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The Fighter

  • Date: 18 May, 2007 at 10:35AM,
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  • From Mrs. P’s letter I am aware that she is afraid to travel.  She is waiting in front her apartment building.  Her manner of speech is rapid.  She acts hurried.  We climb four flights of stairs to her apartment. 

In the process she tells me about her nervous breakdowns.  I am concerned whether stirring up her memories may trigger an emotional reaction that may be harmful to her.


We enter her living room; Mrs. P. sits in a chair next to my armchair and begins to look through a pile of papers.  She gets up and brings me a brochure Vzpominani na rok 1945 v . . . [Memories of the Year 1945 — the name of the place is omitted here for reasons of safeguarding anonymity] with a picture of soldiers crowding a tank and people gathered along the cobbled street waving their arms in a welcoming gesture.  She explains, “I have written this to clear my father’s name.  He didn’t live to see the Velvet Revolution.  He died a year and a half before in a weird way — I am still wondering, I am.  I can’t say for sure but I think he didn’t die from natural causes because he began to talk.  He had a hernia operation.  Nothing serious.  He said, ‘when I get out of the hospital, we’ll write about the revolution of 1945 how it really was.’  One week later he was dead.  As he was getting older, he talked more about men and women who like him helped Russian prisoners of war in 1945 only to be accused of being traitors in the trials of the 1950s.  He began to talk how people like him were tortured in Valdice and Hradec Kralove.  This was still under the communists and he couldn’t talk like that then.   He could go back to prison for that.”


She assures me, “I don’t mind speaking of the horrors of the fifties because I want people to know.  I want to be a memory for the young people.  I feel better when I get the horrors out of me by talking about it.  It happened that my girlfriend said, ‘Why don’t you leave it alone.  Nobody is interested’.  That really hit me.  I wouldn’t expect that from her.  Many people are disgusted with today’s politics here.  Americans can’t imagine what it was really like here; they ought to find out.


After this introduction she talks of her childhood during World War II years when her father prospered by selling vegetables and flowers to the local people.  Many Germans lived and worked in the area because the local textile factories were turned into arms production.  Czech children were playing with German children.  Mrs. P. explains, “There wasn’t much animosity between the Czechs and the Germans.  Everyone knew who was an informer.  Perhaps there were more of them among the Czechs than the Germans but life went on.  Everybody was a bit hungry, so people stole.  Mom raised rabbits and geese.  One day somebody stole all of them.”


The arrests and public trials had begun in her small town by 1949.  In her opinion, her father was marked because he caught three Communist Party members stealing German property they were supposed to guard during the 1945 revolution.  These comrades’ revenge was to include her father’s name on the list of people marked for arrests, interrogations, and tough sentences.  She remembers, “This one communist used to visit us because her mother-in-law was my grandma’s friend.”  Mrs. P. believes, this particular person said it was a mistake to arrest her father but not until, “after she saw how we lived.  My mother almost died — she looked ready for the undertaker.  The vegetable allotment she was ordered to give over to the state was so big there was no way she could deliver that.  She earned very little money, my grandma just half of that, and I was under-aged.”


After speaking of the communist authorities’ ways of persecuting her mother and grandmother during her father’s imprisonment, without any overture she says, “Of course, I was not accepted to high school.  I was a daughter of a political prisoner.  One of my uncles was a member of the local communist committee and he made sure I would not be allowed to study.  I had straight A’s except B in civil education because our Principal was afraid to give me an A.  I was ordered to feed chickens in a chicken collective farm.  Since we still had a few great teachers, they stood up for me.  Especially Mrs. Kratka  And Professor Riha, who was transferred from a high school to our elementary school because he refused not to go to church.”


These teachers arranged for Mrs. P. to be accepted as an apprentice at an industrial plant.  Her father was still in prison; her mother accompanied her to the welcoming ceremony for the newcomers at the plant apprenticeship school.  Mrs. P’s mother sobbed when she heard the director of the plant welcoming new apprentices with, “Now we’ll see if spoiled children with straight As can apply themselves in the workers’ world.”  She says, “I couldn’t care less.  Since I couldn’t study history or biology or be a teacher, I was glad to be at this place.  It was better than feeding chickens.” 


During her apprenticeship, other teachers came to help her to be accepted in a technical school.  Because her uncle, mentioned earlier, was no longer a member of the local Communist Party committee, she was able to graduate.  Later on she had her first nervous break down.  Mrs. P. speaks with affection about the help she received when she struggled to get well, “You see, I can’t complain.  Except for the few communists that ruined health and life for all of us, I can’t complain about people.  People have been good to me.  They knew I was an innocent victim and maybe that’s why they were good to me.  I’ll tell you, I build on human relationships, not on possessions.  You can lose things right away; all you need for that is the communists to take over.  What matters are relationships among people.  In that respect I was lucky.  The most important thing is to find someone who believes what you say, who tries to help, or at least doesn’t try to harm anyone.  That’s what I like.


We say goodbye at the tram stop in front of Mrs. P’s building.  The tram brings me to the busy town square that also serves as a bus station.  I see a bus with two displays; one states Prague.  The other one names a city on the other side of the country.  But in which direction is the bus going?  I wonder what would Mrs. P. think of a lovely looking, twenty something young woman, standing behind me in the line, when I ask her ‘Please, could you tell me where is this bus going’?  And her answer is, “Don’t you see it written there? Can’t you read?”

©Jana Svehlova 1999