Written by Eva Putnam, (Smith College) Student Correspondent CET Prague: Film Production at FAMU, Fall 2018
On a chilly November weekend, about thirty of us students, two CET staff, two dogs, several professors and researchers, and one former political prisoner of the Communist regime met in the village of Jáchymov for a weekend of hiking and discussion.
We had a stopover in the city of Karlovy Vary, where we tried some oplatky (thin sugar wafers that come in many flavors and two sizes, the larger of which is approximately the diameter of a Frisbee) and sampled from the mineral spring fountains scattered around the central promenade. The waters are said to have healing properties, and we’d just gotten back from the week-long traveling seminar the night before, so we drank up in anticipation of the next day’s hike.
I was more doubtful about the healing properties of the spa we drove past on the way to the inn in Jáchymov. The Radium Palace advertises alternative therapies involving… radon baths. Radiation is a half-joking tourist draw for the village now, but the history that led to this association is far from pleasant. Just ask Miroslav “Mirek” Kopt, who survived imprisonment in the forced labor camps where the Soviet regime sent dissidents to mine uranium during the Cold War arms race. We had the opportunity to hear his story and ask questions over dinner. This was truly an experience – it’s one thing to read accounts of things like this, but another thing entirely to meet someone who has lived through it and to see how it has affected him.
The next day, we hiked through the surrounding woods along the Hell of Jáchymov Educational Trail, and Mr. Kopt showed us what remains of the camps: a preserved mining tunnel (originally abandoned because it turned out to not contain uranium, and therefore, unlike the prisoners, we had no need to worry about radioactivity – one of the researchers brought a Geiger counter to prove it), watchtowers, the foundation of a building where the prisoners would change into their mining clothes, and the Boy Scouts memorial to victims of the camps. Among other things, Mr. Kopt explained the significance of the Scouts – the organization was banned under the Communist regime but chapters continued to meet secretly at risk of imprisonment, and he attributes partly to the values he developed as a Scout the fact that he was able to “survive with honor”.
His concluding remark to us was that he was glad that our group was so large and so interested in his story. We learned later that the history of the forced labor camps is not often openly discussed, particularly locally. This is for a variety of reasons – often indifference, occasionally sympathy for the Communist movement, and largely, the persistent fear of speaking out. The people who have the most riveting stories to tell are those who have lived through situations where telling the truth could cost their life and those of their families, and so an opportunity like this one is rare and invaluable.