Visiting the Dead

Leopold & Ernestine

Leopold Kohn and Ernestine Kohnova (nee Diamant)

On a hot sunny Sunday, we set off to Cadca. This is the final week of the trip, Slovakia. Cadca is near the northern border of Slovakia, close to Poland. It is the place where the trains from Slovakia transporting the Jews to Auschwitz, stopped, and where their human cargo was handed over to the SS. It is also the family home of my grand-mother’s family – the Diamants. We are staying in Zilina, which we visited for the first time last year for the memorial event. This time, it is just our base for further exploration

The drive up the valley to Cadca is stunning, almost Alpine, with its tree covered mountains on either side and a lush green valley between. At times we drive next to a river and the peace and beauty on this quiet morning help me to understand why Ernestine (my grand-mother) might not have been able to settle in New York. Did she dream of a return to these green mountains from her tenement flat? Did the slow domestic pace of a small town where everyone knew everyone, where in every shop and round every corner was a friend, a relative, call to her from the frenetic streets of the Lower East Side?

Cadca is small and seems deserted when we arrive and park. We set off along a pedestrianised shopping street and branch off towards the cemetery; we are searching for the memorial to the Jews of Cadca. At the Catholic cemetery a few people are tending graves, the cemetery is vast and stretches away as far as the eye can see. It is a riot of colour, on every grave there are artificial flowers, little lanterns and big headstones. I am not sure how to find the memorial so ask an elderly lady, who is at the entrance and is enjoying an ice cream cone. I show her the website on my phone and in a mixture of Czech (me) and Slovak (her) we talk, she is very helpful and shows us how to find it, walking with us to the perimeter of the graveyard, and pointing to a small path behind a house, which we follow. It comes out on to another little road and there, in the midst of a small meadow, we see the memorial. It is completely quiet, just the stone memorial and a sculpture of a fire blasted tree trunk, symbolising the lives cut short. We read the inscription, “Here was situated for centuries the Jewish cemetery. From 1942-1944 the Jews of Cadca were deported to extermination camps and their community ceased to exist.” In the days that follow, I shall visit other memorials and even Auschwitz, but none will make me cry as these few lines did.

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Most of Ernestine’s direct family emigrated to the USA long before the Holocaust, but this little town had been home to their ancestors and to others, for centuries – and in two years everything was destroyed. There is no sign of a gravestone anywhere, it is just a green field with a few benches, and right next door is a vast graveyard for Catholics, Christians who care for the graves of their own ancestors.

For these few days I am visiting absence and emptiness. On Monday we head for Bytca, to visit the archive. Appropriately it is situated in a derelict castle, I can hardly believe where I have been told to go. The open walkways round the abandoned courtyard are decorated with the remains of wall paintings, partially destroyed and flaking from the walls. Only the sign ‘Studovna’ keeps me walking, and there, sure enough, is a little archive office were I can scroll through microfiche and find the birth records of Alice and my grand-parents. I could have spent days there filling in the details of ancestors, maybe I shall return.. As we leave, opposite the castle, is the old synagogue – it is large and in a prominent position in the town, but it is derelict; the Jewish population, once central to the life of Bytca, no longer exists.

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Tuesday, and the mission is Ruzomberok. The Jewish cemetery there has been moved to adjoin the Catholic cemetery, some old gravestones from the original cemetery in the town have been transported there and there are also new graves. I am hoping to see something of the Glasner family and also Helena Petrankova’s grave which, according to an online history of Ruzomberok’s Jews, is also there. The graveyard is on the edge of the town, on the slope of a hill and, like the one in Cadca, is huge and packed with brightly decorated graves. The Jewish section is at the very furthest point. There are a few graves, surrounded by overgrown grass and overlooked by a large memorial to those who died in the holocaust. There is a small dead snake on the path, so we pick our way very carefully towards the graves and soon I see the name Geiger, Alice’s mother’s maiden name. It is a family grave of the Glasner, Politzer and Geiger families. It contains thirteen members of the family. The main granite headstone, which should have been upright, has fallen down and lies across older graves. We scrape away the moss and dirt to find a couple more names, but have no way of knowing more than a few of those buried there. I search for Helena Petrankova, there aren’t so many to choose from, but I can’t see her. Then, I notice Simon Ackersmann, her father, and there, underneath but on the same inscription, is her name. Helena died in 1968, a few days after the invasion by Soviet troops. I try to find more information at the cemetery office, but they have none. We ask about the grass and how often they get visitors to the Jewish section. The lady explains how many cemeteries they have and how wet it has been, they will get round to it eventually. They only get one or two visitors a year to the Jewish graves, no wonder they see clearing a path to them as low priority.

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My final destination on this voyage is, appropriately, Auschwitz. It is another blazing hot day when we arrive and we are booked on a six hour study tour. So much has been written about Auschwitz, but as well as seeing for myself, I want the answer to certain questions. I want to know what would have happened to Ernestine and Leopold, my grand-parents. And I do discover more detail, I learn that as they were deported in 1942, this was relatively early in the life of the camp and before Birkenau, the death camp, was built. They would have arrived at Oswiecim railway station, the direct train tracks under the watch tower to Birkenau were yet to be completed. They would have been marched to the camp and surprisingly for someone of Leopold’s age, he was chosen to “live” and be registered. This meant they were separated on arrival; Ernestine was not registered, she was directed straight to the gas chamber.

The gas chamber at Auschwitz has survived, the four larger ones at Birkenau were all destroyed. We can visit this one, I can stand in the room and try to think about what happened there. It is impossible, my mind just can’t take it in.

Leopold did not live for much longer, he might have been destroyed by the work and the conditions, maybe he gave up after losing Ernestine. I have strange thoughts. I am relieved that their journey from Zilina was such a short one, only a few hours, so many people travelled for days or even weeks in cattle trucks across Europe to reach there. Cruel as Auschwitz is, it is not as bad as Birkenau, and I am relieved they never had to see the full industrial machinery of death that it became. Strange how the brain adapts to horror, finding ways of working with and adapting to that once unimaginable reality. In one of the final rooms there is a book of the dead, listing 4 million of the 6 million Jews killed in Holocaust. I want to find Leopold’s name, I know it is there, but there are so many Kohns, so many Leopold Kohns that there isn’t time before the guide wants us to move on. Just as we are going, I spot his birthdate and place of residence – Zilina. We return in the lunch break to take the photograph. I don’t know why I so wanted to do that, I have other documents certifying what happened to him. I just felt in that place of horror I wanted to locate my grand-father, somehow to make that connection, as if being there I was finding more of him than just a name.

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In the afternoon we visit Birkenau and I have not described a fraction of what we saw, but there is a moment beyond the camp, behind the remains of the four huge gas chambers when we stop in the welcome shade of dappled trees and read another of the memorials. We stand in front of a pool, it is a strangely peaceful scene, away from the crowds of tourists and our guide says, “These pools are full of human ashes.”

Auschwitz has millions of visitors. On the day we went, continuous streams of students, older people, soldiers from the Israeli army, people from all over the world passed through the barracks of misery and degradation, stared at the mechanisms of death, photographed the now iconic places of arrival and selection. They stared at the vast piles of human hair, shoes, brushes, the maps like spider webs that show the places from which the victims came, all converging on this one point. The crimes are remembered, and the victims too, but their worlds, the vibrant communities to which they belonged, are no more, preserved only in the furthest corners of rarely visited graveyards.

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Au Revoir and not Good-Bye

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from Praha a Prazane by Vaclav Jiru

My month is Prague is over and already I am making plans to return.

The crowds of tourists on Charles Bridge taking selfies, the stag week-ends on beer bicycle evenings, the groups of Chinese following their guides – all of these soon became irrelevant, a surprising jolt back to the real world when I encountered them, or maybe they were the unreal world.

For me, when crossing Charles Bridge I see a quieter scene, instead of the hordes gathering at the pedestrian crossing, my eyes are on the Unitarian flag still flying above the offices from which my father’s medical teaching mission was organised. At the railway station I ignore the huge modern concourse and focus on the grand circular Art Nouveau entrance above it, the place of arrival and departure for Erwin and Alice on their many journeys to and from Zilina or on their visits to Vienna. Opposite the station is his hotel, Hotel Esplanade, where the doctors in the delegation stayed, and to which he returned exhausted after a day and a night working, to settle down finally to rest with Alice in their room.

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I walk up Albertov, between the large buildings of the medical faculty and hardly notice the young people of all nationalities in jeans, walking past with their folders clasped to their chests. Instead I see a group of young Jewish men in suits, talking in German on their way to the hospital in Karlovo Namesti, the hospital where they trained and where a few years later, Helena Petrankova would spend several weeks having treatment for her knee injury. Standing there beneath the trees waiting for my tram, I imagine Alice waiting there too, to meet Helena and help her back to Zilina for her convalescence.

As I leave my Czech lessons each morning I pass through the large round ‘square’ with the army headquarters where Helena worked after the war. Now named Vitezne Namesti, then called October Revolution Square and graced by a large statue of Lenin after whom the metro station was named (now just called Dejvicka after the district). I walk through parks, go to the opera and imagine Alice and Erwin enjoying the summer evenings in Petrin, or sitting smartly dressed in the concert halls and theatres.

Later, I visit Pancrac prison, on the same tram station as Novy Sporilov, where Alice lived until her death. She must have passed the prison on her way into town. How strange to look up at the rolled barbed wire on those walls and remember the years spent inside them. How strange to look at them now and try to imagine how it must have been for her.

Revisiting places is one thing, meeting the people who knew Alice, whose parents were her friends, is quite another. I meet Pepik (Dora Klein’s son) and also Jirina, (the daughter of Otto Hromadko) first,  and we arrange to meet again for the following week with the two sons of Osvald Zavodsky. The meeting is in a typical Czech restaurant, ironically situated a few doors away from the Communist Party Headquarters. So here we are, within yards of the organisation which imprisoned and/or executed our parents (or in my case my father’s wife), and yet it is also the organisation to which they devoted their lives. The one thing everyone seems to be confident about is that their parents remained faithful to the ideology of communism to the end of their lives.

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I have had some surreal experiences but none more so than the discussion on that afternoon about the whereabouts of Adolf Eichmann’s furniture. The previous day Pepik and I had gone for a walk to find the house where he grew up, or rather where he lived for the first seven years of his life. We walked up past Vitezne Namesti and he tried to find the way he had walked as a child, between the rows of allotments. Unfortunately the road seemed to be closed, so we approached from another angle. When we found it, I was surprised at what a beautiful house it was. It was not how I had imagined the years spent while his mother was in prison. He pointed out his bedroom and the balcony where a picture of Alice and her friends was taken and then he said, “Adolf Eichmann lived in this house during the war.” I have read Hannah Arendt’s book on Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and seen the TV film that was made of the trial. I gaped at the elegant pink building. “Adolf Eichmann lived here? And then you lived here?” His mother, Dora had spent two years in Auschwitz concentration camp and then after the war, she lived in Eichmann’s house?

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To be fair, she had not had the whole house to herself, she had shared the first floor with the widow of Egon Ervin Kisch, Gisl, whom they had known in the Spanish Civil War. Even so… Pepik went on to explain that when they returned to Poland they took some of the furniture with them. I asked if he still had it and he replied, “My daughter has the couch, it is not very comfortable.” The next day, in the restaurant I mention this exchange and Jirina is able to add to it. “We have his table,” she says, “we call it Eichmann’s table.” There follows a discussion about how Jirina’s family inherited the table from Gisl Kischova when she died and whether the furniture was bought especially for Eichmann or whether he just used the existing furniture in the house that belonged to its Jewish owners. As the discussion about whether he would have had time to find his own furniture goes on, I find myself picturing these Jewish families living for years with the furniture of the man who saw carrying out the orders that led to the deaths of millions as a bureaucratic problem, and not only the deaths of millions, but the deaths of their own families.

As our afternoon of conversation begins to draw to a close, Jiri Zavodsky turns to me and asks, “Have you visited Alice’s flat in Novy Sporilov?” I had thought of visiting it but I wasn’t sure how easy it would be and it was far out from the centre so I didn’t. There had been so much else to do and I certainly wouldn’t have had the nerve to ring on the bell if I had found it. I explain that I had not and he says, “Because Katerina lives there, Alice left it to her , it was her mother who wrote the memoir.” I am almost beyond surprise and excitement. I have been searching for descendants of Tauchmannova, whose memoir of Alice I read, as I thought that her children would definitely know something about Alice. Tauchmannova lived in the same block as Alice and was her friend in the last part of her life. And now, not only might I be able to speak to her daughter but also see Alice’s actual flat. Jiri rings her and sadly she is not well and is about to go into hospital, but she says she would like to meet. I will have to return.

The next day, I receive an email from Jiri. Katerina has given him a china figurine that belonged to Alice. She wants me to have it. We meet at the tram stop and he hands me a bag. Later, I look inside. I was prepared to treasure it, whatever it was like, but I like it for itself as well as for what it represents. I am holding in my hands something that Alice had chosen. I shall return to Prague soon, I want to meet Katerina, and I am already planning the next trip. There are so many places still to see and Prague is no longer a holiday destination, it is much more than that.

Cartoons and Correctness

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On Thursday in my lesson we were reading an adapted extract of The Good Soldier Svejk, a Czech classic. The extract described an incident where Svejk goes to buy some clandestine cognac from a Jewish street seller for his lieutenant, and gets caught. The story is illustrated with several pen and ink drawings and I was quite shocked to see a stereotypical portrayal of a Jew, it was straight out of anti-Semitic propaganda. However, I remembered my father liked the book and that it had been first published in 1920, so looked again more carefully at the illustrations. Two were signed by Josef Lada, the original illustrator, but the others had obviously just been added for this particular teaching manual. It seemed to me it was one thing to reproduce the originals drawn at a time when people didn’t have the sensitivities we have now and quite another to reinforce those stereotypes for a contemporary audience.

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I expressed my surprise to my teachers; the younger of my two teachers could not see the problem at all. She explained it was just a representation of a Jewish shopkeeper, I tried to explain about negative stereotyping and finally gave up. The next day I tried again with my other teacher, who is older and I thought might understand better, she seemed to understand slightly better but I felt she was really just humouring me. Finally when I met up with the researcher who has been helping me with all the documents, I asked her, and she said the Czechs weren’t really into political correctness, but that they were a tolerant people. She had a point, when Czechoslovakia was first formed in 1918, it was a liberal and democratic state. Many Jewish Poles came to Prague to study medicine as they were not allowed to do so in Poland. Now, I am not aware of any particular anti-Semitism and the daughter of one of Alice’s friends told me that a number of young Czechs with no Jewish parentage are converting to Judaism.

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That evening I watched a documentary about the Slansky trials and about the Soviet and Czech communists’ relationship with Israel, Zionism and anti-semitism. And there they are – the very same stereotypes in images produced not just by the Nazis during the war, but by the Slovaks and the Communists. I think I see a clear connecting thread, but I have so many different ideas and images and interpretations, so many different periods and I am trying to be fair in making sense of them for myself. Am I over-reacting to those Svejk illustrations?

Yesterday at the Terezin concentration camp outside Prague, I face the consequences of anti-Semitism. There are two fortresses that were formerly used as barracks and which were then adapted into a ghetto and a camp, as they were easy to guard being surrounded by walls. While waiting for the tour, I go into some of the rooms and cells by myself and a heavy weight settles deep in the pit of my stomach. Swallows have made nests in the corners of the empty room and the two parents panic as I go in, swirling round their nest, protecting their young. I want to be taken by the pleasure of seeing these little birds with their intricate nests, but know that is not why I am there. I don’t want to upset them, I acknowledge the irony of my not wanting to upset two little birds whom I have no intention of harming.

The tour takes us round the men’s quarters, some of which still have the wooden frames on which the inmates slept, crammed together. We see the showers (real showers, there were no gas chambers in Terezin) and the huge steamer, like the one in Mlada Boleslav, to clean the bugs from the prison clothes. We see the places of execution, the mortuaries where the dead were collected and then driven in carts by Jews from the ghetto to the crematorium. I find myself thinking about the Jewish rituals of death and how these are ignored, keeping the bodies for several days and then cremating, rather than burying them. Then I think why would they worry about the treatment of the dead, when the treatment of the living was so unspeakable?

The two places I find most affecting, strangely, are the swimming pool and the cinema which the officers and their families used for relaxation. You somehow get inured to the horrors of the overcrowded, inhuman conditions and then seeing normal leisure opportunities right behind the wall of execution makes my stomach lurch. Did the prisoners ever hear the officers and their children splashing in the pool? There is something visceral about reactions here, they seem to happen deep in my gut.

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I go round the various exhibitions, the stories of the Nazi commandants, the history of the war and the camp and I get to a point when I can’t take in any more. One or two accounts of the horrific and often random cruelty are shocking, I don’t want to repeat them here, but after a while I am just overwhelmed with that one question, “How could they have done it? What was going on inside their heads that enabled them to behave like that to other human beings?” There is one quote that stays with me; it is from a Jewish doctor who was an inmate of Terezin . The doctor was asked by one of the SS guards to tend to his broken finger and the doctor reports, “He told me he had nothing against the Jews and the Czechs. ‘you know, such are the times,’ he told me.”

At first, when I come back from Terezin, my reaction to the stereotypical drawings feels justified. But then, I remember something else. I remember all the times the Czechs and Slovaks have had their reading and their schoolbooks controlled. Even before Czechoslovakia existed as an independent country, children were forced to learn in languages that were not their own: German or Hungarian. Then, just twenty years after the formation of Czechoslovakia, children had the picture of Hitler in their classrooms and the Nazis controlled the propaganda of what they were taught. Ten years later, it was Stalin’s picture above the blackboard, compulsory Russian for everyone and Soviet propaganda in every lesson. This is a country whose writers, film makers, musicians were censored, blacklisted, imprisoned. Maybe I understand why they don’t need 21st century political correctness telling them what illustrations they can have in their text books. Nothing is simple.

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Ladislav Chochole – Nameless

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prison Visit

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“This is the second time I have taken someone to a prison,” my Uber driver tells me cheerfully. On the first occasion he was taking a man to Pancrac who was about to start his sentence. Today he is taking me to Mlada Boleslav, sixty seven kilometres from Prague, a drive of about an hour through the pouring rain.

Mlada Boleslav is known chiefly for its huge Skoda factory and that is my driver’s first assumption about why I am going there; it is not an typical tourist destination. He has obviously never been asked to go to the prison before, so stops and asks various locals, who all know where it is and point us in the right direction. Mlada Boleslav is an unremarkable town, with an attractive, cobbled central square and plenty of new blocks of flats and shopping precincts. The prison is close to the centre and I spot it before my driver does. The law courts face Namesti Republiky, looking fresh and smartly painted; lurking behind them is the prison, with peeling paintwork and rusting bars at the window. It is now used exclusively as a film location and today is the one day in May when it is free from cameras, lights and action.

I have looked on youtube at a short video of Tom Cruise filming scenes there for Mission Impossible 4. Barbed wire has been looped around the perimeter fencing, Russian signs have been erected and scaffolding is as high as the building. Everywhere there are cameras, cranes, lorries, people with walkie talkies and, towards the end, Tom Cruise himself signing autographs. Today it is empty and still.

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My two guides are waiting for me at the gate, friendly and helpful, and I look up at the forbidding grey walls, trying to take in how it must have felt for Alice when she arrived there in July 1949 and was marched towards the reinforced metal door. The entrance has a lowering grandeur, with semicircular steps leading up under an overhang. The doorway itself is in the semi-circular lobby of the tower. My guides step back politely to let me in first and the cold dank air settles around me. The prison has not been altered since it was closed in 1955; film crews come and go and create their environments and then the prison sinks back to its original state until the next crew arrives.

Everything is grey: the floor, the walls, the metal doors and on this mild day, there is a pervasive chill, what was it like in mid winter? There is a final moment at the empty reception lobby in the entrance hall before going through the metal grille into the prison itself. A small flight of stairs leads up to the first corridor of cells, their doors standing open, many still have either a narrow concrete ledge as a bed or a pull down board. The cells are 8.10 square metres and here, during the day, prisoners were made to walk without stopping. At night, they lay on their back on the narrow bed, their hands visible above the cover, if it was a night on which they were allowed to rest.

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I peer into several of the cells, conscious of not spending too much time, but a part of me wants to see every one of them. In one there is a pigeon which has built its nest outside, between the window pane and the bars, she flies away as we walk in. I wonder if they would have felt confident to do that when the prison was occupied and what joy that one small sign of another creature might have brought. We walk up through the corridors and stop at the guard station, equipped with two radiators, unlike the unheated cells, and then on up to the top floor and the chapel, passing the lighter, brighter corridor leading to the court. It is not a corridor Alice would ever have used, she would not be tried for another five years. The chapel is wide and empty, with a gallery, presumably for the staff, I can’t imagine Alice there either.

On the way down we stop at the “hospital”, it is one large cell separated from the medical staff by metal bars instead of a wall. I ask where interrogations would have taken place and my guides don’t really know, they suggest the court building, but it seems unlikely. We go down to the basement, but that seems to be mostly stores and laundry; there is a huge oven which was used to steam the prisoners’ clothing to get rid of the lice and bugs. Finally we go outside, to the exercise yard where there is a circle. I can picture the drab line of men going round for that short respite and, again, I am pretty sure the political prisoners did not even get that meagre privilege. When it was first built, it was just a regular prison with regular criminals, whose regime was fairly humane, including exercise and chapel. Although it must have been grim, it was not cruel.

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In the war, the prison was taken over by the Gestapo and the horror and torture began. The terrible irony is that after the war, when everyone breathed a sigh of relief and began to expect a return to ‘normality’, the prison at Mlada Boleslav entered an even darker stage of its history. Those in charge were not an invading army, but citizens of Czechoslovakia and most of those imprisoned were not criminals, but party members, ardent communists who had fought for their country and for their beliefs.

Mlada Boleslav was only used at the beginning, in the early days of the Noel Field investigation, because no central prison had been built for the state run security services, Pancrac was not considered sufficiently secure and Ruzyne was still in the process of being adapted for that use. So Mlada Boleslav leant one floor of its prison for those politicals. Later, they would be moved back to Prague, Pancrac and Ruzyne, now made ready for them. One floor of Mlada Boleslav was never going to accommodate them all. Alice herself was transferred in November 1949. During her five months in Mlada Boleslav, she was interrogated by at least four named officers. These officers maintained, when questioned later, that they never knew the details of the charges on which their detainees were arrested, they just had to make them confess. At first, Alice and the others assumed the arrest was a mistake and were willing to answer in the hope of clearing up whatever misunderstanding had led to their arrest. It soon became obvious that this was futile; their interrogators were not interested in the truth. The later report into the arrests in Mlada Boleslav (in the Jiri Setina Archive in Stanford University) confirms that violence and torture were used to extract the confessions.

It is such a strange disconnect. A year ago I was in the manicured grounds of Stanford University, the most opulent university I have ever seen -more like a luxury hotel than a university- busily photographing as much as I could of the documents relating to Alice’s imprisonment and the reports on Mlada Boleslav. I took a short break at lunchtime to sit in the cafe by the Rodin sculpture garden (genuine Rodin sculptures) before returning to the basement of the Hoover Library. Today, I have stood in the very cell Alice might have occupied and walked on the same floors as she did and tomorrow a film crew will be there, setting up for who knows what Hollywood blockbuster. What would surprise Alice the most? Maybe to learn that Erwin’s daughter is criss-crossing the globe trying to understand her.

My kind and helpful guides give me a lift to the bus station for me to return to Prague, only one of them speaks English. The other has remained silent through most of the tour, but as we get into the car, he turns to me and says, “Je to smutné.” (It is sad) and I agree.

 

Read more about Alice’s arrest at A Tale of Two Photographs.

Dislocated Worlds

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Entrance to the Museum of Communism, Prague.

Last week on the way to my language class I spied a tobacconist on the opposite side of the street and, as I needed some more tram tickets, decided to cross over. It was a main road with two tramlines going down the middle. The pedestrian crossing sign showed the red man standing still, but there was no traffic coming. I did notice the policeman on the opposite pavement, but decided to cross anyway. This was a mistake. I had half expected a bit of a telling off, but I didn’t expect to be told I had committed a traffic violation and was to be fined 2000Kc! I didn’t even know it was possible for pedestrians to commit traffic violations.

The conversation that ensued proceeded in a mixture of Czech and English. I wanted him to understand me but thought my chances were better the less Czech I could speak. I explained I was English, that I hadn’t realised it was not allowed, that I was sorry and would never do it again, that I didn’t have 2000Kc (I certainly had nowhere near that on me). He started to relent and said for this once he would just give me a warning, I was full of gratitude and promised never to do it again. For the rest of my walk to school, I stood obediently at every pedestrian crossing, even in front of completely empty roads.

I was reminded of an incident in the USSR when I was there as a student and had set off across the road in Leningrad when, again, the red man was on the crossing sign. An irate, gun wielding policeman had insisted I return to the kerb I had left, even though I was three quarters of the way across.  Jaywalking is obviously a habit I have had a long time, learned from my mother, who continued to do it into her late eighties with no adverse consequences. I think we have always both viewed pedestrian crossings as guidance, to be used only when necessary, leaving it as a matter of personal judgement. Some countries take my view to an extreme – Sicily or India, for example, where everybody just crosses as and when they please, cows included, and the rest of the road users keep their wits about them and navigate around them.

Adherence to rules, even those that are unnecessary, is a particularly Soviet habit and although the Czechs (in my brief experience) now view their communist era with horror, certain habits still linger. I have been here just over a week and am finding that researching and thinking about those decades of communist rule raises many interesting questions. One of my earliest visits was to the Museum of Communism, the very name placing it securely in the past as history, dead and buried. For many of the visitors crowding round the various exhibits, it definitely was in the past, they were far too young to remember, and even my young Czech teacher had not heard of the show trials of the 1950s. The emphasis in the Museum is entirely negative, anyone going round would assume that the USSR had schemed from the start to impose an authoritarian regime on the unsuspecting Czechs. That may be true by the 1950s, but in the beginning there was a genuine belief in the ideals of communism. Czechoslovakia was one of the few countries where the communists were a regular legal party before the war. Even in 1968 people were not against communism per se, they wanted communism “with a human face”. It was the USSR’s response that made them realise that this was an impossible dream.hotel internationa prague

Hotel International, Prague.

The Czech Republic is a very popular destination for Russians, both as tourists and as students. Just a few minutes from my current home for the month, is the Hotel International built between 1952 and 1956 for the express purpose of accommodating Soviet visitors, it was even hoped that Stalin himself might stay there as it is built on exactly the same lines as the “Seven Sisters” buildings in Moscow, which include Moscow University, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and several hotels. It is not as huge as they are, but otherwise has the same wide frontage and imposing tower. The public is allowed to go to the suites on the 14th and 15th floors to see the decor and admire the view across Prague. The porter who escorted us up there started talking in Czech, but soon switched to Russian, I am not sure whether he was Russian or was just still so used to Russian tourists that he moved into it. He was of an older generation and if he was Czech, he had learned Russian at school, as was compulsory for everyone. There is a strange dislocation in the society; the young cannot imagine a world without freedom and Western goods, the older Czechs remember it all too well.

Today I went on my personal walking tour of the city, identifying houses where Alice lived, hotels where my father stayed and other sites on interest. Coincidentally, earlier in the morning I received a letter from a relative in America with memories of a visit to Alice in Prague. She had been shocked by the flat in which Alice was living, describing it as a poor person’s flat, and was acutely aware of the fact that Alice had come from a wealthy family. Standing outside the building in Dlouha Trida, one of several places where Alice had lived after her release from prison, I was overwhelmed by a sense of the drabness of the street and the building, and overwhelmed too from imagining Alice on that same pavement, going through the door I had passed, and looking out of the windows I was staring at.

IMG_2331

Alice’s Apartment on Dlouha Trida was on the top floor.

Only a stone’s throw away were gracious apartment blocks from the turn of the century, but Alice’s was more recent and lacked any charm. Yet, she had chosen communism, chosen to reject the bourgeois comforts into which she had been born. The dislocation is with me wherever I walk. On the one hand there are all the beautifully painted buildings with their ornate doorways, the gilded, chandeliered theatres and opera houses, the imposing museums and the Art Nouveau gem of the Municipal House with its two concert halls. On the other hand, I keep wondering where the security police headquarters were, picturing the dark cars that for days followed those they had identified as suspect, before finally bundling them inside and whisking them away.

I look at the grim faced police and never consider asking them the way. They may not be sinister any more, but they are not there to help. I wait patiently at every pedestrian crossing.

In her father’s steps she trod…

Good-King-Wenceslas-11

 

I have been singing Good King Wenceslas for years without thinking that, of course, he was Czech. And the more I learn Czech and read Czech history and Czech writers, the more I notice Czech everywhere. Not only do I find myself following people in the street who are speaking Czech, including a whole tour group going round a madrasa in Fez, I start noticing Czech ancestry in people I had known about but never registered as Czech: Milos Forman, Madeleine Albright, Sissy Spacek, Kim Novak, Peter Falk, Karl Malden and worryingly, Donald Trump Jnr. (son of Ivana).

I follow the Czech Centre and other Czech and Slovak sites on twitter, and learn that soft contact lenses, sugar cubes, finger prints and blood types were all first discovered/ invented by Czechs. And of course, there are the Czechs most people do know- Dvorak, Janacek, Smetana, Havel, Hasek, Kafka, and Freud who was born in a town that is now in the Czech Republic. Czech history even pops up with surprising regularity in spy and detective novels I read.

In just over two weeks, I shall be there – living for a month in Prague, going to Czech lessons every morning and then exploring the city in the afternoon and evening, finding where Erwin and Alice lived, the hotels where they stayed while on the medical mission, the medical and law faculties at Charles University where they studied, the law courts, the prisons where Alice spent five years of her life and the flats in which she lived after her release. I shall be going to the concert halls and galleries that were familiar to them and most exciting of all, I shall be meeting the sons and daughters of Alice’s friends.

At the end of the month, we go to Slovakia, to revisit Zilina, my father’s home, and then on to Ruzomberok where Alice grew up, before heading up to Poland for a study day in Auschwitz. I have started an Instagram account just for this research (e.j.kohn) so I can post immediate impressions as well as continuing to write here in more depth.

This visit has been planned for nearly a year and I thought I would probably be visiting the EU as a non-EU citizen; it is a relief in many ways that won’t be the case. It isn’t only the easier practical details, but something intangible, a feeling of greater connection, of being part of the same Europe, albeit rather tenuously. Visiting the former Czechoslovakia, I am acutely aware of its painful history. The EU, for all is faults, has been a beacon of hope; a light of cooperation and democracy held up against the darkness of division, totalitarianism and territorial expansion. Young people now cross boundaries with confidence to study and work, as exemplified by the others on my Czech course in London, all of whom are married or in relationships with Czechs, and many who themselves have come from abroad: Ethiopia, Canada, the USA, Japan, Hungary and France.

My parents were not unusual; many of their generation married husbands/wives from other countries, as a result of the displacement of war. My generation, however, mostly married people from the UK, yet their children have not; our friends’ children have found partners from Russia, France, Cuba, Nigeria, Vietnam, Germany. Unlike our parents, these young people met as a result of peace and the opening up of borders. It is worrying to see that there are those who want to re-erect the barriers and that nationalism and populism are on the rise again in Europe. However, the recent election of Zuzana Caputova as president of Slovakia, is definitely a hopeful sign. She is a lawyer and a civil society activist, who impressed the voters by her anti-corruption stance and her refusal to engage in personal attacks on her opponents. I would like to think that Alice and Erwin would be proud that their country has elected such a president.

Going to the former Czechoslovakia in search of the past has emotional challenges, but also practical ones. Place names and street names, which are so constant in the UK, in the former Austro -Hungarian Empire are much less reliable. Maps of the area are a palimpsest of history, with Czech names erasing German ones after the formation of Czechoslovakia only for them to be re-appropriated after the Nazi invasion. The Communist era, in its turn, then stamped its values on streets and towns until finally with the Velvet Revolution some of the original names were restored. The street where Alice and Erwin lived in Zilina was newly named Masaryk Street, but it is now Narodna Ulice (Nation Street). Pressburg is now Bratislava, Carlsbad has become Karlovy Vary and so on. Sometimes it took me weeks to realise I was searching for just one place, but with two (or even three) names.

I hope I shall be able to see beyond the present world of tourism and stag parties into the layers of the past; to connect with the years between the wars when hope in Masaryk’s government and the newly independent country was still strong, and later, to the long years of communism, punctuated by the short-lived flame of freedom in 1968. Just walking through the streets and gardens where Alice and Erwin walked, breathing the spring air as they did a hundred years ago when they were students in Prague, I hope will collapse the years between us and perhaps for a few short weeks, instead of peering backwards through the prism of words, I shall glimpse first hand the world they knew.

A Tale of Two Photographs

Alice, Dora and Vlasta 2

Alice, Dora Klein and Vlasta Vesela

The first shows three young women, standing together, looking slightly sideways at whoever is taking the picture, as if they are uncertain. In the background there is a promenade, perhaps they are on a beach, but it is windy, they need their coats. It is 1937 in Spain.

The second, taken at least twenty years later in Prague, shows two middle aged women sitting together on a bench, laughing. Such an ordinary photograph. Such an extraordinary story. And where has the third woman gone?

mama z Alici Glasnerova

There, in the late 1950s sit Alice and Dora, well dressed, hair tidy and set, looking like any other conventional and respectable women of their time. They were anything but conventional.

In 1926 Alice graduated from Charles University in Prague. She was to be one of the first female lawyers in Czechoslovakia. A few years later, Dora also graduated from Charles University, but from the medical school. For Alice the journey to Prague had been straightforward, she had friends and relatives there. For Dora, it had been much more difficult. She was born in Poland and her ambition to become a doctor was impossible to realise there; she was Jewish. Her only option was to move to Czechoslovakia, where Jews were welcome in the university.

Different backgrounds, different faculties and different times. While Dora was completing her medical studies, Alice had married a young doctor, Erwin Kohn, and they had settled into their new lives in Zilina. Alice travelled regularly to the courts in Bratislava for work and she and Erwin both became involved in the political parties of their town.

The rise of fascism in Germany was a concern to them all, and for Dora and Alice it seemed that the only party that was willing to fight this rising threat, was the Communist Party. In Spain, as Franco staged a coup against the ruling Republican Party, it was clear where the battle lines were being drawn. Dora and Alice both volunteered their services. Dora was needed as a doctor, but in order to be sent out with the Czech medical contingent, she needed to be a Czech national. She married Viliam Klein to get her citizenship, although his motives may have been personal as well- Dora was an attractive young woman. Alice was prepared to help in whatever way she could. It meant leaving Erwin; he did not share her conviction in the Communist cause. He had seen her growing commitment to the party and she had tried to persuade him to join, but he was adamant, so she made her choice. So, in summer of 1937 after a holiday at Knocke in Belgium with her mother, she sent him a letter explaining that she would not be returning to him, but was going instead to Spain; her letter said they “belonged to different worlds”.

Dora and Alice, each in her own way, left their husbands behind in Czechoslovakia and met in Spain, first in Guadalajara and later in the J.A.Comenius Hospital in Benicasim, where they were joined by the third woman in the trio – Vlasta Vesela. Vlasta had graduated as a doctor from Brno and had already experienced loss and grief, as her fiancee had been killed fighting in Spain. She was more reserved, but always ready to help and with a sharp sense of humour and a sarcastic tongue. Dora was the youngest of the three and described by Egon Ervin Kisch, who knew them all well, as follows, “Dorince, who might be my daughter, and my mother.” She might have been the youngest but she was maternal and warm hearted. In the photograph she stands behind the other two lightly resting her hands on their shoulders, uniting them.

For a short while in Benicasim, the women enjoyed one of the most rewarding and intense periods of their lives. It had been a resort of the wealthy, populated by beautiful villas which were now put into service as hospitals, but the gardens still overflowed with oranges, that to Alice looked like “small suns”. It was a beautiful spot and even though the hospital was filled to overflowing with the injured from the front, these young women knew they were engaged in a noble struggle. Vlasta and Dora worked as doctors, and Alice took over the administration of the hospital, organising the logistics of food, medicines and equipment, but also providing the opportunity for conferences and discussions for the international team of volunteer doctors, enabling them to share knowledge and expertise. She arranged cultural activities for both the staff and the patients, which included outings, film screenings, concerts, sporting events, political reports and Spanish classes. There were at least seven languages in use throughout the hospital, luckily Alice spoke several of them: English, French, Czech/Slovak, German. In addition, a radio system was rigged up between the buildings to entertain the patients. E.E.Kisch, whose brother Bedrich was working in Spain as a doctor, also stayed at the hospital and helped with its cultural life, sometimes giving lectures himself.

However, by the summer of 1938, Franco’s troops were advancing towards Benicasim and the hospital was forced to close. Dora and Vlasta fled to France and managed to reach Paris, where they contacted a group of other Czech interbrigadists, who had escaped from Spain. Alice was not so lucky. In her escape over the Pyrenees to Cerbere in France, she was arrested for entering the country without the correct papers and imprisoned. She spent a month in gaol in Perpignan, finally returning to Erwin and to Czechoslovakia in late 1938.

The war was a threat to all three women, who were both Jewish and Communists. At this point, it was Alice who had the more fortunate outcome, as Erwin, although brought up in Czechoslovakia to Czech parents, had been born in America and had American citizenship. He and Alice were able to emigrate and spend the war in America, where he joined the US army. While there, she continued her work with the Communist party, helping emigres from Czechoslovakia obtain visas and enabling them to settle in the USA. Among those she helped were Voskovec and Werich, the well known Czech dramatists and film-makers.

Dora and Vlasta were in France when war broke out and Vlasta worked with the Czech resistance there, until the Nazi occupation forced her to flee to Switzerland, where she was interned. Dora was deported to Auschwitz in 1943, but survived the war. Sadly, her husband of so few years, was not as lucky. After the war, she worked for the Czechoslovak Repatriation Committee. Vlasta, who by this time was living with Rudolf Feigl, worked with him on post-war humanitarian projects. Alice returned to Czechoslovakia with Erwin on his Unitarian Service Committee medical teaching mission. She took up a post in government, in the office of Viliam Siroky, the deputy prime minister.

Having survived the war, with their country liberated from the Nazis and now with the Communist Party in charge – the party for which all three of them had worked tirelessly throughout their young adult lives- they should at last have been able to enjoy the fruits of their labours. It was not to be.

None of them realised that they each represented a very dangerous cocktail of qualities: first, they were Jewish; second, they had all spent time abroad; third, they all knew Noel Field. At first sight, these may not seem to be dangerous attributes; after all, the Communist Party had encouraged Jews to join and had set themselves up in opposition to the anti-semitic ideology of the Nazis. The work of the three women abroad had been entirely in support of the Czechs and of the Communist Party, volunteering in Spain, helping with the French resistance and organising support for Czech emigres. Finally, Noel Field had been a Communist sympathiser. His work for the Unitarian Service Committee had shown a specific bias towards the communists earning him the suspicion of his American employers and facing him with the threat of investigation by the House Committee for Un-American activities.

They had no idea that they were about to enter the looking glass world in which everything is reversed. Soviet encouragement of the Jews ended as the Western allies placed their support behind Israel; Israel and by extension the Jews started to look like a threat. These women hadn’t just travelled abroad, they understood other cultures, they spoke several languages, they were well educated and intelligent, they thought for themselves. At a time when the USSR started to see threats to communist ideology and influence both from the West and from within their own sphere of influence when Tito rejected the Soviet model of communism, the Soviets wanted blind obedience. In order to encourage it, they wanted to unite the satellite countries against the threat of bourgeois imperialism from the West. The way in which they chose to do this was by creating an “enemy within” a sinister spy plot whose aim was to destroy the communist states. They began in Hungary with the Rajk trial, but soon moved on to Czechoslovakia, determined to uncover a similar plot. Noel Field was the ideal instrument for their purposes. He was an American with many links to the Czech emigres. Vlasta and Dora had met him through their humanitarian work in Europe and Alice had met him while she was in America. He had offered her a job, but she had suggested he offer it to Erwin instead, so both he and Alice, met Noel Field on a number of occasions.

In 1949 Noel Field was arrested in Czechoslovakia, deported to Hungary and interrogated, he named the people with whom he had been in contact. As a result, Alice, Vlasta and Dora were among the many arrested, interrogated and imprisoned in their own country, accused of espionage. Alice and Dora remained in prison for several years before their cases came to court, during which time, like all the other political prisoners, they were subjected to vicious interrogations which continued throughout the night. They were insulted as Jews, deprived of sleep and water, forced to walk endlessly around their cells. Incessant interrogations were used to try and implicate as many others as possible and those Jews in particular who were high up in the party, culminating in the Slansky show trial of 1952. Vlasta’s lover, Rudolf Feigl was condemned to twelve years in prison and of the fourteen Slansky defendants, eleven were condemned to death.

It was a final horror that Vlasta would not see. When she was imprisoned, she fought against every accusation, refusing to testify and protesting by going on hunger strikes on three occasions. Despite being force fed, she became so weak that she was unable to get up from her bed. The prison doctor wanted her transferred to a hospital, but Karel Svab who was responsible for the arrest of all three women refused, saying, “She’s got what she wanted. We don’t need her any more.” Instead, she was given sleeping pills, which she hoarded, until finally she had enough to take her own life. She died leaving a message scraped into the dust, “I am dying for my country.” It is believed now that the authorities were aware of her intentions. In one of her rare comments about life in the prison Alice said she had once heard Vlasta, who was imprisoned along the same corridor as she was, making a “desperate cry, the uncontrolled cry of a mad woman.”

Vlasta died in 1950. Dora and Alice survived, and in 1954, were finally convicted of spying as part of Noel Field’s spy ring. The charges against Dora were so weak that even the prosecutor proposed the proceedings be dropped. A year later, after letters and petitions for mercy to have the sentences reduced, the women were released. A number of factors were taken into account, including Alice’s desperate state of health. According to the doctor from Pankrac Prison she was, “physically weak, anaemic,” and was suffering from “an arterial defect, spinal tuberculosis, intervertebral disc herniation, bilateral sciatic nerve neuralgia, chronic gastric catarrh and jaundice.” In his judgement, if she was not released, she would face permanent invalidity or premature death.

It was not long before the truth began to emerge and Alice and Dora, along with hundreds of other victims of the show trial era, were completely exonerated. Those who had imprisoned and tortured them were shown to have acted illegally. However, when they were arrested, they had been stripped of all their possessions and rights as citizens, it was a long struggle to have them restored. But they had lost far more than this. When Dora was arrested, she had been in a relationship with a Polish doctor, whom she had met in Spain and with whom she had a son, a child from whom she had been separated for four years.

Alice and Dora had both been arrested in 1951, but Alice had spent spent nine months in prison before that, between July 1949 and March 1950. One of the conditions of her release on that occasion was that she divorce Erwin. They were already separated, he had taken up the offer of a job with the World Health Organisation in Geneva and she had refused to accompany him as she wanted to stay in Czechoslovakia, but no further decisions had been made. Now, the decision was made for her. She never remarried.

The two pictures tell a story of three brave, idealistic, independent women, who were prepared to risk everything for their beliefs. They were sent to me by Dora’s son, who contacted me a few months ago through this blog and were the first proper photographs of Alice I had ever seen. It is a joy to see that second picture of Alice and Dora laughing together; there was life and fun to be had after the horrors and grief of the past. The only shadow is the loss of that third figure, who should have been there to share too in that laughter, but whose final legacy is one of defiance and despair. In their later years Dora and Alice met often and shared memories of their year in Spain, but of the years imprisoned in their own country, at the hands of their own comrades, they remained silent.
Sources:
Ministerstvo o Spravedlnosti v Praze
Čislo: 0 203/55-H505/5

Národní Archiv:
Poznamka M.Tauchmanová

KSČ-Ústřední výbor 1945-1989 Praha komise.
Svazek: 11
Archivní jednotka: 338
Svazek: 7b
Archivní jednotka: 130

Neviditelny Pes>Společnost>Historie
4.10. LIDÉ: Zdálo se, že vůbec nezná strach Jaroslav Bouček

AMI RGASPI 545-3-737 p.31-2
Kulturarbeit in Benecasim Dr Alice Glasner.

https://www.ceskatelevize.cz/porady/10267422798-prisne-tajne-vrazdy/410235100221005-nechte-ji-zemrit/

 

Letters from Alice

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Years ago, long before I started on this journey to search for Alice, my mother gave me two letters from her, addressed to Erwin. They were single quarto sheets of thin typing paper, with brief letters that were completely unintelligible to me. I thought they were in Czech, but in fact they were in Slovak. The postmark on the envelope was Liberec. It was in the days before google translate, so I just put them away.

I kept them, unable to do anything with them, until my husband went on a work trip to the Czech Republic and I gave them to him, just so he could ask someone to read them and give me the gist of what they were about. He returned and said they weren’t very interesting, just factual about details of the divorce and what to do with Erwin’s things that were still with Alice in Prague.

When I started the research, I translated them, and sure enough, they were about the divorce and what Alice should do with Erwin’s things ….. But I know so much more now.

The two letters were written on the 30th April 1950 and the 16th May 1950.

The first begins, “Finally, I have returned home after a long journey..” She had indeed just returned home after a trip away, she had been in Dolni Mala Upa, a mountain resort in Northern Czechoslovakia, now part of the Giant Mountains National Park and a popular destination for skiers and walkers. But she had not been there of her own free will. She was sent there for two weeks’ ‘holiday’ on her release from prison after her first arrest. On July 7th 1949 Alice had been arrested as part of the “Field group” and on the 30th March 1950, she was released for lack of evidence. Conditions of her release included the enforced holiday and an agreement to divorce Erwin.

The letter, which at first seemed just to be saying that she had come home from holiday, is actually informing him that she has finally been released from prison. Before she was released, letters between President Gottwald and Kopriva, Minister for National Security, discussed whether the fact of her arrest and detention should keep secret and she should be instructed to tell friends and relatives that she had been on a mission for the party, or whether she should just be released in the usual way and stripped of her party membership. They decided that she would be stripped of her party membership and she was forced to sign a statement acknowledging that this was justified. As a result, she was allowed to take up a job after her release, working for the Central Insurance Company.

Her request for a divorce in the letter did not come as a surprise to Erwin, they had made their choices and were living on different sides of the Iron Curtain, but I doubt that he knew it had been a condition of her release. Reading Tauchmanova’s memoir, not only have I found the exact letter from Alice that is in my possession, but my father’s reply. He says (translated from the Slovak), “the content of your letter did not come as a surprise…. I knew it would come with your return and yet I was very upset when it came. I do not blame you in any way for the impersonal tone of your letter; on the contrary, I knew how to draw the necessary conclusions from it.” Unlike her, he is able to be more emotional in his response, he goes on: “ the letter gives me the impression that you are committed to an abrupt termination with me. I hope I am wrong. You can imagine that there is a lot I want to say to you in this moment. I will not do it, as I don’t want you to be in trouble.” Erwin understands much about her situation, but perhaps he underestimates how precarious her position still was.

It is clear that Alice can have no further communication with him after the divorce and, in fact, six months after the divorce came through in December 1950, she was again arrested and this time would stay in prison for four years. During those four years, Erwin flourished, enjoying his job in the World Health Organisation and meeting Sheila, the woman who would become his second wife. By the time Alice was released for the final time in 1955, Erwin would be married and the father of a young daughter.

The letters about the divorce, however, show that at this time, his attachment was still to Alice. He calls her “Lizochka dear”, a pet name used only by him, and in his second letter, dated 7th May 1950, he tries to write about his possessions and what he wants her to do with them. He itemises them in great detail and suggests people they could be given to and who would take his medical text books. He tells her he has visited her father’s grave in Vienna and “paid until the end of the year” for its upkeep. He ends by saying, “ be cheerful and smiling and forgive the things you can laugh at. Keep in mind the wonderful moments we have experienced together.”

The second letter of Alice’s in my possession, dated 16th May, thanks him for the care he has taken over her father’s grave, but is otherwise entirely practical in tone, the one exception being a reference to having bad headaches. As the postmark for this letter is Liberec, I assume she was staying with her mother and step-father at the time, as this is where they lived and Liberec would have been on the way from Mala Upa to Prague. Her mother would have been desperate to see Alice after her months in prison.

Erwin’s final letter is also in the Tauchmanova memoir, where he understands that it will be the end, “You do not write about yourself or ask about me, so I assume you want our correspondence to be limited to the matter of our divorce. Sweetheart, we’ve gone a long way in this life, and I am having trouble convincing myself that we are really writing the last chapter of our novel.”

I can hear his grief and loss, but Alice was not allowed to express hers. I can only imagine how she felt and the fact that these letters from Erwin remained with her until the end of her life and were available for Tauchmanova when she came to write the memoir, tells me that her suffering was more than equal to his. After her second arrest all the belongings Erwin left with her were taken by the security services and became the subject of long inventories and letters to try and restore them. Yet his letters somehow survived. And those two short formal letters from Alice survived too in my father’s possessions and escaped my mother’s intensive bouts of clearing out the house. At first they seemed to give me little, but the little they were able to express tells me so much now about Alice and Erwin and the cruelty of those years under the shadow of Stalin.

Sources:

M.Tauchmanová  Poznámka (Memoir) from Správce Archivního Souboru.

Documents from the Czech National Archive.

Questions of Right and Wrong

Socialist Poster During the Spanish Civil War

When I first started looking for Alice, I made a list of questions. Now, over a year on, I realise I have the answer to most of them. But I also have a quite different list of questions.

My first list was factual: I wanted to know what Alice did in Spain, what happened to her mother and sister during the second world war while Alice was in the USA with Erwin. I wanted to know when she was arrested and tried and what happened to her after her release. I now have answers to all of those questions: I know about her work in the hospitals in Spain. I know that her mother, Olga, spent the war in Switzerland, that Eva was first in Belgium, then in Paris and finally in London. I know the dates of Alice’s arrests, trials and rehabilitation and so much more besides. I know where she worked after her release, where she lived, where she travelled.

My questions now are different. They are about what Alice thought, what she felt and what she knew. These questions will never have definite answers. Why did she choose communism and remain faithful to it for so long? I can understand what drew her to communism in the first place; as a young, intelligent and idealistic young woman, communism offered her a view of the world that was different, that had answers for the poverty and inequality she saw around her and later, in the thirties, it was the communists who were prepared to stand against the rising tide of fascism in neighbouring Germany. Young intelligent men and women, and in particular young Jewish men and women, saw communism as the answer, and at that time, communism was specifically encouraging Jews to join the fight against fascist anti-semitism.

I can understand the exhilaration of seeing the social barriers come down as men and women of all backgrounds addressed each other as comrade and worked towards one common good in the face of such a patent evil. Alice’s commitment to the party grew, and as a party member, she was invited on a six week trip to the USSR in 1936, during the height of the Stalinist terror. Was she at all aware of how Stalin was treating his own people? Presumably, as part of a visiting group, what she was shown was carefully controlled, but she must have had some sense of what life was like; it was so different from liberal Czechoslovakia. Yet maybe seeing the sacrifices and the intensity of a people apparently focused on one vision was exciting – the promise of a new world. She certainly returned with a renewed commitment and by 1937 was prepared to leave her life of bourgeois comfort for the perils of the Spanish Civil War.

And again, what questions arise from her experience in Spain? She had followed party orders, both about volunteering in Spain and about when to withdraw in July 1938, but her experience there was more personal. She was among a group of young, intelligent, committed people, brave and idealistic to the point of recklessness. She was in an international community, running the hospital which served all those fighting on the Republican side, all were helped regardless of their allegiances, and she organised both the logistics and the cultural exchange among those many nationalities. While she was organising film screenings, concerts, sporting events, political reports and Spanish classes, how aware was she of the Soviet Union’s motives?

The Soviets were not there to support the democratic will of the Spanish people. Their involvement was entirely to do with maintaining power and preventing Germany and Italy acquiring another ally. However, Stalin did not want an all out victory for the communist powers in Spain as that might unite the Western powers with the fascists against Soviet Spain and Soviet Russia. The Soviets therefore played a careful game, with one intention at the political level and another communicated to the soldiers on the ground. How far was Alice aware of the animosity between the communists and the POUM (Trotskyist wing) and the advice of some of the Soviet advisers in Spain to use the weapons of the Stalinist show trials against them? If Alice had known, she should have been alerted to the lengths the Soviets were prepared to go in order to preserve their power and influence.

Why was her view so different from Erwin’s? Why did he never trust the communists? He continued to work in his medical practice in Zilina and kept in touch with Alice, sending her parcels with food and medicines. He could see the rising tides of fascism close by in Germany and Austria, countries whose languages he spoke and whose culture he loved.  He too wanted a fairer world, but he saw the solution differently. Was it just a difference in temperament or had those early years in America influenced his outlook? Maybe his ease with English meant he read a different press and so was more oriented towards the West. Or maybe the reasons were more personal; Alice had been born into privilege and so perhaps took it for granted and found it easier to throw away. Erwin’s middle class status was the result of his own endeavours. As a result, maybe he valued it more. After the war, the reason for their different views was obvious. Erwin had seen the Soviets at first hand when serving in the US army- Alice had spent the war in communist organisations in New York and Pittsburgh. But the war only reinforced the views each held, it did not mould them.

It is perhaps easy with the benefit of hindsight to see the wider political and pragmatic moves. Alice, in the midst of the Spanish conflict had experienced the bravery and comradeship, she felt strong allegiances to those whom she saw suffering and that first hand knowledge, gave her confidence in her view. Erwin at more of a remove from the struggle was maybe able to see the dangers and ambiguities more clearly. It is difficult to know why they were so different, and especially interesting as Alice is quite unusual in having a partner who did not share her values. What seems to be true is that the more straightforwardly you can embrace one point of view, the easier it is to act. The more you see different sides of the story, the more difficult it is. Blind faith achieves change, liberal prevarication does not.

After the war Alice’s faith did not waver; she was determined to be a part of the rebirth of a communist Czechoslovakia. I don’t know whether she had doubts, whether Erwin’s arguments and accounts ever made her waver. Or did she accept there had been mistakes and believed by being a participant, she could ensure these were not repeated in her country? Erwin was prepared to walk away; he was a citizen of more than one country; Czechoslovakia was not quite home for him in the way that it was for Alice. The opportunity for a life of freedom and challenge was more appealing than the risk of being at the centre of a political struggle, in the place where his family had been betrayed and murdered.

Exploring the past I find that the questions I am facing are not only about the past, but also the present. How sinister are the fault lines currently splitting Europe? How can they be healed? I see echoes of the world of Alice’s youth; the tide of populism and racism is rising again. Liberal democracy seems caught in a paralysis of indecision and there is no untainted ideology with which to combat the threat. Communism may have seemed to be the answer then, but it certainly isn’t now, now we know how it all turned out. The young Alice was prepared to sacrifice everything in order to create a better world and fight the evil she saw around her. What should we do now?

I keep circling around the rights and wrongs of her choices and Erwin’s. In the end I am not sure that the question of right and wrong is relevant, we need both. Idealistic activists change the world, for good or ill. The rest of us try to do the best we can with the world we have, sometimes that is not enough.

Source:

Preston, Paul, The Spanish Civil War Reaction, Revolution and Revenge (Harper Perennial 2006)

Credit:© Archivo Iconografico, S.A./COR
Copyright:© Copyright 2000 Corbis

Lost Luggage

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For my Czech homework last week I had to read an email about a lost suitcase; it was not vocabulary we had done in class, but I recognised it immediately. I had been reading about suitcases and lost possessions all week, but not about situations at airports that any traveller might face, vocabulary that would be useful for the tourist to the Czech Republic; I had been reading about the seizure of Alice’s possessions by the secret services. Among the most recent documents I have been sent is a series of letters written by both Alice and her sister, Eva, after Alice’s release and acquittal and the acknowledgement that she had been wrongly arrested and convicted.

On the 18th June 1951, a group of security service personnel arrived at the flat that Alice and Eva shared in Prague II on banks of the Vlatva River at what was then called Nábřeží Kyjevské Brigády (now Nábřeží Ludvíka Svobody). They arrested Alice and took her away; she would spend the next four years in prison. When Eva had returned home from work that day, she found Alice gone and five or six members of the security forces searching the flat. They were there in total for twenty four hours, working in shifts, and when they finally left, they sealed Alice’s room. After they had gone, Eva spent hours trying to return the flat to its usual state.

Four months later, in October, Eva was informed that her lease on the flat had been terminated and that she would have to move out. Dr Josef Laufer took over the flat and Eva was forced to move into one room; she stored some her possessions and some of Alice’s and Erwin’s in cases in the the basement. Alice’s room remained sealed. There were several subsequent visits by the security forces, when they made inventories, went through all the possessions and again sealed Alice’s room and the cellars. One day, over a year later, Eva returned home to find that they had been for one final time and removed all Alice’s possessions, including some belonging to Eva and to Erwin and taken them to the official government warehouse for the district. They gave her a list of the items removed, but Eva had no way of verifying them – they had gone.

On her release, in June 1955, Alice mounted a campaign to have her possessions returned to her. It would not be easy. Some were essential to her future, such as her degree certificates, others had huge sentimental value, such as the family photographs and the rest were what make a home. Had Alice’s possessions not been confiscated I would never have known details of their dinner service and glass ware. Erwin had moved to Geneva with little more than a suitcase of personal items, all the familiar objects that make up the fabric of a life had been left with Alice.

It is surprising how much meaning a list of items can have. At first, I was struck by the detail and value of the possessions, and knowing Alice was a committed communist, found a slight irony in her insistence on the exhaustive list of expensive items. But value is not only about money, the value we place on our possessions is far more than this. We take for granted the history that surrounds us, the memory of where something was bought, the association of gifts or family treasures passed on.

I can’t imagine how it feels to have spent four years in a prison cell, stripped of everything; not only physically but psychologically. For those four years she was not a lawyer, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a member of the communist party, a citizen. She was nothing. And then she was released, and finally it was acknowledged that she should never have been arrested and imprisoned at all. She was not a spy, she was not guilty. Yet, on her return to the world, her life was not returned to her. She was not allowed to regain her communist membership, her flat was inhabited by someone else, all her documents were gone, all her possessions were gone. She did have her sister and mother and friends, but she wanted her independence, her own life back, not just to be dependant on others.

So, reading her long letter with the attached list of possessions I begin to see a different way in which they were important. They were part of who she was, they were her history and her identity and she needed it returned. Some of the items were clearly bought with Erwin, there was a man’s silver cigarette case and a woman’s gold cigarette case, his and hers. There was a Swiss alarm clock and a gold Longine watch, presumably bought during their visits to Noel Field in Geneva. There was a great deal of Rosenthal china, lead crystal, paintings and Persian carpets from Bokhara, some inherited from her mother.

When Alice looked at the inventories completed by the security services, she saw the deceit they had practised, undervaluing items, miscounting them and claiming they were damaged or dirty. Many had been sold at the national Antique shop, presumably along with the belongings of other political prisoners. They were sold for a fraction of their value and Alice was even forced to buy back some of her own dinner service in case it was sold on before she could reclaim it. Her final demand in the letter is her refusal to pay for the cost of ‘storing’ her items during her imprisonment.

Reading through the inventory of items, I have thought a lot about Alice and the home she once had. But I have had a much more personal experience. In our flat in Geneva, when I was a child, we had Rosenthal china, lead crystal bowls, Persian rugs and oil paintings. I had never really thought about the choices of china, glass and other decorations, but now I do think about it. Our flat was not like the ones of our American and Swiss friends in Geneva, it was like the homes of our Czech friends. My father recreated the world he knew and although, once divorced, he left behind all the possessions he had collected and cared for, including his medical text books and many of his clothes, he never completely left the world of his youth behind.

Erwin and Alice were separate, they never communicated again after the divorce. Those of Erwin’s possessions that were left in Czechoslovakia fell into the hands of the security police. Erwin was in Geneva with me and my mother, entertaining friends and colleagues in the flat on the quay, overlooking the lake. Alice had moved from her quayside apartment, which had been taken from her, and she and Eva entertained friends and comrades in their apartment in Vezenska Street in Prague old town. Yet in their separate lives Alice and Erwin both still ate off Rosenthal plates.

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