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Two Sisters – Miss S.

  • Date: 18 May, 2007 at 6:47PM,
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    Looking for Miss S’s home with a pharmacy sign among the two storied houses painted with pastel colors makes me feel as if I am transferred to a world that I only read about in old Czech novels. I am imagining her father opening his pharmacy’s door in the mornings many years ago. Then most of the town people, that passed his house, would greet him with respect before asking for advice about their ailments. Then his social position would have equaled that of the town’s priest, the mayor, and the school principal.

Approaching the house I see Miss S. We greet each other and then her sister Mrs. J. runs down the stairs. We all walk up to the living room on the second floor. The living room is the prototype of what would be considered bourgeois. Many Czech homes, attacked by the communist propaganda as bourgeois, would be furnished with solid mahogany settee and armchairs, with fluffy pillows covered with brocade or velvet, and would be incomplete without Persian carpets — the symbol of prosperity. Many individuals brought up under the influence of socialist realism consider the so-called bourgeois style as kitsch, but the décor of this home suggests continuity and return to the pre-communist era. It is elegant, cozy and has the atmosphere one would expect when visiting with Czech friends on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The cozy feeling begins to dissipate when I realize what happened in this very room half a century ago.

Miss S. was thirteen and her sister Mrs. J. was nine when their father was arrested on 31st July 1951. Miss S. remembers that she just returned from a summer camp the day before, and over dinner was telling her father, an avid musician, about a new song. Because it was getting late, her father suggested they would sing it the next day. She says with sadness in her voice, “We sang that song nine years later because they arrested him at five the next morning.” The accusation of being an agent in the service of foreign powers led to a twelve-year sentence. In her opinion, “they never proved anything even though they interrogated him in a terrible way. Daddy never talked about it. Only after he died, we found out about it in his papers. It must have been terrible.”

Miss S. points out, “Daddy liked our town very much. He was a great patriot. Today such a word is not fashionable. I know daddy’s friend offered to help us to emigrate to America before the communists made it impossible, but daddy refused. When he returned from prison,” she begins to cry before she continues to say, “we asked him if knowing then what he would go through here, would he have left?” She begins to cry again and whispers, “he said ‘no’ even though it was all very difficult here.”

When speaking of her mother, she perceives her as “a very sensitive person who had to take care of the three of us without any means of support. She also had to take care of daddy’s parents. I admire her. I don’t know how she managed because she couldn’t find a job until half a year later when she ended up as a clerk.”

Miss S. has lived in this town since the day she was born in 1938. She does not remember any ostracism on the part of the children in her hometown. Even her teachers treated her in a nice way, except for one. She explains, “Each year when we were asked in school what our parents did, I would answer, ‘my mommy is employed in a savings bank’, and I wouldn’t mention daddy. Every teacher knew that daddy was in prison. This one teacher asked in a derisive way, ‘So what about your father?’ I whispered, ‘he is in prison’. And he said sarcastically, ‘So he is’! I cried and I never forgot it. It was different for my brother. The day after daddy’s arrest, he called on his friend to go to play tennis. They played every day in the summer. His friend’s mom came to the door and told my brother, “Sorry, but don’t come here anymore. I don’t want my son to have problems.

Miss S. brings up the irony of the relationships in her family. Their brother married a high ranking communist’s daughter. Their mother refused to attend the wedding but did in the end, persuaded by their still imprisoned father.

Visits with her father were, in her memories, acceptable until the time he was transferred to the uranium mines in Pribram. She believes the visits in Pribram as the worst because, “We were in a hut in the middle of the fields. Inside was a wall with small windows that had bars. I think the small window also had glass and we didn’t hear each other. We were glad to see each other, though. It was terrible because it took us three days to get there. And it cost a lot of money. My mommy always had to sell something to pay for the trip. Each time daddy was allowed to have a visit, one of us would go. But it was terrible because to see him for ten minutes, we had to travel three days.

Since her childhood, when she helped her father in the family pharmacy, her desire to be a pharmacist like her father and grandfather has not materialized. She speaks of a letter she received as a teenager from the authorities, “as a daughter of the local bourgeoisie I was not permitted to study.”

Other than becoming a pharmacist, she would have liked to be a teacher. With tears in her eyes, she pauses and then quietly says, “I have to say it. I have kind of lost confidence in myself. I was always one of the best students in my class. But when they took daddy away, I felt terrible. Somehow I felt terrible, and I cried often. I completely lost confidence in myself.”

She has many friends who did not have a parent in prison, yet also were not permitted by the communist authorities to pursue studies for various reasons; one friend’s father was a shop owner before the communists took over, and another’s was a policeman during the First Republic [pre-communist]. Miss S. believes that she is resigned to what fate served her throughout her life. She welcomed the fall of communism in 1989 with jubilation. Now, she admits, “We are a bit disappointed with what’s going on. The leader of our local Communist Party is a son of the man who interrogated our daddy. It bothers us that this man hasn’t been punished and it’s impossible to get him to court. We don’t want him to go to prison. He is too old now. All we want is someone to say publicly that he hurt people. It’s obvious he won’t go to prison; he is eighty-five. But he should be convicted on moral grounds.”

©Jana Svehlova 1999