A bit of land unites former foes
A Czech meets the Sudeten German who lived in the home he purchased; it leads to other reunions.
LICHKOV, CZECH REPUBLIC
When Zdenek Melichar bought it in 1972, the house was a crumbling shell, battered by weather and plundered by war.Skip to next paragraph
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"It had no doors or windows, and chickens were nesting in its rafters," Mr. Melichar says, chuckling. "The fire department was going to burn it down for practice. But I love history, and I felt this place had a story. It was beautiful, peaceful, and smelled of fresh thyme, so I decided to buy it."
Little did he know that decision to purchase a piece of cheap real estate would one day reshape his life and comfort the sorrows of a group of people in another country. The little cottage, No. 55 in the village of Lichkov, is situated in the Czech Sudetenland. This horseshoe-shaped piece of territory along the border of today's Czech Republic was once home to 3 million Germans.
In 1945, Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes issued decrees stripping the country's German minority of property and citizenship. In retaliation for their support of Nazi Germany, more than 2.5 million Germans from the Czech borderlands were deported, including the inhabitants of No. 55.
Today, this dark chapter in Czech history has come back to haunt the Czech Republic, threatening to hinder its accession to the European Union.
A diplomatic row erupted this spring, sparking debate at the highest levels of European government about whether Czech membership should be tied to the annulment of the Benes Decrees and compensation for the victims of this post-war ethnic cleansing. But in Lichkov, once German Lichtenau, current and former residents have made their own peace. They warn, however, that it took decades to achieve.
It started when Melichar, a factory technician and history buff, began reconstructing No. 55. In the summer of 1976, he was working on the house when he saw four people standing on the road watching him. From their clothes, Melichar guessed they were West Germans. "It was one of the coldest times of the cold war, and one did not talk to foreigners in communist Czechoslovakia," he says. His own father was beaten to death by the German Gestapo during World War II. "We stared at each other for a long time, and then they turned and walked away. I wanted to know their story because they had become part of my history, but I was afraid."
But as time passed, his curiosity overcame his anger and fear. He started asking older neighbors about the family that had once lived in his house. After more than 10 years of searching, he found out that their name was Tschammer, once Camer in Czech.
One old woman whispered to Melichar's son that the Germans had buried a "golden treasure" in the garden before they were forced to flee at the end of the war. Local children began digging holes all over the yard, but they didn't find anything.
In 1989, Hedwig Flegel, the youngest daughter of the Tschammer family, visited Lichkov and heard that Melichar was asking about her family. Ms. Flegel grew up in No. 55, the house her grandfather built, and was 15 in 1945 when her family was forced to walk across the mountains into Germany with only a few clothes and a jar of salt her mother had grabbed from the kitchen.