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.
M.Tauchmanová Poznámka (Memoir) from Správce Archivního Souboru.
Documents from the Czech National Archive.
8 thoughts on “Letters from Alice”
Oh Liz, how incredibly moving. But also so wonderful for Alice to have known how much your father loved her. And how amazing that these letters have survived, to give you a sense of completion about your father’s loyalty, decency and kindness. With much love Anne
Sent from my iPhone
Fantastic that re-reading these letters, with hindsight, unlocks the emotion. S
Astounding documents, astounding revelations. This is SO becoming a book – congrats! Oh, and my Camarada Klara has been accepted for publication in Spain! Now translating it into Spanish and then it will be revised and published. Best Judith
My goodness, that is a painfully perceptive and admirably objective post, Liz. The pieces of the jigsaw are now falling into place. Well done. xx
This is very moving, Liz, I love it.
Oh my goodness, this was such tragic reading! What a detective you are and how extraordinary to be able to interpret what seemed like very mundane communications from Alice to show the underlying terrible sadness. To think she kept your father’s letters for all those years and vice versa. I was really moved by this.
This makes very poignant reading Liz, though I suspect you have long surmised that this was how both felt about their divorce. I wonder why your mother kept those 2 letters? Serendipity? A sense of honour or duty towards your father? Would she have kept them if she had been able to read them? Tauchmanova’s memoir: this must have been a real find! I can only find one other source reference of yours to this, and feel I may therefore have missed something more…….?