Three stories from the rivers Danube & Morava


The place where I live today seemed to me then like an evil remnant of the past. At that time, after 1989, we were taking trains eastwards, a couple of Austrians, from Vienna to Bratislava, to have a look at what remained of the regime and revolution and at the Slav women with their excessive makeup.

At that time, the only thing I noticed about the town I now live in was the uninviting train station, the first one on Slovak territory. I scrutinised the faces of the border police intensely, searching their features for evidence of firing orders and corruption, for the traces of windowless interrogation cells still remaining in their bodies, for normality, perversion and traces of humanity. I scrutinised them so intensely that I never saw the young birches close to the platform.

The train continued on schedule towards Bratislava's main station. Once, when I looked back from the heightened perspective of the tracks' embankment, my gaze was caught by an unexpected, surprising new world: a row of brand new apartment blocks lining a large boulevard, set into the border zone, with uncharacteristic, Roman-Mediterranean style colours. No sooner had I realised what I saw, than it had already disappeared.

What was it supposed to be? A residential settlement, 15 kilometres from the actual city – for whom? For ice-age mammoths, a selected work force, secluded scientists, or maybe even for exiles? I was attracted by it - and then I forgot it.

I have now been using this boulevard, which for a time was buried in the deeper regions of my mind, for five years. This boulevard is called Eisnerova, the place Devínska Nová Ves. A remote district of Bratislava with 17,000 inhabitants, located on the Morava and on the western end of the Carpathian Mountains. I live a kilometre away from my native country, Austria, 15 kilometres from the centre of Bratislava and 35 from the city limits of Vienna.

It has been a long time since I have felt the emotion associated with the coming of a new era. I do not even feel this when I stand in front of the last piece of the iron curtain, the few metres of barbed wire in Devínska, left along the Morava as a reminder. The regime had protected the border between systems with short-lived materials. The barbed wire has long since been replaced and a popular cycle path passes close by. Even on the country road along the Morava leading to the Danube estuary, it takes significant effort to think that excellent street lighting is due to the illumination of the death strip.

Now we are somewhere else. Where exactly remains to be seen. I will try to answer this question with a little practical experience, the experience of my surroundings, with three little stories from the border.



Once, the subject of a lecture lured me to Gänserndorf. I was heading towards a spectacularly sprawling district capital. Situated at commuting distance to Vienna, the town attracts a lot of people.

In 1981, Gänserndorf had less than 5,000 inhabitants, soon there will be 10,000. The new cooperative apartments are affordable and family-friendly, the flat landscape inspires to go jogging and cycling. If the trend continues, we will soon all have to go to Gänserndorf.

I was a little late and asked for the way in the underground crossing of the demure train station. “There must be something special there today”, answered the saleslady out of her take-away. “You’re already the third who asks today”. The answer electrified me. Apparently I wasn’t the only one longing for the subject of the lecture, but with me the entire North-Eastern border-region of Austria: “Cultural differences to the Czech Republic”.

Indeed, the hall was jammed with people. Almost exclusively men, well dressed, and in a superb mood. The lecturer was an engaging old hand with a healthy complexion and splendid white hair that could make one jealous. He had recently been to the “Tschechei”, to the Moravian renaissance town of Telč, “such a glorious place, you can bargain magnificently with the people there.” He mainly sold agricultural machines to Ukraine.

The not less eloquent listeners turned out bit by bit to be salespeople, Austrian salesmen, roaming the East with their variety of English. I learned that the market is “drained of top-sa¬les¬men” and an American study had found that self-control was the most important success factor in selling.

I had walked into a lecture for salespeople. The cultural differences that might have shed light onto the twisted relationship between Austrians and Czechs shrunk to a distribution-focused comparison between “Western Europe” and “CEE”. CEE counts over twenty nations.  

I have learned that the “Easterner” has far more problems with self-esteem than his Western counterpart. “The Easterner lets us come. I speak and he observes me. He uses the time to observe me.” If he doesn’t get a business card, the Easterner might get upset.

Despite all optimism the following applies: “It will certainly take a couple of years until they have been parallelized.” Until that time Austrians busily export the corruption they usually sneer at into CEE. “There is a directive in the finance ministry”, the lecturer said with a hushed voice. “If it is documented, a bribe can be set off against taxes.” He himself invites the Easterner to a seminar, in a good Austrian hotel. “Possibly he likes that even more than slipping cash or a TV-set.”

I fled the genre picture at halftime and went to the “Geyer”. Following up on the trend, I know more and more people that have moved to Gänserndorf and only had to wait for half an hour until one of my acquaintances had time for me.

Those who did not have to go to Gänserndorf yet might wonder why the cafe of a bakery chain turned into a widely accepted meeting point. Maybe it’s the cordial attendance of the Slav waitresses, maybe it´s the Gänserndorf way of life. One day, we will all sit there.



Where the Danube makes a gentle bent, between dotted foothills of the Carpathians and the Slovak border, lies the beautiful Austrian town Hainburg. The city is 1115 years old and is inhabited by a respectable minority of immigrated Turks.


This raises the question of the Austroturkish-Slovak relations, but first I want to know something else from one of Hainburg’s brightest Turks: How does he feel when he passes through the medieval Fishers' Gate?


Cengiz knows the inscription on the local memorial plaque there by heart, like a nursery rhyme he drones: “In commemoration of the residents of Hainburg, slaughtered by the Turks on the 12th of July of 1683 during the invasion of the town.”


That is exactly the problem, states Cengiz. He is young and eloquent, has learned Slovak, prefers Austrian newspapers to Turkish ones, and with his red stubby beard, he could easily pass for an Irishman or a Lower Austrian. In the minds of many Hainburgers the massacre of 1683 seems to have happened only two or three decades ago, he says. And on the other hand, many older Turks show little interest in their integration.


Cengiz meets me at the Turkish sports club, in a backyard in the old city. The cups of the team that doesn’t exist anymore are lined up above the counter. We drink tea from little bulbous glasses, Turkish TV is on, yellowing wallpaper shows a panorama of the Bosporus. Young and older men chat and play cards.


The only time a woman enters the sports club is when Cengiz organizes a lecture held by a woman. He volunteers in the community, tries to promote alphabetisation amongst mothers and organized a German course. Once he asked the local authorities for support. That was the moment when a little municipal council member pronounced a big quotation: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!”


Hainburg has 5,600 inhabitants, according to the census 500 to 600 are of Turkish origin. All Hainburg Turks are from Eastern Anatolia. Some work in the Hainburg tobacco factory, some in the filter plant, many at the airport Schwechat, as baggage handlers or cleaners.


Since there is no nightlife in Hainburg, the young Turks go to Vienna a lot. Vienna is far away, Vienna is expensive, so they started to go out in Bratislava. Slovakia was never confronted with Turks, the bans from bars in Austria are not known there.“Once we got a trashing from Slovak skins”, Cengiz tells, who meanwhile has become the good husband of a Turkish wife. The blows, of course, where meant for another people: “Those guys called us dirty Italians.”


Apart from that, Austroturkish-Slovak relations develop very promisingly, half a dozen of Hainburg Turks already speak Slovak. The limit is reached when a son introduces a Slovak girl to his father who wouldn’t even want an Austrian one in the house. In the mind of the conservative Turkish father, Russian and Moldovan girls have crystallized as the women who dominate the brothels of the Turkish homeland. He will hardly be talked out of his belief that Slovak girls are whores.


Cengiz for his part is more focussed on the Austrian-Turkish relations. The memorial plaque for the “residents of Hain¬burg, slaughtered by the Turks” - he has something in mind with it. Nothing that would put those Hainburgers off, who think they are experiencing the third Turkish siege. No provocation, a conciliatory gesture, a smart move.


If I understood him correctly, the Hainburg Turks were to march through the city, from the main square through the Blood Street to the Fishers' Gate. Each one with a rose in hand, to then lay down the rose.     




I got the hint from a well-informed friend. The leading positions in the intellectual scene in Slovakia, he told me, are held by Hussits. He enumerated a few names that rang a bell. My jaws dropped.

Hussits? Silent shivers went through me. How could the contemporary Slovakia get under such an influence? Under open revenants of the same plundering, religiously and nationally outraged mob that infested my Lower Austria six hundred years ago with flails?

I went to the Sunday mass of these people. I found a modern church in a side street of Bratislava´s old city. It was a generously expanded basement of an ordinary old building. The reception was located on the ground floor, the cloakroom was used by everybody. At the entrance stood a lean young man in a black suit and held out his hand towards everyone: “Ciao, I am Josef!”

Josef was a “preacher” of the church that doesn’t know priests. He had mailed me days before, saying that the connection of his “Cirkev Bratská” and the Hussite movement had been broken already in the 15th century when their founding father, brother Rehoř, had refused to carry a sword. All fine and well, I thought. I want to see with my own eyes, if those are really Soft-Hussites.

Even though the charismatic star of the “brotherly church” preached in the countryside that Sunday, the church was full. Before me, a perfectly rehearsed program unfolded, performed by neatly clothed laypersons of the upper middleclass. They gained confidence by starting out with “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name”. Czech and English gospels followed, lections in Slovak, English-speaking visitors were provided via headphones from the interpreters’ booth.

Someone said, the “Cirkev Bratska” recognizes any kind of Christian baptism. The focus was on Josef’s sermon, which he held in Czech. He spoke about the sacredness of the Sunday, well structured, thoroughly prepared, eventually with mild humour.

The audience barely had to participate. There was no communion, which spared the community of Catholics, Protestants and seeking people at least one question. Most followed the service like a lecture. Some folded their hands, some crossed their legs, the girl in front of me rested her head on her dread-locked boyfriend’s shoulder.

It didn’t get more Hussite. I attended a cultivated gathering of people among which many - a second car in sight - had found their second church. Not unpleasantly touched at all, I left the church, which has multiplied its followers to 10000 in a few years. At the exit of the cloakroom the preacher shook my hand again: “Ciao, I am Josef.”

And then I found them, the true Hussites, the following Sunday. They were few, in a hidden chapel in the old city of Bratislava, believers of the “Církev československa husitská”, who give themselves away in their names that they belong to Hus as much as to Czechoslovakia.

A striking amount of men sat there in the rows of chairs. Severe, old gentlemen, sitting up straight, squeezed into grey suits, listening expressionless to the Czech speaking priest. I stood in the door, the only young mother smilingly offered me the seat next to her children. But I savoured my Hussite-shudder, and before it started to wear off, I left.