SALT OF THE EARTH

 

Where is – my home. For it I do ask and seek and have sought but have not found it.

O eternal everywhere, O eternal nowhere, O eternal-in-vain!

/Friedrich Nietsche – Thus Spake Zarathrustra/

 

I cannot recall who it was in Shanghai who asked me once what place I regard as home. The question rather took me aback. A few thoughts, a few phrases came to mind, but I realised I did not really have an answer. I began to think about it, and came, surprisingly, to the conclusion that the town of Ostrava is the place to which I have the greatest emotional affinity. Why this should have been surprising is that I have never lived there.

Home: for it I do ask and seek…. It is perhaps possible that the term „home“ does not necessarily indicate a specific place. Theodor W. Adorno said somewhere that after he had to leave Germany his home became literature. And in the first years of my own emigration, I considered my home to be my consciousness, my mental world of friends, language, memories ...

I cannot quite justify in terms of logic why I consider Ostrava alone my home. Is it perhaps the generations of my ancestors, who sat for three hundred years on a piece of soil in Mokre Lasce? Is it the photograph of my grandfather, then mayor of Rychvald, shaking hands with T.G. Masaryk in the town square of Orlova? Is it the cemetery in Rychvald, where all my relatives are buried? These pictures from the time of the First Republic, pictures of shop windows of department stores with those beautiful names: Bachner, Aso? Or pictures of high tea in the Elektra Café, pictures of theatre nights, with which my mother fed my imagination from childhood? I do not know.

I add my own memories to those much contemplated pictures. Those from my childhood, let’s say of a framed colour print on the veranda of my grandfather´s home in Rychvald, where, under the picture of a landscape, so typical for that part of the world, the caption read: Silesian Homeland, Holy Earth. Memories of the narrow-rail tram connecting Ostrava to Karviná, of wagons loaded with coal, which a cable line transported above the heads of passers-by on today´s Smetana Square, of the smell of hydrogen sulphide from Karolína Coke Plant (how I loved it), of soot, which lodged in my eye with simple regularity immediately after I had left the train connecting Ostrava and Kojetin at Frýdlant Train Station, of the mine pit towers, on top of which a felloe wheel turned (counterclockwise) and above which a blood-red five-pointed star glowed in the evening, of the delight of summer bathing in Rychvald´s ponds, Skučák and Podkostelňák, overgrown with reeds, from which it was possible to observe from not far off the fire and smoke of the engines of express trains on the Košice-Bohumín line. Memories from my time as a student and the following years. Of the moist air which filled my lungs on stepping from the train at Svinov Station, of the exhilaration I experienced in discovering the technical aesthetics of buildings, the nostalgia of those forgotten corners of this industrial region.

I shall never have had enough of that stretch of land between Kyjovice, Děhylov, Dubina, Rychvald which I hear rather imprecisely named Ostrava. In numerous –endless--wanderings through this place, which I have made in all seasons for 45 years now (my first photograph of Ostrava dates from 1964), I discover each time a new, surprising phenomenon. As if I were going through a multi-volume encyclopedia randomly opening a volume on Geography, then History, Town Planning, Sociology, Literature, or Music. Yes, even music. I remember one winter evening, the air thick with snowflakes, when on the wall of one of the wings of the hospital Na Fifejdach I discovered the  memorial plaque to Leoš Janáček, who died there. (And after all, my father was a student of Ostrava Music Conservatory, my cousin an Ostrava opera soloist...).

How beautiful is the landscape around Ostrava. The first time I became conscious of it was one Easter when I travelled through the Western English districts of Devon and Cornwall, famous for their scenery and duly filled with tourists, and observed the similarity of both places. Here too the features of the landscape were defined in the Palaeozoic period. Even the intense industrialization of the modern age has not managed to devastate this countryside, perhaps because coal is mined under the surface. And so the sole pieces of evidence of this process above ground in Ostrava were the pit towers, smokestacks and masts of electrical wires as well as streams flowing not with water, but coal sludge. The title of a book by Vojtech Martinek comes into my mind: Green and Black Homeland. (My father became one of his friends). I believe with something bordering on certainty that despite a period of more than a hundred and fifty years of careless looting of natural resources the potential of the country has not been suffocated. The German Ruhrgebiet, after a similiar period of long-time exploitation, transformed itself in only a few decades into a culturally enhanced region, a countryside of „culturescape“ (Kulturlandschaft), and has become for many an area of recreation and delight .

   My facination with the urban organisation of the Ostrava Region dates back to my interest in its architecture. I would call it straightforwardly utilitarian, and perhaps in direct contrast to that also visionary. Sitte´s master plan of Přivoz and The First Republic´s planning of the city centre reflect this. The whole town is to me a kind of surreal collage. Or is there a better expression to describe this mutual penetration and overlapping of non-homogeneous elements that makes up the town. What tension, what dynamics give the city this collision of functions that never should have met. How many and varied prospects are offered to anyone who walks from Poruba to Přivoz. First of all there is a district, a whole town of blocks of flats -- like the period in which it was initiated, lacking any real concept, wit or charm. It follows the intricate angles of the Svinov Train Station, then the path goes on to the Oder Valley, at the same time opening into a view of the industrial building of Třebovice Power Station and a panorama of the Beskyde Mountains, still farther on there are the chessboard of steets of Mariánské Hory, forgotten by people and God; farther on again several ambitious buildings of the Communist era, and yet farther a transport hub, offering a view of the dramatic silhouette of Vítkovice, farther on during The First Republic ambitiously and grandly conceived the town centre; then beyond this the mining tower of the Jindřich Pit, and finally the block constructions of Přivoz, whose lines of streets are hiding Sitte´s town planning scheme for these municipal part, located a bit aside. What an epic story. How many typological patterns, how many building epochs, how many philosophies, how many contrasts in such a small place!

The low-cost housing of the past seems remarkable to me. I do not mean those large-scale housing constructions of the era of socialism – with the exception of those from the ambitious beginnings they are not remarkable, only typical. I have in mind the low-cost housing projects of the previous period. Workers´ colonies represented economic housing par excellence. The brickwork of these buildings can still serve today, if it has not been spoiled by later additions, as an example of perfect craftsmanship.

The attraction of the dramatially massed compositions and the bizarrely formed industrial constructions has for me not faded. I have often seen these structures not as architecture, but as a theatrical staging. Some time ago I had the opportunity to photograph the interior of Vítkovice Ironworks. A steel cathedral, where beams of light strained through dust-coated windows enhances the effect of modern transformation of a medieval interior, its vastness patchily illuminated by stained glass.

But giving a cross section of this dramatic mass cumulation is not the only theme of the my photographic cycle. Cities are only half made up of entities of space and constructions within them. The other half consists people – the people who live in them.

„They are the salt of the earth“, as the Fifth Chapter of The Gospel According To Mathew has it.. „But if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men. Ye are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hid.“

Petr Bezruč, the first apologist for this region, presents the inhabitants as people dedicated to sincerity, work and friendship, but for the most part victims to the desire for profit of one Marquis Gero after another, victims to a Catholicism that  had bound itself to the Polish language, and of Jewish (why only Jewish?) innkeepers. I know this situation from tales of my mother, because my grandfather (whom my mother could use as exemplary a man) who fought against it all. Active in the Socialist Party, he left the Catholic Church and joined the Czechoslovak Hussite Church; supporting the Silesian Foundation, he built a Czech school for his children.

To mine coal underground or to roll sheets of metal is not a dream employment. Both professions are bio-energetically demanding, if for no other reason than the very  temperature of the workplace. In addition to this there are the risks involved. The first generation of Ostrava inhabitants gravitated to these jobs quite naturally. Simply because they lived in this region when Ostrava began to industrialize. With the rapidly growing need for products and productivity, the number of workers had to be multiplied many times over; and, because of the dangers of their work, these workers were rewarded with decent wages and a special status, even an exceptional aura. Every regime has its own way. Financial, but also ideological. And in the right combination things have always functioned. Once my cousin, now deceased, drew me a picture of Ostrava during the German occupation. Everybody worked till exhausted, the rewards being decent pay and  rationing coupons Resistance, sabotage, nothing came about. Even the socialist state when it came did not stint with funds for hard workers; it gave the profession a halo of heroism. I am a miner, who is more? One record drive was chased by another and newspapers noisily celebrated the dignity and glory of work. But it was not only the heroes, all, just about everybody died prematurely from the unhealthy work environment and disregard of safety measures, from the cave-ins or methane explosions, from silicosis or asthma. The modern age has offered a solution in the automation of processes (in reality there are virtually no people to be seen in Vítkovice rolling mill) -- and by employing gastarbeiters. These do not fit into any statistics.

I imagine that all this process of living and working was carried out more or less automatically. This contract, this „deal“, was realized somewhat unconsciously, I would say almost secretly. As if both parties, the employer and the work force acted as if in a state of some life-long trance. Maybe they didn´t have a chance to think about it, as they were carried along in a whirl of duties, pseudo-duties, inertia and habit. It might also have been that in the time before the globalization of the economy and consequently of the globalization of the rest of the world another mode of existence did not occur to them . And so the life of these people, this Salt of the Earth, was only a mechanical sequence of shifts followed by beers soaked up in a pub and cigarettes smoked in the courtyard, later on a house balcony. And of boyish chat of the sort reflected in the anecdotes of the region. From time to time the rhythm was interrupted by a Mayday celebration or by a funeral. For both occasions men donned ceremonial uniforms and carried the flag, or the dead friend’s coffin, to the sound of brass band, running through the standard repertoire -- always touching, and always at little off-key (Let the goulash be strong, the musicians in tune, as Jaromir Nohavica sings).

And as if they couldn´t tear themselves away from the material around which they relocated their whole lives. They hauled it away from under ground, tossed it on slag heeps and washed it from their hands. They tossed it equally onto their gardens, levelled it out into the flowerbeds and pathways, beautified by white pebbles where they left due space for the inevitable green lettuces and variegated asters, which they bound

into rustic bouquets. I recognize a secret gesture of creation in this.

They loved the rock and the machines which served to move the rock. They were fascinated by machines. Machines were not designed; they were put together from very elementary members. And so the empty space in their leather satchel was filled on their way home by some piece of wire, a few screws or pieces of metal plate, which they had brought to weld at work. The language with which they described machines and their operation! The words which were not found in any technical dictionary, were nevertheless so precise.

The simple way in which these people accept that they must got up at four o´clock every morning has always disarmed me. At times, when not everyone owned a well-maintained Skoda car, on cool summer mornings or in severe frost alike they stood with the essential cigarette at the tram or bus stop, ready to set off to Michálkovice or to Zárubek or to Vítkovice, all with faded leather satchels under their arms, in which they had a slice of meat between two hunks of bread and a flask of coffee. Sweat and thirst were counteracted by weak beer and time was shortened with cheap cigarettes, tobacco dropping out of them. They returned home by the same tram and on the way stopped at U Bořika or in Petrolejka or in Dělňák for one or more beers, gulped rather than swallowed.

What did their talk consist of before times changed and they started to exchange their experiences of holidays in Bulgaria, where they went on company trips? Maybe I am not wrong when I say that the content of their conversation was work – that fine adventure called work, which at that time was not a necessary evil, but a fulfilment of life. The mine shaft or rolling mill hall was the place where all friends worth the name would meet. They spoke about the heat underground or next to the melting ingots; they spoke about the pit props and timbers; they spoke about machines and their breakdowns, they spoke about plans, achieved and unachieved, and about the jokes they had made and enjoyed together.

They spoke in a staccato tongue, which adopted so many expressions from Polish. Bi-lingual signs on shops gave my childhood a scent of far away. The bright red shield above the butcher’s shop with meats, viands and smoked goods, the brown shield of the grocer’s general store. An old man, whom I met one day on a road without a pavement, said Lovely day to me in Polish instead of a usual greeting. We were both heading for  the cemetery. He because of his dear departed, me for the sake of the story. Always sad. Such as those four siblings, who drowned one Easter in the waves of the overflooded Oder. Four trusting little children faces which, in the photographs of a gravestone in Vítkovice Cemetery, peep out from their little well-worn overcoats. Why was the lovely Mary Appelt so young when she died? Her likeness on the oval photograph on the gravestone was the first photograph I made with my own first Japanese camera in the cemetery, today disinterred.

One more feature this region possesses. Here, at least at the time before my emigration, people dressed differently, certainly differently from in Prague. Older men went about in dark colours and with strange forms of neckties, mostly in multicoloured fabrics with delicate patterns. Old women wore head scarves. They seemed to me like some chorus of a Greek tragedy when they went about in groups. The middle generation wore tesil trousers, chequered shirts and the essential nylon fibre jackets. In winter and in summer alike. The colour beige was that young generation wanted. It sometimes reminded me rather of a uniform. Yet not all of them were functionaries on a stadium tribune in a district spartakiada, those people whose clothes came from a sale exclusively available to them. I thought to myself one or twice: If I really lived in Ostrava, fate would have found me a woman who dyed her hair blond and wore a beige trenchcoat.

But I am afraid that all that has made this land so characteristic will soon pass away. The amount of coal mined and iron produced is increasingly small. The region is going through structural changes. The original population has become a minority because of the First Republic and post-war boom and now through growing globalization. It is possible that in half a century all that will remain of the epic story of sometimes brutal subjugation of nature and exploitation of its resources will be only a memory. A few outdoor industrial museums and some books will remind us about the historic stituation of this piece of land in word and in picture, which was at one time a thriving centre of interest and activity. These photographs and with them this short text will serve as reminders.

 

The photos here (with the exception of a decade when, after emigrating, I could not return to Czechoslovakia) were made over the course of 45 years. I never photographed thematically. I never made it a point of photographing Ostrava. I only went on long walks around the city on visits so that I could discover, reveal, acquaint myself with different parts of the extensive, multi-layered fresco which is called Ostrava.

Several years ago I went through thousands of photographs and made the selection which I now present. It is, of course, a subjective testimony to a place to which I am attached by emotion, but it is also at the same time a testimony to my perception of things and how it has changed in the course of time, as the attentive viewer will see.

When I let the series of photographs pass before my eyes, I cannot but see that the mood is rather balladic. This is certainly because most of the photographs were taken in the sixties and seventies of the last century, at a time that offered an optimistic reflection of the world only in the bright headlines of magazines and newspapers, never in reality. Yet in spite of this I have a sense that this balladic mood corresponds to this region better than any other.

 

Milan Pitlach, Summer 2002, April 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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