top of page
  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY NINETY Crossing the Border

Staying over in Pilsen on our short-cut through the Czech Republic, I managed to find an copy of Miroslav Holub's poems in translation. Holub, born in Pilsen in 1923, was a scientist-poet, admired by the farmer-poet Ted Hughes, and he specialised in immunology. One of his poems is titled Interferon:

Likewise also cells infected by a virus

send out a signal all around them and defences

are mobilised so that no other virus

has any hope just then of taking root

or changing fate. This phenomenon

is known as interference.

(Miroslav Holub,“Interferon” from Poems Before And After. Reprinted with kind permission of Bloodaxe Books Ltd -

The gentle slopes on the northern side of the Fichtelberg (c)wikicommons

On the way back to Germany, it took me some time to pedal up the steep, southern side of the Ore Mountains, the boundary between Bohemia and the German land of Saxony. The Race Marshal had roared up and was waiting for me in a little cafe with a lovely view along the mountains to the Fichtelberg - at 1,200 metres, the highest mountain in Saxony.

Bublanina (c)tasteatlas

On the table waiting were a couple of chunks of the famous Czech bublanina ('bubble cake' - a vanilla sponge baked with cherries, sometimes plums). Our coffee cooled quickly because we were sitting outside where the Bohemian Wind was gusting - a feature here, the air is pulled down the slopes by gravity. At least it will be behind me when I pedal towards Dresden.

The Ore Mountains are an UNESCO World Heritage Site and they are special. They have the reputation as the most researched mountain range in the world, and with reason. Their geological formation was an extraordinary sequence of splintering pressures that formed the opposite of a rift valley – fault blocks pushed up into the air.

All this geological activity means the mountains offer iron, copper, tin, tungsten, lead, silver, cobalt, bismuth, uranium, plus iron and manganese oxides. Mining began in 2,500 BC – possibly the first tin mining ever. The skills learned here soon spread into Spain and as far as Devon and Cornwall. Once silver was discovered, the area became even more important: they minted their own silver coins here – the Thaler (from which the word 'dollar' is derived).

As the Bohemian Wind propelled me downhill and across the border back into Germany, sombre thoughts floated around me. At the end of the war, some sixteen million people were pushed out of the lands designated as Czech and Polish – ethnic cleansing by order of Stalin - and two million of them died. The targets were Germans who had settled in these lands. All were driven out of their homes with unbelievable ruthlessness. Goebbels even made a propaganda film of the awful fate of one village to encourage fiercer resistance. Some of the refugees were new immigrants; some were Nazis serving the death camps; but most were families whose roots in these lands were decades and, sometimes, centuries old.

They fled by any means available - by boat, in carts, dragging and carrying what they could, 'plodding mile on mile towards no certain destination'. George Kennan, who would be important in the development of the Marshall Plan, wrote: "The disaster that befell this area has no parallel in modern European experience. There were considerable sections where to judge by all existing evidence scarcely a man, woman or child of the indigenous population was left alive after the initial passage of the Soviet forces." And, of course, slave labourers brought into Germany were moving in the opposite direction - trying to make their way back home to Poland or France or Bohemia.

The refugees from Stalin were gathered in hastily arranged Displaced Persons Camps – one of the largest was at Regensburg. What happened to them was the subject of a detailed study by sociologist Edward Shils, then serving with the United States army of occupation. Shils was well qualified for this work: he spoke German, and had taught or translated the works of Max Weber and Karl Mannheim, themselves both highly influential sociologists.

(In parentheses: you will probably have come across Edward Shils in different guises in Saul Bellow's novels - in Mr Sammler's Planet as Artur Sammler and in Humboldt's Gift as Professor Durnwald. Shils was,for a time, important in Bellow's life and these two characters reflect Bellow's fondness for his "mentor, character model and editor". But they later fell out and Bellow took his revenge by casting Shils with an "animosity [that] reaches lethal proportions" as Rakhmiel Kogon in Ravelstein.)

Shils found in the camps 'a widespread psychological regression, i.e. a collapse of adult norms and standards in speech, behaviour and attitude, and a reversion to less mature patterns', resulting from a loss of 'original community and family connections' - not to mention the loss of virtually everything but the clothes they arrived in. He wrote with concern about the children in the camps who 'live in hordes and live by marauding ... they promise to become the new gypsies, undisciplined, untrained, ready for any political disorder and without any sense of communal responsibility'.

Coming off the Ore Mountains, I pedalled through Dresden without stopping. There is something so completely perfect about the city – it is a very model of a major restoration that attracts untold millions of visitors. I did, however, have a quick look at the Hellerau - Germany's first garden city started in 1909. The driving force was Karl Schmidt, one of the founders of the Deutsche Werkbund, that creative association of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists, founded two years earlier. Schmidt used one of the Werkbund's architects on the Hellerau - Hermann Muthesius, recently returned from London full of enthusiasm for the Arts and Crafts movement.

one of the deliberately curved streets in the Hellerau

Schmidt was, of course, following the ideas of Ebenezer Howard but wanted to go beyond the benchmark of a decent place to live, learn and work, by melding into his garden city dynamic cultural elements. So he included the Hellerau Festspielhaus as the first home of the Rhythmic Dance School of Emile-Jacques Dalcroze, a Swiss musician who in about 1905 started to challenge academy-style musical education. Dalcroze believed that musicians should be taught rhythm by using movements of the body: his method comprised three elements: eurhythmics, solfège (do-re-me), and improvisation. Le Corbusier's brother came to study with him, as did several of the future leaders of modern dance (including Marie Rambert). In a real sense, modern dance emerged in Europe from the school in the Hellerau.

Pushing me on through Dresden to Meissen, where we are now, was an urge to follow up a story of industrial espionage that had its roots in the Ore Mountains. But more of that tomorrow.

A sense of the fault-block structure of the Ore Mountains -

Interesting archival footage of displaced persons camps from a US Army newsreel - with a commentary that fails to mention that many of the occupants are Germans from the east -

South Bank Show with Saul Bellow -

Joan Baez Plane Wreck At Los Gatos Canyon -

And for Leonard Cohen fans, there is one at least - Tower Of Song (performed live in London) -

49 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page