Czech political prisoners of communism say the Jáchymov concentration camp must be remembered
Former political prisoners in the Czech Republic have gathered for the 25th time to commemorate the horrors undergone during the 1950s in the concentration camps at Jáchymov and other uranium mines by thousands of people considered subversives by the communist regime. Speaking in front of the Church of St. Jáchym, Vladimír Chlupáč, who was imprisoned for 9.5 years in Jáchymov, said young people must be constantly reminded of the hell of what went on there, as it is a national disgrace.
"About 75 000 people passed through the camps in the Jáchymov area, of whom 45 000 - 50 000 were actually political prisoners," said František Šedivý, vice-chair of the Confederation of Political Prisoners (Konfederace politických vězňů - KPV). A commemorative mass and subsequent speeches were attended by not quite 100 people.
Of the political prisoners from the 1950s who were persecuted and underwent imprisonment and the camps, 1 200 - 1 400 are still alive, and the entire KPV has 2 800 members, including family members of political prisoners. As many as 100 000 prisoners out of a total of 200 000 convicted persons passed through forced labor camps on the territory of the former Czechoslovakia in the postwar era.
Many of them died of lung cancer as a result of the inhumane conditions in the camps, while others were shot dead as they tried to escape. It is not a problem to approximately locate all 18 of the prison camps that were established in Czechoslovakia between 1949 and 1953, even though they were all subsequently destroyed without a trace.
Some of the camps were named after nearby municipalities (in the Jáchymov district there were the camps Mariánská, Vykmanov I and Vykmanov II, in the Horní Slavkov area the camp was Ležnice, and in the Příbram district the camp was called Bytíz), but they were most often named after the adjacent mines. The communists very quickly filled these camps with prisoners who were forced to perform demanding and exhausting work underground without any protective equipment.
As if that were not enough, inhumane conditions in the camps once work was over were no exception. The prisoners themselves were convinced by their captors that they were merely "dead men walking".
"When I saw the camp it reminded me of the German concentration camps I had seen in films and photographs. There was a wide platform area, wooden huts, multiple layers of fencing, and sniper zones. However, it wasn't exactly the same - there was no crematorium chimney, and the sign over the gate didn't read 'Arbiet macht frei', but had a nice version of our own up there: 'Work for freedom'," recalls former prisoner Oldřich Klobasa on the website "The Hell of Jáchymov" (Jáchymovské peklo), which is designed to accompany the hiking trail now in place at the site.
Klobasa goes on to describe one of the torture methods at the Nikolaj mine where he was forced to labor by carrying rocks from one pile to another. "To make it even more fun they livened it up by testing whether people's efficiency increased after a night shift in the mine," he writes.
The chair of the KPV, Naděžda Kavalírová, is bothered by the fact that the Communist Party keeps gaining in strength in the Czech Republic today. "It doesn't bother me so much that they have never apologized, what bothers me is that they are practicing the same evil as they once did, and I am afraid this will all repeat itself. You young people are not as equipped for that now as we were, our lives were much more modest back then," she said.
Kavalírová believes the Communists have not changed and that they still recognize an ideology that is false. "This country became a country of atheists, and that's bad. There is no humility here. I don't have to be religious, but a bit of respect for life and for human values is missing here. We continue to recognize that," she said.
Those to blame for what happened during Communist rule also have not yet been punished, according to Kavalírová. "There hasn't even been a moral, symbolic tribunal about this. We have failed to push through a law recognizing forced and slave labor. The application of the wording of the Act on the Third Resistance has many enemies who have only recently been gotten rid of so that the law, even though it has many flaws, can be fulfilled to the maximum extent," she said.
Kavalírová also believes that Czech politics are not heading in the direction she might have imagined 25 years ago. According to Jozef Baník of the Slovak branch of the KPV, the Communist Party should have been banned as a criminal organization after 1989.
"If we can manage to do that with Fascism, we should also do it with Communism, but we flubbed it," he said. For her part, Kavalírová believes the evils of communism have never been properly named and punished and that people are forgetting about that era, which was a time of a lack of freedom, and that what instead predominates in the memories of that era are the promises of a better tomorrow that were so very familiar then.
"On behalf of the Government of the Czech Republic, I want to thank you, esteemed former political prisoners, for watering the roots of our freedom with your own blood," Czech Culture Minister Daniel Herman (Christian Democrats - KDU-ČSL) said at the ceremony. "Most people in our country correctly condemn neo-Nazi Holocaust denial. However, many people are not bothered by the crimes of communims or even by their cynical defense in this country, unfortunately," said Czech Senate vice-chair Přemysl Sobotka (Civic Democrats - ODS).
"I am glad that, thanks to you, I can live in a country where I do not have to live in fear, where I can study, practice a religion, travel and enjoy freedom. You managed to be free even though the Communists imprisoned you, and even though the republic was shut off behind barbed wire," said Czech MP Jan Bartošek (KDU-ČSL), vice-chair of the Chamber of Deputies.
Bartošek believes it is still important to remember what political prisoners underwent and not to minimize what the previous regime did. Cardinal Dominik Duka also returned to the church in Jáchymov this year for the ceremony after a 40-year absence.
"Two years of my stay here as a spiritual adviser taught me to really look into the human heart, and those years wreaked havoc in the hearts of the families and people imprisoned here," he told the former "walking dead" and their relatives during the ceremony. For further information about Jáchymov, please click here; for photographs, click here.
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