(This story was published under the title Two Worlds in the British Czech and Slovak Review February/March 2023.)
The late afternoon sun slanted into the apartment, dust motes dancing in its rays. They fell on the suitcase lying open on the bed. Erwin had nearly finished packing and his wallet containing passport, plane tickets and pounds sterling was on the desk next to him. Just one last task before he could relax and look forward to the trip.
This time tomorrow he would be in London, reunited with Sheila and awaiting the birth of their first child. For so long fatherhood had seemed an impossible dream but now, at 53, the unimaginable had happened and joy bubbled inside him. This was not the time to think about it. Taking the thin typing paper, interleaved with carbons, he slotted it into the roller and started to type.
“I married my first wife (Alice Glasner) on August 28, 1929 in Ružomberok, Czechoslovakia.” His thoughts returned to that day, standing outside the town hall in the heat, looking down the sun-dappled avenue to the Catholic Gymnasium where Alice had gone to school. They had been so full of hope for their future and for that of their young country. In 1918, she had been among the first entry of girls to that male bastion, in the year Czechoslovakia was formed.
It had been a different world in so many ways and having to return there, if only in his imagination, was painful. It felt wrong at this particular moment to have to share the details of his personal life with an unknown bureaucrat in Washington. But there was no choice. As an American citizen and employee of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, he had to complete the Interrogatory. A year ago, in 1953, when President Eisenhower extended Truman’s loyalty review program, the first form from the International Employees-Loyalty Board had arrived and he had completed it. To the question: ARE YOU NOW, OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN, A MEMBER OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY? he had answered “No”, but in the final section for Continuing Answers, he had felt compelled to write, “My former wife was a communist.” This new, longer interrogatory was the result of that answer.
When had private lives ceased to be private? First it had been the Czechoslovak Communists reading through his personal letters and papers, dissecting the details of his marriage and relationships, checking loyalty to the Party. Now it was the US State Department, still gripped by fear of “the Red Peril”, who would follow his personal tale of heartache and loss.
Life in Geneva was so filled with work, socialising, travel and the unexpected joy of his recent marriage that he rarely thought about Alice or even Czechoslovakia, but now there was no choice but to remember. That last visit to Prague in June 1949, when he had stayed with Alice, she had been as busy as ever, surrounded by piles of books, papers, leaflets and letters. As a government worker she had been allocated a spacious apartment on nábřeží Kyjevské brigády, overlooking the Vltava and Letna Park. Yet even in the short time she had been there, the atmosphere had changed. Her first job in the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, ended after a few months and she was moved to the legal department of Czech hotels. To Erwin that seemed like a demotion, what did it mean? Alice had brushed his concerns aside, but he had been right.
In tearful conversations late into the night, Alice begged him to stay with her in Prague, but his mind was made up. The job in Geneva was too perfect an opportunity – still in the heart of Europe, but travelling the world working on international medical projects. What could Communist Czechoslovakia offer that would compare to that? He too had pleaded, trying to persuade Alice to join him, but they were set on separate paths. There would be no happy ending. His thoughts drifted further back – to their home in Žilina before the war, to his favourite room, the book-lined study with their radiogram, where they sat in the evening listening to concerts. That too was where they heard the news that would shatter their world, the rise of Hitler in Germany and the struggle of the Republican Government in Spain.
Another day blazed in his memory, as he explained in dry prose the moment when he thought his marriage had ended. It was July 1937 and he had been expecting Alice back from a holiday with her parents in Belgium, but instead, a telegram arrived telling him she was in Spain. To his horror, she had done what he had been dreading – she had volunteered to work in the international brigade hospitals, risking both their marriage and her life for the Republican cause. He would never forget the stark words of the letter that followed, saying “they belonged to two different worlds”. He had tried to imagine a life without her, but what had seemed then like the end, was only the beginning. Alice stayed in Spain for a year, returning to Žilina at the end of August 1938. The Munich Agreement changed everything and once more, they came together to decide on their futures. They would go to America.
Erwin needed a break. He left the half-written response in the typewriter and strolled through the apartment, opening the French doors onto the balcony. It was early evening and couples strolled along the Quai, under the plane trees. The lake glistened in the evening sun and the spray from the Jet d’Eau betrayed only the slightest breeze. It was all so peaceful: the municipal gardens were perfectly tended, the ice cream stalls had a few customers choosing between exotic favours. This was his life now. Sheila adored him, his work was engrossing and varied, they had a busy social life and soon, they would be back here together, pushing a Harrods pram containing their baby.
It was hard to think about Alice. Erwin didn’t know exactly where she was but he had a fair idea. Pankrác or Ruzyně? He had read about the Slánský Trials, the Czechoslovak show trials that had been broadcast to the world. He knew the names of the defendants and he knew several of them personally, they had visited his house in Žilina. He had listened to their recited testimony, learned by heart and regurgitated in the Central Court in Prague. What had been done to those men to break them so completely? What had been done to Alice? It was unimaginable now, as he looked out at this ordered scene of comfortable bourgeois life.
It was no good, he had to go back and finish. He could not help Alice now. She had made her choices and he had made his. All he could control was the life of the child waiting to be born. As he drew a line under the final answer and added one more paragraph explaining that he had now remarried “an English girl” and they were expecting their first child. He ended with the words, “Our only aim in life is now to bring up this child as a healthy and sound citizen, devoted to the ideals that are common to my country and that of my wife and which she and I so fully share.”
It was done. He scrolled the roller and removed the last sheet of paper, put them in order and re-read what he had written. It should be enough, seven pages detailing a marriage, but so much was unsaid. The bald sentence, “We decided to part and then she sued for the divorce.” was the greatest omission of all. Yes, they had decided to part. Erwin had wanted the job at the WHO in Geneva, Alice had refused to leave Prague, but he had left all his belongings with her in the apartment. He had thought he would return, no final decisions had been made.
Yet when he had written to Alice to arrange a time for his visit, just a month after leaving her in June 1949, she did not reply. In the end he had written to her sister, Eva, and then he found out. Alice had disappeared. No-one had heard a word about her. He could not return to Prague, it was too dangerous. He waited and tried to concentrate on his new life, but his thoughts kept returning to the apartment on the Vltava, now emptied of Alice’s vibrant presence. He thought again of Alice’s demotion away from the office of the Deputy Prime Minister. He had tried to warn her, but she was confident. Her years of service to the Party could not be doubted.
Then, almost a year later, in March 1950, a letter came in that familiar handwriting. He tore it open and read the cold message inside. “I have returned from a long journey…” He knew where Alice had been and he knew whose eyes had seen this letter before he ever received it. This was the way in which their divorce had been decided, Alice had had no choice. He remembered the agony of those final letters in which he explained what she should do with his belongings, who might like his clothes, where to dispose of his medical text books and his last ever message to her, “Have a wonderful life, darling. Be cheerful and smiling and forgive me for everything. Remember the beautiful moments we shared.”
Czechoslovakia had been efficient about divorce and the formalities were executed remotely. The decree came through in December. And then, in June of the following year, Erwin heard that Alice had, once more, been arrested. It was the end. His words in that final letter were now bitterly ironic. He had to move on. And he had – but for one last time, on this solitary evening, he allowed himself to weep for the life he had lost and the woman he had loved, now incarcerated in a Prague prison.
A year later, Erwin and Sheila strolled through the Parc des Eaux Vives in Geneva. Lisbet was in her pushchair pointing excitedly at the doggies, the bright flowers and the shimmering ponds where goldfish glinted in the sunlight. Unbeknown to them, nearly six hundred miles away, in Pardubice, Alice finally walked out of prison. Her eyes were blinded by the sunlight, she could hardly walk, her body wracked with tuberculosis, jaundice and searing sciatic pain. After four years in prison, her conviction had been reversed. She had been released.
Lisbet would grow up to become a young Englishwoman, who in her later years would open that Interrogatory and those letters, finding within herself a Czechoslovak heritage that would lead her back into the past and forward to a new future.