Sleeping in the Shadow of the Enemy in Brno in a Shelter Called 10-Z
By Donnie Sexton
I’m staring up at an elaborate balcony in the city of Brno, where Hitler gave a speech during the only time he visited this Czech Republic city.
I’m trying to imagine what it felt like to be in the crowd, listening to Hitler in the midst of having this city, along with so many lives, torn apart.
During WWII, Brno was the target of American and Soviet bombings that would destroy 1,278 buildings and kill over 1,200 people. 10-Z was initially built as an air raid shelter for protection against the attacks and is located underneath the Špilberk Castle.
Cold War Days
After the war, between 1946 to 1948, the shelter would become a wholesale winery known as Löwy & Šmíd.
Then at the onset of the Cold War, the Communist government would confiscate the winery and turn the bunker into an area of protection for up to 500 of the city’s elite, including those in control of the town and the South Moravia Region of 1.5 million citizens.
The shelter was designed to be self-sufficient for up to three days, in case the outside world went upside down. It was stocked with food and an aeration system to filter and purify the air in the event of a chemical attack.
From Bunker to Museum
Up until 1993, the Czech army controlled the shelter which was classified as top secret and known as 10-Z. The bunker was then given to the city, who in turn worked out an arrangement with Americký Fond.
Americký Fond is an independent Czech non-profit corporation founded by the American Fund for Czech and Slovak Relief, Inc.
This group was permitted to use the space for ten years with the condition that it is open to the public seven days a week as a museum and active shelter (it is a part of the regional emergency system).
The museum opened in 2016, with 65 rooms squeezed into 4,920 feet, connected through a series of long, narrow brick-lined tunnels.
Americký Fond has done a superb job of recreating an atmosphere of how the shelter would have looked and felt in its heyday.
It’s a living history lesson far more impressive than what can be read in a book. The vibe in the underground maze of 1,640 feet of tunnels is both eerie and daunting.
Future plans call for concerts, lectures, and film screenings. On the weekends, a 90-minute tour through Nazi and Stalinist Brno is available through 10-Z.
Gas Mask Anyone?
There are a few ways to explore this underground labyrinth, either with a guided tour ($11/ person) to get a sense of how the shelter functioned, or explore on your own with a map to the rooms ($6/person). QR-coded videos throughout the shelter help explain the history.
In the telephone exchange room, lined with historical photos, you can pick up the phones sitting on a desk and listen to recordings that talk about Brno’s history. You can also try on the coats and gas masks, if so inclined.
Take this a step further and spend the night. It’s possible to bed down for up to three nights, in rooms furnished as they would have been in the shelter days.
If you need a thick, comfy mattress, this stay isn’t for you. Beds are a simple metal frame with a small pad and sleeping bag that comes with a liner.
By all reports, it is quite chilly at night, with temps at 57 degrees. Bathrooms and showers are communal. On any given night, the bunker can accommodate up to 85 people.
Rooms range from $20 in the dormitory rooms to $40 for a single, and come with a “communist” breakfast, and guided bunker tour.
I didn’t spend the night, but I would be up for the experience provided a few friends would join me.
I do not doubt that my vivid imagination would conjure up “things that go bump in the night”, making it impossible to get any sleep.
When asked about the breakfast, Pavel Paleček, founder of the Museum, describes the “communist” breakfast as simple. It consists of Russian eggs and Turkish coffee.
He elaborates by saying “It is inspired by communism only. If it were the same as in the past, nobody would eat it. Special communist retro dishes we serve only upon request, and we have it on the menu in our Milk Bar which is a part of the museum.”
When we opened the museum in 2016, we offered only retro food, but people declined to eat it! They just wanted to talk about it.”
Miss Czech Slept at 10-Z
Community support for 10-Z has included the women competing in the Miss Czech competition in 2017 spending the night. For eats, the Milk Bar was set up by noted Chef Marcel Ihnaĉak , serving cider, beer, sundaes, milkshakes, schnitzel, custard cream, as well as Stalinist and wartime specialties.
I applaud the fact that 10-Z hires people with disabilities. As Pavel would say, “the Nazis were not fond of the disabled, but it is a pleasure for us to employ handicapped people in a former Nazi bunker.”
Chamber of Bones
In addition to 10-Z, it’s worth exploring the second largest ossuary in Europe, Kostnice u sv. Jakuba (the Ossuary at the Church of St James). This is a deeper dive underground into Brno’s history, long before the Nazi era.
Three burial chambers from the 17th century hold the remains of over 50,000 people who died during the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedish siege of Brno, as well as cholera and plague epidemics.
Frankly, it’s a little creepy to be in a confined space surrounded by skulls and bones.
The tour of both 10-Z and Kostnice left a mark on my soul, trying to wrap my head around this slice of European history. As I made my way through 10-Z, I couldn’t help but think of my now deceased mother-in-law who lived through WWII.
She narrowly escaped East Berlin before the Berlin Wall was constructed. She flat out refused to ever talk about the war with me.
I champion these places that keep our history alive, be it good or bad. It isn’t just Europe’s history, but mine as well.