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The Traveler

  • Date: 18 May, 2007 at 9:45AM,
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  • sThe chance to meet Mrs. V. has been uncertain from the beginning. She has retuned from visiting her son and daughter in the U.S. two days ago; they emigrated after the fall of communism. Over the phone, she let me know that she could talk to me only for one hour. She had too much work after being on vacation.

The hotel’s restaurant is empty early in the morning when a stunning looking woman walks in. I am nervous because she has so little time. I am even a little angry because I took a five hour train ride to meet her and Mrs. V. simply does not have time for me.

She begins with her recent visit in America and her anger over the attitude of her daughter’s American neighbors: “They didn’t get it that under communism it took ten years to get a phone in the house and in Russia thirty years. They looked at me like we were some kind of Neanderthals. They asked me if we had a computer at home. It’s obvious we are behind America. But they didn’t get it that it was because of communism. That made me mad.”

Returning to her childhood, she tells me that her father was a lawyer and a social democrat. She remembers being a little afraid of him and that she felt more close to her mother and grandmother.

Her father was arrested in 1954. He was sentenced to eleven years when she was eleven years old. When she asked why daddy was not at home: “They told me ‘he is partying somewhere’. But later, I think, they told me that he was in prison. The first real shock for me was the home search. I remember it clearly. I remember those two men at our place and me sitting there frowning. They questioned my mom, ‘Why is she frowning?’ And mom told them, ‘she is always like that’. I remember how they turned each book and even went to my grandma’s room. My mother pleaded with them, ‘For God’s sake why do you have to go to grandma’s? This has nothing to do with her. And they said, ‘It has to do with everything and everybody’.

eWhen Mrs. V. mentions the trial, she begins to cry. “After the trial, my mother sent me and my sister with a food package to take to my dad. It was on Christmas Eve. The guard said that dad was not allowed to have visitors. We had to take the food back home. That did not stop us from repeating the trip the next day and the next day again. Each time the guard sent us away.” Mrs. V. is crying as she says that the third time they were simply told that their father was transferred to Pribram; a labor camp where political prisoners worked in the uranium mines.

Looking back when she was a school girl, she considers her teachers as insensitive because of their indifference to her crying when the children had to report their parents’ occupation in class. She had to tell her schoolmates that her father was imprisoned. Yet, she believes the teachers were probably too afraid to show any empathy.

Because of the financial burden the visits from her hometown to Pribram represented, she saw her father five years after his arrest. She remembers: “I will never forget that visit because at that time they were showing lots of films about the Nazis. When I saw the camp I was beside myself because it was just like a Gestapo place. Barbed wires, vicious looking dogs, and the guards all around. I thought I was with the Gestapo. When I walked in, daddy didn’t recognize me. I was eleven when he left. He looked older but I recognized him and ran to him to hug him. The guards yelled, ‘Stop or we’ll stop the visit’. I don’t remember much else. We were only with him for fifteen minutes. But I remember how it felt when the guards were yelling at us.

When her father was released from prison, she remembers: “I admired my dad. He was smart and had a great sense of humor. When he talked about prison it was humorous. I don’t think he ever went too deep into what the prisoners had gone through. One sad story he told was about a doctor whose wife died. They wouldn’t let him attend her funeral. So all the prisoners walked toward him, and paused for a moment. It was something like a memorial service for his wife.

After the fall of communism in 1989, Mrs. V. became politically engaged. She believes that the episode when she was forbidden to see her father on those first two visits in prison had the greatest effect on her. It motivated her to act. She has helped some former political prisoners to be placed in nursing homes because they had nowhere else to go.

Mrs. V., as most of those with a tainted political background, she was not permitted to have a college degree. She says: “I have always felt a professional discrimination. It has always bothered me. But I can’t say that my colleagues would make me feel it.

Although I looked at my watch several times, Mrs. V. continued to talk. We parted almost three hours later. That evening I was at a cultural exhibit. One of the young journalists covering the event for his hometown paper was from the town Pribram. I asked the journalist whether he ever covered the history of his hometown area, notorious for its harsh conditions the political prisoners had to endure. His answer was, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

©Jana Svehlova 1999