An endless grave field like in a military cemetery. Simple tombstones, black wrought-iron crosses and small plaques stretch as far as the eye can see. More than seven hundred graves, side by side, close together. Here, in the Bila Voda cemetery, 750 nuns are buried. They were deported here during the communist era, to the remotest corner of what was then Czechoslovakia.
Bila Voda, today a village with about three hundred inhabitants, is surrounded on three sides by former Prussian, now Polish Silesia. It lies on the Javornik promontory, which was artificially created by the border shift after the Austro-Prussian wars in the 18th century.
Hard life in isolation
It was here of all places that the nuns were brought after their convents were closed in 1950 at the behest of the Czechoslovak regime in Prague. As part of “Action R” directed against the Catholic Church, more than 1,000 nuns from 14 convents were brought to a “centralization convent” in the greatest possible isolation. This is how the largest community of nuns in Europe came into being in this almost closed enclave.
The nuns who still live in Bila Voda and work as nurses in the psychiatric hospital live in these houses
The conditions in Bila Voda were very tough. In 1950 the village was an almost deserted place from which the native German population had been expelled after 1945 on the basis of the Benes Decrees.
The sisters were forbidden to leave the remote village, they cared for patients in the local psychiatric hospital or worked on the local farm. The vast majority of them died in Bila Voda. The cemetery where they are buried is the largest such burial ground in the world.
A controversial novel makes Bila Voda famous
A large proportion of Czechs today know Bila Voda and the story of the nuns who were abducted there. Even those who are not religious and were previously uninterested in the persecution of the Catholic Church and religious orders in communist Czechoslovakia have been confronted with the issue. The reason for this is the novel “Bila Voda” by Katerina Tuckova, which became the best-selling book in recent years with more than 100,000 copies sold. The 42-year-old author received the State Prize, the most important Czech cultural award, in 2022.
But the novel is not without controversy. Because at first glance it seems to be an authentic historical report, including the alleged documents of the communist state security contained therein. In fact, Tuckova describes the events in her book based on real events, but she doesn’t stick to reality. “Of course, I can respond to the criticism of the distortion of history by pointing out that it is a novel and not a non-fiction book,” she told the weekly Haaretz. As the author of a work of fiction, she has a legitimate right to treat historical realities in the fictional world she is creating as she pleases. “I think that what I came up with in my research on the subject is not a falsification of history,” she added in the interview.
The phenomenon of Bila Voda
The response to the book was so great that the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Charles University in Prague held an international conference on the book entitled “The Bila Voda Phenomenon”. Leading theologians, church historians and literary experts discussed how to approach a work that often ignores historical facts but still finds many readers. Many conference participants found the misrepresentation of the activities of the State Security to be particularly problematic.
“Perhaps it irritates us that we didn’t reach a broad readership with our specialist articles, but that Katerina Tuckova did with a book that you can normally buy at any gas station,” admitted the church historian Marek Smid.
Controversial stories of a young author
Tuckova’s description of the priestly ordination of one of the nuns is also controversial. She was inspired by the story of secretly ordained theologian Ludmila Javorova. She was one of five women ordained priests in the Czech underground church. However, their consecration was not recognized by the Vatican after the end of communist rule. “In reality, everything is different than in Katerina Tuckova’s novel,” says Prague theologian Mireia Ryskova. “I am convinced that the question of the ordination of women is one of the signs of the times. In my opinion, this issue should have been addressed positively earlier.” It is Tuckova’s credit that her novel has awakened interest in the general public for the history of the Catholic Church under Communism.
It’s not the first time Tuckova has caused a stir with a novel. In 2010 she wrote a book about a young German woman from Brno who was expelled from her homeland on a death march in 1945. The novel was also published in German under the name “Gerta. The German Girl”. In the Czech Republic, he was received controversially because he took up the taboo subject of the expulsion of Germans and made it known to a broad public.
Back to Bila Voda
Although many tourists have come to little Bila Voda since the publication of her new book, there is not much of a sign of this in the village itself. The small museum about the internment of the nuns is closed on weekends, as is the monastery church. The only reference to tourism is the bilingual Czech-Polish sign on the local pub: “Sale of alcoholic beverages to intoxicated persons prohibited.” And another one that says “Pay in cash – kroons, zlotys, euros”.
The cemetery looks well-kept with a marble plaque at the entrance that states that it is a protected cultural monument with the tombstones of the interned nuns. The place has a mystical atmosphere. Rose bushes are planted next to the sisters’ tombstones. There are roses of a different color for each of the religious orders to which the nuns who were brought here belonged.
Even after the end of Communism, when they were finally free, the nuns did not completely withdraw. They still care for patients in the psychiatric hospital and run a guest house. Several newly established religious houses testify that the local religious community is still alive here, albeit with a much smaller number of sisters.