Four letter words are easy to remember. Perhaps that is the reason profanity is so prolific. In the case of Eastern Europe, it was not the profane, but the urbane that caught my attention. I discovered a plethora of memorable city names spelled with only four letters. These included Pecs and Gyor in Hungary, Lviv and Kiev in Ukraine, Cluj in Romania, Riga in Latvia and Brno in the Czech Republic. The latter loomed in my mind the longest for two reasons. The first was that I had yet to visit the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Brno will never escape the shadow of Prague, in much the same way that Pecs will forever be obscured by Budapest. Secondly, I refused to count passing through on the train several years ago en route from Prague to Vienna as a visit. There was something tantalizing about pulling into and out of Brno’s grandiose station without disembarking. A quick stop at the station would not do for the historic capital of Moravia. I vowed to return one day, if for no other reason than to become one of the few foreigners who made it a point to visit Brno for tourism.
The Best Example – An Unfortunate Facade
Several years would pass without my giving much thought to Brno until I once again came across the city while reading about the unfinished projects of Stanley Kubrick, the American film director. Kubrick, best known for such iconic films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, was an unfathomably obsessive man, who spent years researching every little detail that would go into his films. He did the same thing on several projects that never came to fruition. Most notably a film about the life of Napoleon and a film on the Holocaust based upon a novel, Wartime Lies by Louis Begley. The narrative concerns a Jewish woman and her nephew who survive the Holocaust by assuming Catholic identities. They do so by receiving Aryan Papers, a title Kubrick gave to the screenplay he adapted from the novel. The film was going to be set in World War II era Warsaw. Kubrick needed a city to act as a stand in for the Polish capital. When it came to recreating the atmosphere and architecture of that time period there was no better place than Brno.
Brno, unlike many places in the Czech Republic such as Prague, did not escape World War II unscathed. The city and surrounding area were badly damaged by Allied aerial bombing and street fighting that accompanied the Red Army’s taking of the city during the final weeks of the war. Over 1,200 buildings and at least that many lives were lost due to the fighting. The rebuilding process was nothing short of spectacular, with Brno’s Old Town now one of the best examples of an Eastern European cityscape of the first half of the 20th century. Kubrick and his aides did an incredible amount of research on the city before deciding that it would be the perfect set for The Aryan Papers. Kubrick’s attention to detail and penchant for massive amounts of research has left a rich archive of source material.
Almost Famous – The Impossible Film
Kubrick and his team went so far as to book Brno’s city center for filming. It would be cleared of traffic and the buildings festooned with Nazi flags. A cinematographer was chosen, while actresses and actors were selected for the lead roles. The filming would never take place. This was mainly because Kubrick was defeated by the depressing nature of the subject matter, believing it impossible to compress the horrors of the Holocaust into a two hour film he instead decided to move on to another project. An additional deterrent was the release of Schindler’s List. Steven Spielberg had beat him to the punch, even though Kubrick believed Schindler’s List was too uplifting. The opposite of what his interpretation would have been of the Holocaust in a film. While Krakow in Poland became justifiably famous for the scenes of Schindler’s List filmed there, Brno went back to its role as a beautiful backwater city in southern Moravia. The city Kubrick never put on film made me want to visit Brno one day to see its old city center. Many years would pass before I had the opportunity to discover it for myself.
The Brno of today is markedly different from that of the relatively recent past, especially when it comes to ethnicity. The core city has a population of 377,000, which is approximately 40% more than lived there at the beginning of the Second World War. Today’s population is almost entirely made up of ethnic Czechs. In the 1930’s there were over 10,000 Jews and 50,000 ethnic Germans. Almost all of these were either sent to concentration camps or subject to expulsion at the end of the war. For centuries, Germans knew the city as Brunn, a conurbation that lives on in much of the city center’s exquisite architecture. While present-day Brno is given much of its dynamism by another group, students. There are some 89,000 studying at one of several universities that call the city home. I would discover a youthful vibe to Brno, a counterpoint to much of the cityscape’s venerability.
Murky Origins – A Tribute To Human Determination
Like most visitors to Brno, my wife and I started in the city center. A better place for us to begin was with the city’s name, specifically to understand the origins of Brno. After all, that four letter word had loomed large in my memory for many years. I soon discovered that it had a much different meaning than what I could possibly imagine. The city’s name likely derives from the Old Czech term “brnie” which can be defined as swampy. Modern Brno looked the opposite of that term. It was elegant, neat and clean, but the town’s origins are quite literally murky.
The settlement that would eventually become Brno formed not far from the confluence of the Svitava and Svratka Rivers (located to the south of the present day city). In addition, several smaller streams flow through the area. Thus, the name fits the geomorphological characteristics of the area, even if it is no longer visible to the visitor. How a city that came to be so elegant and beautiful grew out of a swamp is a tribute to human determination coupled with Czech, German and Jewish ingenuity. That, along with over a thousand years of human history, has refined Brno it into the Moravia’s lone metropolis, one that would have to be explored in greater depth.