ON a ridge overlooking the verdant fields and woodlands of northwestern Bohemia, Hartwig Ruppert wends his way through a tangle of jagged mounds scattered under a stand of towering conifers. ``The old church stood over there,'' Mr. Ruppert says, pointing to a rocky clearing near the junction of two deserted country roads.
``This used to be the main street,'' he says, tapping his foot on a crumbling patch of asphalt. ``The town hall was across the road, and there were houses clustered about on both sides.''
Ruppert can remember when this lonely summit was once home to 2,000 Germans. Now only a few haphazardly exposed foundation stones mark the site of Lauterbach, where German families lived for generations. The villagers have been gone for 45 years, among the first Sudeten Germans to be rounded up and expelled in the upheaval that followed World War II. From 1945 to 1948, more than 15 million Germans were expelled from Central and Eastern Europe.
In the four decades that followed, the Germans who remained were pressed to assimilate, to abandon their heritage, says Ruppert, a leader in the region's ethnic German community.
But the ouster of the Communist regime in Prague last year and the rush toward German unity has changed all that. The roughly 100,000 ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia are increasingly speaking out for their cultural and political rights.
Lauterbach's buildings were razed in the early 1950s. ``They bulldozed it down almost without a trace,'' said Ruppert.
Then came years of harassment from Communist officials. German-language instruction was banned from the schools.
``They left a few of us here and said `No German schools and pretty soon they'll be forced to assimilate,''' says Ruppert, who lives a few miles east in the town of Krasno. About 70 ethnic Germans remain in Krasno, the community's official Czech name. Ruppert says his parents were devout Roman Catholics who had opposed the Nazis on religious grounds. That defiance, he says, spared his family and a handful of others in the village from the forced trek West.
``We learned Czech to survive, but spoke German at home,'' says Ruppert's wife, Rosl.
Now Sudenten Germans like the Rupperts have new hope that the German traditions in the region will be revived. But unlike some in West Germany who are demanding the return of lost German property, most ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia say they have no revisionist designs.
``This issue here is not borders but the recognition of German identity,'' says Arnold Keilberth, one of the founders of the recently formed League of Germans in Czechoslovakia. He says the group is pushing for more German-language instruction in schools and wants to see an ``open frontier'' between Czechoslovakia and West Germany that will further cultural and economic contacts.
Ruppert and other ethnic Germans scattered across the former Sudeten region hope the changes will mean the return of economic prosperity after more than four decades of socialist stagnation.
``It's been so painful to watch the town slide into decline and despair,'' says Ruppert.
In the 1930s, the town had a population of 2,500 and many thriving businesses, including nine bakeries and 10 butchers. Today, Krasno's population has shrunk to just over 700. The bakeries and butchers are gone, replaced by a featureless state-owned grocery store. No trace is left of the 12 restaurants and pubs that once flourished here. They have been replaced by a socialist-inspired wateringhole so dingy that nearly everyone avoids it.
``We now have an opportunity to achieve genuine reconciliation between the Czechs and the Germans,'' Ruppert says. ``We can work together to rebuild our town, our country, and to bring European unity.''
Erhardt Ott, a member of the local German Culture Club in Krasno, hopes that West Germans - and Germans who were expelled from the region - will want to invest in the area and revitalize the economy.
He admits that may cause tension among the Czech population. ``There are people here who believe the Germans will buy up all the houses and drive them out.''
Michael Steiner, a West German diplomat in Prague, says for the first time in more than 40 years Czechs and ethnic Germans are coming to terms with the mass expulsions after the war, lingering hatreds, and the legacies of Nazism and communist tyranny.
``People are now going through the process of confronting those horrible times,'' Mr. Steiner says. ``At first, there is a lot of fear and guilt, but it becomes a form of emotional catharsis. They end up finding a new commonality.'' In a gesture of Czech-German reconciliation, Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel in March apologized for the frenzied and wholesale nature of the expulsions. Although Mr. Havel had little sympathy for those Germans who supported the Nazis and the takeover of Czechoslovakia, he condemned the ``pain caused to many innocent people'' and the judgment of Germans ``not according to individual guilt but as members of a certain nation.''
The speech was sharply rebuked by some who said it was too conciliatory - an indication that many Czechs still harbor suspicions of the ethnic Germans and their compatriots in West Germany.
But Rosl Ruppert wonders whether the passage of time hasn't already destined ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia to historical obscurity.
``The German issue here will solve itself,'' she says. ``The old folks will die out and the children will be Czech.''
Hilma Kunz, a shop assistant in Krasno, says that over the years she has come to feel more Czech than German. ``I married a Czech and came to feel closer to that society. But it bothers me that my children don't speak the language I grew up speaking.''
Ruppert's daughter, Dagmar, who now teaches German at a local school, says young people in the region don't agonize over the questions of ethnic identity that preoccupy their elders.
``I don't feel German or Czech,'' she says in flawless German with a slight Czech accent. ``I feel European, and I think the younger generation of ethnic Germans here consider themselves internationalists.''
But for some in Krasno, the Czech world was never acknowledged, never allowed to intrude.
``I was brought up German and there was no reason to change,'' says 87-year-old Elisabeth Hoffmann, who speaks no Czech. ``It was so wonderful here,'' she says. ``We went to dances and plays and parties all the time.''
Mrs. Kunz gently interrupts her. ``Aunt Elisabeth, that was between the wars, when you were a young woman.''
``Yes, of course,'' she says with a sigh. ``Between the wars.''