. By Pa's own, sparse, but documented family tree records, every male Körner in his family had lived here since the early 1700's, except me. Before that time there may have been many more generations spanning prior centuries. I conjured up visions of times past. My mind flooded with the images of births, adolescences, hopes, aspirations, disappointments, illnesses, marriages, family reunions, Christmas celebrations, and deaths slowly unfolding here generation after generation. I listened to the sounds of the past in my blood.
The earliest Körner of whom I have documented knowledge is Andreas Körner. He was born in Benke in 1749. His father, first name uncertain, was my great-great-great-great grandfather Körner. These are the years when these historical figures were born: George Washington (1732), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770), and Abraham Lincoln (1809). I mention these famous folks only to serve as a frame of reference to demonstrate that our little, insignificant branch of the Körners had been living in this Benke valley a long, long time. It makes my own life's span in the U.S.A. pale by comparison. When the American colonists were fighting British soldiers (and hired Hessian Germans) in New Jersey, my forebears were living right here. When the American Civil War was raging and Abraham Lincoln was President, my grandfather Gustav was a little kid growing up and playing in these same Benke fields. Perhaps right where I was standing.
I experienced no déjà vu, but strangely, I felt very much at home. I sensed a special affinity for this place. I was in the presence of a new friend, Benke. I was not seeing it as it is. Rather, I was perceiving it as it had been. If the town could talk, I mused, what would Benke say to me? I imagined it would, of course, speak in German as it had for centuries, not in Czech as it had only since 1946. While trampling over dirt clods on its uneven, recently harvested fields, I mentally embraced Benke below me. I fancied a conversation with the village.
"As a young man," Benke would begin, "your father volunteered for the Imperial Austrian Army and went off to World War I for me and Austria of which I was then a part. His brother, your Uncle Bruno, was killed in action in that war. After the German/Austrian alliance was defeated in the First World War, I became a part of a new country called Czechoslovakia. Until 1919, a Czech nation had never existed. Then Hitler took me over as part of the famous Munich Agreement of 1938 (involving Sudetenland) and I became part of the Third Reich. Naziland ended literally at my town line. My neighboring village, Dlouhomilov, which is situated less than 2 miles west and spoke Czech, remained in Czechoslovakia under the Munich Accord. It mattered little. In the spring of 1939 Hitler absorbed it and the rest of Czechoslovakia as well."
I envisioned Benke as being relieved by this opportunity to discuss its past with an interested, new audience. Its long dormant story was now bounding up from the valley floor on my woodsmoke stairway. The tale awed me. This peaceful, benign village had been directly touched by all the cataclysmic political events that defined the 20th century. Benke continued recounting its tale.
"As the hell of World War II drew to its close, my valley was occupied by the Soviets. A Red Army tank division rolled over the hillside on which you are standing on its march to capture Schönberg. After the Nazis were defeated, I reverted to Czechoslovakia. Then, in 1946, all the Sudeten Germans in Benke were forcibly evacuated from my valley and deported. In one sorrowful day, I was left completely devoid of my native people. Their houses were left vacant. Doors were left ajar and swinging loose on their hinges. I felt betrayed. My soul had been mercilessly wrenched out and destroyed. In an ephemeral snippet of history spanning a paired sunrise and sunset, 1000 years of tradition were obliterated."
Only then, and in a flash, I finally grasped the full significance and the historical meaning of the confusing statement my parents had often uttered when I was a child, "Sudetenland doesn't exist anymore. Now we can't ever go back!"
Benke spoke further. "In the intervening decades I was hidden behind Communism's forbidding Iron Curtain. On January 1, 1993, I will belong to yet another, brand new country called the Czech Republic. You, Franz, have found me today. I am the missing piece in your heritage. Isn't it ironic that the missing peace in my own heritage still has not been found?" The town's voice trailed off and fell silent.
I was acutely aware that the mysterious, cosmic bond I felt toward Benke at that precise moment was an illusion. All actual ties between us had been severed, officially and fatally, by the deportation in 1946. The extent of the trauma endured by the expellees must have been overwhelming. This land had been the home of our forebears for centuries. All were now personae non gratae. I realized I did not belong here either. I was a trespasser in my ancestral homeland. The descriptive term for the social and political injustice perpetrated here upon the Sudeten people by the post-war Czech government has been sanitized. Modernly in Bosnia and Kosovo, it has euphemistically been termed "ethnic cleansing". I wondered what Pa would have thought had he been standing there with me at that very moment, a million figurative miles from our common American background. He probably would have reflected on the futility of the nationalistic bill of goods he, and other young men like him, had been sold as they marched off to war to "defend the Fatherland". He had been wounded. His brother was killed. Many friends had not returned. Standing above his now almost deserted hometown, one might justifiably ask, "For what?"
My new Sudeten German friend, Benke, completely understood the perplexing nature and futility of my question. It answered me with a resignation born out of the trauma of the 1946 mass deportation of its entire German-speaking citizenry. Benke looked up at me and forlornly responded.
"The end results of all those sacrifices are embodied, or more properly stated disembodied, in this very valley. I am now not a ghost town, but rather a town of ghosts. The ghosts of your father's homeland and all those sacrifices remain here with me. Fifty years ago, all were bit role actors in the drama being enacted on the Second World War's battlefield stage. We were also victims of its cruel plot. Now, we are obscure anomalies of central Europe's past and forgotten by virtually everyone. By its nature, history instantly and permanently defines itself. Thereafter, it forever recedes from us without motion. Our remembrances are not welcome here, yet they cannot leave. Our memories are entrapped by history."
I comprehended that coming here was clearly a momentous event in my life. No trip to Tahiti could have meant more to me or have been so significant. On the other hand, I also grasped that it is precisely through the occurrence of those historical events that I am American. Joining the Army and being in World War I had taken my father bodily out of this valley and had made him aware of the rest of the world. I feel that experience enabled him the courage to leave and to try something dramatically different after he disagreeably found himself a Czech citizen, rather than Austrian, after World War I. Had his emigration not occurred (and all other things being equal), I would probably now be resettled in Germany and would be a German citizen, as are my European relatives.
It had become too dark to take more photos on this walk up the hillside. No matter, because what I emotionally felt at that moment about my heritage could not be further represented on film anyway. I felt our initial sojourn to Benke had been a success. What I had been able to do was to notice some features about Benke of which I now felt compelled to take photographs the next day. My detailed exploration of Benke was to begin tomorrow. Elke and I then returned to the Grand Hotel in Schönberg.
As we returned in the evening darkness to our hotel room, I reflected on the day's events. Until that earlier moment on the hillside, my life had been a jigsaw puzzle from which a solitary piece had always been missing. The piece had been lost. I knew not where. Today, I had peered down at the tiny, valley village where all my forebears had lived and died. For a fleeting instant my heritage had been revealed to me. I had discovered the missing piece of the puzzle. Truly stated, the feeling was overpowering. Tears welled in my eyes. I understood the message. I was now a complete person.
I did not know what secrets were yet to be unveiled about Benke. Might the couple I had seen working in their garden play some role in unraveling the town's mysteries? Perhaps this newly found link to my heritage in this remote, obscure central European village would dissipate as quickly as it had materialized. Who could foretell? Of one thing I was absolutely certain. I would never be quite the same again.
Copyright © 2005 by Frank Koerner
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|Reviewed by Patrick McCormick
I read this excerpt of your book and was very impressed. Sonia, the lady in my life is decended from a sudeten mother and she has many relatives from her mother's side living around Premich in Germany. Her father, also German was born in the former Yugoslavia, although I do not know the area. I think she would like this book and It will be one of her Christmas presents. Thank you very much for the write and the book.