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Politician’s Mom

  • Date: 18 May, 2007 at 11:05AM,
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  • This interview takes place in one of Prague’s most famous cafés.  Mrs. D. and I find a place away from the window tables occupied by tourists, speaking many different languages.  I remember the times of my youth here.  During the years of Stalinism, one would turn when hearing someone speaking a foreign language.  Now it is almost the reverse.

Mrs. D. begins to tell her story by describing her mother as, “very elegant and petite, with a perfect upbringing and very popular.”  She speaks of her father, an army officer who left the military for a Ministry’s senior post, as very strict; one who demanded absolute discipline.  She admires her father for his knowledge of foreign languages and botany, remembering the pleasant moments when he taught her and her twin brothers about flowers during their frequent walks in nature.  Her family was very well off, especially due to her grandfather’s directorial post in a large company. 


With the communist takeover in 1948, her grandfather was dismissed from his position within forty-eight hours.  She was not sure what was happening because her parents continued to entertain at their elegant villa, and the guests kept bringing gifts for her and her brothers.  Laughing, she describes the household of her childhood surrounded by a housekeeper, a maid, and a nanny who brought the children “to greet our parents’ guests, report about our progress in school, and then leave the room.


This carefree life, as she points out, changed abruptly in 1949, “I remember the day of my father’s arrest very well.  My brothers and I left for school in the morning.  When we returned I could see my mother was very nervous.  Only three days later she found out he was arrested, but we didn’t know where he was.  One week after his arrest, state security agents brought my father home.  He looked that he had been severely beaten, his finger was broken, and he had blood all over him.  They brought him home so he would make a confession.  When we saw him, we were shocked.  This lasted only about a quarter of an hour. We only found out after his return from prison where he was and how he was maltreated and tortured to get a confession out of him.  They accused him of having weapons at home.  This was absolute nonsense.  He never had any weapons at home.


Her mother did not bring the children along to their father’s trial.  It is well known that sentences were decided prior the trials and defense lawyers were appointed by the security police, rather than chosen by the defendants.  Mrs. D’s mother agreed to give old gold coins and money to the appointed defense lawyer because he maneuvered her into believing that he could save her husband from a death sentence.  When her mother returned home after the trial, she said, “Thank the Lord, all is well, he only got twenty five years.


When it came to visiting her father in prison, Mrs. D. points out, despite having permission from the authorities, arriving at the prison gates could mean being sent away without seeing her father.  She says, “The visits were very stressful. You didn’t know until the last moment whether you would actually be allowed the visit or not.  They could have transferred him to another camp or somewhere else.  We had to take turns. They didn’t allow more than two or three of us to the small window, with the guard there and father behind the barrier.  You couldn’t even shake his hand.  I remember I always felt so angry.  I did not feel that sorry for my father;  after all, we on the outside were worse off.  We were more persecuted than he was.  He knew he was there, he hated them, and he didn’t succumb to them. My father was a soldier; he was used to a certain discipline so he fared better, I think, than we did on the outside.”


For her, the persecution meant, “We lost half of our living space in the four room apartment to people who were terribly dirty, they brought in bedbugs and I don’t know what else.  The fact that these people were in our apartment and shared our bathroom was very humiliating for us; we were devastated.  Our mommy had to go to work.  It was difficult for us children. We were used to having our mommy at home, and a housekeeper.  Then the security police called our mommy for interrogation.  The worst of it was not that we wouldn’t survive.  I knew I could somehow support my brothers.  But the horrors that met my father, the fear that the same could happen to my mommy was the worst worry.


The security police tempted her mother to become an informer on her brother’s fellow émigrés in England by offering her permission to visit him.  She refused although it was difficult for her to find employment with a decent income to support her family.  When Mrs. D., at the age of fourteen, visited her mother’s place of employment she found, “There was my mother sitting on a small stool.  She was a lady, she had her hair done three times a week and her hands were always manicured.  She played the piano and spoke three languages.  There she was sorting out smelly pieces of leather.  When I saw her, I was in a state of shock.  I was convinced that my mother wouldn’t last but she had to.  Nobody else would employ her.”  


Mrs. D. attended high school but was dismissed because of her father being a political prisoner.  Realizing that her mother couldn’t support the family alone, she attended a crane operator course and worked at a building site.  She was not permitted to complete her desired education.  She sighs and quietly says, “Unfortunately I have never completed my education.  The fact that I am uneducated has bothered me all my life, and it has always affected my employment.  Because I didn’t graduate from high school and did not receive a diploma, I was paid two grades below the level of a ‘qualified person’ even though I performed work on that same level.  What mattered was not whether you were smart; having the right diploma was what mattered.  But I was not permitted to get the right diploma.


She spoke of her father’s return after fourteen and a half years, and of the times when he awoke in the middle of the night in terror.  It was difficult for her parents, she believes, to get used to each other again.  Her father never spoke of his prison experiences even when his family asked him.  She believes there is no interest in the past horrors among people today.  The reaction concerning the fifties within the post-communists society in her view is, “Not that everybody is silent.  They will bow their heads and say, ‘oh, that was terrible’.  But that’s all they’ll ever say.  No discussion.  Many people can’t imagine how the families were persecuted; that you had no freedom.  Whenever you approached anyone about anything, you always met with, ‘well, you know, it can’t be done’.  They never gave you a reason.  I am sorry that nobody pays attention because it hasn’t affected just me but my children.  I think they’re affected.  They stay away from any actions.”

I met her son.  After the fall of communism he became a congressman in the post-communist parliament, fought for, and achieved, free travel on all public transportation for former political prisoners.  His actions offer some of the former victims an impression they are not forgotten.  In my opinion, Mrs. D. can be very proud of her politician son.

©Jana Svehlova 1999