Brno from B to Ž: A Tough-Love Guide to the City’s 48 Neighborhoods, Part 6 – Černovice
Work of art: Joe Lennon.
Part 6 – Černovice
It’s February 13, 2021, and I’m walking up Antonína Slavíka street in Černá Pole, heading home. It’s been a bright afternoon with deep blue skies, but the sun has been caught for a while in some purple clouds on the horizon. Then, as I start up the hill, just before the sun sets, it breaks free from the clouds, and something wonderful happens. Most of the street falls deeper into shadow, but just ahead to my left, a band of gold breaks out, lighting up one of the gracious turn-of-the-century apartment buildings above me. It’s as if the sun has chosen that one place to shed the day’s excess grandeur. The angled sunlight is so concentrated, I can almost hear it crackling and fizzling in the cold air. The frills of the building’s old façade melt into a glowing portal.
Of course I know the sun hasn’t made a conscious choice to light that building; it’s just a bit of lovely physics. And I can see the reason for it to my right, on the southwest side of the street, where the row of buildings is interrupted. The empty lot allows the sun’s last rays to shoot across the avenue, in exactly the width of the one missing house. I’ve walked up and down this street more than a hundred times, but I’ve never thought too much about that odd gap in the buildings. It took this sudden slant of light for me to notice what’s missing. For a moment I’m caught in the beauty of it, but then I start to wonder – why is that one lot empty? Why has it always been empty for as long as I can remember?
Photo Credit: JL / BD.
It’s November 20, 1944, and Brno is muffled in fog. At 11:30 am, the air raid sirens wail. The people of the city are used to that sound by now, and maybe even a bit desensitized to it; since the spring, the city has been vulnerable to American bombers flying from southern Italy. There has been one massive raid so far, in August, but every other time, the sirens have been false alarms. The bombers have passed over the city on their way to more important targets – especially the German army’s oil refinery plants near Blechhammer, in southern Poland. On this day, however, Poland is also shrouded in fog, and Blechhammer, heavily protected by German anti-aircraft flak cannons, is far too risky a target.
In his book Shot at and Missed: Recollections of a World War II Bombardier, Jack R. Myers, who flew a B-17 for the Fifteenth Air Force and survived several missions over Central Europe, explains very matter-of-factly why Brno, and many other cities in the region, received bombs meant for Blechhammer: “We were instructed never to bring our bombs home. If we couldn’t make it to the main target, we were to pick a target of opportunity and bomb it.”
On that day, Brno became the target of opportunity. 149 planes dropped 2,500 bombs over the city. American bombers in World War II were state-of-the-art for their time, but even on a clear day, they were not that precise (and many times didn’t care to be), often “carpet bombing” large areas. With the foggy weather that day, and with not much planning in advance, the pilots made little attempt to distinguish between strategic targets and residential neighborhoods. Bombs fell on almost every part of town. Nearly 600 people were killed – including 40 children who were hiding in a cellar in Mendlovo náměstí (a bomb ripped open a steam pipeline, drowning the children in scalding water). Across the city, hundreds of buildings were destroyed, leaving several thousand Brňáci homeless.
To get a sense of the immense scope and the overwhelming violence of the bombing, take a look at the amazing website Bombardování Brna, created by the city museum. The site shows a map of Brno overlaid with glowing orange circles showing where the bombs hit. You can choose a particular date (Brno was bombed several times during the war – in three separate raids by the USAF, and then in two longer waves by the Soviets in 1945). If you choose “letectvo USA 20.11.1944,” you can see the whole city spattered with orange. Zoom in, and blue stars pinpoint the exact locations of the hits. Some of these have links to vivid photos taken on site after the bombing. In the photos, mangled buildings gape open like eviscerated bodies.
Photo Credit: JL / BD.
It’s February 19, 2021, and I’m standing in the forlorn little park in the middle of Faměrovo náměstí in Černovice. I don’t know if it can really be called a park, actually; it’s just a weird wedge-shaped open space. There’s a few trees, some scraggly bushes, five moldy benches facing nothing much, and a cross with a flashy gold Jesus stuck into a concrete block.
As I walked here from the more built-up, newer, northern part of the neighborhood, I saw lots of families out strolling, enjoying the cloudy but warm winter Saturday. But none of them have followed me down here, to what feels like the very bottom of Brno. The area is desolate. Laid over the emptiness, there’s a feeling that something about this whole space is…wrong. The náměstí is triangular – or at least you can sort of tell that it used to be triangular. The low pastel buildings along two of its sides give it a village-like intimacy – almost – but not really, because the third side, the base of the triangle, is totally gone, replaced by a highway onramp. The resulting “square” is too big, too awkwardly open, and there’s no clear center to it. I’m not sure where to focus my attention.
Then I notice that the weeds behind golden Jesus are laid out in an unnatural pattern. As I get closer, I see they aren’t weeds after all. Some shrub I don’t recognize (perhaps a dormant flower, now dry and brown) has been planted in two straight rows, maybe two meters long, which then curve around and meet. The plants draw a boxy shape on the ground, the size of a small room. And in the middle of the box, small shoots of rosemary have been planted in the shape of a cross. I realize that I’m looking at Černovice’s ground zero memorial. I’m standing in the phantom of a bombed church.
Photo Credit: JL / BD.
Once you know what to look for, it’s easy to spot such phantoms everywhere in Brno. They reveal themselves through inexplicable gaps in the streetscape, or awkward, asymmetrical facades, or starkly modern buildings that don’t match the older architecture around them. Of course, not all such spots are places where bombs fell; centuries of urban remodeling before and after the war have produced similar phenomena. But still, it’s amazing how many war scars Brno still bears after 77 years.
Sometimes the gaps left by the bombs have given architects a chance to fit a bold new design into the historic center (like the Omega building in Náměstí Svobody, or the Letmo building near the station). Of course, sometimes the bold new designs turned out to be hideous blights (here’s lookin’ at you, Velký Špalíček). Speaking of the train station, have you ever wondered why the entrance only has one clock tower, on the left, when it seems like there should be another one on the right to balance it out? Well good for you! I actually never wondered this, until I found out that there was a right-hand tower – another casualty of the 1944 bombing. Now I can’t unsee what’s unseeable.
But what’s more amazing to me than these replacements and remodelings are the sheer number of empty lots where bomb-damaged buildings were razed, never to be replaced. In my walks over the last couple of weeks, whenever I’ve noticed an obvious gap between buildings, I’ve looked up the spot on Bombardování Brna. So many of them turn out to be WW2 bomb sites. As I walk through this city I call home, I’m walking amid visible ruins made by my countrymen.
Photo Credit: JL / BD.
It’s February 20, 2021 – and I’m back in Faměrovo náměstí, in front of gold Jesus again. Like on the previous day, I have the “square” to myself. And again I feel unsettled. Something weirds me out about this place. And something keeps drawing me back to it. It’s a place that commands my imagination.
I try to imagine the “flying fortresses” – the swarm of American planes that soared several kilometers above this spot on November 20, 1944. I try to imagine the men in those planes. There might have been over a thousand of them in the air over Brno (each bomber held a crew of up to 10 or 11). I try to pick out one of the bombardiers and see him. He looks like my handsome grandfather.
I try to imagine his thoughts. Does the fact that we are both Americans give me a chance at getting through to him? It’s been 77 years since he released the bomb that blew a hole in the ground where I’m standing. But can the path the bomb took as it fell be used to carry my questions back to him? Because I’m curious: Did he think about the people below him at all? Their unpredictable paths through the city, the angles at which their eyes and attentions followed light, the way their feet followed the sound of a child, or the curves of a Gothic apse?
Or would that kind of imagination have put him in danger? From that height, in his deafening machine, under so much pressure to fulfill his mission and live another day, maybe he could only allow himself to picture a map of a foreign country, populated by strangers, controlled by the enemy.
I can remember a few other times I’ve stood in the very spot where American bombs have fallen, and maimed, and damaged, and killed – at the former DMZ in Vietnam, for example, or in Tokyo, or in the center of Belgrade. For generations, men who could have been my grandfather, my father, or my brother, have dropped millions of bombs on every continent of the earth. No matter how much I arm myself with knowledge, empathy, history, context, compassion, and justifications – when I’m standing at the point of impact, I feel an incredible hurt. I know there is nothing that can sever my life completely from that lineage of destruction.
Photo Credit: JL / BD.
I can’t change history, but I can repeat it in a new way. All the sources I’ve read about the American bombing mention a weird detail – that along with the bombs, 351 packets of “anti-German” leaflets were dropped on the city. I’m not sure what these leaflets looked like, or what exactly they said, although I’m sure they carried ominous warnings to the people who still shared Hitler’s dream-world, willingly or not. One British propaganda leaflet dropped on Germany around the same time boasted: “Fortress Europe has no roof.” A leaflet dropped on Japan by US planes in 1945 warned: “Unfortunately, bombs have no eyes.”
I decide to drop a different kind of leaflet, from a different kind of dream-world, on Černovice. My friend Mathias Svalina, a poet who I met when we both lived in Denver, recently sent me a hundred dreams from his Dream Delivery Service (here’s a video profile the BBC did about him). Mathias’ dreams are written on small, thin pieces of paper, just like I imagine the WW2 leaflets were.
I have the sudden impulse to take one dream to each of the 15 places in Černovice where bombs exploded on November 20, 1944, and leave it there, as a sort of absurdist apology. I try to imagine the people who might find the dreams – people who share this city with me. But I try not to think too hard about what they’ll make of them. For this kind of exchange, we don’t owe each other any explanations.