Seventy Years On

IMG_4069

We arrived at Bila Hora, the final stop of the number 22 tram, and had half an hour to wait for our lift to arrive. Bila Hora is far more than a tram terminus; it represents a key moment in Czech history. Bila Hora means white mountain and it was here a battle took place in 1620 during the 30 Years’ War. It is significant as it marks a turning point in Bohemia’s relationship with the Holy Roman Empire, within whose dominion it fell. Up this point many in Bohemia were Protestant and had the right to religious freedom, but after the Bohemian defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain, Roman Catholicism was imposed on all citizens. There was perhaps a synchronicity in our waiting at this point before going to visit another place where an ideology resulted in persecution, because Bila Hora is also the nearest tram stop to Ruzyne, site of the airport and site too of Prague’s second prison. This was our destination.

We found a small cafe on the opposite side of the road to the tram stop and waited there in the warm of the tiny, cosy room while the proprietress was making yet another delicious looking cake to add to the already generous selection on the counter. Having just had breakfast, we resisted temptation. Our lift arrived; my husband’s colleague Tomas, who had arranged both this visit and the one to Pancrac. It was a short drive to the prison and soon the huge watchtower and imposing walls came into view. Now the prison is painted a cheery yellow, but when Alice was here in the fifties, it was a grim grey. However, yellow paint only goes so far. By the time we had waited for ten minutes outside the thick metal door, our spirits were beginning to fail.

When we were allowed in, the checking in procedure was far more rigorous than it had been at Pancrac, I think because Tomas worked at Pancrac, whereas here, he too was a visitor. Having gone through airport-style security, we passed through a grille and out into the yard to be greeted by our guide from the prison, a very knowledgeable young man who was keen to listen and share all that was relevant. The first important information was that, unlike Pancrac, in the 1950s Ruzyne was used exclusively for political prisoners. It had, however, needed some alterations to make it suitable for the purpose, so the very first political prisoners, like Alice who was arrested in July 1949, were taken to Mlada Boleslav, the prison I had visited when I was here in May. By December 1949, Ruzyne was considered ready and all the political prisoners, including Alice, were moved there.

At that time, the prison was smaller than it is today; only two blocks, converted in the 1930s from a former sugar factory. What became the watchtower, had been a water tower. Our first destination was a set of cells that still looked closest to how they had been in Alice’s time, they were currently being refurbished, so were unoccupied. They were in the basement, a low ceilinged corridor with heavy metal cell doors leading off it. The cells were tiny and without windows, we struggled to see how any refurbishment would make them acceptable. As we walked upstairs to see some of the other cells we came to understand more about the difference between the uses of the two prisons. Whereas Pancrac had been a place for those awaiting trial and execution, no executions took place at Ruzyne. However, this was where the interrogations had taken place, in offices on the fourth floor. Outside some offices a light is still visible that could be switched on during interrogations indicating that no-one could enter.

Alice was typical of many of the political prisoners: highly educated, well travelled, speaking seven languages and a committed communist. The interrogators by contrast, tended to be young, brutal, uneducated and had probably never been outside Czechoslovakia. Their instructions were just to get a confession, often they had no idea what the prisoners needed to confess. The truth was irrelevant. The method was to get the prisoners to write an account of their lives. From this, the authorities could pick and distort what they needed. The statements were translated into Russian, sent to the USSR and altered as seemed necessary, and then returned to Czechoslovakia and translated back into Czech. They were then presented to the prisoners to sign. Interrogations were brutal; interrogators worked in relays, screaming insults at the prisoners, who could be forced to stand for as much as eighteen hours at a time. There is much evidence, both from later official reports and from personal accounts, of the physical violence used on the men in particular. They were beaten with truncheons, sometimes on the soles of their feet, their heads were smashed against the wall or floor. Return to the cells offered little respite. At night they had to lie flat on their backs on the tiny folding shelf that served as a bed and lie with their hands visible at all times or they would be woken. During the day, they were not allowed to sit, they were forced to walk constantly around their cells, wearing slippers with rough inner soles which made their feet swell and bleed. If they collapsed from exhaustion, cold water would be thrown over them. Perhaps worst of all, was that those who sanctioned this treatment were their former comrades.

1c79ea5c-f271-4d22-a63d-ef8c5cbf2f46

The prison is now a more humane place, not only yellow walls, but plants hanging along them, workshops for glass and candle making, art rooms and sports facilities. None of these existed during the fifties; the prisoners were not allowed outside, they were kept in isolation, they received no visitors or communication from friends and family. In fact, Alice’s mother, Olga, wrote to the authorities repeatedly trying to discover where Alice was after her arrest. We went to see the cells above ground, which were larger and had windows overlooking the yard. One was for violent and dangerous prisoners and had an additional internal grille to pass through once the cell door was opened. These precautions are only in use now, they were completely unnecessary when the prison was in use for political prisoners who posed no physical threat to the guards. At first, many were keen to cooperate and explain, in order to clear up the misunderstanding they assumed was the reason for their arrest. By the time they realised it had not been a misunderstanding, they were too exhausted and damaged to pose a threat.

Our penultimate stop was at the chapel, a small room with carpet and soft lights, where a chaplain talked to us about the support he offers, it was a pleasant place to linger and you could see the appeal even for those with no religious belief. Of course, no such facility existed in Alice’s time. We had one final destination, which was to the very highest floor in the prison and there another guide met us to show us a display of art work completed by prisoners and the ‘piece de resistance’ – a perfect scale model of the prison as it is now. It was also completed by a prisoner and the warder in charge was very proud of it; he switched on the lights inside the model, revealing the very room we were in with a model of the model. Tiny figures populated all parts of the prison and its exterior, even members of the public walking their dogs outside the prison walls and a former governor in the car park next to his black car. It was fascinating and also helpful as we were able to see which parts had been in existence during Alice’s time and how the prison had grown. What was most difficult, was knowing exactly what the internal layout had been during that time because apparently it was constantly changing. Our guide suggested that the reason for this was to disconcert the prisoners so they could never be sure exactly where they were or how it was organised.

f20ad6cb-8a3a-4b96-a365-65e36c466800

The visit ended with a photograph next to the small memorial plaque to the victims of that time. Almost exactly seventy years ago, in December 1949, Alice first arrived in Ruzyne to be greeted by the same bleak grey skies and forbidding barbed wire topped walls as we were. Could she ever have imagined that her commitment to communism would lead to this point or that seventy years later, it would be possible for Erwin’s daughter to retrace her footsteps?

e901caaa-8757-4b80-989d-19f26debed07 (1)

16 thoughts on “Seventy Years On

  1. Dearest Liz

    No-one could be more thorough or conscientious than you. How extraordinarily uplifting it would have been for Alice to know of Erwin’s daughter’s future care and compassion.

    With much love Anne

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  2. My uncle Bedrich “Frico” Biheller was a comrade of Alicia’s growing up in Bezeromberek. He went to Spain with the Gottwald Antiaircraft Battery. My aunt Kytia Prasilova married him while they worked in London for the Benes govt in exile. They lived at the same address as Alicia’s sister Eva. My cousin Ivan Vesely knew Erwin and Shelia when his father Joseph Vesely also woerked for WHO. There are probably more connections so I follow your stories carefully for insights into Czechoslovak history and politics. Thanks for doing that.

    Pls ID the three (assume you are inn the middle) in the photo from Ruznye prison

    Like

    1. This is really fascinating. I am so glad to hear from you. I have read about Biheller and I remember the name Vesely from my childhood, although mostly I associated it with Luba (sp) Vesely. I have just also received a lot of Alice’s photographs, which include many of her childhood and youth in Ruzomberok. I would be very happy to share more information via email but don’t like giving out my email on this open forum. If you are on instagram, I am there as e.j.kohn and could send you a private message with my email, if you are interested.

      Like

      1. Sorry, I forgot. Yes, I am in the middle. The man on the right (my left) is Tomas Olsar who knows my husband through his work and who organised the prison visits. The man on the other side is also called Tomas, but I don’t know his surname. he was the guide at Ruzyne.

        Like

      2. I understand. I am not on Insta but assume I can be. How do I join?

        My aunt Ljuba Vesely was uncle Joseph’s (WHO) wife and cousin Ivan’s mother. They lived in Geneva. Aunt Kytia was Ljuba’s sister as well as my mother’s (Nadia).

        Mike Munk

        Like

      3. I think if you google it, it will give you instructions you can follow. It is an app you download. I did it a while ago (with the help of a young person!) so can’t remember exact details. If it is a problem, let me know and we’ll try another way. Was Lyuba the personal assistant to the Director General?

        Like

      4. I got on insta and found your photos.

        I don’t know if my Aunt Ljuba Vesely had a job at WHO but will ask my cousin Ivan, her son.

        Mike

        Like

      5. I’m trying to send you my notes toward “Five from Ružomberok” but still can’t make the insta connection

        Cheers, Mike

        Like

  3. Hello. I was intrigued by your blog. I write articles about volunteers in the Spanish Civil War from Slovakia. I would also like to write an article about Alice. But I couldn’t find enough information about her. You could help me with that, I’ll be grateful for any information.

    Sincerely
    Štefan Dvorský
    Ružomberok-Vlkolínec

    Like

    1. Hello. How interesting to hear from you. I have written 8 blogs that deal with Alice’s experience in Spain. They are ‘Two Worlds:Meeting Alice for the First Time’, ‘Return to the Land of Milk and Honey’ and ‘A Tale of Two Photographs’. The others I think you will have already found on the site, but the other three are older. However, if you google the titles you will find them. I have information from a memoir about her, from the secret service documents and from RAGSPI documents. I would be interested to see what else you have written. Can you give me a link?
      Thanks,
      Liz

      Like

      1. Thank you for your reply, I’ll try to find more information. In the Slovak National Library in Martin there should be memories of several volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, and I will try to find references to the Alice. On the Internet is only my final thesis from the university. I wrote about four Ruzomberoks who went to fight to Spain. these were Štefan Fulla, Štefan Kuniak, teacher Jozef Májek and Ladislav Holdoš, but it is written only in Slovak language. I would like to continue my research to write an article about Alice and Frico Biheller.

        https://opac.crzp.sk/?fn=detailBiblioForm&sid=BCCBB3B3C2736EEF30B622DA1FA0&seo=CRZP-detail-kniha

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s