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Slavonice's Peace Square

Slavonice, Moravia’s bohemian outpost

In its tumbledown Renaissance splendour, this town on the Czech-Austrian frontier has become a haven for intellectuals and artists who come from Prague in search of authenticity.

Published on 19 July 2011 at 13:53
Bernadyn  | Slavonice's Peace Square

In the mid-Nineties, the journalists Jan Macháček and Zbyněk Petráček were frequently heard to declaim, ‘Never to India and never to Slavonice’. It was their way of showing that they would resist to the last the wave of fashion that in those years commanded Prague cafégoers to strike off to one place or the other. Neither of them, I believe, has actually been to India yet, at least not for spiritual enlightenment. On the other hand, they go to Slavonice all the time, because they have someone to visit. We travel there to see Viktor Stoilov, a renowned publisher and our friend.

The legend of Renaissance Slavonice has spread rapidly: a town shrouded in myth, well off the beaten track to the Austrian border, now home to Prague snobs, bohemians and other artists. A town where every house is a studio. But there is also a counter-legend of the seedy Sudeten backwater at the end of the world: of a deserted ghost town and its historical backdrop of grey stucco, inhabited by military types irritated that, ever since the November revolution, they can no longer protect the barbed-wire border with their ghouls. Neither legend, I think, is entirely true, but nor is it entirely untrue...

A piece of that notorious barbed fence that ringed in our homeland from Aš to Bratislava has lingered on a little way from Slavonice, at the Kadolec homestead. It was preserved to show what sort of state this was, that had to be coiled around in such a way.

Slavonice is a special and exceptional city that, together with nearby Telč and Dačice, is officially in South Bohemia, although historically it was part of Moravia. After the war, new inhabitants, speaking with different accents and dialects, were brought here from various corners of Czechoslovakia. The most recent layer has arrived from Prague; how popular they are I do not know.

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On the famous Renaissance Square, a few Vietnamese shops sell all sorts of stuff, from vegetables, melons and Mickey Mouse shorts to bows and arrows. For a moment I wondered if I should buy a small bow for Viktor's son Christopher, but then I imagined what a well-aimed arrow can do to a friend’s eye, and I bought some fruit instead.

The pride of Slavonice are its Renaissance houses with richly etched sgraffiti. In the sixteenth century it must have been an intriguing fashion, to make a home into a comic strip. I have also seen such houses decorated with pictures in Gmünd and Weitra (Vitoraz) on the Austrian side of the border, leading me to suspect that there was one ‘Wallachian’ sgraffito firm in charge of it all throughout the region, since Italians were always the best at such designs.

The inscriptions, however, are in German because, whether one likes it or not, those were the people here from the 13th century, when Ottokar II founded the city with them. Until 1945, German Austrians lived here, and very few Czechs.

The city, which originally was indeed a Slavic settlement, they called Zlabings, while Slavonicko was given the pleasant name of Zlabinger Ländchen, “the little Slavonice country”. Among the vast majority of the German inhabitants – unlike in Dačice and Telč, which were mixed cities – there was little joy in November 1918 at becoming citizens of a Czechoslovak state. The army, which took over the city and even let off a few rounds, had to encourage them.

After 1945 they all left for Austria, then occupied by the Russians, which was just a short distance away. Barely fifty metres across the border stands a memorial to the expelled townsfolk of Slavonice.

The expulsion of the German population, however barbaric, was preceded by the deportation and destruction of the town’s Jewish population. All that remains are a few houses and the Slavonice synagogue. On it is a small sculpture by local sculptor Jiří Netík. The synagogue is now a residential building.

On one wall of sgraffitto is an inscription “Der Gerecht dienet auch recht Ungerechte”, which I permit myself to translate as ‘A just man stays just through all injustices.’ It is a biblical scene, from the book of Genesis. Admittedly, the comic has a pretty good script. A person would have it painted it up on the wall straight away.

After the Thirty Years War the city became a provincial backwater, which it remains to this day. Never again would it enjoy a greater prosperity than under the Renaissance prince Zacharias of Hradec (1526–1589): which is just as well, as otherwise it would not have been preserved as it has. A wise decision in the reign of Maria Theresa to shift the main road from Vienna to Prague slightly eastwards, then through Znojmo (probably due to cucumbers), also contributed to this.

Slavonice – long called Zlabings by its inhabitants – was thus left completely cut off from progress, which was what allowed its Renaissance aura to remain intact.

One day I will have to press Victor on why he chose to raise his children in Slavonice of all places. I suspect that the art historian and grande femme of Czech and European photography Anna Fárová, who lived here from 1990 until her death last February, played a big part in it.

His friendship with this legendary woman was the great happiness of Viktor’s life. He was actually her publisher, confidant and Eckermann (note for younger readers: J.P. Eckermann was Goethe’s secretary, who wrote Conversations with Goethe). Victor put together a book of conversations with Anna Fárová, which he published as a book. But it's more commonly found as part of a hefty monograph weighing in at a few kilograms, one of those books published by Torst (Viktor's publishing house) that has entered Czech publishing history.

To visit Anna Farova, Victor walked over to her Renaissance house with its oriel window and sgraffitto arcade, which Farova bought in 1996. That was still in the time when Slavonice was a Potemkin village of quaintly-preserved Renaissance facades and brothels, behind which chaos and confusion lurked.

Anna Fárová christened the house “Fárov House” after her husband, the artist and stage designer Libor Fára (1925 – 1988). The house was to serve as his monument and archive, and yet remain a living space for exhibitions, symposia and the like. After Anna's death, the house was left orphaned and solitary. It seems that nobody knows what to do with it next.

The Fárov house is obviously part of what we call our ‘cultural heritage’. In more respectful countries, like France, Germany and Austria, just around the corner, a project for a ‘Anna and Libor Farov Foundation House’ would already have been drawn up, with a museum, research centre, archives, and guests in residence. But somehow there is no such plan. Because we live here, and we let valuable things go up in smoke and crumble into dust.

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