ZURICH – The new novel Jachymov of the Austrian writer Josef Haslinger tells the tragedy of the Czechoslovak national team that was wiped out in a conspiracy plot at the beginning of the communist era after World War II. The main figure in the book is one of the stars of the lost generation of ice hockey players, Bohumil Modry, who was one of the best goalkeepers of his time in Europe.
Modry was posthumously inducted to the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2011.
The book tells the tragedy of him and his family based on researched facts about a strong athlete, who was sentenced for high treason, and whose body slowly withered away due to radiation in a uranium mine. A punishment meant to send an intimidating signal towards the insubordinate part of the Czechoslovak society.
When Blanka Modra attended the 2011 IIHF World Championship last May in Bratislava to represent her father, who was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame during the event, the old story of the imprisoned Czechoslovak national team of 1950 surfaced one more time.
The story centers around Czechoslovakia’s communist regime, which eliminated an entire team by sending its players to prison and labour camps because they thought the team wanted to defect from the country.
During the ceremony in Bratislava, Haslinger, an Austrian-born writer and literature professor in Leipzig, Germany, was writing a novelesque biography about Modry.
The story of the book is introduced with a fictional meeting. An ill publisher is looking for treatment at a radon spa in Jachymov, Czech Republic. He meets a woman who’s investigating the tragedy of her father. The woman is Modra, an actor and dancer who had immigrated to Vienna and who has met Haslinger 20 years ago in her real life.
“Every time we met, our conversations ended up about her father. I noticed how much this is the luggage of her life she brought with her into emigration,” the writer says. “Later I started asking her selective questions and to find out more on my own. It took me about two years. I even went to a try-out course to Jachymov.”
Modra also told him when she was informed by the IIHF in the autumn of 2010 that her father would become an honoured member of the IIHF Hall of Fame.
“She was very happy about it. And for me it was a lucky coincidence,” says Haslinger. “Because first I had the impression I was writing about a hockey player nobody knows anymore. Now, sometimes at my readings one elderly man would appear, telling me he was a hockey player himself and met Modry at international tournaments.”
Modra told Haslinger the story of her family. From her father becoming one of the best European goaltenders in the ‘30s while studying to become an engineer at the same time.
She recounts about World Championships, Olympic Games and Spengler Cups. And the brutal time during the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis. Modry didn’t have the possibility to continue his studies nor to play hockey during these years as the country was cut off from the rest of the world.
When his country was liberated after 1945, he was able to get back on the international stage. But he noticed soon that the state of his country was rather a quasi-independence. Soon after the Nazis had left, the communists took to power and his country was transformed into a Soviet satellite state, as with many others in the region.
As the best hockey team of the communist area, the Czechoslovak national squad had to cancel a hockey tour to the U.S. in 1948 and had instead to travel to Moscow. At this visit the foundation was laid for the Soviet hockey program that would dominate international hockey in the years to come.
Six years later, in Stockholm in 1954, the Soviets played their first IIHF World Championship and shocked the world and Canada by winning the gold.
In 1948, Russian bandy players were called to a training camp together with ice hockey players from the Baltic States such as Latvia, where national hockey teams already existed before World War II and before the “incorporation” of the three countries into the Soviet Union.
It was the start of the Soviet ice hockey program enabled by the help of their comrades from Czechoslovakia. The Czechs and Slovaks were flown in to teach the Soviets the techniques of what in Russian was called “Canadian hockey”. They did drills from morning until evening, and they were filmed, according to Modra.
During the camp the Soviets inspected the hockey specific equipment and manufactured copies within a few days. Her father also got to know Anatoli Tarasov, who took his first steps on his way to becoming a legendary coach. It was an acquaintance that possibly may have saved his life during the trials some years later, as high treason called for a death penalty.
The turning point from a hero of the communist sports propaganda to a traitor of the nation – Modry was rehabilitated after his death – started for the goaltender and his teammates with a meeting in Davos, Switzerland, when their club team LTC Prague was participating in the 1948 Spengler Cup. For Modry it was a special tournament as his wife was from Switzerland.
The team was contacted by Czechs in exile, who wanted to plan their flight out of the country and to let the team play professionally in Great Britain. It would have been a humiliation for the regime, but maybe the start of a better life for the players.
However, the team voted and decided against leaving the country, probably to a lesser degree because of their satisfaction with the government (towards which the hockey players were rather critical as in Modra’s explanations), than due to the possible consequences for their families at home.
Modry thought he’d gain experience as a professional player abroad in legitimate ways. He got an offer to sign a semi-professional contract in Ottawa and was promised by the government that they would allow him to transfer to Canada if Czechoslovakia won the 1949 IIHF World Championship.
The team came back from Stockholm with the gold medals around their necks to a parade through Prague, but Modry’s exit visa was declined and the goalkeeper decided to end his playing career.
Blanka Modra (right) and her sister Alena Weismann represented their father Bohumil Modry at the 2011 IIHF Hall of Fame induction ceremony during the 2011 IIHF World Championship in Bratislava. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images
Modra also tells about another drama with the team. In 1948 the squad travelled to London, but one of the planes with six team members on board disappeared in the English Channel. The team defeated Great Britain – which gentlemanly offered to play with six players less – 5-3 before being told about the airplane crash. The tour was cancelled and the players returned immediately.
But the regime wasn’t sure whether it was a crash and started investigations. They thought about conspiracy, that the lost players might have fled to the west. During their investigations they also found out about the team’s discussions with the Czechs in exile in Davos, and about Modry’s contacts with North American diplomats.
The investigations led to the cancellation of Czechoslovakia’s participation at the 1950 IIHF World Championship in London as the regime feared the humiliation of the team defecting during or after the event. The players were given excuses at the airport in Prague, that the plane could not leave due to visa problems caused by the British.
The players ended up going to the pub they used to hang out at, drinking and singing anti-government paroles when agents came in. The Police were ready outside the bar and arrested the players on the spot. Because they didn’t adjust to the new style of obedience, some of the players thought. Because the Soviets wanted to eliminate a competitor within their sphere, others speculated.
After the players had confessed to their so-called crimes, allegedly by means of torture, Modry was identified as the leader of the obstinate gang. The retired goaltender was arrested 11 days after the rest. 11 players and the pub owner were sentenced for high treason and anti-Soviet actions in a show-trial where judges were virtually reduced to messengers. Modry got the toughest sentence: 15 years.
His wife and children weren’t allowed to see him for a long time. In prison, terror from the guards was the daily routine. Eventually Modry was deported to a labour camp. The hero of the past was made a traitor and his family had to live with isolation in daily life. Their lives were made difficult either with finding work or at school. The players’ wives helped each other, communicating with sign language in order to not worsen the situation of their husbands.
Arriving at the labour camp, one knew what to expect. The sign at the entry read “praci ke svobode”, Czech for “work towards freedom”. It was basically a translation of “Arbeit macht frei”, the same as the Nazis used it at the gates of their concentration camps.
“It’s almost like they’d have taken over the plans of the Nazis,” Modra said in the book about the camp with buildings and areas often named in Czech spellings of Nazi slang. It was the place “subversive” people of the country were deported by the communists – athletes, intelligentsia, philosophers, writers, priests.
In one of the secret uranium mines near Jachymov, where the goal was to satisfy the Soviet nuclear program’s hunger for commodities, prisoners had to scallop uranium with their bare hands – totally unprotected from radiation and uranium dust. It was the implicit death penalty and Modry knew it. There were enough scientists among the prisoners who were able to predict the consequences.
After five years in the camp, the former national hero was granted amnesty being fatally ill. He had to live through a long, painful death process.
In his last years before his death, Modry became the first European to produce material about special education for goaltenders, while also publishing articles about goaltending training.
Apart from that, he didn’t have anything to do with hockey anymore. Only one time in 1959, when the World Championship was played in Prague at his former ice stadium on an island of River Vltava, he came and saw the Soviets defeat Czechoslovakia 4-3. He was sitting on the honorary seats of the Soviets, invited by Tarasov. The Czechoslovak hockey authorities avoided Modry like the plague, even at his funeral, which was visited by an “endless amount of people”, as Modra remembered.
Modry passed away in 1963 at age 47 from the consequences of the radiation.
For Haslinger it was special to write about this sad topic, and about hockey. Although he was watching the IIHF World Championship on TV when growing up in Austria, it was this book that brought him close to the sport. He started attending games of the Vienna Capitals. First he stayed close to the goalkeepers to study them for his book. Eventually passion for the sport evolved.
“You cannot go to hockey games and stay cool and feel nothing,” Haslinger says. He changed his seats, now sitting high up behind centre ice. “From there you can see the play the best. The sport is incredibly fast. With body-checking it looks very rough, but in truth ice hockey relies so much on skill.”
His book “Jáchymov” is a novelesque biography about Modry over 271 pages based on the stories told by his daughter, her interviews with former teammates and cell mates, and her research into official archives from that period.
Modra herself wasn’t told much about the tough years from her father. Only once, when the kids were annoying him with gimmicks at the dining table, he said, remembering Jachymov: “We took crumbs from the floor with our fingers.”
Jáchymov is not your regular hockey book. It gives insights into a dark chapter of world and sports history that was hidden from most of us behind the former Iron Curtain and in the inner life of a suffering family.
NOTE: The book was published in German and a Czech version is planned. It can be bought in German-language bookshops. International orders are also possible here.
NOTE II: “Czechoslovak team jailed for treason – an entire generation lost” was #48 among the IIHF’s Top-100 Stories of the Century published in the centennial year 2008.