In the rose garden


It is years that I am drawn by this place, a little island in an enormous storage lake. Often, I passed the lake and I saw, through a distant mist, the island where a little, lost church stands.

I was so mesmerized, that in winter, I wrote at this place, come summer I would swim to the island. Shortly afterwards, a reader contacted me and offered his raft. By Whit Monday, my wish was fulfilled. We rowed towards the abandoned place. What I discovered was of such beauty, one should hardly write it in a newspaper.

The island is located in the South Moravian reservoir of Nové Mlýny. Three connected, cascading expanses of water stretch out for 32 square kilometres. I didn’t know much more when we inflated the raft early that morning. The raft had some hundred valves and was a highly modern, splendid example of human navigation, designed by engineers of the US Navy.

I mainly knew that on lake Nové Mlýny II any kind of watersports is forbidden. This is what the prohibition sign said that stuck out of the reed on the northern bank of the entirely overgrown lake, leaning lopsidedly forwards. “Nature reserve, no trespassing,” it said in Czech, “§ 34 of law N° 114/1992.”

Further, I knew that in the Seventies, the damming of the junction of the rivers Dyje, Svratka and Jihlava had caused the flooding of a village: The parish Muschau had existed since 1276. Until 1945, it had been inhabited by 700 German-speaking South Moravians.

That Monday, a horrible wind was blowing. The waves on the southern shore seemed more peaceful, so we set out there only to end up swaying like a nutshell in the ocean. Shortly after our journey had started, my captain put on his flaming orange life jacket and yet another moment later he would have preferred to return. He rowed, I struggled to keep course with the helm and tried to avoid dead branches, breaking through the surface. To pay respect to the truth, we were not masters of the situation. We were driven towards the island.

The landing seemed plainly impossible. On a tiny neighbouring island, hundreds of seagulls were screaming over the thundering spray washing over the tree trunks. The island with the church was surrounded by reed. Further inland the vegetation was lush. I could not name it botanically, some sort of linden green giant weed, four to five metres high, blocking the view to the church. With effort, we paddled towards the shore that was protected from the wind. We pulled the raft into the reed and made our way through the tree-high weeds, a few metres uphill.

And all of a sudden it was bewitching. All of a sudden it was sunny and still with not so much as a breeze. We stood among rich, blossoming rose bushes and the church lay directly before us. A church of Romanic origin, with chipped off plasterwork but intact structure. Gasping and thoroughly wet, we stumbled out of the storm and into the sweetness of a wild rose garden.

The tower was accessible. I had to duck when I entered the tower through a narrow iron spiral staircase, and then climbed up through a broader wooden staircase. I walked slowly and slightly anxious, my captain had preferred to stay outside. The walls were covered with inscriptions, which calmed me down. It was all names and dates, most not too old, from the zero years.

When I reached the top underneath the intact roof, the wind was howling again entering through the windows. A wooden shutter lay broken on the floor of the room, resembling the ribcage of a stranded skiff. The view was magnificent, the lakes, the seagulls, the Pálava hills with their vineyards.

I descended and entered the church. It was totally emptied, a layer of crumbling plaster covering the floor. Just at the entrance there was a chiselled stone, the inscription in German. I could only decode the ending: “Saviour eternally. 1850”.

The walls were exposed to blank bricks at some parts, a few paintings could still be distinguished, maybe the patron saint of Muschau, Leonhard, saint of the cattle. In the fresco on the ceiling, I could identify a kneeling angel.

To reach the choir, I had to fight my way through thorny undergrowth outside; the passage to the iron spiral staircase was completely overgrown. All walls of the choir were carved by visitors. Mostly Czech names: “Marcela, Monika, Mira, Lenka, Radka”, but also “21.08.1991: Karsten, Jörg, Uwe, Jana”. Often, names of places were added, mainly of the Moravian surroundings, and dates: 15.07.1988, 30.07.1989, 18.03.1990. Almost all entries originated from the time before 1994, when Nové Mlýny II was shut down for the public.

The church was dry and it smelled nice. Even though the church is not a house of the Lord anymore, I did not have the feeling to stand in a desecrated place. Among all the messages, I did not find any one of abusive or insinuating character. There was no garbage in the church whatsoever.

I lighted a candle in the place where the tabernacle once had stood and went out to the wild roses, to my captain who was sitting in the grass with a delighted expression on his face. We imagined how the village of Muschau might have looked. Only later, I would learn from contemporary witnesses that we were partially mistaken.

We thought the island of Muschau was the remains of the church hill. The communists saved it on purpose, however, constructing artificial banks, hence, the vegetation we had to fight ourselves through. We did not know that the roof had been renewed after 1989 because the tiles had been stolen.

We did not know that the village had been abraded in the Sixties, before it was flooded. The Czech settlers, who had to leave the village after barely 20 years, took apart the houses themselves. Most used the material to build a new Muschau close by in the village Pasohlávky, still baring the name: “Nový Mušov”.

And when we were standing enraptured in the lull, I did not know Marie Landauf, Muschovian born 1916, who told me about her village. In 1960, 15 years after her displacement to Austria, Landauf visited her now Czech village. The unknown Czech, who lived in her parents house, “thoroughly honoured” her, she told me. “He kneeled down before me and apologized with the words: I have to czechizise.” What became of him, she does not know. She never visited Nový Mušov. “It’s an unpleasant feeling, one is at home and still feels like a stranger.”

None of this we knew, when we animatedly hopped into the raft and left the island the same way we had arrived - via drifting on the agitated lake. We landed happily on the northern shore, exactly at the prohibition sign, which we remembered as a good landing place. We pulled the plugs out of the hundred valves. Now we only had to walk the five kilometres to the car.