81 – Memorials

In school I had to learn by heart “Dulce et decorum est” by Wilfred Owen. I remember the whole poem to this day. The image of the civilian-cum-soldier floundering in the mud, terrified, shell-shocked, struggling to get his gas mask on in time is forever etched in my memory. No wonder! The teacher was hell-bent on hammering home the message that war is futile and dehumanising; that politicians manipulated and fueled nations’ patriotism with their propaganda, but in reality there was absolutely nothing glorious about dying in no-man’s land. The image that my young mind had conjured up of an inexperienced WWI soldier fighting for his life in a muddy dug-out came rushing back to me in 2005, when, in Carion’s “Joyeux Noël”, the camera lens exposed high-ranking officials gallantly dressed, chortling and sipping champagne in Paris and Berlin while soldiers froze in the trenches. The 1914 Christmas truce depicted in that movie provided a glimpse of the definition of humanity and served as a stark reminder that behind both enemy lines stand men with photographs in their wallets, trying not to falter in the “kill or be killed” reflex, in the hope of seeing another day.

As for the Second World War, I believe I have read more books and watched more movies on the topic than can be considered healthy. From the little, Polish Jew’s friendship with the SS commander’s son to “Anthropoid” or “Tmavomodrý svět”, every literary or cinematic portrayal of events has shone the spotlight on how brainwashed people were in their perception of “the enemy” and how ruthless, inconsistent, incoherent, and ultimately tragic their actions were, as a result.

Having grown up during the last 77 years of peace in Europe, my educators and all the talented authors and film directors who contributed to shaping my beliefs, were to some extent, “granted the luxury” of exposing warfare as dehumanising and futile, and denouncing those at the very top, giving the orders, as manipulative opportunists who were leading lambs to the slaughter. I have absolutely integrated these truths. But the realisation that their perspective was inevitably retrospective, is thought provoking. They created their works when peace had been restored. Informing was priority because knowledge is power is it not? Creating awareness was key, so that such atrocities could never possibly happen again. Everything I read or viewed suggested blindness, downright stupidity at perceiving fellow human beings as “the enemy”. Everything confirmed the futility of war. Nothing I read nor viewed, on the other hand, included sufficiently explicit insight nor explanation as to where opportunities were missed, how each war could have been defused when it was but a storm in a teacup, how delusional individuals with an inordinate sense of entitlement could have been “nipped on the bud” so to speak; how retaliation could have been avoided, or how all those lives could have been spared.

And so, when I did the following hiking trail recently, with my dogs, I stood before the memorial to the brave American allies whose mission it was to bomb Ústí nad Labem, but who tragically perished – were murdered – when several of their bomber planes, known as flying fortresses, were shot out of the sky by the German army. I read their names and that one had returned to this site after the war to pay homage to his fellow heroes. I felt pity. And confusion. Simultaneously, I recalled an exhibition I had visited many years ago after a similarly pleasant hike, in Ústí nad labem. There, I had read a witness account of an elderly man, recalling the air raids which had been executed on the town, when he was eleven years old.

You see, we would call this man Czech today, but on the 17th, 19th and 29th of April 1945 when the Allies bombed his home town, just weeks before the end of the war, the 11 year old Karel was the son of a German speaking father and a Czech speaking mother. His mother’s parents were both Czech but his paternal grandparents were a further example of the typically mixed marriages among those who inhabited the Sudetenland. These German and Czech speaking people had been coexisting well before the whole of the Sudetenland was annexed into the German nation, in 1938. Ústí nad Labem was located in the Sudetenland, thus in Germany at that time. The railways there served for the transfer of equipment and men to the Eastern front so the station and the railway infrastructure were the targets of these huge, American, flying fortresses, sent to bombard the occupied territory. But the truth is that two and a half thousand homes were razed to the ground at the same time as the train station, and Ústí was full of Soviet prisoners of war and Czech slave laborers who were not allowed to enter the air raid shelters, as well as local Czech and German speaking families. Karel, from where he was standing with his mother and little sister on a hill, recalls that the bombs were dropped “in a row” and he says that this image “became emotionally imprinted in [his] mind”. The text went on to explain how, after the war, when the Czechs were expelling all the German speakers from the Sudetenland, he was on the point of being deported with his parents, when his maternal grandmother, distraught, shouted to them in Czech, and they were told they were exempted from deportation and could all return home: all that is, except for his German speaking father, who had to spend 17 months in a labour camp. Yes. Indeed. The words ruthless, incoherent, futile… spring to mind once more!

During this hike, you will see two memorials to the American pilots whose mission it was to bombard Ústí nad labem. The information boards inform the visitor of the fate which befell the airmen who evacuated the damaged bomber planes. Some were injured and did not live. Others received assistance and survived. Others landed on the spot marked by the memorial, which happened to be a military training ground for the S.S. at that time. These men were arrested and taken for interrogation to Konopiště. It so happened that the wife and children of the commander to whom they confessed the nature of their mission, were living in Ústí nad labem… Rather than ordering that the pilots be taken as POW, he ordered their execution.

This 8 Km trail takes place in a beautiful forest of Spruce and Pine. After visiting the memorials and pondering over the complexities of war, you will dispose of ample opportunity to resource yourself in this soothing forest. There are a few climbs but no difficult terrain. You will also visit a quarry (point 8 on the map), before passing a huge and fascinating boulder, known as Soudný kámen (point 9 on the map), where water appears to seep from the rock. Likewise, you mustn’t miss the poetry rock.

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