I did it - I finished the ride, 795 miles and countless impressions. I know many of you are waiting for the reflection on the migration posts, and I apologize in advance. The substantive posts will have to wait a little. I need to contextualize and fact-check, what I learned. That process takes time. Time, which en route I used to gather new data and impressions along the way and to finish the tour.
But in the meantime, I wanted to share my impressions about biking second country, the Czech Republic: I spend the most time of my biking days on the trip in the Czech Republic. In order to get to Hungary, I had to cross the country from Prague to Vienna without the benefits of an officially mapped out Eurovelo route. Instead, I relied on local maps and the kind advice of strangers. The resulting ride was bound to have many surprises in store.
Biking Czech Republic was as beautiful as it was strenuous: It took me from the Elbe through South Bohemia, known for the Bohemians mountains, and on towards Moravia, also known for its Moravian highlands. I trained in the Appalachian Mountains close to Washington DC, so I was unfazed by everyone’s worried looks, when they warned me that it will be tough. Oh, was I humbled: biking hilly terrain three days in a row with a fully loaded bike does not compare to a speedy ride through skyline drive - but more on that later.
First I biked happily along the Elbe river bike path in the river valley flanked by the sandstone mountains, taking in the beautiful sights, crisp smells, and passing through medieval towns and occasionally by castles. Below are just some memorable views from the river side.
Right along the Elbe cycling path also lies Terezin, or Theresienstadt in German: a sight eternally marked by the horrors of the German Nazi government. The Germans occupied the fortress, built by the Austrian emperor as a military outpost and later a Czech military town, in order to create a Ghetto and Concentration camp. I made a point to visit, and take the historical tour of the concentration camp and learned that the camp was only part of the moral abyss of Terezin. Unbeknownst to me, its Ghetto was more akin to a labor camp, in which thousands Jews perished. The Nazis used Terezin as a stopping point for deportations towards the death camps further East.
The concentration camp itself was a Gestapo prison for the ‘worst’ of all categories: Jewish resistance fighters; Jews, who broke the anti-Semitic laws; as well as national resistance fighters and communists. The gruesomeness enacted there shocked my imagination (having visited Auschwitz and having volunteered as a translator of witness statements at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I thought I was hardened.)
At Terezin, it was the spontaneous cruelty of the guards and camp directors, which went above and beyond the ghastly machinery of the Holocaust, that deeply shook me: examples include the forced labor of prisoners to excavate a swimming pool with their bare hands so that the children of commanders could cool down from the summer heat. It was absurd imagining German kids ‘blissfully’ swimming in the middle of a concentration camp. Another example was the fighting pit; there, inmates were forced to fight to death, while commanders watched for personal enjoyment.
You may wonder, why I spend so much time sharing my experience, which is related to the past. I struggled with the question whether to include it in the post on the Czech Republic, a country occupied at the time. Yet, Europe's dark past has been very present for me, as I cycled this journey. It is the continent's darkest chapters, which inspired the human rights— including rights of refugees – which are now under attack by nationalist tendencies. I asked myself frequently how can we abandon lessons, we learned so painfully? As I have cycled through the different countries, the way in which countries interacted with the history of the Holocaust was an unexpected theme: it appeared to correlate with positive or protective discourse on diversity.
For example, at Terezin, The Czech government made the choice to commemorate the Christian victims more visibly than the Jews, who perished in large numbers and much more brutally. For example, non Jewish inmates were in over-crowded, inhumane cells, which nonetheless had wooden planks, and insufficient toilet and stove. In comparison, twice the number of Jews were forced into a similar cell with no beds, no toilets, and only one vent. They would sleep standing, pressed together for lack of space, and rotate slowly, so that everyone had a moment, where they could breath near the one vent the size of my palm. Suffocation was a nightly occurrence.
Yet, the cross hanging at Terezin, triple the size of the star of David, dominates the landscape, as one approaches. The star of David is hidden in the shadows. This implicit choice speaks of prioritization of a narrative of national victimhood. Contained in this choice is a rejection of the Jewish life as part of Czech life (many of the inmates were Czech Jews).
The latter struck me again in Tabor, another historic town I crossed in the Czech Republic; there, the Communists converted the local synagogue into a parking lot in the 1970s, because there were ‘only’ 200 hundred Jews left in Tabor, as my Czech couchsurfing host explained. After Nazi occupation, Tabor's Jews were transported to Terezin and then on towards the concentration camps further east. As I marveled at history razed to the ground, I wondered: isn't silence vis-à-vis past crimes a form of acquiescence?
Later on, as I discussed the Czech response to the refugee crisis, I started to ponder whether the narrative of national victimhood weakened an identification with the hard learned lessons from the Holocaust?
Terezin stayed with me, as I pedaled towards Prague, despite sunshine, beauty and castles.
The sights of Prague were something to behold: this must be one of the most beautiful old capitals of Europe. The historic city hardly needs an introduction: its beautiful buildings, famous bridges and figures of saints, its excellent beer and proud people all gave it worldwide fame. So much so, that I missed the days when I visited it in 1995, and I could walk the streets with a measurable number of enthusiastic tourists. Now I was glad to abandon the tourist maze in search of answers to the many questions on migration I had.
My amazing cousin joined me in Prague to cycle a week with me. It was her first bike tour. Little did we know that she was joining me for the toughest cycling of all my trip. Leaving the Elbe river, my cousin and I cycled into Moravia, into hills, which took hours to climb up, and deep forests, which muted sounds. On we cycled down through valleys, with streams, fields of flowers and agriculture, which hardly seemed to tame the country side.
In Prague, we had bought local cycling maps in hopes of planning an excellent route. Cycling without a detailed guide meant that we had to learn, how big a small town has to be in order to have any food, and what kind of markings distinguish a paved trail from a gravel road. Thus, came days in which we strained our physical limits. First day, for example, we only ate lunch at 5pm after 65 miles the hunger only made it more delicious!). We didn't arrive to Tabor, the historical Hussite town and our destination for the day until nightfall. Oh, were we grateful for our fabulous couchsurfing hosts, who despite the late hour made sure we were fed, warm, and had a good laugh before sleep. Their hospitality warmed our hearts.
Despite the learning pains, the sights were worth the long, meandering days: the gravel paths, which our wrists hated, also took us by gorgeous ruins of castles and dreamy ponds. While we cycled long, hot days, we passed streets, which were lined with fruit trees: apricots, plums, cherries, apples and pears all waiting to be picked. Always a tough choice, whether to break the rhythm of cycling for some fresh plums.
For long stretches, we were the sole cyclists: only insects and the piercing cries of birds of prey accompanied the sound of our wheels. Such an experience is hard to describe: a meditative trance, where the cyclist’s mind completely immerses into the nature. From Tabor, we cycled on towards Austrian border through the Moravian region. More hills, but a different forest: it was so thick that the light hardly reached the ground. Instead the moss grew on the trees, where the light hit the branches, giving them a golden glow.
On the Austrian border lies one of the most beautiful medieval old town I have yet visited, and which is still hidden from the tourist track: Slavonice. There, we warmed up after a cool night at a campsite, fueled up with delicious, cheap breakfast, and mentally prepared ourselves for another unknown route: through Austria, for which we didn't have bike maps, but we had much optimism.