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Cultural reconstruction

May 30, 2010

After decades of neglect during the communist era, a group of students in the Czech Republic has taken the initiative to fix up some of the Sudetenland's cultural monuments. Topping the list: a historic dance hall.

A the frame of a building with broken out windows
In its prime, this former dance hall hosted many partiesImage: Kirchgeßner

It's early enough for morning fog to be still hanging above the High Ash Mountains in the Sudetenland - a part of the Czech Republic annexed by Nazi Germany in the build-up to the Second World War.

Despite the early hour, a small group of students has already put in quite a trip to be here. A mini-bus has brought them along meandering roads, through pine forests and villages that nestle between peaks in the hilly landscape.

At the end of the long drive is an old house in the woods. It's made of wood, but apart from the roof and the support beams, not much is left. It's just a ruin in the forest, but this group is determined to change that.

Empty window frames surround the dance floor
The stained glass cast colorful silhouettes of the dancers from the dance floorImage: Kirchgeßner

"We have tools here: rakes, shovels, brooms - that sort of thing," says Tomas Hradil, head of the student group that is working on the house. "First we'll make things clean and tidy. Flood waters have washed away the stones, so we have to stack them around the perimeter. Then we'll give it all a once over with a scythe."

Hradil is in his late thirties, and sports a full, dark beard. His handshake is strong, but as his students fan out and get to work around him, Hradil lets out a sigh and shows he has a soft spot for the ruined building in the woods.

"Look around here, there used to be stairs that led up to the top floor," he says. "Now all you see are the stone foundations. The wood and all the ornamentation were removed by people over the years and taken back to their own homes."

A bright stage for dancing

When it opened in 1904, the building was a dance hall in the middle of the forest, and it shone elegantly in its prime. The outer walls consisted of window frames, filled with colored panes in Art Nouveau style. Inside was a single large room and a dance floor, and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling.

People from the entire area came whenever there was a reason to celebrate. They were mostly Germans, but Czechs and Poles came as well. Today there's nothing left of the original building other than the foundation and supports - and the dreams of the students who are working to restore it.

"How magnificent it must have been when these windows still shone with all their colors!" says one of Hradil's students. "When they had a party here, and everything was brightly lit, and you could see the silhouettes of the people who were dancing inside, and hear the music outside…"

Tomas Hradil
Tomas Hradil heads the student group 'Brontosaurus'Image: Kirchgeßner

Today, shards of the Art Nouveau windows lie all around the building. Hradil says vandals smashed the glass.

If it were up to him, he would rebuild the whole dance hall, but that project is a bit too big for the time being. Financial limitations keep his group, which calls itself 'Brontosaurus,' from undertaking anything too big.

In the past, old fountains on the hiking path near the spa town of Jesenik have been restored, and new nature trails through the mountainous country have been blazed. Now, the student volunteers who come from all over the Czech Republic on their holidays have their sights set on the old dance hall. If they can't fully reconstruct it, they hope at least to keep it from collapsing.

Relics from the past

Should the project ever reach a point where a full reconstruction is possible, Hradil thinks he'd be able to count on some locals to help in tracking down some of the original contents.

"We've come to realize that the people who stripped the building of all the valuables have actually done us a service," says Hradil. "The people didn't want to give the communist regime the satisfaction of getting them. And now they are contacting us, because they heard we are working on restructuring the hall."

As word spreads about the project, items from the dance hall are slowly being returned. Little gestures like these are like a small miracle in the Sudetenland, which had once been lost and forgotten for decades.

Author: Kilian Kirchgessner (mz)
Editor: Susan Houlton

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