Helena Petrankova (on the right) and her assistant Vasilina Masarova-Ljachova.
Telephones were rare in Ruzomberok in the 1920s, so for those who had them, they were a real novelty. Two young girls, Alice Glasnerova and Helena Ackermanova lived in houses on opposite sides of the road, they could wave to each other from the windows, and it would only have taken a minute for them to meet and talk, but the excitement of the new technology was too great to resist. Alice would wave across to Helena, who would then know she was about to telephone and be prepared to answer on the first ring. Such excitement to be able to chat to your friend without ever leaving your house.
Alice and Helena, were firm friends, even though Helena was a year ahead of her at school, the Pierist Catholic school that both girls attended. They were quite a pair, both daring and full of life. They were very clever girls and ready to question traditional views and the status quo- the telephone was not the only aspect of modern life that they embraced. As they were Jewish, they were excused from the school’s religious instruction, but went to the rabbi instead. However, after several “ideological clashes” between the two girls and the rabbi, he asked Alice’s father not to send his daughter for further instruction!
When Helena was in the seventh grade and Alice in the sixth, a new professor came to the school – Professor Martinec, a left wing social democrat, who had already fallen foul of the authorities, but who did not temper his views once transferred to their school in Slovakia. Not only did he bring to life the Latin classes and classical literature he taught, he gave Marxist literature to any willing to learn. These included Alice and Helena, also Eduard Urx, later to become an editor of Rude Pravo, the Czech communist newspaper.
The influence of Professor Martinec would be with Alice and Helena to the end of their lives. To the horror of their socially ambitious and very ladylike mothers, who had quite other ambitions for their daughters, Alice and Helena socialised with the boys of the town, going with them on excursions up to the mountains and discussing politics and the new ideas that were inspiring them. The other person, who fell under the spell was Eva, Alice’s younger sister, who idolised both Alice and Helena and would remain close to both throughout her life.
Alice and Helena were great friends, but Helena was important to Alice in other ways. Coming from a family of eight children, and one which despite their telephone, did not enjoy the wealth and privilege in which Alice was brought up, made Helena much more aware of the lives of those less fortunate than herself. Through her, Alice too benefited from this understanding and began to see the reality behind the Marxist theory she was reading.
When they completed their schooling, Helena and Alice both went to Prague to study, Alice to study law and Helena to become a pharmacist. Their interest in and commitment to left wing causes never wavered, and by the 1930s, when both were married working women (now Alice Kohnova and Helena Petrankova) they had joined the communist party.
In 1937 both volunteered to help the Republican cause in Spain and ended up working together for much of the time at the Comenius Hospital in Benicasim. When Franco’s troops overran the hospital, Helena and Alice escaped, returning briefly to Czechoslovakia until the Munich Agreement forced them both again to flee. Alice went to the safety of the USA and Helena fled to Poland, where she joined with other emigres, first in Poland and then in the USSR. She joined Svoboda’s army, working as a pharmacist on the Eastern Front. She was one of five women in the Czech battalion.
After the war, they were reunited and worked with renewed enthusiasm for the new Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. For a short time they were at the heart of their country’s post-war resurgence, but the very qualities that had brought them there, were also the ones that exposed them to the most ironic and cruel of fates. These two intelligent, resourceful and well educated professional women, along with many others, were seen as a threat. Their travel abroad, their very independence and intelligence and the fact they were Jewish, all counted against them. Unfortunately too, they were both connected to Noel Field and so when Stalin started to insist on the witch hunt for a spy ring in the midst of the party, they were both arrested. Their years in prison, suffering interrogation and torture, sometimes at the hands of former comrades made them reassess all they had known since those first days in school in Ruzomberok.
As loyal party members, they would have been keen to co-operate, in the belief that a terrible error had occurred, but those who arrested them were not interested in the truth, they just wanted confessions. Many of those who carried out the interrogations, which could go on throughout the night, with the interrogators working in shifts, did not even believe the truths they were told. The party had deliberately chosen young, uneducated and boorish men and women to conduct interrogations and act as guards. Artur London, one of the defendants in the Slansky trial who knew both Alice and Helena well, in his account of his imprisonment (The Confession), describes the disbelief that any of them could have worked for the French resistance without direct orders and organisation from the party. The interrogators had never even been out of Czechoslovakia.
Marian Slingova, wife of another of the Slansky defendants, Otto Sling, has written about her time in prison (Truth Will Prevail) where for a time she shared a cell with Helena and remembered it as one of the only positive aspects of her imprisonment. They able to give each other great comfort and strength, and she admired Helena’s bravery and resilience both in prison and for what she had endured during the war. The worst aspect for all those imprisoned during this time was that their very own comrades and country were treating them in many ways worse than the fascists against whom they had fought during the war. They had to face physical pain and inhuman conditions that left most of those who survived with long term health conditions, but worse than this, they had to question the whole basis of their beliefs.
Helena and Alice, with Pepik (Dora Klein’s son), who kindly sent me this picture.
After their release and rehabilitation, both Alice and Helena fought to have their party membership reinstated. Their faith in the people who ran the party may have been shaken to the core, but their belief in the ideals of communism remained strong. It took until 1962 for Alice to have her party membership returned and there seemed to be some hope for the future as the Slansky trials were shown to have been the sham they were and hundreds of those wrongly imprisoned were released and exonerated.
However, the consequences of those years remained with them always, not only in their memories and nightmares, but every day within their bodies. Alice had been released early from her sentence in 1955 on medical grounds, and although the release probably saved her life, it did not save her health. Ten years later, in 1965, she retired on health grounds. She had pain in her spine and her legs and frequently suffered from bronchitis, a legacy from the tuberculosis she had contracted while in prison. Her hospital report, dated 23 July 1968, states, “It can be assumed that these diseases were caused by imprisonment between 1949-50 and 1951-55, because she was subjected to countless night interrogations and also for the lack of basic hygiene, lack of food, total mismanagement and finally untreated jaundice during her stay in Ruzyne prison.”
The medical treatment Alice received in 1968 did alleviate her symptoms and although she continued to suffer throughout her life, she lived on for another 18 years. Helena was not to be so lucky. 1968, that year that seemed to offer political hope at last, when it looked as if the communist state could also be a free and liberal state, would be tragic in more ways than one. Despite her own poor health, Alice spent more time in hospital visiting others than on her own behalf. Her mother fell ill that year and died, and Helena too became dangerously ill. She was moved to the Thomayer Hospital in Prague and at first, was still allowed to go out on a Sunday to have lunch with Alice. But as her condition worsened, she was confined to her hospital bed.
Both women rejoiced at the changes taking place within their country; at last the hope of the society to which they had dedicated their lives looked as if it would become a reality. Only Alice was to experience the final crushing disillusionment when Soviet troops invaded on the 21st August. Helena was so ill that no-one had the heart to tell her what had occurred, and five days later, on August 26th, she died, still believing in the hope for which she had given her life.
On what would have been her eightieth birthday, an article celebrating her life was published and described, “her inexhaustible optimism, her extraordinary lack of self-pity …. her ability to laugh in the face of life’s hardships. For in her philosophy, complaining and whining never helped anyone. The energy expended on self-pity can be put to much better use – for the benefit of those who really need it. ”
from the archive of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Col. (Ret.) PhMr. Helena PETRÁNKOVÁ left Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1937 to help the Spanish Republicans as a member of the J. A. Komenský Field Hospital staff in response to an initiative of the Czechoslovak Society of Friends of Democratic Spain. After returning to Czechoslovakia, she decided to leave for Cracow, Poland, in July 1939. In February 1940, she went to the Stalingrad region, where she worked until January 1942; she then left for Buzuluk. It was there that she enlisted in the First Czechoslovak Independent Field Battalion in the USSR. After the unit’s reorganization as a brigade in Novochopersk in May 1943, she was assigned to head the brigade’s pharmacy. In this post, she participated in all First Czechoslovak Army Corps operations in the USSR. She excelled in the difficult conditions of the Carpathian Operation at Dukla.
Edvard Urx was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, imprisoned in Pankrac Prison, then transferred to Terezin and finally to Mathausen concentration camp, where he was killed in 1942.
For more about Noel Field, the Slansky Trials, Dora Klein and Alice’s experiences in Spain, see earlier blogs.
Slingova, Marian, Truth Will Prevail (Merlin Press, London 1968)
London, Artur, (Translated by Hamilton, Alexander) The Confession (New York 1970)
Tauchmanova, Milena, Memoir
Documents from the Czech National Archive