Valentine Bier: Settling in on the Rock Prairie

[Note:  I’ve neglected the Valentine Bier story for too long.  When last we checked in on the family of yore, they were improving their lot at various rented farms in Rock County.  The family’s next move would make all the difference:  they are about to begin farming on the Rock Prairie.  To discuss the significance of this move from a geologic and soils perspective, I’ve invited my brother, Major Pete Bier, to contribute as a guest blogger.  Take it away, Pete]

Pete Bier family

Pete Bier at his recent promotion ceremony, along with his lovely wife Mary and their two children.  Also pictured are my mom and dad, Tom and Janice Bier.

For as long as I can remember, I have heard members of the extended Bier family go on and on about how the Rock Prairie is some of the best farmland in the entire world. Growing up, I knew there were a lot farms in the area, and they all seemed to be prosperous. But the Biers also never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  So I chalked all the “best farmland in the world” comments up to the spinning of a good yarn.  Some years later, while studying for my Master’s in Soil Science at UW-Madison, the hyperbole quickly became rooted in fact.

So for those that don’t know, the Rock Prairie is a term that locals from eastern Rock County, WI, like to use to refer to the land roughly bordered by County Road A to the North, Highway 14 to the West and South, and the county line to the East.  During my graduate studies, I investigated if the Rock Prairie’s soil could actually make it more desirable agricultural land than other local areas. Soils are very complex, and more often than not, they exhibit very little homogeneity spatially. One can be in a field studying a particular soil, and 10 meters away there may be a completely different soil series or even a different soil order.  This is not the case for the soils of the Rock Prairie. As seen in the below picture, the soils of the Rock Prairie are unusually homogeneous. In an approximately 3.25 kilometer-wide swath running east-northeast to west-southwest from the Rock County/Walworth County border to Highway 51 south of Janesville, a strong dominance of a single soil series, Plano Silt Loam, can be seen. North and south of the Rock Prairie, a more usual heterogeneity of soils can be seen.  So, Rock Prairie soil is unique, but what makes it unique?

Pete image 1

Soil Survey Staff. 2016. Web soil survey: Soil data mart. USDA-NRCS

There are five factors that go into the formation of soil: climate, organisms (flora and fauna), relief (topography), parent material (what the soil is made of), and time.  Now, three of the five factors are pretty equal across southern Wisconsin. The climate is generally the same, organisms are relatively similar, and the time – glacial and other geologic processes are such that the soil of southern Wisconsin is roughly the same age.  The relief and parent material of the Rock Prairie are what make it special.

In the picture below, we can see that the Rock Prairie is extremely flat.  Although the areas to the north and south of the Rock Prairie do not appear to be mountainous by any stretch of the imagination, there does exist a greater disparity in elevation and relief than on the prairie itself, which shows very little elevation change at all.  This tremendous flatness of the area likely prevented erosion and movement during soil formation and allowed one soil series to form, which cannot be said regarding areas in the vicinity, where relief, although minor, could have played a bigger factor in soil formation.  During formation, the Rock Prairie also may have acted as an area of deposition for clay and silt particles (preferable for farming) from the surrounding areas.

pete-image-2.png

Esri. 2016. ArcGIS Online. http://arcgis.com

 

The final soil forming factor, parent material, plays a tremendously significant role in what makes the Rock Prairie’s soil distinct from the areas around it.  The Rock Prairie was not glaciated during the late Wisconsin glaciation (35,000-11,000 years ago). The terminal moraine of the glacier is just to the north of the Rock Prairie, which causes the rolling terrain that can be seen in the above photo.  The Rock Prairie was glaciated during the Illinoian glaciation (191,000-130,000 years ago), which helped to influence its flat topography, but it was not glaciated during the Wisconsin glaciation.

 

Pete image 3

(Syverson, K.M., and P.M. Colgan.  2011. The Quaternary of Wisconsin: An Updated Review of Stratigraphy, Glacial History, and Landforms. In: Jurgen et al., editors, Developments in Quaternary Science 15. Elsevier, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. p. 537 – 552.)

Although the Rock Prairie was not glaciated, the Wisconsin glaciation did influence the area.  It is distinct in that outwash dominates the area and thus is rich in sorted sand and gravel. The surrounding areas are either terminal or ground moraines and comprised of an unsorted mix of materials much larger than sand and gravel.  This means that the Rock Prairie will have adequate drainage for farming and will not be too rocky (I know, a bit of a misnomer).

pete-image-4.png

Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey: University of Wisconsin-Extension and State Planning Office: Wisconsin Department of Administration. 1976. Glacial Deposits of Wisconsin: Sand and Gravel Resource Potential. Land Resource Analysis Program

After the glaciers retreated, parts of the Midwest were covered with wind-blow loess (dust-like particles that were blown annually from dry riverbeds to the West.  In covered areas, loess becomes the true parent material of the soil). All areas were not covered equally though. Parts of Rock County received a deeper covering of loess than other areas.  Specifically, the Rock Prairie is covered with a deeper loess layer than surrounding areas. Loess is desirable due to the fact that it has a high nutrient holding and water retention capacity.  In laymans terms, it’s good for farming.

pete-image-5.png

Enter a captionBlack: 8-16 feet thickness, maroon: 4-8 feet, red: 2-4 feet, pink: .5-2 feet, and white: 0 – 0.5 feet.  Yellow indicates eolian sand. (Schaetzl, R.J., and J.W. Attig. 2012. The loess cover of northeastern Wisconsin. Quaternary Research 79: 199-214.)

So, the Rock Prairie is comprised of one soil series, generally flat, has glacial outwash as a substratum, and is covered by 4-8 feet of wind-blown loess.  

The Rock Prairie hit the geologic lottery. This is a farmer’s dream.

The loess provides soft soil that is easy to plant in that has the ability to retain sufficient moisture and nutrients for crops.  The outwash provides drainage during large precipitation events so that the soil will not flood or pond. The flatness allows farmers to worry less about erosion, terracing, or strip cropping, Finally, the fact that it is one soil series means that farmers can generally use similar practices across their entire field and achieve similar results.  This is not the case when fields are riddled with diverse soil series.

Now, is this the only place in the world that had all of these factors come together so nicely? More than likely it is not.  However, when combined with the fact that the area receives adequate sunshine and precipitation to grow crops without irrigation, the list narrows considerably.  But most importantly, the Rock Prairie sustained my family for nearly 100 years and 4 generations when the Biers were farmers and many of my friends make their livings off this wonderful soil today.  So you know what, as far as I’m concerned, the Rock Prairie is the best farmland in the world, and always will be.

Valentine Bier Family: What came next?

On this Valentine’s Day, I’d like to pick up the thread of the story of the Valentine Bier family.  I started weaving this story a year ago, in honor of Valentine Bier’s nameday and birthday, with an introduction to the patriarch of the Bier family in southern Wisconsin.  After several more installments, we left Valentine transplanted to a meager existence in Rock County, and his wife and children newly arrived from Ketzelsdorf to join him.  Then I was distracted by the Bier trip to the homeland and related topics.  For today, I’d like to pick up the thread of the family’s story where I left it.  Valentine and Catherine were reunited at the train depot in Janesville after almost a year apart.  He was meeting his youngest daughter, Amalia, for the first time.  They climbed onto a lumber wagon and began their journey home.

They arrived in the fall of 1882, and that winter the family lived in a two-room shack on the property of the farm on which Valentine was employed as a hired hand.  The farm was owned by Al Husker, and the building in which the family was to be housed was a two-room shack previously used as a woodshed and rummage room.  In the Memoirs of Father Charles, who was 3 at the time,

The walls were not plastered, and a single layer of siding boards, not too well matched, was all that kept out the wind and weather.  The larger room had two small windows and was used as kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom.  Into it were crowded a small kitchen stove, a table, a cupboard, two rough wooden benches, and a bed.  The smaller room had no window at all and was used as a bedroom.  There was no plumbing in the shack nor any household convenience whatsoever.  —  Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse.

When my mother and I drove to the site, we found that a farm house sits on the north side of the road, and an open expanse of prairie to the south.  The winds through the ill-matched siding must have been fierce.  In order to fit into the tiny space, the two older children, John and Frances, were housed with other families where they worked to earn their keep, of course.  They were 11 and 12.  Valentine worked long hours and was seldom home before well into the night.

Inked1891 Harmony_LI

The Al Husker Farm straddled Wilcox Road in between Harmony Town Hall and Vickerman.  The pond just to the north is now on the grounds of Camp Rotamer.  1891 Plat, Courtesy of the Charles Tallman Archives, Rock County Historical Society.

The following fall of 1883, Valentine rented a few acres south of Milton where the family lived for 4-5 more years in the small farmhouse.  I don’t know the name or owners of the farm on which he worked, but on those few acres he raised the cash crop of the day:  tobacco.  He did so on half shares, meaning that 50% of whatever he earned from its ultimate sale went right back to the landlord.  As the meager amount that he earned from this enterprise wasn’t enough to support the family, he also hired himself out to other farmers at a rate of 75 cents per day.  The family’s principal income, however, depended on the labor-intensive tobacco crop.  Fortunately, much of the tedious work could be done by Catherine and the children.  In Father Charles’ words

The price paid for the leaf tobacco at the time was about 5 cents per pound. and the average yield per acre was about 1500 pounds.  This amounted to about $75 per acre of which half was paid to the landlord as rental. — Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse

Around this same time, the two eldest children began to formally work out of the house as hired hands.  John worked for a local farmer for $10 per month with only Sundays off.  All of his earnings, save for what it took to keep him fed and clothed, went back to the family and allowed Valentine to invest in farming equipment and a few cows and to steadily increase his farming enterprise.  Similarly, Frances’ work as a hired girl was equally arduous and brought in $1.50 to $2.00 per week.  Valentine set aside the money she earned and after three years was able to buy his first team of horses with it.  Without John and Frances’ sacrifice of, essentially, their childhoods, Valentine may never have been able to break out of the cycle of subsistence or tenant farming.  Neither of them were able to formally go to school, save for a few months to learn English upon first arriving.

 

Edward, John, Louis, Frank & Charles Bier

Neither John . . .

Jiru-Bier Women Four Generation Portrait

nor Frances had the luxury of a gradually exit from childhood, nor did they ever really learn English.

During the time on this small farm, there were several joyful arrivals.  The first was the birth of the third to last child, Caroline, in September, 1884.  She is described from suffering from some form of epilepsy, and I suspect that this may have contributed to the fact that she never left home.  Far from being an invalid, however, later diaries show her as an integral member of the family, devoted to helping Catherine run the household as children and eventually grandchildren passed through.  The other arrival was that of Catherine’s mother and two brothers, Johanna, Frank, and Florian Jiru in 1885.  They had also become dissatisfied with life in Ketzelsdorf.    Frank was accompanied by his wife, Anna Hanauska (sister of Frances Bier’s eventual husband, Wenzel Hanauska) and baby daughter, another Johanna.  They all joined the Valentine Bier family in the tiny rented farmhouse, and for awhile there were 12 people under the tiny roof.

This only lasted a short while, however, as Valentine transferred his brood to a larger rented farm, the Lime Borden farm on the southeast side of Milton.  Frank Jiru and his family stayed behind in the small rented farm that they vacated, and Florian and Johanna Jiru stayed on with the Valentine & Catherine Bier family–Florian for a couple of years and Johanna for the rest of her life, about 20 more years.  The Lime Borden Farm had a relatively palatial 8-room farmhouse, along with the usual farm buildings and a tobacco shed.  Despite the better setup, however, the three years spent there were far from profitable, as the summers were all quite dry and the prices of farm products including tobacco were quite low.  When my mother and I drove by the place, on M-H Townline Road just west of Vickerman, it looked quite rocky as well.  It doesn’t seem as though the three years spent on the Lime Borden Farm were remembered very fondly.

Inked1891 Milton_LI

The Lime Borden Farm is just to the East of the area now occupied by and ethanol plant outside of MIlton, Wisconsin. 1891 Plat Map of Milton Township, Courtesy of Charles Tallman Archives, Rock County Historical Society.

Father Charles specifically recounts a few of the more harrowing incidents that occurred during this stretch of time that are best quoted directly in his words:

In the spring of 1886 while Father was doing work in the fields, the horses were accidentally frightened an ran wildly into a barbed wire fence.  The better one of the team was cut so badly that it seemed impossible to stop the flow of blood.  My parents were both in great distress and well I remember how they cried aloud to God to help.  As soon as father was able to quiet the animal sufficiently, mother pressed some rags into the worst of the wounds till the bleeding gradually stopped.  Incidentally, this was the valuable mare that was being paid for by my sister Frances with the wages she was earning while working as a hired girl for the family from whom father had bought the mare, and it took almost three years of this service to pay this sum in full.  –Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse.

Can you imagine, working for three years just to pay off off a mare?  And what if it had died–she still would have had to keep working for the debt alone!  No wonder they invoked prayer!

The second incident involved Valentine attending a turkey raffle and winning a few birds.  Apparently these events differed from today’s meat raffles in that the turkeys were still alive rather than in a freezer.  As he was walking home with them, some jealous fellas jumped him and ended up injuring one and killing the other turkey!  And this is why we can’t have turkey raffles (or anything nice, kids.)

While Valentine toiled away and fought off turkey muggers, the children still at home started school at the Vickerman School, a short walk from the farm.  Yet, this wasn’t all sunshine and roses.  As the only Catholics at the school, they were automatically outcasts.  This was made worse by the fact that they didn’t speak any English and were quite visibly poor.  Eventually the other children let Charles and Frank and their siblings play with them, except they never got to be the blindman in “blindman’s bluff,” as they didn’t own their own handkerchiefs, and the other children didn’t want Bier germs on theirs.   Kids being perhaps unintentionally mean is a problem across the ages, I suppose.

In addition, the ninth of the Valentine Bier brood was born on the the Lime Borden farm:  Emily Bier Gassert.

The ninth addition to the Valentine Bier Family arrived May 16th, 1887.  It was another baby girl and mother named her Emily.  Although John was of the opinion that our family was large enough, my parents were always happy to welcome one more.  As usual, there was no thought of going to a hospital or of calling a doctor for such a trifling ailment as childbirth.  That was considered too expensive a luxury for poor share-croppers like my parents. –Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse

So what happened next?  Did the venture on the not-terribly-profitable Lime Borden Farm do them in?  Stay tuned…

 

Ketzelsdorf and Schönhengstgau updates

Although I declared my intent to turn my family history attention to my Grandmother’s story, I have to  share a few updates regarding our family homeland in Ketzelsdorf / Koclířov before I do so.

Since receiving a letter from Pepi, our friend in Koclířov, in the fall, a few interesting things have transpired.  And all of them are creating a fascinating, real-time experience in seeing how history is created.  Recall that a year ago, I was still grappling with the fact that Ketzelsdorf (German) had become Koclířov (Czech).  Since then, I’ve seen the evidence of the Slavic version of this story during our time in Prague.  More so, recent correspondence has introduced me to the displaced Germans’ version of the story, and it is a passionate one.

Before Christmas I received a letter from Dr. Franz Kossler, who you may recall is Pepi’s
“professor friend” in Berlin, a fellow Ketzelsdorfer and an historian of the area.  He kindly wrote me in English, and here is his email:

Dear Dr. Angela Bier,

because I was mentioned by Pepi (Koclirov), by Stephan (Berlin) and actually in your article „Voices from the backseat“ (…who is this Dr. Franz Kössler?), it‘s time to introduce myself.

Really, I was born in 1931 in Ketzelsdorf (Koclirov), home no. 60. My father was a carpenter and worked in Zwittau (Svitavy), our mother took care of the children (altogether six, born between 1923 and 1942). She also took care to our small farm with several animals as well as to the agriculture (some hectares).

Until the end of 1944 I visited the school in Ketzelsdorf, but after the wild repulsion (Juni 1945) I was living five years as a farm worker in a small Prussian village. From 1950 to 1953 I visited schools in Potsdam; after that I studied Biology in Berlin five years long.

In 1958 I entered the Institute of Occupational Medicine and was engaged in different fields. During this scientific work I met a lot of famous scientists, among them some from the USA, e.g. Prof. Gergely (Boston), Prof. Hazlewood (Houston).

During my investigations on bioluminescent bacteria I had contact by letters and reprints exchange with the pope of bioluminescence Prof. J. W. Hastings (Boston) and I met him in Chabarowsk (East Siberia) and Boston, in 1979 and in 1996, respectively. In my second dissertation (Habilitation, 1969) many persons of bioluminescent research are cited, among them was Beatrice M. Sweeney (perhaps related to McSweeny?).

I retired 1997, then I started some activities in historical fields, beginning with the history of Botany in Berlin and Potsdam, followed by writing books about my home village Ketzelsdorf, my home area Schönhengstgau and about countries in Eastern Europe where German was spoken earlier..

The term Schönhengst originated presumably from a male horse (in German: hengst) in connection with an ancient burglord with a pretty (in German: schön) horse. Another legend tells that the old traffic road between Ketzelsdorf and Mährisch-Trübau (Mor. Trebova) which has to cross a mountain passage and this crossing was a great strain for horses (in German: schinden, schind den Hengst – Schinhengst-Schönhengst).

Finally, I want to congratulate you to your engagement in family history and the enthusiasm for Ketzelsdorf and the landscape Schönhengst.

Thanks for the informative paper, delivered to Pepi who sent it to Berlin; I prepared a short communication for the Journal Schönhengster Heimat.

With best wishes for cheerful Christmas time and Happy New Year,

Sincerely yours

In addition to being interesting in its own right (bioluminescent bacteria?  Wow!  Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article.  ), I found the description of how the beautiful region along the Bohemian and Moravian borders got its name.  Finally, if the summary of the story of the Biers’ coming to America ends up being published, I’ll be simply delighted.

The Journal Schönhengster Heimat that he mentions is produced by a society of the Sudeten Germans now residing in Germany.  They also maintain a small museum in  Göppingen, Germany, which is in the Stuttgart region.  Any of you who speak German will probably get more out of this website than I have, even with the assistance of Google translate.

Museum

Schönhengster Heimat Museum in Göppingen, Germany

In exploring some of the information contained on this website, I’ve discovered that there’s actually a song to the Schönhengstgau region.  Here’s a google translation of the lyrics, which are quite poetic and evocative:

Between March and Adler spreads
a richly blessed land,
which traverses the wanderer’s path,
captivating as a sweet spell.
Blessing rests in every valley,
Peacefully greenens on mountain and on the meadow.
Greetings many thousands of times,
Trauter German Schönhengstgau!

Our native mother tongue, of
our ancestors of the same kind, is kept
under every roof
like a delicious good.
Manly courage and women’s dignity
Carries the people there proudly.
Stay of the earth garden Zierde,
Trauter German Schönhengstgau!

And the girls, like the boys of
our future, comfort and reverence,
are to dig deep into the heart of
their fathers. Word of Solace :
Shine happiness in golden shades,
Come days dull and gray,
Faithfully bound, yours forever,
Trauten deutscher Schoenhengstgau!

I’ve received further correspondence from Stephan Bier, our presumed relative in Berlin, and I include a few “Google translations” from his letter;

Our small commemorative book “Memories of Ketzelsdorf in Schönhengstgau” will be sent to you by our representative in the local newspaper Wilhelm Bier. He lives in Roitsch in the larger town of Bitterfeld. In Roitsch a larger group of 1,945 stranded Ketzelsdorfern and many of them are still living there or in the neighborhood.

Guess what I came in the mail literally as I was writing this?  The aforementioned copy of the book from another presumed relative, Wilhelm Bier.  It’s wholly in German and I think I’ll have to seek some help from the University on this one!  The small commemorative book, which I was presuming would be a pamphlet, is 278 pages long!!

Ketzelsdorf book

Recently arrived.

I will have to add this to my reading list (after translation) after I finish Orderly and Humane, which tells the story of the expulsion of ethnic Germans after WWII.  For some interesting insight into how contentious the issue of the ownership and telling of this story is, read some of its reviews on Amazon.  The author, R.M. Douglas, is careful in his introductory material to emphasize that he in no way conflates the story of this group’s treatment with that of the treatment of the Jews, Gypies, homeosexuals and other targeted groups during the Holocaust.  Nevertheless, the need to tread excruciatingly lightly is brought into relief in those reviews.

Orderly and Humane

Finally, a comment from Stephan Bier at the end of his letter drove home the point of history being the provenance of the victors (recall that this is a rough Google translation and likely misses some of his nuance):

I was Ketzelsdorf only interested because I was born there. The political conditions were not pro-German. Even the current administration in Prague is not interested in historical truth. I have a garden Czech neighbor and told me that many of his relatives in Prague and its surroundings believe that the Germans came in the former Czechoslovakia only with Hitler 1938. You do not know that the German settlers hundreds of years ago, large parts of the country have made it all under cultivation, the land was donated. That is not taught at school. The expulsion of more than 3 million Germans and the appalling atrocities be concealed today. Bohemia and Moravia were hundreds of years to the German association of states. The language has Slavic origin and people have little cultural differences, but otherwise it is a European country like other countries.

So there you have it.  Learning history as it’s being written is an interesting, contentious subject.

Eine Botschaft aus der Heimat – A message from the homeland

It seems like just yesterday that I was on the Bier trip to the homeland.  However, it was actually four months ago!  I have some interesting updates to share, most a result of some letters that I sent back to Koclířov.  I sent a thank-you to our guide, Pepi, along with some pictures of the Bier family farm, the emigrant Valentine Bier family, and snapshots from the trip.  To simplify things, here’s a F.A.Q. summary of recent updates:

How is Pepi doing?

About two months ago, I heard back from Pepi.  I can’t tell you how excited I was to see a note slipped into the storm door from the USPS indicating that I needed to sign for a package from the Czech Republic.  The package contained some photos of his family and farm, a commemorative book on Koclířov and a note:  

“Dear Angela, belatedly, we are thankful for your latter, he came alright.  We were wery happy.  With love, Pepi from Koclířov with family.”  

Pepi's letter

Greetings from Pepi

 

So, I think he’s doing well.  To Pepi’s family, thank you for sharing him with us!

 

Pepi's family

Pepi’s wife, Miluska, and granddaughter, Emma

Pepi's farm

Pepi’s home & stunning gardens

Pepi's house winter

Pepi’s farm in winter

 

Did you figure out why “Pepi” is his nickname?

You may recall that Pepi’s actual name is Josef, and I wasn’t able to figure out how he acquired this seemingly unrelated nickname, despite asking.  My sister, Louise, was telling the amusing story of how Pepi answered my question of how got his nickname with a seeming non sequitur (“How did you get your nickname?”  “Well, Josef is a very common name…”).   Her colleague explained that Pepi or some variant thereof is a common nickname for Joseph in many countries.  Turns out, in Latin, Saint Joseph’s name is always followed by the letters “P.P” for pater putativus (commonly accepted) father of Jesus Christ. A Pepe / Pepi variant as a common nickname for Joseph / Josef is found in many countries.

Didn’t you send some additional materials to Pepi?  What happened with those?

Why yes I did, thank you for asking.  I sent some basic genealogical information on the Valentine Bier family to be shared with Pepi’s “professor friend” in Berlin.  What I gathered through our translator was that this professor friend was interested in the story of displaced Germans following WWII.  Well, that professor friend must have shared my information, because about two weeks ago I received an email from a (presumed) relative in Berlin, Stephan Bier.  Talk about excitement!

Well how on earth did you read it?  You ain’t got no German.

True.  Luckily I have a friend and retired professor named John McSweeny who helped me with translation and interpretation of the information that Stephan sent.  Those of us interested in learning the story of the Biers out of Ketzelsdorf (Koclířov) owe a debt of gratitude to Professor McSweeny.  He not only translated, but provided background materials and recommended reading.  You know what they say: you can take the professor out of the research stacks, but you can’t take the research stacks out of the professor.  Or something like that.

You’re killing me, Smalls!  What did the email say?

Stephan’s original email contained a translated first paragraph with the remainder in German.  Here, for your reading pleasure, is the message as translated by Professor McSweeny:

I am Stephan Bier, born in 1936 in Ketzeldorf , House No. 48.   [recall, the Valentine Biers were in number 78]  Pepi has sent your family document to me in Berlin.  BTW, Pepi grew up in House No. 35, which is his family’s home, and which is in the same neighborhood as my parent’s home. Some Ketzeldorfers ended up here in Berlin after several detours. Most of the people were victims of the “wild expulsion” of June 28, 1945. On June 29th we were aimlessly transported under guard by rail from Abstdorf in open coal cars in the direction of what was then central Germany and is now eastern Germany. That was eight weeks after the end of the devastating Second World War.  The country was devastated and there was no functioning German administration; chaos reigned!

Thanks to the list of residents of Ketzeldorf in June, 1945, produced by the Czechs, I can see that there were 280 house numbers with about 1600 persons who were all German.  In 69 of the house numbers there were 250 people with the name Bier! This level of concentration of the name does not appear anywhere else. My compatriot, Franz Kössler (Born 1931), House No. 60, has looked at the documents a little more closely and has already written a draft for an article in the Schönhengster Newspaper.   We hope that it will be published soon.  The newspaper is only published monthly in Göppingen.

Under the direction of Dr. Franz Kössler, and with my collaboration, we published a small booklet in 2015 entitled   “Memories of Ketzelsdorf in Schönhengstgau” in memory of the expulsion 70 years before.  The booklet is probably no longer available.  However, I have almost the entire printed version in the computer and so this could be made available electronically if desired.

I am sending you my findings about your family from the Ketzelsdorfer birth register, which you can see on the Internet. I am also attaching two short overviews or summaries that I created for myself.

Best wishes from Berlin,

Stephan Bier

 

Wow, that’s amazing!  I have so many questions.  First, are we related to Stephan Bier?  Unclear.  I’m sure that somewhere in the past we had a common ancestor.  He provided a nice link to a slightly more navigable version of the Zamrsk archive, so that’s a good starting point.  It’s still in German though, so this is going to be a long term project.  I’ve already replied to Stephan and asked whether he knows the origin of the name “Bier”–famous producer or consumer thereof.

Fair enough.  What’s Schönhengstgau? And who’s this Dr. Franz Kössler?  Remember how I kept describing the region in which Ketzelsdorf is located as “an area comprised of regions of Bohemia and Moravia where a majority of ethnic Germans lived that’s now in the Czech Republic”?  Well, IT HAS A NAME and that’s Schönhengstgau.  Of course, this region now only exists historically.  Schönhengstgau is roughly translated as “Beautiful Stallion Shire” in English.   A “Gau” was an administrative area in Germany roughly equivalent to an English shire.  With a new search term in hand, a research community can be discovered.

Schönhengstgau

Symbol or crest of Schönhengstgau

Enter Dr. Franz Kössler.  As Stephan Bier’s letter indicates, he is a fellow displaced Ketzelsdorfer.  HIs Wikipedia entry indicates that he has worked professionally in areas including botany, radiation biology, environmental biophysics, musculoskeletal disorders.  And his hobby in retirement is Ketzelsdorf specifically and, generally, Schönhengstgau.  I presume that this is the “professor friend” that Pepi mentioned.

Dr. Franz Kössler

Dr. Koffler from a website listing his curriculum vitae:  https://www2.informatik.hu-berlin.de/~koessler/Vati/LebenslaufVati.html

 

Hmm, interesting.  If I want to learn more, what do I do next?  And why are you hogging the information that he says he shared?

Thanks again to Professor McSweeny.  He identified a few great options, such as a family research forum, and a dedicated website.  Also look at the Wikipedia entry for Schönhengstgau which includes the Schönhengstgau Homeland song.  Finally, I’m not nearly so selfish as I seem:  here is a link to the two translated chronologies that Stephan Bier provided.

I see that Stephan Bier seems to think that Ketzelsdorf holds the record for Bier concentration.  What about Southern Wisconsin?  Where are we at?  That is a good question.  I realize that my family data is not particularly up to date as far as recent generations go.  I can identify at least 140 “Biers,” assuming a 50% rate of marital name changing.  So, we’ll have to take a roll call.  I’m looking for anyone with the last name Bier.  In the Vincent V. Bier family (son of Edward, son of Valentine), we have:  Thomas Bier, Janice (Cousin) Bier, Angela Bier, Catherine Bier, Louise Bier, Peter Bier, Mary (Schwichtenberg) Bier, Liesl Bier, August Bier, Patrick Bier, James Bier, Tim Bier, Amy Bier, and Kelly Bier.  So that’s 14 to start with.   Please comment.   I guess I have to add “recent family activity” to the ever-expanding list of things to do.

It sure sounds like you’ve got a lot of work to do.  Truer words.  But at least it’s fun!

 

 

 

Bier Trip to the Homeland Part VII:

As we boarded the bus for our trip to Koclířov,  I tried to keep my enthusiasm in check, but it was hard.  This town, formerly Ketzelsdorf, holds so much enchantment for my Bier family.  Thanks to the diaries of the emigrant Valentine Bier family, the town seemed almost palpably real in our collective imaginations.  There’d be the ancestral home at number 78, St. Philomena’s Church where Valentine and Catherine had been married and the first seven children baptized, and a magical quality of recognition.

 

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A new day dawns on the Bohemian countryside

 

I harbored some additional secret hopes.  I hoped for some clues of relatives, pre- or post-Valentine, maybe a few friendly townspeople, a good beer.  I know that my Uncle Jim hoped to stride up to the door of 78 and, after flashing his I.D., be invited in for a game of mariáš.  But I didn’t dare mention these hopes–better to keep the group’s expectations low.

Our guide, Jana, had a contact in Koclířov, a lady who would let us in the church.  In fact, she said that of all the towns that she contacted, Koclířov was the only one that yielded a positive response.  However, we were running an hour late, and I anticipated a crabby old church lady when we finally rolled into town.

 

 

 

 

Imagine my slack-jawed surprised, then, when we were met instead by two people who, quite simply, none of us will ever forget.  Hana spoke English and, therefore, did most of the greeting.  She is a member of St. Philomena’s parish, a devout Catholic, and works for the other Catholic enterprise in town, the Fatima Center.  She welcomed us with unbridled enthusiasm, warmth, and awe.  She was amazed that we had traveled so far and repeated in numerous ways how blessed and lucky she felt.  It killed me when I had to do something so pedestrian as ask for a toilet!

She also introduced us to Josef, who goes by Pepi.  (“Why Pepi?” we wondered.  “Because Josef is such a common name.”  Something lost in translation there…).  Pepi spoke German and was mildly disappointed to discover that none of us did.  His mother was one of three Germans allowed to remain in the village following WWII, by virtue of the fact that she married a Czech man.  She secretly taught Pepi to speak German, and passed on to him her sorrow over the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans.  Indeed, he made her a deathbed promise to mend that rift.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think we helped him fulfill that promise to his mother.

 

 

 

Hana pointed out some of the sites in the town, including the community hall where Pepi had celebrated his 70th birthday the night before.  She reiterated the remarkable fact that a town of 700 supports not one but two Catholic institutions–St. James the Elder & Philomena Church and the Fatima Center.  This is all the more remarkable in a country in which 80% of the population is atheist.  St. James & Philomena is the traditional town church.  The Fatima Center is both a parish church and a pilgrimage site / education center / conference center / gathering place that sells amazing pastries for 40 cents.  It was built at the site of a former convent.

 

 

 

Hana and Pepi took us into the church and related it’s history, of near total destruction and decay during Communist rule and eventual restoration.  This was due to what Hana called a miracle and what I called a little bit of shoddy bookkeeping at the government offices.  I don’t want to get anyone in trouble–you’ll have to ask one of us in person!

 

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St. James the Greater & St. Philomena from the cemetery.  In the distance you can see the Fatima Center.  You can also appreciate the valley in which Koclířov lies

 

The cemetery’s German section was protected by destruction by the Communists by Pepi and his people.  You could barely hold me back as we entered through the gates.

 

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View from the church into the cemetery

 

Holy cow, the place was awash with Biers!  And I knew absolutely NONE of them!  It was simultaneously exciting and overwhelming.  So much work left to do!.  Pepi led us from grave to family grave, pausing to shed a few silent tears at the grave of his dear mother.  Fear not–the less legible had rubbings taken by the Laning boys.  Can you believe all of this unexplored history?  My only disappointment was that I didn’t see a single Jiru grave.  Fingers crossed that the archives at Zamrsk will prove more fruitful.

 

 

 

Flanking the church and cemetery on either side were a series of niches.  These contained a set of restored stations of the cross and additional memorials.   The money to restore these came from Koclířov’s former Sudeten Germans.  Pepi has organized a series of reunions with 80+ of the Koclířov Germans who were deported.  Hana relates that many were very hesitant to return, feeling the place would be “tainted” or “cursed” to them.  However, most wept tears of joy on their return, recalling and recognizing the home of their childhood.  The expat Koclířov-ians and current population now make yearly alternating visits between the Czech Republic and Germany.  Talk about making good on his promise!

 

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Niches flanking the church that contain old stations of the cross. The restoration was undertaken as a joint effort with the exiled German former residents of Koclířov, under Pepi’s guidance.

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Niches flanking the church that contain old stations of the cross and memorials. The restoration was undertaken as a joint effort with the exiled German former residents of Koclířov, under Pepi’s guidance.

 

Finally we stepped inside the church.  Hana gave a touching impromptu speech, led us all in prayer, and then proceeded to sing a song of St. Philomena as requested by Pepi, who softly hummed along to my right.  I know that I simply wept in astonishment.

 

 

 

Feeling overwhelmed with it all, we were then led across the street to the Fatima Center for more.  We had a brief tour of the beautiful grounds.  And note to self:  rooms are available to the public for 290 Kč per night (about $12!!!).

 

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Grounds of the Fatima Center

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Grounds of the Fatima Center

 

Then Pepi brought out the homemade plum brandy.  It was his birthday, after all.  I didn’t detect any plum, and I’m pretty sure that the 57% alcohol was a low estimate.  Oh well, twist our arms, cheers to Pepi!

 

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Pepi and Jana pouring out . . .

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serving to Eug . . .

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to Pepi!

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A second for some.

 

We had two things left that we hoped for:  to see the home at 78 and to see a statue that Pepi mentioned that was commissioned by a Bier.  Pepi was sad to inform us that the Bier home was one of 145 razed after the removal of the Germans after WWII.  He was able to point out its approximate location, however, which is now the site of a small yellow apartment building.  It’s nestled on the banks of the valley, just adjacent to a creek and a 3 minute walk from the church.  He also provided me with a hand-drawn map of the town’s layout prior to the destruction of the 145 homes, as drawn from the collective memory of the town.

 

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Apartment at the site of the former Bier home

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The site lies adjacent to the small creek that runs through town

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On the other side of the creek is a bus station and parking lot; you can just see the yellow apartment building in the background to the left.

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View from the bus station facing away from the house; you can see St. James & Philomena’s steeple in the distance and appreciate just how close to the church the Bier home was.

 

We didn’t want to the leave the town, but we had to eat.  No problem.  Hana called in some additional staff for the small restaurant owned by the Fatima Center.  They stayed open just for us and the beer and dumplings were sublime.  Of course, Pepi, Jana and our intrepid bus driver, Alex, joined us as well (Hana had to get back to work).

 

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Still trying to master mariáš after lunch

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The group outside the restaurant

 

Finally, Pepi led us to the statue at the edge of town.  It depicts St. Jan Nepomucký, an icon with whom we’d become familiar.  A Czech king had thrown him into the Vltava river after he (the saint) refused to rat out the queen’s confession.  The site where he went in was said to be identified by five stars.  As a result, he’s traditionally depicted with five starts around his head.  Ironically, he’s the patron saint of swimmers.  The back of the statue did, in fact, include a name “Joseph Bier”–another relative that I didn’t know we had.  Seriously, so much work to do . . .

 

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Statue of St. Jan Nepomucký

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Inscription on the back, with the name Joseph Bier and the year 1834

 

As I write all of this, I still can’t really believe it all happened.  The day was simply magical, and I know that we all felt it.  And it’s all due to the intervention of three amazing people whom I can never thank enough . . .

 

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Pepi

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Hana…the Czech “Sister Jan”

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Jana

 

Until we meet again, ahoy  Koclířov

 

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Bier Trip to the Homeland Part VI: Wishin’ and Hopin’

We had two days blocked out for our trip into the Bohemian and Moravian countryside.  I had been referring to this portion of the trip as the “black box:”  I had no idea what it held, could be good or bad, and I made no promises.  That being said, I still felt a great deal of responsibility for the group’s enjoying itself.

Day one, while visually stunning,

was a little bit discouraging.  

Our lovely guide, Jana, started off by having a sidebar with me about how most of the stops that the tour company had booked for the first day weren’t going to be worth it.  See, she had received copies of my research.  She got it.  She understood that I didn’t want to spend hours at archives that didn’t have what I needed.  I quickly agreed to adjust our plans, reassured her of our easygoing nature, and began to develop nervous diarrhea.

Once we were outside the Prague metropolitan area, we were again struck by the visual similarity of the Bohemian countryside to southern Wisconsin.  I imagine that the original Bohemian immigrants to Wisconsin just stayed on the train until things looked familiar, then disembarked and got to work.

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Save for the occasional castle, the Bohemian countryside is reminiscent of southern Wisconsin

 

The more agriculturally inclined in the group entertained themselves playing “name that crop” and “how many combines can you spot?”  The bus had to circle back many times as we encountered narrow lanes and bridges unable to bear the weight of a tour bus.  Additional time to kill was spent attempting to learn the complex rules of the traditional Czech card game, Mariáš.  My uncles kept hoping that they’d stumble upon a group of avid players with whom they could bond.  Instead, most people said that they knew of the game, but that it was too hard to learn!  Also, that their grandpa played.

 

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Name that crop!

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Counting combines

 

Eventually we stopped at the town of Zamrsk, where the district records are kept.  Jana assured me that over 90% of the records are digitized, and that a long stop would probably be a waste of time.  This was a good thing, as the building was closed and the records in indecipherable Gothic German.  Speaking of which, anyone know a good Gothic German translator?  So, we snapped a few pictures of the closed archives, Eugene and I had a beer with some kind people with whom we were unable to converse, Jana and the bus driver tried to fix the air conditioning, and we were off.

 

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The Zamrsk regional archives are housed in an old, charming prison.  The records therein are digitized, and I have a lot of work to do.

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We visited on a Sunday.  Oh well.

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My spirits were buoyed by this lovely Czech woman who shared a cold beer with me and cousin Eugene.  She was lovely, and nobody understand a bit of what the other was saying.

 

We drove a bit more.  The tour company booked us for a lunch stop in the town of Litomyšl.  I understand why–the main street is picturesque and there’s a castle.  (My God, I’ve become jaded on castles.  So. Many. Castles.)  But, again, I was left concerned that our journey to our roots was going to be a pastiche of the Czech countryside.

 

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Charming Litomyšl castle

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Charming Litomyšl main street

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Charming Litomyšl side street

 

Finally, after lunch, we set off for Dolní Třešňovec, the home of the Langer family for several generations.  Sure, none of my direct ancestors had lived there since about 1810.  Sure, we didn’t have any contacts in town.  Sure, the Sudenten Germans had all been expelled after World War Two and there were likely no actual relatives still there.  We were confident that armed with a house number (95), the knowledge that a chapel with a Pieta existed, and some basic luck, we were bound to find something.

And we did!  I truly don’t know if the abandoned overgrown house that we found was the house, but I hope it was.  I don’t know if the chapel-shaped firestation was the chapel, but it seems likely.  I am pretty sure that the Pieta next to the chapel / firestation was, in fact, a Pieta.

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Abandoned number 95.  Could this be the long-ago home of my Langer ancestors?

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Stucco chipping away on the side of the house reveals an old brick exterior that, to my amateur eyes, could be the required several hundred years old.

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If this is a refurbished chapel, the use of steeple as hose-drying tower was a clever conversion.  “Way to go boys,” says firefighter Tom.

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Descriptions of Dolní Třešňovec mention a Pieta next to the chapel.  This certainly fits the bill.

 

So….it was a start!  The cluster of houses hugging the roadside in  Dolní Třešňovec wasn’t all that inspiring, but with a few deep breaths and imagination, there was a flicker of magic to the place.  But the day had been long and the a.c. never really improved.  My frayed nerves were getting the better of me, and as we pulled away in the bus, I was truly focused on hoping for a better tomorrow.

I had been worried that the Czech people would be irritated with us German Americans nosing around the place.  Instead, no one seemed particularly interested at all, which was somehow worse.  Sure the scenery was beautiful and evocative, but I needed something more to make it seem just right.  After all, this was the capstone.  This was the part of the trip that was supposed to somehow bring us full circle.  I needed a little magic.

Fear not, fair reader.  On Day Two, we got our magic in spades.

Bier Trip to the Homeland Part V: Alternate Facts

The two days that we spent in Prague were beautiful, overwhelming in their information, and did quite a bit to set my assumptions straight.  Thesis: the Slavic people weren’t totally into the German population that my ancestors represented.  Correllary:  Prague is beautiful.

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Prague from the Strahov Monastery, above the castle complex.  St. Vitus Cathedral can be seen in the distance, along with the Vltava River.

 

As recently as two years ago, I was still muddling through the confusing fact that the towns in Bohemia from whence we sprang had new, Czech names.  As our guides slowly recounted the histories of the sites that we saw, it became clear that renaming these towns with Czech names was actually an act of reclamation rather than complete rebirth.  I learned a Czech history of being dominated first by the the Holy Roman Empire, then the Austro Hungarian, brief independence in the early 20th century only to be occupied by the Nazis, then the Communists.  The Velvet Revolution brought self-determination in 1989.  How did I miss this nuance?  I suppose that, before this trip, I was looking at things from a narrow point of view.

A brief review of a few Prague highlights, however, tells a story of nationalistic pride having nothing to do with the identity of any of their former occupying rulers.

St. Vitus Cathedral is located within the so-called Prague Castle complex. The current building is a prime example of Gothic architecture.  The altar end was built under the rule of Charles the IV, begun in 1344.  Construction paused to address more important issues to the Austro-Hungarians, such as the Protestant / Hussite “threat” and various sundry wars.  The Nave end was finally completed in Neo-Gothic Style in the 19th century.  The current cathedral is actually the third on the site built to celebrate the arm of St. Vitus that King Vaclav (who we know as Good King Wenceslas) acquired.  There are a lot of other popular Slavic saints their too, including Vaclav himself.

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St. Vitus Cathedral, eternal home of many popular saints, kings, and emperors.

Another, in my opinion more  beautiful, chapel in the Prague Castle is known as the Old Chapel and is done in traditional Romanesque style.  There, the grandmother of Good King Vaclav is buried and venerated a saint and Slavic folk hero as well.  She is Saint Ludmila.  She is noted for having raised Vaclav and for having been strangled by her daughter in law.  They were trying times.

 

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The beautiful, austere Old Chapel of Prague Castle.

 

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The Old Chapel in Prague Castle features this ancient fresco of Queen Ludmila, grandmother of king Wenceslas (Vaclav).  She is usually shown wearing a white cloth over her head.

Vaclav is a huge folk hero.  There is a statue of him astride a horse at the top of Wenceslas (Vaclav) Square.  He was actually a Duke of Bohemia, not a king as the song implies.  Also, he was killed by his brother.  Again, trying times.  Wenceslas Square has been the site of numerous massive demonstrations, especially in the days of communist rule, such as the Prague Spring in 1968.

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Duke Vaclav (“King Wenceslas”) in the eponymously named square.

 

Another guy we saw in bronze a lot was King Charles the IV.  He was considered the greatest of the Bohemian Kings.  In addition to initiating the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral, he founded Charles University & built the Charles bridge.  Bonus:  he had 4 wives, none of whom he killed!  Charles University today has over 40,000 students and is free for Czech citizens.

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King Charles IV in Křižovnické  Square, Prague

Looking for a new, fun sport?  Why not take up defenestration?  This is a historically popular way to both demonstrate against and take care of one’s enemies in the Czech Republic.  It means, literally, “to throw out a window.”  So, the rules of the game are easy.  We saw a famous defenestration window in the Prague Castle that Czechs used to defenestrate some Hapsburg clerks during the days of Austro-Hungarian rule.

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Famous defenstration window in Prague Castle.  Watch your back, I might defenestrate you.

Outside Prague castle is Golden Lane.  This series of pocket-sized homes are built into the castle walls and were the site of craftspeople.  In the early 20th century, Number 14 was the residence of a famous fortune teller.  When the Gestapo was clearing the place, she foretold their eventual defeat.  So, they killed her.

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Home of Matylda Průšová, Golden Lane, Prague Castle

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Detail from the home of Matylda Průšová

 

As I mentioned above, St. Vitus Cathedral wasn’t completed until the early 20th century.  So, all of the stained glass windows in it are modern.  One stands out, the painted window of Czech Art Nouveau artist, Alphonse Mucha.  It highlights King / St. Vaclav in the Center–as a young boy in red with Queen Ludmila, and just above being baptised by Sts. Cyril and Methodius.  Their lives are highlighted in the side panels.

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Stained glass window designed by Alphonse Mucha, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

I was so taken with the window that I made a visit to the Mucha museum.  He gained massive popularity through his theatrical advertising posters in France, mostly for Sarah Bernhard.  Later, though, he turned his attention to more traditional Slavic themes.  The most striking to me was the poster below, nominally advertising a lottery, but really advertising Slavic independence and self-determination.  The lottery was used to fund Czech language classes to keep the language alive.  A young schoolgirl stares accusingly from the poster, daring the viewer to NOT buy a ticket.  In the background is a dejected Slavic woman on a dying tree.

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Alphonse Mucha, from “Lottery for the Union of Southwest Moravia.”

Finally, we stopped at the exuberant John Lennon wall.  The wall has been used since communist times as a place of public expression of dissent.  It was a spontaneous gathering place after Lennon’s death, after which it earned its current name.  It is now the only place in the city where graffiti is legal.

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Joan Shadel & Tom Bier adding to the John Lennon Wall, Prague

When we were walking to our hotel on our first day in Prague, we passed through a hotel.  The statue by David Cerny there was totally confusing.  By the end, it became a welcome and understandable site.  This modern artist is big into grand public displays.  This is his most famous work, a takeoff on the Vaclav square statue, with a Vaclav astride a thoroughly dead horse representing communism.

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David Cerny’s “Svaty Vaclav”

 

Good lord, isn’t Prague achingly beautiful?  Nevertheless, I ended these two days in Prague a little nervous.  How would we be received, Germans showing up in the now-Czech villages of our ancestors?  Were we suffering from a bad case of hubris?  As we head into the countryside, only time will tell…