Prague City Hall held a special ceremony on Thursday honouring Czechs forced in the Stalinist 1950s to serve in army units that were in reality nothing more than labour camps. An estimated 40 to 60 thousand men, singled out as enemies of the regime, served in such units between the years 1950 and 1954, after which they were officially disbanded. But even 60 years later the scars remain.
The Pomocné Technické Prapory, Technical Assistance Battalions, were first established on September 1, 1950 and lasted for four years; all the same, even now, they have lost little in notoriety. Tens of thousands of men – both young and older, who had been dubbed enemies of the state – were forced to serve, carrying no weapons, suffering hard labour and experienced constant harassment. One of the people forced to serve was 81-year-old Miroslav Růžička, now the head of the Czech Confederation of Political Prisoners in Tábor. His crime? Having taken part in the student demonstration of February 1948 when the Communists seized power:
“I was 19 years old and joined the student demonstration leading to Prague Castle in support of President Beneš on February 25th. Our generation was brought up in a patriotic fashion, taught to hold dear family and country, and this was an expression of that. It was my misfortune that I was among those picked up and imprisoned.”
Miroslav Růžička was sentenced as an enemy of the state in 1949; besides being jailed, he was later given two years of forced labour. And finally, he was sent to the Technical Assistance Battalions. He says that if Joseph Stalin and Klement Gottwald had not died in 1953, he and others would have languished in the Gulag. Here’s what he told me about the Pomocné Technické Prapory, known colloquially as the Black Barons.
“Those of us who were younger weathered things better but there were some who were in their 40s or 50s. Still, it was better than prison. In the early days, we were given old Nazi uniforms and some still had splashes of blood (we had to take the Nazi emblems off). Members of the public thought at first we were Germans. In the unit, our commanding officer told us he would teach us the value of ‘real’ work. We would shovel huge piles of sand and gravel in the courtyard from one spot to another. The officer would shout Čest práce as a command. In honour of work. With each čest, we had to fill our shovels.’”
After he was released from the Technical Assistance Battalions, Miroslav Růžička managed to find employment and gradually to build something of a new life; nevertheless his family continued to suffer under the Communists and understandably it was a relief when the former regime collapsed in 1989. To this day he continues to lecture at schools to ensure younger generations learn more – and are able to ask directly – about the Communist legacy.