hidden europe 7

Teschen talk

by Nicky Gardner


we make a midwinter journey through an outpost of the former Habsburg empire, the area that was once Austrian Silesia

The man was at least eighty, perhaps much older, and as the train travelled through the hills he sometimes dozed. At other times, he was intensely alert, surveying every farmstead and forest clearing through the train's dirty windows. He was, as it happens, very soundly asleep, when we suddenly found ourselves in Poland. This was an international diversion of which the timetable gave no hint. The train slowed, rattled round a few curves, and came to a halt in Glucholazy. On the one side, a railway station platform; on the other, a mountain of dirty snow that showed that someone had made a valiant effort in trying to keep the tracks clear. On the platform a lone Polish policeman, on the other side a single empty beer bottle carefully positioned atop the snowy peak.

When the old man awoke, he seemed disquieted by his unexpected arrival in Poland. He took off his glasses, rubbed the lenses vigorously with the end of his scarf, and replaced the spectacles. He looked intently at the rusting station sign, partly encrusted with icicles, and then spoke the name aloud, pondering over each syllable.

The only other passenger in our part of the train was a woman who sat across the way, a huge basket of parsnips balanced on the seat beside her. She too was old, her huddled frame wrapped in a maroon blanket, alert grey eyes betraying one who still took a benign interest in the world and its ways. The woman obviously sensed that an intervention was in order and explained that the handful of trains that trundle each day through the hills of northern Moravia all make this little Polish diversion, creeping across the border to Glucholazy, an unkempt outpost of the Polish railways that hasn't seen a Polish train in years. No one alights, no one boards, and the policeman on the platform just observes. Soon the Czech train is on its way again, creeping with a screech of wheels on rusty tracks through another Polish community or two, and within a few minutes we were back in the Czech Republic.

The old man unwrapped a brown paper packet to reveal a thick dark salami, and took a pocket knife from his bag. With great precision, he cut three thickish slices off the meat. Seemingly encouraged that we had, in our hour or so as travelling companions on the Czech train, now even crossed international frontiers together, he pointed to the salami and offered me a piece. He then turned obligingly to the bearer of parsnips and did the same. I took a slice of salami and said a few words in German by way of thanks.

"Kai to jedziesz?" asked the man looking directly at me. "Nach Krnov?" (Where are you going? To Krnov?).

"No," I replied in German, "much further. To Ostrava and on through Teschen".

Related article

In the ghetto

on the margins of Berlin, several thousand Russlanddeutsche (Russian-Germans), migrants who arrived in Germany in the mid 1990s, live as an underclass

Related article

From Austerlitz to Waterloo

So where is the Trafalgar which gave its name to the Battle of Trafalgar? And where is the Blenheim after which Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire is supposedly named? We look at a few European place names which feature larger-than-life in the historical record.