A few months ago I wrote this:
“Alice is an insistent shadow hovering behind my father. He has turned his back on her, he is in the bright sunlight of a glistening Geneva day. In front of him; radiant and elegant with her slim ankles and tailored suit, smiles my mother and I am with them in that sunlight. But behind him, a darkness lurks, of grey windswept streets with foreign names, and a woman whose features I do not know, but her presence and her name call to me. Perhaps it is her younger self I see, the self that shared a life with Erwin, my father, decades before I was born, or is it the woman we could have met on that sunny day, if she had not been incarcerated, tortured, tried and condemned. An older figure, no doubt even older than her years. Would she have wanted to know us? I want to know her, I want to step back into that foreign darkness and look into her face, try to understand what lay behind the loving, kindly man I knew as a child.
I am beginning to step into that shadow world, to learn the names and events that shaped them, trying to understand their emerging politics and attitudes, imagining how it felt to be a student on the streets of Prague in the first quarter of the 20th C, and to see the sinister movements rise in nearby Germany. At first I read Erwin’s words, sifting through the layers of self censorship in his interrogatory where he had to prove he was not a communist. In this, Alice is the woman lured towards communism by others, influenced and apparently trying to fill the void of her childlessness, but I am suspicious of this view and maybe it wasn’t Erwin’s view either, only the view he was presenting in response to those intrusive questions posed by a distant bureaucracy. I moved on to the reports and memoirs of the trials, finding the details of Alice’s arrest and the accusations of her involvement in Noel Field’s fabricated ‘spy ring’.”
But then, in the midst of deciphering secret service files and reports, I was sent a memoir, 140+ pages about Alice’s life, the personal as well as the political. I couldn’t resist; there was so much I wanted to know, but most of all I wanted to know about her relationship with my father. I was braced to read criticism, the memoir was written by someone who had heard Alice’s side of the story, so I expected at the very least some disparaging comment about his political views. I was relieved to find only praise, nothing to dislodge my memory of the man I had known as a child and heard described throughout my adolescence and adulthood.
The revelations I had feared proved to be unfounded, but it is always the unexpected that ambushes you. Alice loved my father, she loved him until the end of her life. I had always assumed that after their divorce she would have moved on, that the differences during their marriage had changed her feelings about him. I discover now they had not. I have been imagining her pain and disillusion with the cause to which she devoted her life, I had not imagined the pain at the loss of the man she loved. And did the betrayal by the political system for which she had sacrificed her marriage make the loss even more acute?
I had not expected to find such details and I had certainly not expected a reference to my own life in the memoir, but there I was, the daughter of the second wife, and strangely, Alice had lied about my mother. She had said that Erwin had married his cousin, that in Jewish families, “they find lonely men”. Tauchmanova, who wrote the memoir, corrects Alice’s lie and explains that Erwin married an Englishwoman, a work colleague. She questions whether she should have included Alice’s lie, but explains that as well as being brave and compassionate, Alice was “extra sensitive”. Then she adds that Erwin had a daughter, who grew up in England and later wanted to “know her father’s first wife”, but that Alice refused the meeting, she found it too upsetting.
It is true. When I first heard about Alice’s life from my father’s friends in New York, I was intrigued to meet her, but I never knew that they had mentioned it to her or that she had refused. In some ways, it makes me feel better that she had the choice. It also makes me feel very sad, recognising that meeting the child she and Erwin had never been able to have was too painful to contemplate. Maybe his explanation about the role childlessness played in her life had some truth. Even if it was not an explanation of her political convictions, he had understood and shared the depth of her grief. But for him, there had been a second chance.
Stepping into the shadows and bringing the past back to life can be painful in ways I never expected.