A well-preserved/commodified former labour camp from the early communist
days in Czechoslovakia
when in particular political prisoners had to do forced labour in the local uranium mines. A unique relic that deserves to be better known than it currently is.
More background info:
In its first incarnation the camp at Vojna (named after the hill next to it) was established in 1947 for (and built by) German POW
s from WWII
. These had to be repatriated by 1949. The new communist
rulers who had seized power in 1948 then used the camp for the internment of mainly political prisoners.
Prisoners had to do forced labour in the uranium mines of the area – which was, and to a degree still is, a major industry in these parts. Needless to say, underground uranium mining especially by the crude methods of the day, came with serious health risks (lung cancer in particular).
From 1951 the Vojna camp was officially run as a "re-educational" facility, and political prisoners were joined by regular criminals, black marketeers and people whose only crime was to have attempted to flee the country (cf. GDR
, Iron Curtain
, Berlin Wall
The darkest times of communist rule in Czechoslovakia
were those early years, especially the fully Stalinist
rule under Klement Gottwald (see under Prague
). From the late 1950s the degree of repression relaxed somewhat and in 1960 an amnesty reduced Vojna's prisoner numbers significantly. The last remaining inmates were transferred to another camp and the Vojna site was closed for good in June 1961.
Subsequently, the site was used by the Czech military. In the late 1990s the uniqueness of the place, where several original structures of the old labour camp still survived, was recognized. The military moved out in the year 2000 and the whole complex was officially declared a cultural heritage site in 2001 and opened to the general public. The main political historical exhibition was set up in 2004-2005. And a new additional exhibition about the legacy of uranium mining in the area was added in 2007.
What there is to see:
The minute you arrive at the entrance to this site, you are hit by the typical look of a gulag
– i.e. double barbed-wire fence with watchtowers with searchlights on them, and within the camp wooden barracks as well as some stone buildings. The main gate has an inscription above it: "Praci ke Svobodě", which translates as (no, not 'work sets you free', but) 'Labour to Freedom'.
Once through the gate, you may be greeted by a guard dog – unless he's locked up in one of the two dog kennels by the camp fence. When I arrived, the dog was roaming freely – but not to worry: it was quite a placid character and just wagged its tail whilst remaining lying in the grass as I passed by.
The first building on your left is a modern one – and also the tallest of them all, thus dominating this part of the site. It is the first port of call for any visitor, as it is here on the ground level that the reception and ticket booth are to be found. Then you can take an elevator up to the top floor. This functions as an observation deck. And you do indeed get a good semi-aerial view across the entire camp.
Of the original buildings of the former camp, three are located still outside the fenced-in labour camp proper. These were the commandants' quarters and a special prison cell block; in addition you can see the "bunker" – basically a dank, low-ceilinged underground concrete chamber with no windows, which was used for special punishment. The "regular" prison block has enough sinister atmosphere of its own too. The cells are mostly of the solitary confinement type, though there are also a few double occupancy cells. There is no further commodification
That changes with the former commandants' building – as this houses the main historical exhibition of the site, more precisely about "The Third Resistance and Persecution after 1948".
The main panels and documents displayed are all in Czech only. However, there are small extra panels which provide brief summaries of each theme in English. The quality of the translation is quite shaky in many places, occasionally bordering on the unintelligible, but mostly just about OK to get the gist ... which is quite predictable and repetitive anyway.
Moreover, the moralizing tone of the style of language used in this can get a bit heavy-handed at times. They clearly do not hold back in condemning the "bad guys" (i.e. communists, dictatorship) and glamorizing the "good guys" (i.e. the resistance, democracy).
So, going just by the English-language information panels there isn't actually that much to learn here. Many of the displays however are more remarkable. There are diorama scale models of Vojna and other similar hard labour camps, displays of prisoners' personal belongings, some communist
propaganda and various images of Gottwald and Stalin
adorn the walls for sinister effect. The sections on the resistance in exile remain a bit less accessible to the foreign visitor. But a certain overall dark atmosphere is certainly created very effectively.
Afterwards the circuit leads into the camp proper. Here several buildings can be entered. The first one you come to is a small wooden barrack, which is the former "kulturni dȗm" or 'cultural barrack'. This includes a small cinema room (overlooked by portraits of Gottwald and Lenin
), a music room with an ancient record player and a few musical instruments as well as a small library with a Stalin portrait on the wall.
Stalin makes a quick re-appearance inside the next building, the infirmary. Apart from the grim man's image doing its best for a sinister atmosphere, the medical equipment on display does so too in its own way.
The large wooden barrack to the left is the only one left of the those that served as the prisoners' living quarters. (The locations of all the others are indicated by gravel filled rectangular spaces in between the lawns – similar to what you find at many former Nazi concentration camp
Inside this barrack you find the typical bunk beds (but with mattresses and sheets!), crude wooden benches and tables, some with metal bowls on them. One room is a washroom. Another is empty except for a set of information panels, presumably about individual figures from the Czech resistance against communism
... but I can't be sure about this, as these panels were all in Czech only.
Behind this barrack, in the far left corner of the complex, various mining trains and associated machinery are on display in the open air. The stone building these are placed in front of contains yet another exhibition.
This exhibition is on the topic on uranium mining. Here the English translations are of a higher quality than in the political-historical main exhibition, but it also gets quite a lot more technical. So it may not be of so much interest to the more historically-minded dark tourists. But those who enjoy technical museums will surely get something out of this. Themes such as mining techniques, ore types, separation processes, pollution and health hazards, the economy of uranium mining and so forth are all well covered. Exhibits are mostly bits of mining gear and chunks of minerals ... as well as a pretty heavy plate of solid depleted uranium!
A bit more up the typical dark tourist's street are the short sections about the controversial Czech nuclear power station Temelin as well as the one about the development of the atomic bomb
and its use.
In the centre of the far end of the camp, right under the tall slag heaps beyond the fence, is yet another watchtower and parked at its base was a miners' train, i.e. the sort that would have transported the miners into the tunnels where they worked. Today you can apparently ride this train on a short open-air loop of tracks (for a 10 CZK additional fee). It clearly wasn't in use when I was there, so maybe it only runs seasonally.
Inside the small stone building next to this train there are miners' washrooms and changing rooms – with miners' clothes and boots hanging from the ceiling in one section. Intriguingly, vestiges of pin-ups can be found on one wall here as well.
This concludes the set of camp buildings that you can go inside – except one further one. But this houses an art exhibition (called "Orbis Pictus: Europa" or OPE for short) that was closed at the time of my visit. When it's open it also incurs a small extra admission fee (20 CZK).
On the other side of the fence behind this exhibition building are more structures to be seen, sheds and a wooden barn or maybe garage. A small stone building next to this features a chimney stack that makes it look like a crematorium or maybe it was a kitchen (it remains unspecified). But all of these buildings are out of bounds to visitors and look pretty ramshackle, so would probably not be safe to enter in any case.
Finally, back by the main fence, just inside the camp grounds, stands the site's main memorial monument. You will have seen it from the observation tower already, now you can inspect it further from closer up. Its core is a tall ladder reaching towards the sky at a sharp angle. A figure is climbing it and is almost at the top. I presume this represents the "freedom" bit. At the bottom are sculptures of a far grimmer look and symbolism. These are concrete body parts, legs mostly, poking out of the concrete base of the monument. Here and there, the odd stony face can also be detected. The bodies are held together by a rusty kind of iron mesh. It's certainly one of the cooler specimens of such works of memorial sculpture art.
All in all, I must say I was much more impressed by this site than I had anticipated. The camp exudes a pretty high degree of authenticity – even though I'm not sure if the fences and watchtowers are original. I suspect they're reconstructions. But the look of it all certainly delivers a poignant feel of those dark times. The exhibitions do their bit too, although they are bit deficient in their catering for foreign visitors and also either a bit one-sided (the historical part) or overly technical (the uranium mining section). But informational commodification
aside, the whole memorial is certainly quite stunning visually. Recommended.
in central Bohemia, Czech Republic
, a good 30 miles (50 km) south-west of Prague
, and roughly the same distance east of Pilzen.
Access and costs: Somewhat remote and hidden, but fairly easy to get to by car; inexpensive.
To get to the memorial it's best to drive. The site ("Pamatnik Vojna u Pribrami") is somewhat hidden in a forest south of Pribram, a bit west of Milin. Coming from Prague
, first take road No. 4 south, go past the exit for Pribram and onwards to Milin – eventually the Vojna memorial is signposted. Turn right and take the No. 66 road to Lesetice, carry on all the way through the village, at the end of which an access road to the memorial site branches off to the south-west. From there it's another mile (1.5 km) or so to the site's car park (free).
Alternatively you could get to the site from the south, via the villages of Lazsko and Kamenna (which incidentally has an interesting Jewish cemetery).
The nearest train station is Milin, which lies west of Milin itself, from where you can walk the ca. 1.2 miles (2 km). Cycling is evidently also a popular mode of transport in these parts.
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in summer, in winter (November to March) only Tuesday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; guided tours are available on the hour up to one hour before closing time.
Admission: 40 CZK for individuals (there are also family/group tickets); various concessions apply for students, seniors and members of a range of associations. Guided tours in English or German cost 80 CZK. An extra fee of 20 CZK is levied for a photography permit. Compared to what you have to pay in Prague for much lesser attractions, this is really inexpensive.
Time required: approximately two hours.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Since Vojna can easily be done as a day excursion from Prague
, that city's own dark attractions are the most obvious combination. It is also possible to combine the trip to Vojna with a visit to Lidice
into a single whole-day excursion, provided you start early enough to allow sufficient time at both places.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The Vojna memorial is administratively part of the Pribram Mining Museum (Hornicke muzeum Pribram). Its main site, Brezove Hory in the western part of Pribram town, features old mine shafts and tunnels, parts of which can be accessed, old machinery and mining train rides (popular with the kids). Also associated with the museum are a model village, a granary museum and a gold museum.
And obviously Prague
remains the single biggest general tourist attraction far and wide.