Freedoms Challenged: Books and Bibles Banned and Buried

Freedoms Challenged: Books and Bibles Banned and Buried

Cycle/Painting no.15 of the Slav Epic, “The Printing of the Bible of Kralice in Ivančice” by Alphonse Mucha


Next week (September 23-29, 2018) is “Banned Books Week,” an annual awareness campaign promoted by the American Library Association and Amnesty International. The campaign celebrates the freedom to read, draws attention to banned and challenged books, and highlights persecuted individuals.

Charles grew up in the 20th century’s World War II Nazi and Communist occupied Czechoslovakia where books were banned and burned.

But the 20th century wasn’t the only time books were banned or even hidden in what are now Czech lands. In the 16th century the Kralice Bible was published illegally. In the Kingdom of Bohemia the Moravian Church, which published it, was not allowed in the country. However, the individual noble families had their own laws in their domains. Johann the Elder of Žerotin, himself a member of the Moravian Church, set up a secret printing press in 1560 in Eibenschütz (Ivančice), which was later moved to Kralice where this work of the Czech Brethren was published.

The Kralice Bible was the first complete translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into the Czech language.  Translated by the Unity of the Brethren, the first edition had six volumes and was published between 1579 and 1593.

I first learned about the Kralice Bible from Charles in 1997 when we visited Námĕšt nad Oslavou, and Kralice nad Oslavou, towns in Moravia in eastern Czech Republic. His family fled to Námĕšt in 1938 and lived there during World War II. It’s where Charles joined the Czech Resistance at age eleven.

Charles took me to the renaissance chateau in Náměšť, where a six volume Kralice Bible is housed in the chateau library. A medieval stronghold from the 13th century, the chateau was ruined and rebuilt by the Moravian family of Žerotín between 1565 and 1578.

In Kralice we viewed the Kralice Bible Museum and a memorial to the Kralice Bible. The memorial was designed by renowned architect Bohuslav Fuchs. Interestingly, Fuchs was the architect of the Hotel Slovan (Alfa Passage) in Brno where Charles sang in the Oasa Cabaret during his teen years. There is a working replica of the printing press used for the bible at the museum.

Charles and I also visited Moravsky Krumlov the town next to Ivančice where we viewed the Slav Epic, a series of 20 monumental paintings some as large as 20‘ x 26‘, painted by celebrated Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) who was born in Ivančice.

Cycle/Painting no.15 of the Epic is The Printing of the Bible of Kralice in Ivančice (1914). On this canvas Mucha depicted his hometown of Ivančice on a sunny fall day. “The industrious Brethren gather around a printing press to inspect the first printed pages of the bible. In the foreground a young student reads to an old man. He looks out to the viewer and his stern expression seems to foretell the impending persecution that will force the Brethren to flee the country.”

For Protestants and many Catholics in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Bible of Kralice, aka the Kralice Bible was and still is a national treasure. It’s an important symbol of Czech national identity and has helped keep the Czech language alive.

In Moravia, Charles’ family joined the Czech Brothers, the followers of John Hus, Czech theologian and church reformer. Charles took classes in religious history from Reverend Ženatý who confirmed him as a Czech Brother in 1941. Charles was fascinated with his teaching, and said when Ženatý saw his serious interest he told Charles about John Hus translating the Bible into Czech and how Gutenberg printed the first version.

Charles said he met the Reverend each week in Kralice where the Czech Brothers printed the translated Bible during the Hussite War. Ženatý explained that though many of the bibles were burned during the Inquisition and the Hussite uprising, it was believed that many of them had been hidden somewhere in secret underground passages between Kralice and Námĕšt.

The curious and adventurous Charles organized his friends and they began searching in caves and passages for Kralice Bibles. They eventually stopped looking, but when Charles and I were in Namest he told me he still wondered if hidden bibles were ever found.

On my last trip to Námĕšt in 2015, I visited Charles’ home, walked the paths and streets he walked and roamed the hills and forests he explored as a youth during wartime. I came across a passageway near the Namest chateau and wondered if Charles had entered it in his search for Kralice Bibles!

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