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The Mayor

  • Date: 18 May, 2007 at 10:42AM,
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  • Mrs. F’s house is near the center of this quaint village. The door is flanked open by a smiling middle aged woman, welcoming me warmly and leading me to a large light kitchen. A cross decorates the wall opposite the door. As we enter the kitchen, Mrs. F. tells me her husband is going to be with us while we talk.

Her husband is a short wiry man who greets me with a glass of homemade local liquor. When I decline, I sense immediately that I should have accepted it even if I did not intend to drink it. It is too late. He tells me, “We are very hospitable people.” Because I speak with a Prague accent, and Prague people are not popular anywhere outside their city, I am concerned that this interview will not go well, and it does not.

Mr. F. helps himself to a glass of his homemade treasure and sits at the head of the kitchen table. He keeps interrupting us, Mrs. F. makes no attempt to tell her husband to leave us, and after the initial debacle I do not have the courage to ask him to leave. After Mrs. F. makes the coffee and sits down, she begins to talk. She remembers the German soldiers giving candies to her and other children in her village during World War II, and she also remembers chocolate that came from America after the war.

Mrs. F. grew up in a village, one of four sisters. Her mother was a housewife; her father was an army officer. He was degraded from an officer’s rank to an enlisted status after the communist takeover in 1948. She believes politically ambitious people began to enter the military and her father paid for it with his rank.

Mentioning the lower rank of her father gives ammunition to Mr. F. There is no stopping him. He is irate at those communist officers who could not compare with his father-in-law in anything. In his opinion, “they were no good.” His wife sits quietly, smiling and listening to her husband’s tirade.

Mrs. F. smiles when she tells of her father’s actions against the communist regime. One was defending his children when threatened with punishment from school authorities for going to church. Another of his actions involved tearing out the communist president’s picture from his children’s textbooks. Mrs. F. remembers how she, and her sisters, would go to school crying afraid to display their books with the president’s picture torn out. Another of her father’s defiance was not to allow his children to join the communist youth organization Pioneers. Mrs. F. comments, “As children we were unhappy about not being members, but our father would never allow us to join. The other kids looked at us in a funny way. But we were not allowed to join.”

Her father’s honesty, as perceived by Mrs. F., led to his first imprisonment, “He was going to work by train one day in 1951. A fat woman in his compartment was reading the communist daily the Red Right. He looked at her, saw she had the Communist Party pin in her lapel and said to her, ‘When I see the Red Right I go crazy.’ Before the train reached the next station, the woman left her seat, and my father was arrested. This incident earned him four months in prison.” This was before cell phones!

Mrs. F’s father was imprisoned three times, all the sentences totaling fourteen months.

While her father was in prison, Mrs. F’s mother worked as a farmhand and knitted sweaters for people to earn extra money. The children also worked in agriculture to help with the family’s expenses.

As she was growing up, Mrs. F. saw what was happening during the collectivization of private farms in her village. She talks about the persecution of farmers who resisted giving up their land and stock. First, the town hall communist leaders tried to use political propaganda to persuade the farmers to join the collective farm, later they used force. She smiles and adds, “I remember a widow at a farmstead greeted the delegation of persuaders with a pitchfork. It may sound funny now but it wasn’t then. The farmers couldn’t resist for long. In the end they signed their farms away. Those who didn’t, their farms were liquidated anyway, and sometimes they imprisoned the whole family. I felt sorry for them. Some of them were our friends. But we were all afraid to show how we felt about it.” Her husband’s family belonged to such persecuted farmers in another village.

The events surrounding the fall of communism in 1989 caught up with Mrs. F. while she worked at an accounting office in a nearby hospital. Her boss simply said to her, “You would make a good mayor.” She remembers, “We had enthusiasm, élan, we lived it. And I said, ‘Now that we have all defeated the communists, we have to do something’. My husband was very supportive. I accepted the nomination as a mayor. Without my husband’s support I couldn’t have done it. You know, with all the housework, gardening, and everything else that needs to be done, to be a mayor is a demanding job.”

Mrs. F. is serving a third term as Mayor of her village. The record of her achievements is impressive, yet there is sadness in her voice when she compares the mood of the people in 1989 and now ten years later. The main problem, as she sees it, is the economic situation with high unemployment. The young people who finish school cannot find jobs. They either leave the village for work in the city, stay if they can find work, or they collect unemployment. There is not much socializing anymore and there is envy of those who are slightly better off. There is age discrimination, and women are worse off than men when it comes to finding a job after the age of forty-five.

With Mr. F’s frequent interruptions the interview is fragmented and I have a sense of not learning much about Mrs. F’s life as a daughter of the enemy. However, I am grateful to Mr. F. for encouraging his wife to answer my advertisement in the newsletter of the political prisoners’ organization. Mrs. F. laughs while telling me, “I told myself, ‘if it helps you’ to tell somebody who is interested what happened here, so be it.” Her demeanor changes when she continues, “Here, nobody is interested. Everyone has different worries now, so the fifties don’t interest anybody. I don’t think that we should forget it. The fifties were cruel. Sometimes we think we are going back to those times. The communists stayed at the helm. It’s an illusion that they had to leave. They turned their coat inside out and stayed in charge. Communism like before cannot return because the communists own it all so they wouldn’t want to have it nationalized. They have the best jobs, the most income; they have the luxury to travel. The victims from the fifties got back some of their property but all they get out of it is anger. They are mostly old people; they don’t have the money to repair them. When we write on their behalf to the Land Institution, the answer we get back is, ‘take it to the courts’. Our courts take three to five years to deal with something. By then the buildings will fall down. We can see these people still suffer injustice. The communists always win, just like before.”

©Jana Svehlova 1999