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Liquidating Libkovice : What Happens To A Bohemian Village When Capitalists Seeking Coal Arrive?

August 02, 1992|R. DENNIS HAYES | R. Dennis Hayes is a writer based in San Francisco and the author of "Behind the Silicon Curtain: The Seductions of Work in a Lonely Era," published by South End Press.

"I think you will not like this story," begins Mayor Stanislav Brichacek, his 6-foot frame and paralytic left foot perching delicately on the floor of his office. When the sandy-haired 57-year-old says this, he gazes out his window, taking in Libkovice: the red and rusting cupola atop the abandoned Catholic church, the orange and oxblood bricks peeking through peeling facades on every other house, the silence of the muddy lanes--as if this sooty, 800-year-old Bohemian village bore witness to his own misfortune.

The office is dark and musty but warm. It is one of two heated rooms in the mid-19th-Century village hall. In a plaid shirt, Bavarian-style sweater and blue corduroys, Brichacek adjusts his glasses and stoops to his bookcase, withdrawing some documents. Above his head, on plaster yellowing with age and tobacco smoke, coal soot traces the outline of an imposing picture frame, recently removed.

The missing picture bore Czechoslovakia's coat of arms, politically retouched with a red star (replacing the crown) over a golden lion, upright, splay-clawed, embattled. On the opposite wall, Brichacek has hung two smaller frames. One is the standard color portrait of Vaclav Havel, who resigned last month as president, the first and probably last man to preside over post-communist Czechoslovakia, which seems headed toward a split into separate Czech and Slovak republics.

The other is a montage of old black-and-white photographs: of Tomas Masaryk and Edvard Benes, the men who shaped Czechoslovakia's constitution in 1918 and served the new republic; of Masaryk and his son, Jan, who, with Benes, were serving when the Nazis took over Sudeten Bohemia, Libkovice and more in 1938. The pictures in Mayor Brichacek's office reflect the way Bohemian history has of making people and places vanish amid upheaval. During the Reich Protectorate of Nazi-occupied Sudeten Bohemia, Jews and Jewish places disappeared. With the end of the war in 1945, Sudeten Germans were driven from Bohemia. Upon the Communist takeover in 1948, Jan Masaryk himself vanished, mysteriously, through a window casement.

After 1950, homes and villages and towns began to disappear with devastating frequency in Bohemia, a region five times the size of Los Angeles County with a population of more than 5 million. "The state-run mining companies liquidated more than 100 towns and villages to dig brown coal," Brichacek says. The same coal that yielded synthetic gasoline for Hitler's Wehrmacht powered Czechoslovakia's postwar industrialization.

"I came to Libkovice in 1950, when I was 15 years old, to find work in the coal mines," Brichacek says. Now, under the post-communist regime of Bohemian capitalism, the coal beneath the village may drive the old man away.

"I'm afraid we have not much time," Brichacek laments. "My village may vanish."

Libkovice (Lib-ko-VEE-tsuh) is the first Bohemian village to face liquidation since the revolution in 1989. More to the point, it would be the first destroyed as part of a capitalist business scheme rather than a Communist plan. Eons old, Libkovice coal is now the fresh corsage in a very contemporary courtship: of Western corporate buyers, by a revolutionary. The irony is not lost on Brichacek and many of the 73 Libkovice families who remain in the village. Brichacek's face flickers between resignation and resentment toward the novy sef --the new boss.

In this case, the novy sef is Zdenek Struzka, a former dissident, a professed environmentalist, a Havel colleague and a co-founder of Civic Forum, the political midwife of the Velvet Revolution. It is as the director of Hlubina, the state-run mining company, that Struzka is of concern to Brichacek and Libkovice.

Struzka has revived a communist-era scheme to liquidate Libkovice so that his company and a foreign suitor can extract a seam of coal more than 700 feet beneath the village. But first Struzka must dispossess, and perhaps arrest, Brichacek and the families who refuse to leave Libkovice. On the outskirts of the village, outside the walls of a glassworks that the Nazis converted into a prison camp during World War II, Struzka also must exhume the mass graves of thousands of Allied prisoners of war. Then he must bulldoze the Stalinist-era gulag that Czech communists made of the Nazi prison and dig up the graves of political prisoners buried there during the 1950s.

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