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How come that dad said such idiotic things about himself

  • Date: 30 Jul, 2007 at 2:59PM,
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  • Anna …

    Born January, 1942 in Oxford, England Lives in Prague

    After my father’s arrest, we moved out of Prague to live with my grandmother. I was ten and I was the only person my mother could talk to about our situation. 

At the end of eighth grade, there were entrance exams for high school. I knew well that it did not matter how well I did, I wouldn’t be accepted. But I felt that I had to study for the exam no matter what and I did end up as one of the best in class. Only after my father returned from prison, I was eventually permitted to attend high school in Prague. 

My mother was supportive. I was brought up as an atheist. Mom was a Catholic; very devout until the age of fourteen or fifteen. She tried to prevent me to have any Jewish involvement; she wanted to spear me more trouble than we already had. I don’t know when my father stopped to believe; his faith gradually evaporated. But it is a phenomenon that was common for his generation. Unfortunately, something else then replaced that faith, both my parents joined the Communist Party in 1936.  Because as Sartre says: “An intellectual cannot be without any faith but he should correct it with reason.”I always admired father for his open attitude toward people and issues. He was very tolerant. Some of that stayed with me. Mom was an incredibly honest person. She had it easier than others because for her the world was black and white; something was either good or bad. My sister and I always said that if we would have inherited our father’s intelligence and mother’s diligence by now we would have received the Nobel Price.I was ten during the Slansky trial [the accused General Secretary of the Party]. The trial transcript was published soon after. My mom had it hidden because she was probably afraid that I would believe all the filth those people were saying about themselves. I never talked about it and I never asked any questions.  I do remember hearing my dad speaking on the radio when he was used as a witness against Slansky and I was thinking how was it possible that dad was saying such idiotic things about himself; that he was a Zionist, I knew that it was a lie when he said that he joined the Communist Party because of opportunism [derogatory term in the communist lexicon].My mom was always asking herself who should she write to, what could she do, to help to get dad out of prison. Only later, she realized how naïve she was. The father figure for me, in the positive sense, was Pavel Eisler. He married an English woman and that probably saved him from being arrested. His wife’s father was an English Lord. He brought her to Czechoslovakia to build socialism. First he was high up but later they fired him and he worked as a machinist. The Eislers were extremely helpful to those who were isolated when someone in the family was arrested, imprisoned or executed.I never experienced ostracism from the teachers because they were still “the old school.” Also, other children never caused me any grief. When the trial with my dad was broadcasted on the radio, the whole nation was listening. I did not go to school the next day. The day after, my mommy took me to school. The teacher spoke kindly to her and told her to be brave. When I walked into the classroom, everyone behaved like nothing was unusual. Only later I learned that the day I did not come to school, the children were whispering about me. The teacher told them: “Look children, he is Anna’s dad and what ever he did, he is her dad and I am asking you never to speak about it with Anna.”Q: How did you feel when you were entering the classroom?

A: Terribly because I knew they all knew about it. But because nobody spoke about it, the day in school seemed normal. I felt relieved. But the first moment when I stepped into the classroom was terrible. Then, there was a terrible moment later on when a new teacher walked in and said: “Everyone, tell your name and what does your father do.” That was a horrid moment; it was one of the most disgusting moments. When my term came, I stood up and he said “I know you, you may sit down.”

Q: How do you see those experiences now, looking back?

A: There are consequences. I don’t like to sign anything, I fear that I am giving up something from myself. Till this day I have a bloc; I am unable to write. Sometimes I have to write something, but it is always very difficult for me. I also used to have a problem to utter even a word anywhere with strangers present. I used to go to a writers’ club with my husband. I would sit in a corner. The writers’ wives thought I was arrogant but I could not speak if there were more than five people in the room. But having two small children and being alone forced me to get over it. I even thought of therapy but then dismissed that because I was not dependent on it. Today I am over it, I speak in public and even on TV.

My mother never stopped believing that dad was innocent. I think that is important and that’s why it did not affect me too much. But I couldn't imagine what was done to people to force them to confess to such lies. But I read about the Germans how they tortured Russian young communists to tell on others before they executed them. I was connecting those stories with my dad and knew what he was confessing to was not true.Before dad’s arrest, my parents talked about their friends who were arrested earlier but they were careful around us. I didn't understand what was going on. But I heard my parents saying: “That’s weird. Wonder what he did. He must have done something or somebody said something about him.”My mommy loved my dad very much. They knew each other since they were sixteen. They studied the ideology before they both joined the Communist Party. They experienced the war together in England as refugees from the Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. One day in December 1951, dad did not return home from Prague. Mom went to look for him. She was brought back by the state security men. They did a home search. We were staying in one room at grandmother’s home. The security agents spent the night sleeping in the kitchen. When we walked in the kitchen in the morning, we saw a gun on the table. I am not making this up. Those men really scared me. When dad returned home (the day before Christmas Eve in 1955), it was one of the most significant moments of my life. I was almost fourteen.I finished high school and went on to study English and Czech at the university. I met my husband at the university, we got married in February 1962 and our baby was born in August. Neither one of us was a communist but we both had leftist inclination. I was asked to join the Communist Party when I was eighteen. I refused because I told my self I didn’t want to join this kind of party and for that matter no other party. I knew what that party could do.

Q: Your name sounds Jewish; have you ever experienced anti-Semitism?

A: I knew a guy who said: “She is Jewish; she can’t help that,” what ever it was, but that was the only remark about me. But I did get to know about anti-Semitism from letters sent to my dad. The first one was when we moved back to Prague in 1957. It had a drawing of the gallows and under that was written Juden und Communisten Raus [Jews and Communists out].

 My childhood experience marked me with a feeling that I belonged “to the others”, i.e. when I happen to be in a synagogue, I realize I am a Christian. When I am in a church, I realize I am Jewish.

I don’t know much about Judaism but I know I am Jewish. I used to go with my friends to church so I know more about Christianity. I feel I have to keep the Jewishness, I owe it to my other grandmother, my aunt and the whole family that perished in Auschwitz and that it is my duty to transfer the heritage to my children. My children are only quarter Jewish; they know and they don’t have any problems with that.

After 1989, I feel as a free person. When I went abroad in 1990 and did not see the barbed wire at the border, I cried. Not long ago, I went to Germany without the need of a passport and that felt wonderful.

Q: What was positive for you during communism?

A: I miss three things: the bistro Koruna at Wenceslas Square, the bakery on the other side and what was called the gray plague [people who cleaned the snow on sidewalks].

Q: Do you miss being a dissident?

A: Many miss that because it was a group of people who chose a way of life, knowing the risks [referring to the 1970—80s; the rule of terror experienced by her father 1950s-60s].

Yet, in spite of being watched by the secret police, having their phones tapped, they felt free, at least intellectually.

Q: What was most negative for you during communism?

A: The lack of freedom and being second class citizens.

Q: Your now famous statement, “Under communism we were children of the traitors, now we are children of the former communists and for the rest we are Jews,” could you explain what you meant.

A: Well, how should I say it? Today it is official that only those suffered who were non-communists because communists persecuted them. True.  But, it didn’t help my mom, my sister or me that my parents were communists. On the contrary, the communists treated them as traitors so we were traitors. For the non-communists we were “the communists.”  And for most people, because of our name, we are the Jews.

Fortunately, for me, I am around people that think like me. Whether it is politics, religion or race, there is simply no problem among us.

As far as the trials with the communists go, they were unjust because the people were tried not for what they did but for what they did not do.

Today, I feel that the way towards democracy is very slow. We are influenced by the forty years of communism and totalitarianism more than we realize. The laws we have today are certainly not the best we could have. 

Q: How did, what happened to your father, do you think influenced you? 

A: I don’t give much significance to a social status, power, money because I saw what happened to people who had it all one day and nothing the next.  And the higher one is, the greater the fall.

What I experienced personally, helps me a lot now because I deal with immigrants. I understand what it is like to be a second class citizen, to be a free person and not to be a free person. Also I can say about myself that I am quite a tolerant person when it comes to a political stand or race and it is thanks to my own experiences. Some of it is because of my partial Jewish background; some is due to my menial jobs I had to do, instead of working as a translator that I studied.

Q: Questions you would ask your parents if they were alive today?

A: Many questions. Mainly regarding our family history; especially my dad’s side because the war ended that family history. I only know two people from his side that survived the Holocaust.

Interviewed by Jana Svehlova

©Jana Svehlova