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The Girl from Prague

  • Date: 19 May, 2007 at 2:35AM,
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    When Mrs. M. mentions that she is nervous about the interview, I tell her that I share her feelings because she is the first of the respondents I am interviewing. I suggest starting with her childhood memories. It is now 10 a.m.

Her father was arrested when she was four. She admits not remembering the time surrounding his arrest, only, “I really found out that dad was in prison by overhearing my mommy’s discussion with grandma whether or not they should tell me. Of course, she didn’t say, ‘your father is a political prisoner and he’ll be in prison for twelve years’. She only somehow explained that he wasn’t going to be at home and forbade me to talk about it anywhere.”

mWhen she was six, the authorities relocated her family from their beautiful apartment overlooking the park in another section of Prague into a divided apartment in an unpopular, polluted district. She describes their living conditions: “The crazy widow with her granddaughter lived in one room, my grandpa and grandma had one room, my mother and I were in another room, and my uncle with his wife and baby lived in the last room.

Otherwise, Mrs. M. claims, she never felt she lacked anything and believes, “I was so loved and spoiled by my family that I don’t think I really missed my father. Because I didn’t really know what it meant to have a father, not having him around felt kind of normal.” What felt less “normal” was visiting her father in prison. She says, “I remember it was in the winter and we sat in some hut. They brought the prisoners in and one of them was my father. I didn’t know him.” The next visit was in the notoriously cruel prison Bory, “I remember it was a terribly gloomy place. I know mom couldn’t talk because she was crying. By the time she tried to tell him so much, the visit was over because it only lasted fifteen minutes. I was staring at them, and I was scared, when they tried to touch each other’s hand through the net.”

Mrs. M. begins to cry when she remembers her grandmother asked about her son’s health and the guard yelled at her because such questions were forbidden. Her grandfather, father of her father, never visited his son in prison. She is not sure of the reason, speculating that he either could not “take it psychologically, or he may have been upset with his son for getting his family as well as himself into this situation.” In her family, there was a hope that the communist regime would fall. Especially her grandmother claimed the Americans promised that Czechoslovakia would have free elections in 1955, and her son would come home from prison.

Mrs. M’s did not experience feeling inferior during her childhood. She says her grades were straight A’s and her intention was to attend high school and then university, yet this was not to be. She blames herself, explaining, “Although at home they forbade me to tell anybody about dad’s imprisonment, I couldn’t stand it not to tell. I told a friend whose father was a member of the people’s militia. Her grades were not as good as mine. When I was accepted, she wasn’t, her parents complained. The school principal called my parents to school. The principal pleaded with them, ‘Please understand. That mother will push her child through. If I would object I would lose my job. Please be reasonable and take your child home’. I was fourteen. I didn’t think it was such a disaster.”

The irony is reflected in her laugh before she proceeds, “I was not accepted at a technical middle school, or hairdressing apprenticeship. Finally I trained as a waitress.

Mrs. M. speaks about her marriages and her children. After working at various pubs and restaurants with her husband, she moved back to Prague. When she tried to get a larger apartment for her growing family, she was advised at the town hall to offer a bribe to one of the officials. Mrs. M. remembers, “I never bribed the woman-official at the town hall. She came to inspect our home and said to us, ‘This isn’t bad; Gypsies have rats in their places’. When I informed her, ‘I was not interested who had what; we couldn’t live like this’ — the official turned around and left. We felt nobody cared what happened to us.

Although her salary as a clerk in an accounting office was not great, she says, “Life went on; we had to keep going.” Mrs. M. kept going until her mother died suddenly. This occurred while they were talking after coming home from a movie on a Saturday night. She begins to cry and tells me, “I experienced such panic that I ended up in a psychiatric hospital. After the hospitalization the doctor ordered me to go back to work. I couldn’t bear to stay at home. The young women at work were so rude that I couldn’t stand it. Also, I still wanted to prove myself so I left that job for another job in accounting.

oIn 1986, Mrs. M. received a notification that her father died. He and his second wife did not know that his first wife died because Mrs. M. admits she never notified him, “I can’t explain why I didn’t let him know that mommy died two years ago. I tried to analyze it. I believed that if he knew she died, it would have been as if my mommy lost the game. I always felt that her life was unfulfilled. She waited for him; our life was waiting for him.

When she received the announcement about her father’s funeral, she says,

I got dressed to attend his funeral, and then I didn’t go. My father died in November. That fall I had an urge to find him. My mother was dead. My husband could only do so much, so he began going for a drink with his friends. I ended up in a mental hospital. The care wasn’t anything special. They would say, ‘Here, take these pills. If you need something come back’. I talk with a psychologist. I tell her that I meet with the members of the Confederation of Political Prisoners. I feel good among them. I am looking for my father among them. I respect them. They are good people. I am so glad I could talk about all this.”

She is often told by well meaning individuals, “Stop messing with the past. Forget it.” She points out that she wishes she could forget, yet her response is, “It isn’t possible.”

Mrs. M’s parents have not lived long enough to see the fall of communism. She is sad about that. Her association with the Confederation of Political Prisoners makes her feel she is among her own. She perceives, “our post-communist society is not trying to grasp what moral tragedy took place here, what harm communism had done to us.”

©Jana Svehlova 1999