Ceske Velenice

A tale of two villages

Border residents say EU entry won't necessarily bridge their cultural divide
June 12, 2003

One name, many towns

Ceske Velenice’s history

Slavic, Celtic and German settlers lived together during the Middle Ages in the Wood Country, as the Ceske Velenice-Gmund area is known.

In the days of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian empire, Ceske Velenice consisted of three villages: Cejle, Velenice and Josefsko.

A single town was created in 1920, two years after a post-World War I treaty broke up the empire and created Czechoslovakia.

Under Nazi rule (1938-45), Ceske Velenice and neighboring Gmund were made into one municipality, called Gmund III by German speakers.

Almost all Czechs fled Ceske Velenice in 1939 but many returned after the war ended.

Following World War II, German-speakers who couldn’t prove they supported anti-fascist activities were expelled and expropriated.

The intensive border stations that were the hallmark of the communist era were not installed until the 1950s.

Czechs steal, have bad manners and treated their German-speaking population brutally after World War II.

Austrians are arrogant and come to the Czech Republic for prostitutes and cheap goods.

These stereotypes sullied cross-border relations in the early 1990s, after the initial euphoria over the demise of communism soured and disparities between the two countries became evident.

“Maybe some Austrians displayed a certain arrogance when visiting here,” said Jaromir Sliva, mayor of Ceske Velenice in south Bohemia. “They saw that they came from a very different world, especially right after the border opened.”

As Czechs prepare to vote Friday, June 13, and Saturday, June 14, in a national referendum on joining the European Union, suspicions and great expectations continue to characterize cross-border relations.

Czechs are expected to vote in favor of EU entry. Whether the country’s membership in an economic bloc that has included Austria since 1995 will bring the two countries together is a familiar topic of discussion in Ceske Velenice and its Austrian neighbor, Gmund.

Ceske Velenice, once a suburb of Gmund, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became part of Czechoslovakia in 1920, two years after the country was founded.

The two towns, which formed a single municipality from 1938 to 1945, in the Nazi era, are struggling to create closer ties.

Skeptics decry the disadvantages they expect EU entry to bring, such as higher prices, a loss of sovereignty and a flood of Czech labor into Austria.

Still others in the region see EU entry as a chance to intensify cooperation in many spheres: economic, cultural and environmental.

“I don’t think entry itself will produce some immediate cultural change, but cross-border events and travel will probably become more frequent,” Sliva said.

The great divide

Separated by only 50 meters (165 feet) and a border checkpoint, the two towns offer a primer for anyone wondering what a difference 41 years of communism can make.

As you pass through Ceske Velenice’s smoke-filled train station, first glances of the town reveal dilapidated buildings and prostitutes lingering on the main street, Revolucni.

Competing with these images are panelaks [communist-era prefabricated housing] and scores of Vietnamese-owned shops displaying cheap towels and bottled soda outdoors. Czechs rent their shops to the Vietnamese because the latter are willing to work seven days a week and can pay three times the rent locals are willing to offer, area residents said.

Just across the border, Gmund boasts a quaint old town, spotless streets and the bright, freshly painted facades of centuries-old architecture that tourists associate with the Habsburg empire.

“After border restrictions were lifted in ’89, there was a wave of interest in the Czechs,” said Bettina Hradecsni, a member of Gmund’s Town Council.

“Then there were some disappointments on both sides,” she said, describing the “Czechs: Don’t steal” signs that appeared in many Austrian shops in the mid-’90s. The signs have since disappeared.

In the early ’90s, Ceske Velenice was the site of an infamous event that marked a low point in border relations. An Austrian man lit up a 100 Kc (now $3.85) note at the train station and pretended to smoke it. A group of Czechs responded to the insult by throwing him out of a ground-floor window.

Even though cross-border interest has waned, Hradecsni said the expected entry of the Czech Republic into the EU in 2004 has given Austrians a new reason to get to know their neighbors.

“The Czechs’ living standards have improved, and a few shop owners are now seeing Czechs as customers, not as mere window-shoppers or pickpockets,” Hradecsni said.

EU apathy

Ceske Velenice held an EU information day earlier this month.

Seven people showed up.

“This is the countryside. People aren’t interested in politics here,” said Martin Freytag, the Vienna native who coordinated the event. “The EU is just too big for them. It’s the same in the Austrian countryside.”

It is also possible that voters have made up their minds and are not interested in more information.

Eva Havlova, 47, owns a bookstore, one of the few non-Vietnamese businesses near the train station. She said she is voting against EU entry.

“Every state should see to its own business. I do not accept the loss of sovereignty that entering the EU will bring,” she said, unloading books out of a car trunk.

She admits that neighboring Gmund is much more appealing to visitors than her hometown.

“Of course it’s better over there, but this is not an EU issue. It’s not all about money,” she said.

Havlova said Ceske Velenice’s appearance is a result of its social ills.

“People here are less tidy than in Gmund. And we have the unsightly Vietnamese stores and the prostitutes, both of which are mostly patronized by lower-class Austrians.”

Several Vietnamese shopkeepers said that most of their sales were to Austrians.

And the shopkeepers are worried.

“We are sure that entering the EU will make our prices go up,” said 33-year-old Nguyen Dong Van, who sells towels, shoes and other merchandise on the town’s main street.

Van’s fear is echoed by 36-year-old Lenka Ctvrteckova, described by Freytag and others as the area’s biggest proponent of Austrian-Czech relations.

Ctvrteckova, who owns a pub in Ceske Velenice and manages a pub in Gmund, said she was working in Austria when it joined the EU in 1995.

“Prices rose by 30 percent, but wages didn’t keep up. I will vote against EU entry,” she said.

Voicing a complaint typical of small-business owners in the area, Ctvrteckova said she doesn’t have enough money to ensure that her pub can comply with EU regulations.

“First we had to spend all this money on renovations after 1989 and now we are supposed to invest even more? It’s impossible,” she said.

She is particularly galled by EU hygienic standards.

“I won’t even be able to make my own dumplings unless I redo everything,” she said. “The EU can kiss my butt.”

Together, apart

The EU and seven Austrian border towns hired Freytag to enhance links between Austrians and Czechs in the region.

It hasn’t been easy.

“If you stage a classical Czech concert, only 10 or 20 people show up,” he said. “The cultural life in Ceske Velenice is terrible. People are not interested in civic affairs.”

So far, his projects have consisted of cultural events in both towns, a planned exchanged between kindergartens twice a week starting in the fall and a 90-mile (144-kilometer) bike trail next to the Luznice (Lainsitz) river.

He said that strong societal differences between the Czechs and the Austrians made his job more difficult.

“Some Austrians think the Czechs have no manners because the country had no aristocracy, unlike Poland or Hungary, where every third person thinks he was descended from nobility,” he said.

It is this mentality that angers Roman Vanek, 15. “They [Austrians] have more money, so they look down on us,” he said. “And I don’t see this getting any better with EU entry. If prices go up here, we are all screwed.”

But Elisabeth Springer of Together, a not-for-profit organization, says the hundreds of students she has worked with since 2000 are eager to put divisions behind them.

Springer holds events hosted by artists — Czech, Austrian, Vietnamese — in which students from both sides of the border act together in plays or perform music.

In one Together play, aliens come to Earth, discover a border between Gmund and Ceske Velenice and wonder why it is there.

“We played to a full house,” she said. “That’s because we do our events in Lenka’s [Ctvrteckova] pubs, where everyone gathers anyway.”

Performances are staged in German and Czech, a challenge the audiences appreciate, Springer said.

Most people in Gmund do not speak any Czech, while in Ceske Velenice, the majority of residents can understand a smattering of German, according to Springer.

In Gmund, there are about 80 people enrolled in Czech classes.

One of them is Bernadette Kitzler, 17, who was enjoying an ice-cream cone with Daniela Andel, 18, at an outdoor cafe on the town’s main square.

“Learning Czech will be good for my future, no matter what profession I choose,” Kitzler said.

Andel said she was glad that Czechs might have the chance to attend Austrian schools in the future. “At the same time, Czechs might come here to make more money and get better jobs, and that could create problems,” she said.

Czechs are barred from working in Austria as full EU citizens for seven years after entry, a term that might change if Czech living standards rise quickly.

According to Freytag, the only jobs Czechs are taking are the ones the Austrians do not want: janitorial posts and nurse’s aides for the elderly, for example.

Gmund has a 10 percent unemployment rate, nearly twice the level in Ceske Velenice.

Perhaps the most ambitious cross-border project is the opening of the Gmund hospital to Czechs, a move expected to lower unemployment in the Austrian town.

Just allowing the ambulance to cross the border from Austria to pick up Czechs or Austrians who have fallen ill in the Czech Republic will be a novelty, Freytag said.

Ctvrteckova, who worked in Austria for 11 years and speaks fluent German, said the best way to boost cross-border relations is through one-to-one communication.

“There is a man in Gmund whose father was stoned by the Czechs after the Second World War. He has vowed never to cross to the other side of the border.”

For years Ctvrteckova has been trying to get him to visit her pub in Ceske Velenice, because he frequents the pub she manages in Gmund.

“I am the first Czech he has had close contact with, and that has really changed him,” said Ctvrteckova. “He sings in a choir in Gmund and he has promised to perform next year in Ceske Velenice. Now that’s progress.”

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