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They hated the Czechs, but they needed the workers

Reproduced and translated into English from Mladá fronta Dnes (Young Front Today) and Visit to read the original Czech article.

British-Czech journalist, Mirek Gosney, has made a documentary about the fate of three Hradec men who worked as slaves in Germany during the Nazi era. One was the filmmaker's great-grandfather.

The 50-minute film Building Hitler's Empire by the 26-year-old journalist returns to the historical events when the Nazis forced millions of men, women and children to build and maintain their empire in Europe during the Second World War.

“Without these workers, the Third Reich probably wouldn't have survived this long. These terrible crimes happened at the same time as the Holocaust, but today they are rarely talked about," says Mirek Gosney in an interview with MF DNES. The film will be shown today (Saturday 24 February) from 6pm at the Bio Central cinema in Hradec Králové.

czech saalfeld 1987
A reunion of Czech forced labourers sent to Saalfeld (1942-45) at Dobruška in 1987. Image Credit: Mirek Gosney

What should the viewer take away from the cinema?

I want people to understand what happened and to realize that forced labour and slavery is still happening all over the world today. I also wanted to objectively show how complex the war was. History is often taught from one point of view. The main responsibility for the Holocaust and forced labour is, of course, borne by the Nazis. But, as I show in my film, no one was blameless for the events that took place during the war. Not even the Allies.

How did you get onto the topic of total deployment, i.e. slave labour under Nazism? Does it affect you personally?

I didn't know anything about it until I started researching my great-grandfather's story after the Covid-19 pandemic. My experience as a journalist and filmmaker helped me with research and interviews. These topics mean something to me personally, because even though I never met my great-grandfather, I feel like I got to know him through his words and photos. After all, when he was sent to work in Germany, he was about the same age as me.

You are following the perspective of three men from Hradec Králové who were conscripted to work in Germany. What was their fate?

All three were lucky to have survived the war. My great-grandfather, Miroslav Jeřábek, was a mechanic; he died in 1989. Bedřich Pavlík was a butcher; he died in 1991. And Bohumír Kozler was a musician; he died in 1998. The main thing they had in common was that they were experts in a certain profession, which made them valuable to the Nazis, and therefore they treated them a little better. My great-grandfather also learned German, which undoubtedly helped him.

How did Czechs live in Germany during the war?

Working Czechs had an unusual position there. The racist hierarchy of the Nazis meant that people from the West were treated well, while workers from the East were treated horribly. The Czechs stood somewhere in the middle. The Nazis hated the Czechs, but for them, they were educated, urbanized and qualified workers. Czechs and Germans have close social, linguistic and cultural roots stretching back centuries. Despite all the efforts of the Nazis, this common past could not be ignored.

Was the work of the Czechs in Germany essential for Hitler?

Absolutely. The Protectorate became known as 'the arsenal of the Reich'. The Nazis benefited enormously from the occupation of Škoda's factories in Pilsen, which helped their rearmament campaign and supported the invasion of Western Europe. And, as I said, Czechs were generally educated, skilled workers and some spoke German. The Nazis benefited from this.

Jakub Beneš, an expert on Central European history from University College London, said that the film captures "an intimate picture of the Nazi system of forced labor from the point of view of Hitler's first victims, the Czechs".

Dr Beneš was pointing out that I took a very uncensored approach to this topic. For example, I showed horrifying pictures from the war, not only to shock, but to show what life was like for occupied Europeans living under Nazi tyranny. My film is intimate and personal because it follows the story of my own family. I often refer to the postcards that my great-grandfather wrote to my great-grandmother, who lived in Czechoslovakia. These gave me valuable insight into his daily life and experiences in the Reich.

The film premiered in October at the Czech Embassy in London, where money was collected for the Ukraine Crisis Appeal organised by the British Red Cross. How does an ordinary Englishman perceive the war in Ukraine?

In Britain, we are geographically distanced and thus protected from events in Central and Eastern Europe. But there is no doubt that the war has affected us. We have accepted many Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war. I met some of them while working as a reporter in my hometown and listened to their stories. I would say that there is still a lurking fear that Britain might one day become more involved in the war. What would this mean for ordinary people, especially young people? This is something we are thinking about.

"I want people to understand what happened and to realize that forced labour and slavery is still happening all over the world today."
Mirek Gosney Czech
Mirek Gosney, documentary filmmaker

How did the Russian army's invasion of Ukraine affect you personally? Do you see a certain connection with what Germany demonstrated in the 1930s and 1940s?

I am cautious in comparing different historical events because each of them has their own unique contexts. But there are similarities. The current atmosphere of tension and uncertainty in Europe is a true reflection of what people felt before the outbreak of World War II. The similarity of tyrants who bully a minority nation and are motivated by territorial expansion is also obvious. I am worried about how the war will end and what permanent consequences it could have on the future of Ukraine and Europe.

You live in England; you are a new face for the Czech audience. What would you like readers to know about you?

That I am very proud of my Czech origin. I even have the tattoos to prove it. I regularly read and write about Czech politics, art and history. I like to tell stories, and the Czech Republic offers a lot of them. In England, I am part of the Czech expatriate communities in London. I am currently training and working as a reporter. In my spare time, I continue shooting documentaries, which I want to do professionally in the future.

forced labour saalfeld 1942
Mirek Jeřábek and his compatriots at the garage they worked in Saalfeld, Germany. Image Credit: Mirek Gosney

In your opinion, is it an advantage or a disadvantage that a filmmaker who does not live here deals with Czech topics?

Of course, not speaking fluent Czech and doing research remotely from abroad can be challenging. But I believe that as an outsider I bring a new perspective. I am probably less biased than a Czech or German director would be. A large part of my work involves patience, compromise and finding solutions to linguistic, logistical and financial constraints. There were a lot of those. But, as you will see in the film, I am ready to go anywhere and talk to anyone. And since this story involves my own family, I consciously decided to tell it in a neutral and objective voice. I treat my great-grandfather like any other case study in the film. I rarely refer to him as family.

You were born in England. What is your relationship with the Czech Republic?

My mother is Czech and most of my Czech family lives in Hradec Králové and the surrounding villages. I've been coming here several times a year since I was born. I deeply respect the Czech Republic and its people. It is my second home. I would say that my passion for its history and culture grew as I grew up. There are aspects that I like and dislike about Czechs and Brits. However, the Czech Republic undoubtedly has the best beer.

How do you feel about Brexit?

I personally haven't researched all of the pros and cons to have an informed opinion. But I think being able to govern oneself without outside influence is important. But I also think it's valuable to be part of a wider community. Recent events in Europe may show why. In my opinion, Brexit is a good example of what can happen when important decisions are left to an ill-informed public.

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