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.