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Daddy’s Defender

  • Date: 27 Nov, 2006 at 11:40AM,
  • 1 commentary
  • After Mrs. H. read about this inquiry in the political prisoners organization’s newsletter, she offered to participate with a letter that reflected her skepticism on anyone willing to picturehear their voice. In her opinion, few parents who have a daughter of the required age for this study are still alive. Only a few widows and their daughters are members of the organization and receive the aforementioned newsletter. Even fewer of the prisoners’ daughters would be willing, for whatever reasons, to reply to my invitation to participate in the study. She points out she would be very surprised if more then ten women responded.

Nevertheless, she wants me to know how in her 2nd grade she fought with her schoolmates who called her father a criminal and an enemy of socialism. When she and her mother were forced to leave their home and move to another town, her ostracism by teachers and schoolmates in the new school continued. This ostracism was extended to her mother’s menial job. She concludes her letter by, “It is probably futile to describe the communist terror — who did not experience it will not believe it.”

Mrs. H. does not own a telephone. Her friend lets me know that I would recognize Mrs. H. by her basset hound dog when I get off the bus where she plans to wait for me. The two- storied family row houses at the town square are renovated to their pre-communist era small town friendly appearance. It is a sunny day. The market vendors take up much of the square’s space. In the midst of the hustle and bustle at the square, buses are arriving and departing, and I see without much searching an elegantly dressed middle-aged woman with auburn hair pulled back in a bun with a small noisy dog on a leash. I wave from the bus and she approaches me with a shy smile. Her voice is shaky when she stretches her hand to greet me.

She appears nervous. We walk about a mile and talk about dogs, avoiding the object of my visit, until we reach her house. She leads me to this neat looking house on a quiet street through a beautifully kept front garden. The eat-in kitchen, with its white walls, white tile floors and shelves decorated with the Czech traditional blue onion knickknacks, has a very organized appearance, yet is pleasantly inviting. I am not allowed to take my shoes off in this spotless house although I remind her I remember this custom from my own home. Does she make an exception in my case because she recently visited United States and Czech émigrés might have told her such custom is not pursued in America? I did not ask and followed her in the kitchen.

She remembers from my letter that our meeting on September 17th would be my father’s birthday. He would be 85 years old. I do not get to meet her husband who works as a machinist. Yet, I receive a warm welcome from her 86 year old parents, and it does not take long for her father to show me copies of his letters sent to different institutions in the 1990s to obtain compensation for some of his confiscated property. He informs me, “often, they don’t even bother to answer my letters.” His petite wife just makes a resigned sign with her hand and adds, “Oh just forget it! You know nobody cares. So what’s the point?” Her slender, agile, and determined husband does not give the impression that he is ready to quit his fight for what he believes belongs to his family. Just before Mrs. H. serves lunch, her father leaves through the back door to work in the garden behind the house. Her mother goes upstairs where she and her husband have their own kitchenette, bedroom and a living room with large family portraits decorating very small walls.

We sit in Mrs. H’s kitchen and I admire her decorations. My admiration brings smile on her face and she tells me her husband begs her not to buy any more pieces. We both laugh and compare notes about our husbands’ interfering with our ideas about kitchen decors as she serves delicious baked chicken, roast potatoes and stewed fruit on blue onion china. During a delicious, prolonged lunch we talk about her visit to the United States and Czech people she met.

After lunch Mrs. H. serves the usual “turek” coffee (coffee grounds in the cup with boiling water poured over it) and various home made pastries. Her voice begins to quiver when she raises her concern about being able to satisfy the inquiry’s expectations. I reassure her that information offered in her letters already offered a significant part to this endeavor. At this point I suggest she start with her childhood and go on as if she is telling her life story to her grandchildren.

She shifts in her chair, holding a linen handkerchief in her hand, and begins by telling me that she was born in December 1941. She was four years old when her family moved to another town because her father was offered a directorial position in another company. Her pretty face lights up with a smile as she describes her father teaching her skiing by holding her up when she was a little girl. Since they lived under a hill, as soon as the snow fell, they would be out with the sleds till dark. They loved skiing — it was their favorite recreation — and therefore they made trips to the mountains as often as they could.

Her voice lowers to almost a whisper when she speaks of the day in 1949 when she came to meet her father at the gate of the factory on her tricycle (inherited from her Prague cousin), only told by the self-important porter, “Go home. Your dad will not come home today. He will not come tomorrow. He will never come again.” Crying,

she turned around and hurried home. She says, “mommy already knew the score. They arrested daddy, because the evening before someone planted pamphlets in his office, and they accused him of treason.” She did not attend her father’s trial.

After a pause she speaks of her home being searched and turned upside down by the security police five times. For her the searches are associated with scenes from movies about Nazis. World War II movies portraying bad Germans and heroic Russians were shown in abundance during her childhood. There were no American films shown, as if they did not exist. Speaking of the home search, she perceived it as worse than what she imagined about the Nazis because, “they made such a mess in our home. I don’t know what they were looking for. We believed somebody planted the anticommunist leaflets in my daddy’s office.” Judged by the spotless, neatly arranged room where we are sitting now, I can appreciate the effect the home searches must have generated.

With her father’s disappearance came the persecution of the family. I am trying to imagine the scene through the eyes of a little girl who is watching her mother being pulled out of the dentist chair (with her tooth half drilled) by some men. Her mother was taken for interrogation and returned home after twelve hours. Mrs. H. remembers, “I was crying with my grandma till they brought mommy back in the evening.” Then came the order from the authorities, for her and her mother to move out of their home almost within twenty-four hours. The substitute for their home was a dwelling she describes as a, “louse-ridden place in a cellar in a ghetto like Gypsy area of their town.”

The authorities confiscated all their personal property except the furniture since Mrs. H’s mother was able to prove the furniture was part of her dowry before she got married. After they vacated their home, as ordered, they could not keep the furniture anyway since there was no room for it after they moved into a small house shared with her mother’s parents in another town. In this new town, the exclusion generated by her status as the daughter of the enemy of the state continued. She explains, emphasizing the word horror, “I went to school always worried what kind of horror to expect again and again. They kept asking me, ‘How could your father have done that?’ They have kept denouncing him. Teachers! Yes, the teachers! I told them, ‘I know nothing and I don’t want to talk about it’. I was petrified.”

The effects of visits to the prisons and labor camps are reflected in various ways among the respondents. Some are related to events along the journey similar to those one remembers about school trips to unknown sites. The manner of Mrs. H’s reflecting on the visits appears to be quite dramatic. With the lack of financial means when the source of income stopped with the arrest of the employed member of the family and meager wage generated by the low paying job of the remaining spouse, the journey to the prison would become a significant financial burden. Besides the physical aspect, the status of a subaltern would be validated with each visit. Mrs. H. reflects on the first time they received a visiting pass to see her father,

When we got there, I’ll never forget that, I saw this unbelievable huge iron gate that opened and closed behind us with a terribly loud clang. I thought ‘we’ll never get out of here’. It was all barbwires and bars. Only after going through about five gates like that, we ended up in a big room with about twenty people waiting there. They were calling names but not my daddy’s. When we asked about him, they said, ‘He is not here. He was transferred. We’ll let you know where he is sometime’. My mommy had so little money, we took that trip for nothing. After a few months, we went to see him in another prison camp near the town Pribram. On the way we would stop at my aunt’s in Prague for the evening and then take the night train from Prague at two in the morning. We would get to Pribram in the morning and transfer to a small local train. We were ordered to show our I.D. and that made me ill. Forgive me for talking about it, but when I saw them asking us for the identification papers, I would get sick and I would be vomiting in the restroom the rest of the trip. It just made me so sick. It had such a horrible effect on me.

She is pulling on her linen handkerchief and silently crying for quite a while. I turn off the tape recorder and wait. She says that the memories of the barbed wires, the armed guards and the dogs are still disconcerting. When speaking of the humiliation of her father who powerlessly witnessed the guard screaming at his wife — since she dared to ask whether he had a chance to get any fruit, Mrs. H. begins to cry again. She adds, her mother asked for an official permission to give her husband the food that she brought for him; her request was denied.

As we hear voices outside the closed kitchen door, Mrs. H. walks out and returns with her daughter and grandson who stopped by on their way home that is in the neighboring town. Her daughter co-owns a small crafts shop at the town’s square thus they visit every day. We all chitchat for a while and then Mrs. H. and I return to the kitchen table to continue our interview. By now I do not need to encourage Mrs. H. to talk. Observing this dainty woman, dressed more than elegantly for this occasion, it is difficult to imagine what was in store for her after completing her basic mandatory education. Without any hesitation, she continues, “Then came the end of my eighth grade. The offer I received was to work as a boilermaker or welder. I always liked sewing so I applied to a sewing school. They sent me back an encouraging letter. I was going to be accepted after I sent them the enclosed additional form. In that form I had to include my father’s status as a political prisoner. The reply I have gotten back was that the school no longer had an opening for me.”

By the time she was “sweet sixteen,” her experiences included exclusion in elementary school as the daughter of an enemy of the state, rejection by schools not based on her scholarly aptitude, and losing a job. She explains, “But then came the scrutiny of all employees’ political background. Was that in 1956? (We both try to remember the activities around the Hungarian Revolution of 1956). The Director of our Health District offered me a deal, ‘Sign a paper that you no longer have any loyalty to your father and you can keep your job. We know people like you. We have to watch people like you’.” She did not denounce her father and therefore she lost her job as a dentist’s aide.

Her luck turned around when she was allowed to work as a decorator of Christmas ornaments. This job was considered within the category of manual work. She smiles when she reminiscences about the social milieu in that factory, “I loved the work and I enjoyed the people there. Most of the employees were aging widows whose husbands belonged to the bourgeois class. They were not entitled to any pension. We were all in the same boat as rejects of the society.”

Mrs. H. returns in her memories to the day when her father returned from prison. She remembers everything was in bloom in nature that year as she saw him in clothes that were eleven years old. Because of the clothes, she believes, “Everyone must have known where he was coming from.” She did not learn much about his eleven years in prison from him. As most of the respondents, she also points out, “he did not talk about his prison experiences very much.”

Time passed so fast and I have to leave to catch the last bus from her town. She knows the bus station in Prague where I am heading is not a safe place at night. We both realize with democracy the Czech Republic has become a crossroads not only for tourism but also for criminal activities. We agree to continue our conversation at a later date if time allows. She no longer appears nervous and is ready to continue with telling me about her view of the world. Unfortunately, the bus schedule from her town is far from favorable.

She hurriedly tells me about her wish to attend industrial middle school. Her request was denied even though her father was already home from prison. She has this look on her face as if guilty of something and with almost a whisper she says, “All I have is my basic eight-year education and a few courses. Nothing much. I have sort of come to terms with it but I have this feeling of injustice. I simply performed as someone with mid-level education but I was always paid as an unqualified worker. You see it wasn’t even the money. It was the prestige and the humiliation.” As I am beginning to say my good bye, she begins to cry and quietly says,

I try to deal with it but I don’t feel content. After the revolution (1989) we were so euphoric but it’s not what it’s supposed be. I wish people would be more honest and more tolerant. I don’t think I am waiting for any apologies anymore. But I want a better world. I think about the education that I was not allowed to have. I couldn’t do what I hoped to do. It’s not the material things. They don’t last anyway. It is the injustice that one was always kept aside. I have a friend who completed nursing school. I don’t envy her but I do feel inferior next to her. There are a few, very few, close friends who say that it was unfair how I was treated my whole life. There are not many of them who say that. Only those who are closest to me. But it helps a lot. Today I live for my grandchildren. I just want peace and quiet and hope that people will be nicer to each other (17 September 1999).

©Jana Svehlova 1999