I have visited archives in a wide variety of locations, ranging from deserted castles (Bytca) to pre-fab buildings in suburban streets (Liptovsky Mikulas), behind locked iron gates (Zilina) or huge wooden doors in discreet side streets (Prague). None seem to advertise themselves and in nearly every case I have had a moment of doubt about the location before being allowed in. However, they all have one other thing in common; they are staffed by the most helpful people in the world. There must be a helpful gene that singles you out for a career in the archives. Regardless of language barriers, the archive staff go out of their way to produce microfilm or ancient ledgers, to guide me through strange unfamiliar login details and display an understanding shrug as I sign one request slip after another, while they kindly fill in the rest. They explain the apparently incomprehensible and go searching for extra documents I wasn’t yet aware that I wanted and they seem delighted to do so.
Archives have provided most of the sources in my search for Alice, and they have been significant in a number of ways. The vast majority of the documents have winged their way to me over the internet, but there are always details in seeing the originals that add an extra perspective. At Bytca, scrolling through for the record of Alice’s birth, I wasn’t sure I would find out more than I already knew. It was easy to locate the details, Alice had been born in Ruzomberok on December 19th 1905 as I knew and as, at the time, Ruzomberok was still part of the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the details were in Hungarian, but then I saw an extra note, written in Slovak. Although when Alice was born she was registered as Jewish, the added note from 1930 stated that in 1930, she had registered herself legally as “atheist” and the number of the registration document was included.
It was no great surprise to know that she was an atheist, but I was surprised to find it noted there on her birth record. But what the authorities in the former Czechoslovakia choose to retain is a constant source of surprise. From the Bytca archive I went to Liptovsky Mikulas and there located Alice’s school records. Both Erwin and Alice had attended Catholic Gymnasia (secondary schools) run by the Catholic Piarist brothers, Erwin in Zilina and Alice in Ruzomberok. However, the four year difference in their ages was crucial. Whereas Erwin had completed his education in 1918, and therefore studied in Hungarian under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Alice had joined the secondary school in that year – the year Czechoslovakia was created – and so was taught in either Czech or Slovak.
Alice’s street as it was when she lived there.
The records helped confirm her address and showed her grades for each year. Her grades were not as uniformly high as Erwin’s, but she excelled in languages, writing, and the study of literature. Mathematics and Chemistry were her weaker subjects, my sympathies are with her. The records also give the details of her final matriculation exams and the names of the literary texts on which she was tested. They included the Slovak realist writer, Jozef Gregor Tajovsky and the Czech national revival poet, Frantisek Ladislav Celakovsky. For her French exams she was tested on the subjunctive and on Corneille’s Le Cid. It was so strange to be able to see that level of detail, I am sure none of my schools retain copies of my reports, let alone what I studied. While I was there, I couldn’t resist looking too at the records of her friends: Helena Petrankova and Edvard Urx. I felt like a time traveller looking back at their teenage experience and knowing the bravery and horror their futures were to hold.
Finally I looked at Eva’s records, seven years Alice’s junior, so by the time she was in school, the Czech curriculum was well established, and Eva was a star! If Alice, Edvard and Helena had all been bright students heading off to university in Prague, Eva’s grades outshone them all, achieving the highest “velmi dobry” in every subject and specialising in sciences. She would go on and have a prestigious career in scientific research, including her two years during the war at Kew and a grant from the FAO to study in Sweden after the war. Who knows what she might have achieved, had her opportunities not been cut short by Alice’s arrest and the policies of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime?
Having seen the records, I wanted to see the places themselves, the house where Alice and her family had lived, the synagogue, the school. As with so many places, the street names had changed and it was inevitable that Nemecka (German) Street would have changed. In fact, it was right in the centre, a minute from our hotel, but apart from one building with a circular tower on the corner of the street, nothing from Alice’s era survives. Alice’s family had been wealthy and lived in a large house. During the Communist era, all were demolished to make way for blocks of flats. There have probably been several alterations since then, now it is a pedestrianised shopping street. At the top end of it, however, there is a small road that winds up the hill towards what is now called Hlinka Square where the town hall is situated. This was Alice’s route to school and some of the houses still look as if they might be from that time. Walking up there is the closest I can get to her teenage years, imagining her and Helena (who lived opposite) walking to and from school, chatting and gossiping or enthused by the new ideas being shared by their teacher, Professor Martinec.
Alice’s route to school.
Andrej Hlinka, Catholic priest and leader of the Slovak People’s Party, was born in Ruzomberok and his huge mausoleum now stands at one end of the square that bears his name. Although Hlinka supported both Salazar in Portugal and Dolfus in Austria, it would be under his successor Jozef Tiso that Slovakia embraced Nazi ideology, and his own name lived on during the war as the hated “Hlinka Guard” carried out Tiso’s orders in deporting Slovak Jews. Alice would be surprised today to see how he is revered in his home town. One of her first political acts was in response to Hlinka, on a day when she arrived at school to find the Catholic students barring entry in order to protest about Hlinka’s arrest by the Czech authorities. Alice was one of the first to break the strike and go straight in.
The school still stands at the furthest point of Hlinka Square and is part of the Catholic University in Ruzomberok. The school itself has moved into larger and more modern premises. When Alice attended, the school was part of a complex of buildings owned by the Piarist brothers, which included a huge church right next to the school and a seminary for Catholic priests. For the young Jewish teenagers, many of whom had been radicalised by the progressive ideas of Professor Martinec, the alternative vision for the future of their city and country was all too clear.
It is no surprise that once Alice had left for Prague, she never returned to live in Ruzomberok, although she did still visit her parents. Ruzomberok did, however, provide the setting for one final significant event in her life; her marriage to Erwin, which took place in the town hall in a civil ceremony. It was to that same town hall I went to see the record of the marriage and obtain a copy of the certificate. As with the amendment to the birth certificate, when I looked at the marriage record, there was an extra note; this one stating the marriage had been dissolved in April 1951. All the documents from the beginning of her life, detailing birth, education and marriage contain, within their dry facts, memorials to days of happiness and hope.
Finally, I wonder whether researchers of the future will get the same thrill by trawling through online and electronic data as I do from holding in my hands the ledgers containing the entries written by the very teachers who stood in front of young Alice and Eva and Helena and believed in the promise they showed.