When Zdenek Melichar bought it in 1972, the house was a crumbling shell, battered by weather and plundered by war.
"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.
"The Czechs blamed us for the war, but when it started, I was too young to understand," Flegel says. "Then 42 men from our village were killed [fighting in the German army]. Some of them were boys from my school, just 17 years old. Then, I wished the war would end."
When World War II did end, Flegel's father was interrogated, and her mother was raped by Russian soldiers, while Flegel and her sister hid in a nearby forest. Then her family was expelled to Germany, and she didn't return until that day in 1976 when she watched Melichar working on her old house. "When we saw a Czech was living in our house, we were afraid," she says. "I have found a new home, but my sister and parents never really recovered. It takes a long, long time to heal these wounds."
Finally, just after the fall of communism, a German-speaking neighbor named Ida Adamcova persuaded the two to meet. A visit was arranged, and Flegel was able to enter her childhood home for the first time in 44 years. With tension crackling between them, she and Melichar sat down to breakfast together with Ms. Adamcova as interpreter. Cautiously, as breakfast turned into lunch and then into dinner, they told each other their stories.
In 1992, the second time Flegel visited Melichar, she brought a map her father had drawn, which described where he had buried the family's gold and silver for safekeeping during the war. Melichar agreed to let Flegel and her relatives dig in his garden. They quickly unearthed a small bundle of heavily tarnished treasure.
"It was a tense moment," Melichar admits. "They put it all on my coffee table and told me to take whatever I wanted. I didn't want it, but eventually they gave me a little silver heart on a chain." Flegel was able to salvage her parent's gold wedding rings.
Such meetings between Germans and Czechs are not always so friendly. For both sides, the wounds of half a century still go deep. Sudeten German organizations have been clamoring for restitution from the Czech government since the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
Last month, the argument came to a head as Czech, Austrian, and German politicians traded insults. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had to postpone a state visit to Prague, and threatening leaflets appeared in Czech border towns declaring: "The Sudetenland was and will again be German."
Flegel disagrees with this approach. "Our children have a different home in Germany," she says. "I am thankful that Zdenek saved our house from being destroyed. So many other Sudeten Germans have no place to go back to for memories."
For just that reason, Melichar and Flegel have begun organizing visits to Lichkov for groups of Sudeten Germans. They come to sit around Melichar's big table and sing folk songs. Melichar plays his accordion exuberantly and passes out the cakes that Czech women in the village bring as peace offerings.
"Sometimes reconciliation takes a long time," Melichar says. "But now our friendship is not affected by the fake atmosphere of politics. I am glad my German friends feel welcome here, and I know what I need to know about history."