Windows into the Past

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Alice, Eva and their mother, Olga.

We sit around Alice’s table, Katerina, Jirka and I. The reason I am here, in this small flat on the outskirts of Prague in Novy Sporilov is because of Alice and the only reason we can communicate properly with each other is because Alice taught both Jirka and Katerina English, around this exact same table. Their mothers were close friends of Alice’s and Katerina is the daughter of Milena Tauchmannova, who wrote the memoir about Alice that has given me so much information. Katerina now lives in Alice’s flat and a couple of pieces of Alice’s furniture remain here – the table and a large dark wood dresser.

I cannot believe that I am here, in Alice’s flat, sitting with people who knew her, who remember her impatience when they were late for the lesson or when they failed to complete their homework. Alice lived here with Eva, her sister, on the second floor of a newly built block with a lift, unlike the old blocks in central Prague where she lived on her release from prison. There is a large sitting room with a balcony, where Alice and Eva would sit and have a drink on warm evenings. Eva liked pelargoniums and so in summer the balcony was bright with flowers and as the area matured, trees grew and grass was laid, providing greenery all around. The tram journey into the centre is easy and I wonder whether the number 11 tram that we took was also the one that carried Alice in to concerts or to visit friends.

Amazing as this experience is, there is more to come. Katerina inherited Alice’s flat, but Jirka’s family inherited much of her furniture and belongings, including her photographs. He has brought them for me; two shoe boxes full and three albums from Alice’s childhood and youth. It is a treasure trove, I can’t wait to get back to the flat and look through.

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At the flat, I start looking through the pictures and soon, Alice’s features, with which I am now so familiar, are looking back at me through all the stages of life, from a small child in a pram, to a studio photograph with her mother and Eva. They look so beautiful. There are pictures of Alice walking with other young people in the Slovak mountains, travelling to the Black Sea with Eva in later life, laughing with friends in America and even marching on demonstrations. Some of the pictures are tiny and the only way of distinguishing features is by photographing them with a phone and enlarging the image. There are pictures of her in her final years, in colour, with young friends and their children. Most amazing for me though, are the pictures of her with Erwin, with my father as a young man, in his student days, in the early days of their marriage in front of his library of books, in fur collared jackets, in a swimsuit (!) in the South of France… I had never seen a picture of them together, I had never seen a picture of my father when he was in his twenties or thirties and here they all are. I even recognise Alice in America with Frank and Frances, the friends of my father’s whom I stayed with in New York when I was eighteen.

 

It is as if a world has been opened up to me. I couldn’t believe Jirka was giving them all to me, but now I realise that I am the only one to whom they are personal. Alice may not have been any relation to me, but she had no children, no nieces or nephews. And Erwin was my father, who else would have claim to photographs of him? To everyone else, at best, they are just vaguely interesting pictures of one of their parent’s friends. I am taking them home, despite Easyjet’s luggage restrictions, and spend a long time distributing them among our various bags. It would be lighter if I took the photos out of the albums but I can’t bring myself to do that, we’ll just have to pay extra.

When I started researching Alice’s life I had never seen a picture of her, I had never read a word she had written. All I knew was that she had been married to my father and had been a member of the communist party. Now, I have read hundreds of documents about her, I have read her articles, some of her letters and memoirs, her statements to the police. I have seen all four prisons where she was incarcerated, I have seen all the places where she worked in Spain, I have her school records. I have seen the record of her birth, of her marriage, I have walked the street where she lived as a child, I have stood outside her school, been into the strange shop that now inhabits the house where she and Erwin lived. I have stood outside her homes in Prague and the Law Faculty where she studied, even the court where she practised in Bratislava. Most of all I know the children of her friends, have sat at her table in her flat. And now, I can turn the stiff dark pages of albums that contain her memories: the days of a privileged childhood, of carefree and optimistic youth and of early love. Other photographs tell of her life after her release from prison, her closeness to Eva, their holidays at the Black Sea, time spent with friends and their children – a full life.

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At the May day Parade

As I discovered on reading the memoir, despite the passing years, Erwin always held a place in her heart and this treasure trove of pictures proves it. It was a troubled relationship, but it was abruptly cut short by outside forces. In a previous blog I wrote about the letters they exchanged over the divorce, but more recently I have found another letter. Erwin wrote to Eva on July 24th 1949 asking why he had not heard from Alice in response to his letters and telegram about an upcoming trip to Prague. The date on the letter explains the reason; she had been arrested on July 7th. He never went to Prague, either then or later. The next time he heard from her was the formal letter asking for a divorce.

It isn’t logical, but I feel as if I am closing a circle, as if by trying to understand what happened and piecing together the story of their marriage that I am somehow healing a wound. I can’t change the past, or repair their loss, but I am regaining a part of my father and my heritage that he did not live to tell me about himself. Ironically, it is Alice who unwittingly held the key that has enabled me to unlock this past and provide a final chapter to their story.

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In America

16 thoughts on “Windows into the Past

  1. Oh Liz, you are showing admiration, respect and love for Alice. How many people have been researched and honoured in this way, with such respect and acknowledgment of the value of their lives. I know of no-one.

    And how wonderful to learn more of your beloved father and know that his marriage to your Mum and his parenting of you just have brought him such intense and immense joy. So well-deserved.

    And I’m so happy that you now feel complete.

    Lots and lots of love to you, Anne

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. What a story! So well written and I’m in wonder at how much you’ve found out about Alice and your father and family.

    Really looking forward to seeing on 21st at about 1pm.

    Lots of love Eileen

    Sent from my iPhone

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  3. This is your cousin, Lisa, Frances and Leo’s (not Frank) daughter. I have been reading your blog and find it fascinating. Growing up I had always listened to family stories which my father readily told because family was so important to him. I heard about Erwin and later about their visit with Alice. Thank you for writing about Alice. It is a piece of family history that is so valuable.

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  4. What a truly amazing voyage of discovery! You have brought all these shadowy figures to life and retold their stories so vividly. I now look forward to seeing how you mould all the information you have gathered into a compelling tale for the wider audience it and they) deserves:)

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  5. Someone’s been chopping onions near me! Like everyone here, I’ve been so moved by how you’ve managed to give life to this long dead and, till now, forgotten story, together with its heroine and hero, your own father. Susan

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  6. This latest blog is so moving and takes me straight back to uni and you talking about your father. So much more to say now though. Your commitment and passion shine through. Well done. What a quest!

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  7. This is some of the free-est and most powerful writing you’ve done. You reached into this story and found the nub. I remember when you found the divorce letter and we were speculating whether it was coerced, and we both had the instinct that it was, and now because you are as close to the real Alice as anyone could be, maybe even closer in some way than Erwin, the answer is unbearable. The factual context you have painstakingly uncovered has made it very real. You will add so much to our understanding of human endurance and grace by completing and publishing this.

    Roslyn

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  8. Liz, this is truly extraordinary. Who could have predicted where this would lead. What a privilege. And your account is so compelling. Made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Thank you so much for sharing the story.

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  9. Such an amazing journey Liz! So moving and extraordinarstory that you unfold, beautifully written! I’ve so enjoyed following this and seeing it develop.

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  10. Very poignant, Liz, and as other comments show, there seems to be a roundness and fulfilment about this last entry. You should delay with your book no longer! Alice, and without doubt your father, are clearly owed their story!

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  11. Ms Kohn

    There’s no reason on earth why you should remember me, you must have taught so many kids. It’s also somehow fitting that I should have discovered you deep into a memory project of your own. My name is Mark Summers, you taught me O level English at Broxbourne in 1985, and you were also the first person I ever came out to. In the 35 years since we last spoke, I have acquired one degree from Cambridge, fluency in Russian and Japanese, more books than I can count, a small but distinguished collection of Soviet art, a succession of much loved cats, and a husband with whom I’ve spent 20 happy years. I never got the chance to thank you for being kind to me when kindness was in very short supply in my life, and I’m so glad I’ve tracked you down to do so now.

    One last thing: you told us once in class about your grandparents and their nice house in Czechoslovakia that they couldn’t bring themselves to leave, so that by the time they really needed to leave, it was too late. And I don’t know why, but that story you told has stayed with me for the rest of my life, with the result that the very first thing I did after the Brexit vote was to buy us a place in Germany to escape to if (when?) England turns bad. As Philip Larkin said in a very different context, get out as early as you can….

    All best wishes, and I look forward to reading your book.

    And thank you again.

    Mark

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