JÁCHYMOV: HEAVEN OR HELL? CONTRASTING HISTORICAL NARRATIVES ABOUT JÁCHYMOV, CZECH REPUBLIC AND ITS RADIOACTIVE ELEMENTS. - PDF

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JÁCHYMOV: HEAVEN OR HELL? CONTRASTING HISTORICAL NARRATIVES ABOUT JÁCHYMOV, CZECH REPUBLIC AND ITS RADIOACTIVE ELEMENTS By Katherine Wirka A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement for

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JÁCHYMOV: HEAVEN OR HELL? CONTRASTING HISTORICAL NARRATIVES ABOUT JÁCHYMOV, CZECH REPUBLIC AND ITS RADIOACTIVE ELEMENTS By Katherine Wirka A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of Master of Science (Geography) At the UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON 2012 ii Acknowledgements Writing a MS thesis is a challenging process that requires a lot of enthusiasm, guidance and inspiration. I would therefore like to thank my advisor Robert Ostergren who has been extremely supportive of my interests and helpful throughout this entire process. I am extremely grateful for his guidance and support throughout this process. I would also like to thank Yi-Fu Tuan and Kristopher Olds, who have graciously agreed to serve on my committee and offer helpful feedback for further developing my work. Further mentions should be made to the Trewartha research grant for providing funding for the fieldwork carried out for this thesis. I would also like to thank the UW-Madison Center for Eastern European, Russian and Central Asian Studies (CREECA) for awarding me a Foreign Language & Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship that I used improve my knowledge of the Czech language so I could effectively gather the qualitative data needed to write this work. I would also like to mention those in the Czech Republic who helped me gather my research: Lenka Novakova (my translator), Lenka Sunova (CIEE), the members of the KPV (specifically Zdeněk Mandrholec & Leo Žídek), leadership at the Léčebné Lázně Jáchymov (Edward Bláha & Lenka Dráska), the mayor of Jáchymov Bronislav Grulich, the staff of the Karlovy Vary Historical Society (Stanislav Burachovič & Jan Neděd), Karlovy Vary Cadastral Director Libor Tomandl, Tomáš Dvořák (Masaryk University), and Josef Thomas (National Radiation Protection Institute) and the residents of Jáchymov, in particular the Pinč family and Tomáš Ježek. I would also like to thank my Czech hosts, the Lahoda Family, who have provided me with an unbelievable amount of support and memories I will cherish forever. Lastly, I would like to thank my family, in particular my parents Robert and Eileen Wirka and grandparents Robert and Helen Wirka, who have been so incredibly supportive over this entire process. They have always encouraged me to follow my dreams and challenge myself. iii Contents Chapter 1: Situating the Discourse..4 Chapter 2: Historical Background..18 Chapter 3: Contrasting Narratives..41 Chapter 4: Jáchymov as a Commodity and Symbol...57 Epilogue..72 References...76 Appendix: Figures...80 Appendix: Methodology.87 4 Chapter 1: SITUATING THE DISCOURSE The small town of Jáchymov, Czech Republic is nestled in the Krušné Hory, which is literally translated from Czech to English as the Cruel Mountains, but known in English as the Ore Mountains. The town is located in the northwest of the country close to the German border. My first journey to Jáchymov was for a school-sanctioned trip in My classmates and I were told that it was a very historically significant town in northern Bohemia; that it was founded as a silver mining town and was the birthplace of the English word dollar. They also explained that in addition to touring the town s museum, we would meet some survivors of one of the many concentration camps that existed in the area in the early days of the Czechoslovak communist regime. This statement piqued my interest, as I had never heard the term concentration camp used in any other context then referring to the Nazi regime s use of them during World War Two. I was eager to learn more about Jáchymov, which seemed to be a place ripe with history and intrigue. In the end I made two trips to Jáchymov: the aforementioned school sponsored trip in 2006 and a second trip in 2010 to gather research data for this thesis. As both prelude and introduction to my thesis, I offer two impressionistic accounts of these visits. Jáchymov 2006 In order to get to the town, one must travel by car or bus from the city of Karlovy Vary, also known by its German place name of Karlsbad. Karlovy Vary is home to around 53,000 people, which is a fairly large city by Czech standards, and is world renowned for its luxurious mineral spas and international film festival, in addition to producing Becherovka, a famous Czech herbal liquor. Because of all of these interesting attributes, Karlovy Vary 5 attracts many tourists and a great deal of foreign investment, especially by Russian nationals who invest in the city s real estate market. It is commonplace there to see restaurant sandwich boards advertising the daily specials in Czech, Russian, German, and English. In Karlovy Vary, there is a central city bus station, where you can catch a bus to the small town of Jáchymov. After stopping at a few industrial towns along the major highway leading out of Karlovy Vary, our bus made an uneventful turn onto Highway 25. This road led us into a heavily forested area. Tall deciduous and coniferous trees lined the two-way road; an abrupt transition from the industrially-scarred landscape that made up the scenery on the bus trip thus far. A picturesque stream along the side of the road added to the naturally soothing ambiance of the forested drive. To the left, I noticed a crumbling old factory abruptly cut into the landscape and illuminated by sunlight breaking through the low hanging forest canopy. Further examination revealed that not only was the factory no longer utilized, it had also been ravaged by a fire that had left it seemingly unsalvageable. Slightly put off by the scene, I quickly refocused my attention on the beautiful, natural landscape that surrounded me and seemed to be beckoning our vehicle farther and farther into what was becoming a deep valley. Small blotches of sky began to break up the wall of trees as we headed down into the valley. As we approached our destination, the town of Jachymov, I began to notice structures placed unnaturally amongst the forested landscape, but instead of dereliction, my eyes were met by a mixture of very modern structures juxtaposed against a breathtakingly beautiful building that harkened back, with its neoclassical façade, to a forgotten era. Its art nouveaustyle signage simply said, Radium Palace (Figure 1). My eyes took in several nearby 6 structures, all occupying finely manicured grounds. Brandishing names like Agricola, Běhouek and Curie, these buildings exhibited several different genres of architecture (Figure 2). Soon we reached a bus stop near the roundabout at the epicenter of these structures. This was one of two bus stops in the small town of Jáchymov and was simply labeled Jáchymov Spa. I could not help thinking that I did not expect to be greeted with such a luxurious, and in some respects modern, built landscape in a town that had been described to me as a historic mining town that was also home to several concentration camps. Where were the remnants of the old mines? Where were the guard towers and barbed wire I had come to associate with concentration camps? I was also somewhat perplexed by the subtext of the sign that read Jáchymov Spa, which proclaimed it to be The First Radon Spa in the World (Figure 3). Subsequent questions flooded my mind as we turned off the roundabout onto a road that led us up the valley to the other side of Jáchymov. Initially I saw additional evidence that led me to believe this was a tourist town souvenir shops, a gas station, and a small pizzeria - but as we continued beyond the first 40 yards of roadway, a very different Jáchymov began to take shape. The opulent-looking buildings diminished and the town buildings became progressively smaller, older, and more derelict as we traveled uphill on the valley road. Many of the houses lining the street appeared to be in a state of disrepair, exhibiting shattered windows and crumbling facades (Figure 4). Several also had faint, almost illegible, old German signage on them that reflected their former uses and owners (this area being part of the old German Sudetenland region from which the German-speaking population was 7 expelled after World War II). On the left, a modern-looking apartment building broke the string of old buildings. A few people stood outside the building, some of whom looked to be Roma. On the right side of the road, two older women dressed in clothing that suggested they were sex workers smiled at the passengers on the bus. Farther on the left was what appeared to be an old abandoned school and schoolyard, devoid of maintenance or care. The dereliction worsened the farther we traveled from the Spa grounds. While a few homes along the way seemed to be well kept, the vast majority exhibited neglect and signs of squatting. Only one or two businesses appeared along this main road through Jáchymov, occupied by single professionals (lawyers, accountants) consulting by appointment only. On the left, we approached a small building with a single broken window covered by plywood spray-painted with a sign that said Brazil Bar I was later informed that this was not a bar, but a brothel (Figure 5). A dingy storefront to the right exhibited the advertisement of a prominent Czech bank no longer open for business. Farther up the road and also to the right, I saw a grey building with large letters reading Hornický Dům or Mining House scrolled across the front in stylized letters from the mid-1950s. Above the main entrance was a sign that said kino, or movie theater, but the structure looked to be in a state of irreconcilable disrepair. All of the windows were broken and trash could be seen pouring out of the casements (Figure 6). Beyond the Hornický Dům, two structures caught my eye an impressive church with a tall cathedral tower next to a beautiful older building, also with a tall tower, both of which seemed very well kept. The bus continued towards these structures until it stopped at yet another bus stop, labeled Jáchymov. The second building was Jáchymov s radnice 8 or town hall, which houses the town s Welcome Center. Next to the town hall and farther away from the church, was another old, well taken care of building labeled museum (Figure 7). Located diagonally in relation to the town hall, were three old buildings that looked as if they had been ravaged by fire and were for sale (See Figure 8). On the hillside above these buildings I saw a very tall tower, presumably used for mining and seemingly in operation and maintained (Figure 9). We disembarked the bus and were directed into the museum. Our guide explained that the museum building was the town s former mint, founded in the mid-1500s, and has since gained notoriety as being the birthplace of the dollar. The structure was quite small and contained exhibits of the types of minerals found within the town s mines, the history of mining and minting, traditional life and farming in Jáchymov, as well as a small display on other industries that once existed in Jáchymov, including a tobacco factory, and a factory that utilized uranium ore to create a dye for glass. This exhibit also included a small amount of information on the Spa I had encountered when first entering the town. The information available stated that this Spa was founded in the early 1900s and utilized radon in its therapeutic treatments. The exhibit also contained photos and items from the Spa. We quickly walked through these exhibits, as the main purpose for our visit that day was to visit a new addition to the museum that had been unveiled only a short time before we arrived. This exhibit was an exposé of the town as it appeared between 1948 and 1962 when it was part of an industrial uranium mining complex run by the Czechoslovak government that used both civilian and prisoner labor to extract and refine uranium ore that was sent to the Soviet Union. This activity was extremely clandestine at the time it was carried out, and 9 continued to be kept secret and not widely acknowledged even after it was closed in the early 1960s. The uranium mines and their use of forced labor have only recently been acknowledged by the Czech government. The exhibit detailing this dark period in Jáchymov s past included the stories of prisoners who were forced to work in the mines with little protection for 16 hours a day, and then housed in inadequate and oftentimes dangerous buildings. They were also underfed and subjected to life-threatening physical abuse by prison guards (Figure 10). Our school had arranged for us to meet two of the former prisoners who mined uranium at Jáchymov during this time. These men were members of an organization known as the Konfederace politických vězňů (Confederation of Political Prisoners or KPV), which stages events and works to ensure that the exploitation of prisoners that took place in Jachymov never be forgotten. They described how they came to be detained by the Czechoslovak government and detailed their horrendous experience of working in the Jáchymov mines and living in what they referred to as concentration camps. While talking about their time in Jáchymov, they continually emphasized the fact that they considered themselves to have been political prisoners, unjustly arrested and sequestered by the communist government of Czechoslovakia. These former prisoners led us through the exhibit and gave up first-hand accounts of the horrors they experienced, making the exhibit very emotional and impactful. After completing our tour of the exhibit, we were loaded back onto a bus with our two guests and driven out of town until we reached what appeared to be an old factory. We disembarked and entered an old industrial complex currently located on the grounds of a 10 decommissioned automotive factory and a functioning prison. After a short distance, our bus stopped in front of a decrepit and nondescript tower. We exited the bus and were told by our guests that this structure is referred to as the Tower of Death (Figure 11). The facility was used during the uranium mining period as a place where raw uranium ore was sorted, milled and loaded into crates to be placed in trains that departed daily for the Soviet Union. Our guests explained that the facility had come to acquire the unofficial name Tower of Death because many people working there acquired terminal cancer by inhaling large amounts of radioactive dust created during the refining process. During our ride back to Prague, I ruminated over the town from which we had come and the stories I had heard. I was struck by the fact that Jáchymov appeared to be a divided town, with one seemingly prosperous half sustained by medical tourism and the other half a place of dereliction, illicit activities, and the painful memory of exploitation and death at the hands of the state. I became curious about what this strangely divided town really represented. How did the town s inhabitants feel about the town s past, about its apparent present division, and about its future? This curiosity about Jáchymov lingered in my mind and motivated me to seek more information. A simple Internet search of the word Jáchymov directed me to a number of websites, many of which were not translated into English and most of which were overwhelmingly related to the Radon Spa. This was intriguing, as I had been completely unaware of the Spa prior to my first visit to Jáchymov. The Spa s official site primarily featured the its business activities, and made frequent reference to therapeutic water, a term for the radon infused water, pumped to the Spa via a pipeline originating deep within a 11 decommissioned uranium mine found beneath the town and used for the treatment of patients. The Spa also showcased its stay rooms and the natural beauty of Jáchymov and its surroundings, showing images of picturesque landscapes and people recreating. In addition, the Spa dedicated one of its website pages to the history of Jáchymov, as well as an explanation of how the Spa itself is situated within that history. Few other websites gave any historical information about the town. I also retrieved a few semi-scholarly articles during my brief Internet search. All were composed for and presented at a conference that took place in Jáchymov in 2009 entitled European City Seminars 2009 Postindustrial Urban Space. The articles addressed Jáchymov s Spa, but were more focused on explaining why Jáchymov, a town with such an interesting and rich history, appears in such a derelict and forgotten state, save for the Spa grounds. They all attempted to explain why Jáchymov, which once housed great wealth and grand renaissance buildings, appears abandoned and forgotten in the present. These articles are relatively brief, but contain a great deal of information on how various recent demographic, economic and political shifts within both the Czech Republic and the world have impacted the town and have led to its present mixed appearance and reputation (Bădescu, & Kovácsová, 2009, Teampau, 2009). Jáchymov 2010 I returned to Jáchymov in 2010 with the goal of researching Jáchymov s complicated past, as well as its seemingly divided present, more thoroughly. In particular I wanted to gain an understanding of how the town remembered its past, especially with respect to its 12 involvement with uranium and its progeny, radon and radium; and to identify what kind of narratives about that past are presently deployed as the town struggles to define its identity and place in a post-socialist and post-industrial Czech state. I hoped to speak with both residents and officials to hear their firsthand accounts of their lives in Jáchymov, and how the town may have changed over the last few decades. I was curious to know what they felt was the reason for Jáchymov s declining state and whether they thought the Spa, which appeared to have a strong association with and presence in the town, seemed to be helping Jáchymov and its reputation.. I was also interested in hearing the residents views of the KPV and its activities, including the highlighting of abuses committed by the former communist government via the organization s ceremonies commemorating those who were forced to work and suffer in Jáchymov s former uranium mines and concentration camps. Four years after my initial trip to the small town of Jáchymov, I found myself once again on the same bus ride up Highway 25 from the city of Karlovy Vary, this time accompanied by a translator, Lenka Novakova, and a full research agenda. Jáchymov appeared exactly as I remembered it, the beautiful buildings and well-manicured grounds of the Spa standing in stark contrast to the rest of the town, which appeared nearly abandoned and in a state of disrepair. After disembarking the bus at the stop in the derelict part of town, my translator Lenka and I walked down the main road back towards the Spa. It was a beautiful day. Birds were chirping, the sun was unabated by clouds, and the temperature was just about perfect after a harsh Krušné Hory winter. That being said, the only sounds I heard other than the chirping birds was the faint metallic noises coming from the mining tower above the town and the occasional passing hum of a sport touring motorcycle passing 13 through town. There were no signs or sounds of people on the streets. Behind us stood the Church of Saint Jáchymov, constructed in 1500, which as a historic monument seemed well maintained in comparison to the surrounding buildings. Situated prominently upon the open grass area in front of the church were various large stones, each engraved with the name of one of the dozen or so work or concentration camps that marked the Jáchymov area from 1948 to These monuments had been placed here through the efforts of the KPV (Figure 12). We made our way down the road in the direction of the Spa, passing by the crumbing facades and broken windows of abandoned buildings, glancing carefully from time to time into half opened
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