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They Called her a Kulak

  • Date: 15 Jan, 2007 at 4:11PM,
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  • dcera-nepritele-statuMrs. G. waits for me at the railway station of her beautifully renovated holiday resort town. We agreed that I would recognize her by a white envelope in her hand. I knew about some of her experiences from her letter she sent after reading my advertisement in the newsletter. I am not sure why but I have a hard time not crying when I see her waiting eagerly. Although her story is moving, there is something else about her. Perhaps she represents to me the “typical” Czech woman I remember from my former life in Czechoslovakia. She is of small stature, with blond and gray hair, dressed in a sleeveless housedress. It is a hot day for September.

After introducing her husband who is waiting by a very old looking car, our conversation starts with her blasting out the present political situation since in her opinion the communists are still in power, only disguised as non-communists. As we enter their one bedroom apartment she offers me slippers. A small dining room table in the corner of the living room is set for lunch for only one person. Although it is mid day, Mrs. G. tells me she and her husband already ate. She does not serve me the traditional Czech meal of roast pork, sauerkraut and dumplings. After a big bowl of soup, Mrs. G. brings a plate heaped with two pork steaks and French fries. She is ready to talk while I must eat all the food, since food left on the plate could offend my hosts. She reassures me that she will say it all again on tape and not to worry that she would forget anything.

After the lunch she proudly shows me her apartment; the one bedroom with a large picture of the Virgin Mary and the Infant over the bed. She tells me that they are devout Catholics. As I take my empty plate to the kitchen, her husband is getting ready to go out. He is going to pick up their grandchildren from school. Sitting in an armchair, I am looking at the picture of her very handsome son in a military uniform. She brings coffee and cheesecake and we start to talk.

She begins by telling me about the beautiful relationship between her parents. Even as a child she was expected to help with fieldwork, as well as mending stockings while looking after the cows. There was always a lot of work to be done, but life was pleasant until 1952. As a child she used to recite poems in school and at various village activities. Her parents attended the recitals, “I guess they were proud of me, but they would never show it.” She also liked to paint. Her way of letting me know that her paintings must have pleased her teacher since she did not return them to her, she says, “I almost cried at the end of the school year. My teacher kept all my paintings.”

She returns in her memories to that cloudless beautiful sunny afternoon on June 12th in 1952, when she and her mother were working in the field, a car drove up, and then a second car, and then a third car. Cars were not a common sight in those days. The cars drove to a meadow where her father was cutting the grass. Men filed out of cars. They arrested him. Her father’s trial was two weeks later.

The memory of her father’s trial makes her angry. She speaks of the witnesses who told lies about her father. These were people from their village. These were neighbors who knew her father well. Yet, she displays an ironic smile when she repeats the prosecutor’s oration. I find it amusing and horrifying since it offers a flavor of that era’s absurdity. The prosecutor of Mrs. G’s father told the villagers who attended the public trial,

See, I am trained as a bricklayer. When I was looking for work in Prague during the First Republic they told me ‘Yeah, we would take you if you were a laborer. But you are a bricklayer. We don’t need you’. So I leave and run into a friend who is a laborer. I tell him, ‘Hey, go over there’. Do you know what they told him? ‘Yeah, we would take you if you were a bricklayer. You are a laborer so we can’t take you’. See, that’s what capitalists were like and that’s what this accused was like.

After her father’s imprisonment for being a kulak came an order for his family to leave their village. They were to be relocated and their personal property confiscated. The prosecutor disapproved their request to bring their four chickens to the area where they were being banished. Her family’s role served as a warning to other farmers. The warning was meant for those who considered not giving up their private land and stock for the good of the collective farms. The former field hands became the new bosses at the collective farms, delighted in humiliating their former employers — the kulaks. She admits that the word kulak continues to have such a significant effect on her, that when it appears in a crossword puzzle she finds out who published it and never buys from that publisher again.

After a prolonged pause she goes back to 1952 when she, her mother, and a younger brother were taken to an unknown destination, accompanied by a plainclothes policeman. She sits at the edge of her chair, opening and closing her hands when she says, “When we got off the train it started to snow. I remember that. And there was always that awful wind.” She looks down, remains silent for a while before she tells about the policeman, whose wife told someone, and that someone told Mrs. G’s mother that he was heard to say, “If they come and ask me to do something like this again I am leaving the police. I don’t have a stomach for that.”

The distinction of Mrs. G’s story is her perception of the implications related to the label kulak. With the communist propaganda about the success of the collective farms few outside the villages have been aware of the human cost. Traditionally there is a split between urban and rural communities within the Czech lands. This split has been widened by envy of town people led to believe that the collective farm employees were given special privileges by the communist government, such as cars that others waited for many years, free vacations at the spas or trips to cultural events in the cities.

Although Mrs. G’s narrative does not exclude the details of her father’s sentencing to six years, with an additional year to cover 80,000 Czech crowns penalty that he could not pay since his property was confiscated by the state, memories of the relocation dominate her narrative. We need to remember this is a woman who has been used to agricultural work since childhood. However, she perceives the work expected from her, and her mother, at their relocation as slave labor. We mainly learn about the dismal physical conditions of that remote agricultural place with mines near by. About the unspoken humiliation we learn from her remarks such as, “They only saw us as kulaks. To them we were nothing else but kulaks.”

There is much more we do not hear since she comes to a point in her story about the relocation and says, “I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t like it. I don’t want to.” Her demeanor momentarily changes from an ardent storyteller to a silent individual, lost in her thoughts, not allowing me to enter that part of her world. I sense that point in her life is a wound too painful and pursuing her to continue that line of remembering would be inappropriate. An attempt to heal such a wound is beyond my qualifications. My role is to let her voice be heard. Her emphatic decline to discuss further the psychological events from her exile in that remote area is in sharp contrast with her willingness to offer her opinion on politics and values.

She does not spend much time on her courtship with her husband to be, yet emphasizes that she would not get married until her father could be at the wedding. Her marriage took place one week after her father was released from prison at the end of his seven year sentence. Although she offers an image of her father as someone who before his arrest would flare up easily; after prison, she remembers, “Daddy was always afraid of something. He would shake when something unexpected happened. He was not like himself.”

Mrs. G. believes that the wonderful relationships within her family while she was growing up, and her independent nature since childhood helped her to survive and to be the way she is. Her husband knows about her “taxed nerves so we get along just fine. He knows how I feel inside.” As she directed him to park the car after collecting me at the train station, it is obvious who is in charge in this family. I believe her husband listens to her patiently, although I have had no chance to interact with him. His listening may not be sufficient since Mrs. G. tells me, “When you think about it too much you get really depressed. But today I am glad that you are here. I can say what I want to say.”

From the other narratives we shall learn about political events having effect on the respondents’ desire to pursue a career of their choice. In the case of Mrs. G. her family’s preference rather than politics played a role initially. Her parents chose a “family school” where she was to learn “everything important for life.” Although the school was abolished one year later, its curriculum probably would not have included care of a household that awaited this respondent in the relocated area where, “We had to tie the windows with strings. They didn’t close. They were rotten half way through.” Her family did not allow her to attend a design school they considered too far from home. The irony is in her travelling eight hours each way by herself to visit her father for half an hour in prison since her mother, after suffering a heart attack, stopped travelling. She says, “I would have liked to design children’s clothes. It was kind of my dream. Only life turned out to be different.”

After her family was banished, she admits, “I always felt I was something less than the others. It was the way they behaved towards us.” She would go for walks hoping that she would not meet people she saw daily since in her perception, as she says, “I knew what they thought of me.” Although the other workers probably fared not much better than Mrs. G and her mother concerning the environment and type of work, they were not kulaks. It is the meaning of the term kulak that seems to have the most significant psychological effect on Mrs. G.

After the collapse of communism in 1989 state farm bosses have become entrepreneurs, former apparatchiks pass laws not friendly to former owners demanding their property back, and the many bureaucrats affecting individuals’ every day life have not learned their role is to serve the people not the other way around. Mrs. G. is not impressed and with a smile points out, “Now I feel I am above them. When they talk I see how pitiful they are. I get that feeling when I see the political scene after the revolution. If you can call that revolution? What was it really? Communists left, but communists who were done away with, got in.”

When I ask about her view on discrimination against women since the Velvet Revolution, she categorically replies, that there is no discrimination against women in any form. Speaking of women, she makes me laugh when she talks about President Havel’s second wife, a former actress on stage and in film. Mrs. G. considers only the President’s first wife Olga a lady. She does not waste much time on his present wife as seen from her simple statement, “This one? No! I always see her with those skirts up” (her character as a “loose woman” in a Czech film role).

For Mrs. G. discrimination presents itself in other forms. Although she does not expand on her disappointment of being prevented to pursue a career of her choice, desire for education within the Czech society is transferred on her son. Before the collapse of the communist regime her only child, although first in his class, would not be accepted in an industrial school since an official at the town hall made sure that the son of a kulak would not study. Mrs. G. laments the post-communist school system since she believes the same teachers teach in schools as before,

What are they going to teach our children? And who could study? If dad or mom were members of the Communist Party, their son got more points than someone who got straight As. You can tell when you see what our intelligentsia looks like. You can start with physicians and go on. I don’t want to say all of them, God forbid! Some of them are real specialists, but we have a lot of the others too. See they got through school because the professors had to pass them.

Mrs. G. notices that I have not taken any of her cake and starts encouraging me to eat and drink my coffee. The cheesecake is not made of cream cheese as the American type, this one is less sweet, and is made of farmer’s cheese. It is delicious. I have a second helping and notice Mrs. G’s smile. She probably does not think much of my upbringing, since in the Czech tradition, the polite way to accept second helping is only after the hostess encourages you several time. The cake tastes great, I am Americanized, and time is short so I just enjoy the second serving.

She then turns to me and with a lowered voice says, “You know, I was afraid all the time. You feel this pressure next to your heart. The whole time I felt inferior. Yes, I felt inferior all the time. I lost that fear when my son finally got into an industrial school.”

At that point Mrs. G. starts shifting papers in a draw of her wall cabinet and gives me a few typewritten pages. They are memoirs she has written for her son. She fears her story and the stories of others will never be heard as is reflected in her concluding remarks,

We kind of waited for somebody who would’ve said ‘you’ve really gone through something’ but as God is my witness nobody has come. I think it’s too late the way I see it. We are all getting too old. I really would like it if people would find out what it was like. I would really like that. So they wouldn’t keep saying ‘it was better under the communists.’ Yeah, for some it was. It was very good for some. But there were so many who suffered and they had to make sacrifices for those others to be well off. That’s how I see it. I am not alone. There are many of us who are in the same boat. But we are too old to fight. It’s too late. My son says ‘if something happens here and communists come back I am out of here.’ See, when one had to hold everything inside the whole life, it’s really nice to talk about it like this sometimes. To get it out. It can stir you up for a little while. But it feels good when you know somebody is listening. That one can finally talk about it. That feels real good.

©Jana Svehlova 1999