My Past Ghost


Erwin Kohn

I have spent the last few weeks deep in the Slansky trials, reading about interrogation and torture. Worse than the physical tortures of sleep deprivation, constant walking with hands manacled, and then being dowsed with freezing water as the body collapsed no longer able to remain upright, was the shock and incredulity. People who had been loyal communists all their adult lives, who had fought in Spain, then in the war, either for the French resistance or the Soviet army, some who had even survived the concentration camps, returned to their native Czechoslovakia. They took positions of responsibility in the party and the government, believing they could found a new utopia, then found themselves facing the very tactics they had fought against during the war, used on them by their former comrades. As loyal communists, they gave their interrogators the benefit of the doubt, believed it was a genuine mistake and were at pains to have an investigation and explain themselves. It took some of them a long time to understand that no-one was interested in the truth, they only wanted confessions.

So far I have been reading about others: Artur London, Rudolf Margolius, Oskar Langer but references to Alice in Artur London’s The Confession make clear that she too was in the same prisons. As yet, I have no details of her arrest or interrogations, but if she suffered a tenth of what was suffered by others, then she too was in a living nightmare. What is certain, is that, like them, she must have come to the realisation that she had been betrayed by the movement and the people to whom she had devoted her life.

Alongside these accounts of a cruel looking glass world where truth is irrelevant, I keep thinking of where my father was during these times, what he knew and what he was thinking. I do have some of his diaries, starting in 1956 and ending with his death midway through 1962. He was obviously an assiduous diarist, so I guess diaries for the earlier years must have existed; I don’t know what happened to them. I started reading in the hope that there might be some reference somewhere to his earlier life. In fact, they were mostly taken up with the everyday events of our life in Geneva; my development, his work, their hectic social life and his hobbies of stamp collecting and photography. On their rare evenings at home, my father would listen to music and my mother would embroider; it was an ordered and comfortable life. I had tried to read the diaries before, but their daily accounts of our lives had meant I had just put them aside again. This time I was going to read every word in the hope of finding even the tiniest reference that would give me some idea of what he had thought and felt about his life before his marriage to my mother.

The first mention I found of any other life was as follows, “In bed reading Wheeler Bennet’s “Munich”. For many years is (sic) the first time I found interest in reading about the pre-war period again. By now I have a completely detached attitude. Although that whole period in Czechoslovakia was very much part of my life I now have the feeling that it was just a dream, it wasn’t even me. My present life has no connexion with those bygone days at all.” It wasn’t really what I wanted to find, but in a way I can understand it. In a world of order and freedom, of plenty and safety (and it is hard to find anywhere more plentiful and ordered than Switzerland) it is no surprise that the nightmare world of pre-war Central Europe should have an air of unreality. But for Alice and those still in Central Europe, there was no relief; waking into the post war world was to enter an even more grotesque nightmare.

I continued reading the diaries, through yet more accounts of picnics in the mountains, cocktail parties and trips to the stamp shops. I flicked forward a few years and there, at the back of the 1959 diary, found an extended account of a trip to Vienna. He was there for work for the WHO (World Health Organisation) but he was alone, and after meeting his colleague first thing in the morning, he had a free day. He chose to spend it revisiting old haunts and reminiscing. He had visited Vienna many times and done his post graduate medical training there in 1927-8; he had also returned with the Unitarian Service Committee after the war, and, as he tantalisingly mentions, “A great deal of the family trouble I went through with Alice’s family had Vienna as its scene.”

I read on, with a map of Vienna open on the screen, so I could follow his progress through the city, past the medical faculty, stopping at his favourite Beisl (cafe) for lunch and revisiting shops where he had bought medical textbooks and stationery, and which were still there, still selling those same products to a very different group of medical students. He never mentions the absent Jews, but they shout silently to me through the unwritten lines. Instead, he feels the unreality, “To me that whole part of my life somehow seems so remote as though I hadn’t been the person who lived through it.. .… Here in Vienna, however, that life somehow comes back to me and it comes back through such details as, for instance, the names of the old Austrian firms like the “Julius Meinl” coffee shops or Delka shoes or names of such banks as the Lauderbank.… And so I have the peculiar feeling here in Vienna as being my present self and my past ghost at the same time.” I so want to conjure up that past ghost, to try to understand the life he lead.

And there, in the midst of the memories, I find my name (or rather, his pet name for me). “Some day, I hope, I shall have time in retirement to dictate my story to a tape recorder. Dibbie should really know it and probably by the time she will be old enough to manage to appreciate it I shan’t be here to tell it to her. A sad but realistic thought.” He died three years later, not yet retired, and with no time to dictate his story. So here I am, a year older than he was when he died, in my retirement, trying to piece it together for myself, hoping his past ghost will be by my side as I search back to those earlier years.


Kovaly, Heda Margolius (Translated by Epstein, Franci and Epstein, Helen) Under a Cruel Star 1941-1968 (Granta 2012)

Langer, Jo, Convictions My Life with a Good Communist (Granta 2011)

London, Artur, (Translated by Hamilton, Alexander) The Confession (New York 1970)

The Hunting Dog Finds a Scent

Gottwald and Slansky

Gottwald and Slansky

If in my last blog, I was rushing down one blind alley after another, now I have found which scent to follow. Several questions have answers; I know that both Alice’s sister and her mother survived the war, I still don’t know how.

Much more interestingly, as a result of switching my researches from Ancestry to Geni, I now have information about Alice’s involvement in the Czech Communist party after the war and about her subsequent arrest. Thanks to suggestions from others on Geni, I have books that refer to Alice directly.

Noel Field was central to the events that unfolded. Alice was one of several people described by Karel Kaplan in his book, Report on the Murder of the General Secretary, as “Czechoslovak officials” who recommended that Field be granted a residence permit in Czechoslovakia. This request, rather than providing him with asylum, alerted the security authorities to Field and they decided to put him under surveillance. The job was given, again, according to Kaplan, to Alice Kohnova. This raises as many questions as it answers; if Alice wanted to help Field escape from the USA, how did she feel about ‘spying’ on him? What exactly was her role in the Communist Party and her relationship with the government?

More information comes in another book: Show Trials: Stalinist Purges in Easter Europe 1948-1954, by George H. Hodos. For those unfamiliar (as I was until a few weeks ago) with the Slansky Trials, they were Czechoslovakia’s version of the Stalinist Show Trials, which were named after Rudolf Slansky, who first participated in the Stalinist purges and later fell victim to them himself. It seems that Alice appeared in one of the earliest trials, due to her connection with Noel Field, but also because she ticked every box that made Stalinist authorities suspicious; she was an intellectual, she had lived in America, her husband was an American living in Switzerland, she had been a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War and she was Jewish.

The events leading to her arrest begin with the arrest and torture of Geyza and Charlotte Pavlik by the Hungarian authorities; they were accused of being “members of a Trotskyist group in Switzerland and agents of the American spy Noel Field”. After four weeks of “incessant torture”, “Soviet and Hungarian security officers extorted from the Pavliks a full confession and the names of sixty prominent Czechoslovak communists who allegedly were participants in a Tito-ist imperialist plot.” When they were returned to Czechoslovakia, the Pavliks retracted their confession, but the retraction was rejected. Instead, their testimony, exacted under torture, proved to be the impetus for Czechoslovakia to start purges of its own.

Gottwald (Chairman of the Czech Communist Party) and Slansky, on advice from Soviet General Byelkin, arrested Pavlik’s “accomplices”. These included, “Rudolf Feigl, a high official in the Ministry of Information, and his common-law-wife Vlasta Vesela, who had served on a medical team with the International Brigade in Spain, Alice Kohnova, also a ‘Spaniard’; Kare Markus, section chief in the Ministry of Foreign Trade; Milan Reiman, department chief in the office of the prime minister.” These came to be known as the “Field group” and Gottwald claimed that the purge of spies had been completed. In fact, it was just the beginning.

Alice may have been in quite elevated company, but she was in a great deal of trouble. By the time the group came to trial, several months later, two of the defendants had committed suicide (or were said to have committed suicide) in prison. The trial was held in secret and all were “found guilty of espionage, treason, and conspiracy.” They all received long prison terms, apart from Pavlik himself, who was sentenced to life imprisonment.

When I began researching Alice, I knew she had been a communist and had been imprisoned, but the details that I am now starting to discover make me realise that she had a far more influential role than I had imagined. I am just uncovering the tip of an iceberg. And the more I learn about Alice, the more I wonder about Erwin. How much did he know? How did he feel about what was happening to her? While he was walking through the ordered gardens of Parc de la Grange in Geneva, pushing me in my pram, Alice was in a prison cell.

Noel Field -Soviet Spy

noel field

I feel like a hunting dog, pursuing scents with excitement and yet with so many possibilities not knowing which to follow. I rush down some avenues and find them to be blind alleys or the scent just peters out. There are so many places to start: Alice’s history in Czechoslovakia, in America, her imprisonment, the Communist Party, her time in Spain, people named as her associates. I haven’t even discovered whether any of her family survived the holocaust.

The most productive trail so far has come from the one article I have which mentions Alice; it is written in Czech and entitled:

Politické procesy v ČSR v 50. letech
Politické procesy v sovětských satelitech – Maďarsko – Noel Field

Luckily the person who sent it to me explained the main points- Alice helped arrange for Noel Field to go to Czechoslovakia. I had not heard of Noel Field, but a little research shows him to have been an American who spied for the communists. In 1947 he was denounced as a spy and went to Prague. It was this journey of escape from the reach of the American authorities, when HUAC was rooting out what it saw as the communist threat, that was when Alice intervened on his behalf. Soon after arriving in Prague, Field was arrested, taken to Hungary, tried and imprisoned.

Alice too was arrested, but I don’t know how soon after this. Nor do I know whether she was aware that Field would be in as much danger in Czechoslovakia as he was in America, more so, as in a choice between imprisonments, America may have been preferable. She must have known he was spying for the USSR, or maybe she just knew he was sympathetic to the cause. I need to find out more about Noel Field, and Kati Marton’s book about him, True Believer, Stalin’s Last American Spy (reviewed last year in The Guardian) is my starting point. Kati Marton’s parents were journalists in Hungary in the post-war period and were imprisoned themselves, so her account of their story Enemies of the People, is also one I shall read.

I am trying to triangulate people whom Alice would have known; a combination of her membership of the Czech Communist Party and her work in New York with the International Workers Order, would have put her at the centre of much that was going on in the world of the Eastern European Jews sympathetic to communist ideals. Noel Field also spent WW2 in America and worked as the European Director the Unitarian Service Committee. After the war, my father’s first job was as the Executive Director of the Unitarian Service Committee’s Medical Teaching Mission to Austria in the summer of 1947. I don’t know how well, if at all, they would have known each other, but they must have been aware of the other’s existence. I can’t interpret all these links at the moment, but I am beginning to see how many there are going to be.

Going through my father’s deposition, I am listing all the names he mentions as being associated with Alice, three of whom: Helen Vrabel, Michael Saunders and Charles Musil I have found in the HUAC records. Alice worked as Helen Vrabel’s secretary. This must have placed her in a vulnerable position, or maybe at this time, she was not sufficiently active to be viewed as a threat.

Investigating the records of the Unitarian Service Committee and, of course, the International Workers’ Order is high on the “to do” list.




Thank-You Senator McCarthy

Thank-You Senator McCarthy


Yes, I don’t think many people feel ready to thank Senator McCarthy and HUAC (The House Committee for Un-American Activities) but I do owe him a debt. Had he not made sure that all American civil servants (among many others) had to explain themselves and prove they were not communists, I would not have the document that has set me on this path.

In 1954, a few weeks before I was born, my father was required to answer a series of questions sent to him by the International Organisations Employees-Loyalty Board. He was an American citizen, an army veteran, an international civil servant with the WHO (World Health Organisation) in Geneva, but his first wife, Alice Glasner, had been a member of the Communist Party. In 1950s America, this was a dangerous alliance, so he had to justify himself. In his answers, he explains why the marriage ended and details his efforts to persuade Alice away from Communism.

He charts her early involvement with the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, her year volunteering in Spain during the Civil War, her work with the International Workers Order in New York and her desire to return to Czechoslovakia after the war to help build the new communist state. What he could not know then was that she would spend much of the later part of her life in prison. I don’t know many more facts, but I want to find out about this principled and determined woman and also about the life and experiences of my father in the fifty three years before I was born.

There is a whole story here, one that spans the key conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century.I am about to start learning Czech and researching into the lives of Alice and Erwin, hoping that by charting my progress in this blog, I might contact people who know about the world they inhabited and learn more than I can by myself.