“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.
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.
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.
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.