Hrabyně World War Two Museum

The Hrabyně World War Two Museum was originally built by the Communists to commemorate the Red Army’s fight against Nazi Germany. Friends who were taken to visit it by their schools before the revolution tell of a grim, militaristic experience, full of the glories of the Worker’s Struggle and the innate superiority of Communism over all other forms of life.

These days however, the presentation is more balanced and the whole experience is very educational. My only criticism would be that not very much is labelled in English compared to the claims of the lady at the front desk. There is an English language guide to the museum but I haven’t taken a copy around the exhibitions yet, so I can’t comment on it.

Nonetheless, if you are at all interested in the history of World War Two and grew up ‘in the West’, I strongly recommend museums like this. They give a side to the story which doesn’t get as much publicity as the Battle of Britain and D-Day.

Hrabyně World War Two Museum. The view from Hrabyně hill.

The view from Hrabyně hill.

Hrabyně is a hill-top village overlooking the industrial heart of Ostrava. It was first mentioned in records from 1337 but by the time the Red Army had liberated it at the end of April 1945, there wasn’t very much of it left. The ancient, yet enthusiastically animated lady in charge of the museum told me that it was the village most heavily damaged during the fighting in the whole of Czechoslovakia. Lidice and Ležáky were destroyed as reprisals, not in the fighting.

The ‘Steel Heart Of The Republic’, under Nazi rule, pumped out 25 percent of all the Wehrmacht’s tanks. Czech engineering was the best in continental Europe until (as I’m reliably informed by people who lived through it all) ‘the Communists, who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, cost the country 50 years of development through highly unrealistic management practices.’ [1]

The Russians were desperate to seize Ostrava intact, or at least it’s steel industry centred on Vitkovice. To that end, they needed to take the high ground around Ostrava and that was where Hrabyně lay. Hrabyně World War Two Museum tells the story, and the stories behind that, of the Moravian-Ostrava Offensive.

Hrabyne ArchitectureHrabyne Architecture

(Click on the picture to see the gallery)

One look at the architecture lets you know the ethos of the designers. It sits on a hilltop, thrusting skywards in heroic salute to the future, escorted by a statue of two Red Army soldiers saving the world from Fascism (this whole sorry episode in Human history is known as The Great Patriotic War by those who fought Westwards).

Inside, more symbolism is evident. Facing the entrance is a panel depicting ‘The Fallen’, flanked by grieving widows and mothers and a world-weary figure cradling a machine gun who looks suspiciously like Joe Stalin. In front of this panel is a small forest of starkly unsymbolistic glass columns. Each one is engraved with the name of a place where Czechoslovak citizens were buried and topped with a small plate of earth from that site… Buchenwald… Mauthausen… Ravensbruck… Dunkerque… Runnymede… Tobruk…

As you walk around, models, dioramas and photographs tell of the chain of bunkers built to defend against the rise of Hitler’s Germany, the Munich Treaty which handed them intact to Hitler, the partisans’ war and finally the fight for Hrabyně itself.

Hrabyne Battle GalleryHrabyne Battle Gallery

(Click on the picture to see the gallery)

The attention to detail is very good here. The walls are lined with information and video screens can be activated at the touch of a button to show newsreels and short documentaries. As I mentioned, all of this is in Czech but even if you don’t speak the language, you can learn pretty much all it has to tell you from the pictures. There are a lot of before and after images of the village, showing just how much less there was after than before.

The route leads you through a mock up of a house, with scorched walls and shattered windows. The furniture is all authentic period pieces rescued from the ruins – a kitchen dresser smashed and scarred by a grenade, a child’s scooter somehow unscathed alongside a milk churn. On the stairs down to the cellar, a mother is huddled with her child and a small supply of food and water.

Outside the house, moodily lit, a panzer sits hull-down in rubble with a Yak fighter flying over it. Abandoned equipment lies strewn around a sign in Russian pointing to ‘Morav. Ostrava’ with a life-sized black and white photo of the ruined village projected on the wall behind.

Hrabyne Village DisplayHrabyne Village Display

(Click on the picture to see the gallery)

The limited interior space is used well. Turning from the walk-through ruins of the village, glass cases display weapons and uniforms used by the Russian and Independent Czechoslovak forces. Many of the objects on display were pulled from the rubble or stripped from crashed aircraft, adding to the general sense of waste and destruction which this museum puts across so well. By deliberate contrast, some objects are in excellent condition, such as the Russian sub machine gun. Simply designed yet effective, and carried by almost all forward infantry, the weapon is displayed next to a civilian radio bearing the label ‘Remember, remember. Listening to foreign broadcasts is punishable by imprisonment or death.’

As you walk along the final passageways to the exit, you can see some of the original exhibits from the Communist era. Labelled only in Czech and Russian, these photographs include some famous ones, such as Aleksey Gordeyevich Yeremenko rallying his troops, as well as some I’d never seen before, celebrating female fighter pilots. Columns of defeated German infantry heading East into captivity feature heavily in this section as well.

Hrabyne Museum DisplaysHrabyne Museum Displays

(Click on the picture to see the gallery)

As you finally head out into the daylight, the view from this hilltop takes on a new significance. The weapons used to defend it and capture it are neatly laid out around the museum to give older visitors like me something to think about and younger visitors, such as Our Kid, something to climb on.

Hrabyne Museum Outside DisplayHrabyne Museum Outside Display

(Click on the picture to see the gallery)

Just before I left, I ran into the ancient, yet enthusiastically animated lady in charge of the museum again. ‘Americans were killed here too,’ she said. ‘They were a bomber crew. They were found in ’72. Their names are on the memorial down there.’ [2]

She pointed to an area something like a moat around the museum. It was fenced off and I couldn’t get down there to photograph it. As I moved forward to look, she continued. ‘The names of everyone killed during the fighting are there. Eighteen thousand of them. Enjoy the rest of your day.’

As Our Kid giggled his way up the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun, I leaned over the fence and looked at the names. They covered every centimetre of the three metre high walls of the ‘moat’. On both sides of the building. The letters weren’t all that big, either. Were they from the whole Moravian Offensive or just the battle for Hrabyně? There were no German-sounding names that I could see, only Slavic ones. Surely they must be from the whole Moravian Offensive? The old lady had gone so I couldn’t ask her but I could see why they were outside – if you put this lot inside there wouldn’t be any room for the museum.

Hrabyně World War Two Museum Fom Above.

Aerial view of the Museum from The red lines show the walls covered in names.

[1] The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia still exists; I can’t afford a libel case!

[2] To be honest, my Czech is so far from fluent and this lady spoke so fast, that I’m not totally sure she didn’t say that 72 Americans were killed here and found after the war. I am sure she said they were bomber pilots, which can’t be totally accurate. However, it’s only my opinion that she meant bomber crew(s).

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