Toufar Acts as a Present Day Keystone

It happened exactly sixty-seven years ago. Frosty morning of the third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 1949. A remote village in the Czech Highlands. A small rural church full of locals and non-residents alike. Towards the end of his sermon, the priest recapitulates what has been said and at that moment, a wooden altar cross rocks back and forth wonderfully but does not fall off; instead, it remains deflected from its axis and oddly twisted. The phenomenon is noticed by nineteen people who during the week report their testimonies to the priest who did not see anything as it happened behind his back. The village is Číhošť and the priest is Josef Toufar. A month and a half later, he will be hijacked by members of the State Security (StB), and in course of the next month, he will be tortured and murdered because he refuses to submit the false “confession” that he had been “cheating the naive believers”.

Rarely does history confront us with such unsettling questions and mysterious circumstances as in this case. And dramatic questions at that. Full of paradoxes, absurdities, cynicism, brutality, but also human endurance, purity and fidelity. This story is an existential drama, a horror with a terrifying finale, but also a tragicomedy with elements of dada and surrealism. The case presents an intersection of many planes – political, religious, mystical, propagandistic; both the Czech country and the Prague Castle, both the pub and the church, both the assassins and the faithful friends. One of the directorial roles is played by President Gottwald, deciding on the life of the sacrificial highland priest who served with humour and and whole-hearted commitment. The story has been revisiting us over the last sixty-seven years both as a pressing testimony and as an urgent outcry.

But it is not just about the movement of the cross. The essential fact here is the life of Toufar. Grown close with his village, he was forcibly torn out of those relations and made to wear the mask of a criminal. Even after his death, he was outrageously slandered and apart from his niece Marie, a few friends and the parishioners, he had no advocacy. Only in 1968 was the scandal first opened by the journalist Jiří Brabenec who was silenced during the subsequent normalization.

And then, there is comrade Ladislav Mácha, a sadistic Secret Service interrogator who tortured Toufar. Not alone. However, as the commander of the State Service Instruction Unit, he bears a distinct responsibility for Toufar’s death. And he still bears it as he is still alive – sentenced in late 90s to two years unconditionally, of which he only did less than one – sour-faced as he watches Josef Toufar gain attention and rehabilitation.

Why precisely this rural parish priest who was more of a country fellow than a soulful prelate? In the contemporary Czech society, the reasons may be the lack of authority, the discovering of half-forgotten figures of our history and the search for role models. Toufar is a transparent man with a clear value-background who lived as he preached and was able to hold by his words. Even in times when his life depended on it. He was no obvious hero, no flawless robot, but someone who matured in a liminal situation.

Also, the priesthood and Christianity of Josef Toufar was open, non-moralizing and culture-carried. He was able to connect and interconnect people from different social strata, Catholics, Protestants and those who did not go to church. He is not a figure that would divide the nation today, on the contrary – he acts as a keystone. I have to bear witness from the many meetings and letters exchanged with the readers that Toufar’s life reaches across the societal and generational divides from students to pensioners, from believers to non-believers, from intellectuals to herdsmen. After all, Josef Toufar himself declared in 1948: “I have always behaved as everyone’s priest. I never asked what one’s beliefs were and where I could, I helped.”