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Reflections of Prague: Journeys through the 20th century

  • Date: 13 Sep, 2007 at 2:16PM,
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  • Ivan Margolius  


    On returning to Prague I imagined I had seen my father. His slim figure, elegantly dressed in a dark single-breasted suit, white shirt and blue tie appeared in the distance. He paused at Knihy bookshop in Na Příkopě Street to look inside and check his reflection in the shop window. His hair was swept back, the receding hairline exposing his high forehead. Rimless spectacles framed his grey eyes, glinting in the bright morning light. The permanent smile on his lips, which I so loved, was still there. He checked the time on his Omega watch, lit a cigarette and walked on. Pushing through the crowd, I hurried to catch him but he disappeared into the darkness of Prague's many passageways that criss-cross the inner city. l delved into the labyrinth of shadows to search for him.

       At the far opening of one of the long tunnel-like arcades, I spotted our car parked at the kerb. Behind the wheel sat táta, my father Rudolf. Terrified I would not reach him before he drove away I started to run. I had to get there before it was too late. I ran desperately, my heart pounding, my long steps getting steadily shorter as I continued, my struggle becoming harder the further I went. I shouted as I ran, my adult voice turning into a child's shriek: ‚Wait for me, wait for meee.‘


      There was no need to worry. Rudolf waited patiently, finishing his cigarette. He appeared gloomy and preoccupied, but as soon as he saw me, he cheered up.


      ‚Ahoj, Ivane! Where is your Mum?’ he asked through the open window and after I finally opened the passenger door using the handle I could hardly reach and climbed into the car seat next to him Rudolf added remembering: ‘Oh yes, she said she’d follow us on a train; we’ll have to pick her up from Beroun; she has to finish a dust jacket design for publication.’


      Enormously relieved that I had found him I sat there admiringly looking up to him. I was out of breath, unable to speak.


      I was nearly five years old.


      His jacket was draped over a battered violin case on the rear seat; the brightly enamelled Communist Party badge decorated the jacket‘s peak lapel. He was reading densely typed documents pulled out from his packed leather briefcase and propped up on the steering wheel, making notes in the margins with a gold fountain pen.


      When I was older I learned that the papers must have been from the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Two years earlier, in 1949, he had been promoted to Deputy Minister and since then I saw him only occasionally. He had to travel abroad, attend trade negotiations, Ministry and Party meetings, consult with other departments and write extensive analytical reports and economical statistics long into the night. Rudolf was putting all his knowledge and skill into trying to improve the difficult problem of the country's ailing centralized economy. His time at home was limited to precious moments, which had to be savoured and appreciated. Even there I saw him sitting in his armchair or at his writing desk constantly leafing through books and documents; regretfully he did not seem to have that much time to play with me.


      I recalled how my mother, Heda, and Rudolf had argued the night before. They thought that I was asleep, but fragments of their sentences, whose meaning I hardly understood but found fascinating, penetrated the apartment walls into my bedroom.


      ‚Rudlo you have to leave your job immediately … I’ve talked to lots of our old friends and they all say you have to go, whatever happens … Your position being high up in the Ministry puts you in line as the next scapegoat when things go wrong,‘ pleaded Heda sounding very worried. ‘Haven’t our families suffered enough during the war? It’s a miracle that we both survived … And now this. I can’t face any more difficulties …’


      They must have been sitting in the living room on the red L-shaped sofa, facing each other. Rudolf got up and started pacing the floor. I heard the parquets squeaking under his steps. Often I wondered where my other relatives and grandparents were seeing other children being looked after by elderly family members. Heda explained gently that they all died during the war but never went into any details.


      ‚Kitten, the Party needs me … You know I‘ve tried to resign once but they ordered me to carry on.’ Apparently there could not be any respite, the five year plan had to be fulfilled and the Soviets were putting the Czechs under constant pressure. There was not anyone else there to take his place.


      ‚But Rudlo you’ve heard about the arrests, the disappearances, all the people at the top are vulnerable … When did you see your friends Eda, Artur and Evžen last … Where have they gone suddenly? … Don’t you know they’ve been arrested? Haven’t you noticed most of the ones who are disappearing are Jews …‘


      ‚That‘s preposterous, Heda, you worry too much. The Party would not sink to the same level as the Nazis … There must be a totally rational explanation for this … I haven't gone through the camps for nothing … To give up on what honestly I believe is right … If all the decent people leave now, things will get even worse.‚ … Rudlo, please think of your family and Ivan. It’s not just us … We’re responsible for him and his safe future now … What if they arrest you?‘


      Rudolf started pacing again. He was silent for some time. Then he begged Heda to believe him, he thought of both of us all the time, all he did was for our better life. What reason could they have to arrest him? It could not happen to him, only people who made mistakes could possibly be in danger. His affairs were fully watertight. Comrades at the top including Gregor, his superior, knew that he was doing his best, they endorsed and supported him, he got every decision he made approved from above. He worked day and night, what he did was for the good of us, the country and the Party.


      …‚What‘s the matter, táto?' I worried, not knowing his reason for the sudden change of mood. He did not answer for a while.  ‚Oh, nothing, I thought I saw someone I know being driven behind us,‘ he spoke softly. Within seconds a big black car overtook us with three people squeezed on the rear seat, the guys on the outside had heavy leather coats with a crestfallen figure squeezed in between.


      …‚Looking forward to Nouzov?‘ Rudolf asked. ‚Yeah, it’ll be great!‘ and I tried to picture the settlement of the modern 1930s summer houses lost among the rolling hills on the edge of the vast Křivoklát forest and the exciting adventures our trip would undoubtedly bring. The last villas of Prague disappeared behind us. On the open road nothing much happened, I was bored and demanded: ‚Do your magic, táto!‘ Rudolf fumbled in his pocket, trying to find a suitable coin. Rudolf knew only two tricks: one with a coin, which he skilfully fished out of my ear and another trick with a hat, pulling a handkerchief from its obvious emptiness. I did not know who taught him, perhaps his father did and it went down generations. I always laughed a lot, enjoying the performance and asked to see the tricks during the most inconvenient time — while Rudolf drove the car. Much later, I regretted that he had no chance to teach me so I could pass this particular skill to my boys. …I mumbled in reply: ‚I love you too, táto,‘ but I think he did not hear me over the roaring car engine…


   It had been at the Nouzov outing that was the last time I saw Rudolf for anything but a short period; only fleeting moments thereafter remained before he disappeared from my life; the protective bubble that I envisaged enveloping our closely-knit family burst and vanished into thin air. My small world fell apart and remained scattered in pieces to this day.


      One day Rudolf was with us, the next he went to the Ministry never to return. Where had he gone so suddenly without a word of good-bye or farewell? For a five-year old, it was difficult to comprehend.


      Many times, I kept asking Heda where Rudolf was but she persisted in mentioning evasively that rather unexpectedly he had to leave to work abroad.


      With Rudolf gone I felt sad and miserable. Often I went to his wardrobe, took the violin case out, opened it and looked at the abandoned instrument, bow and a piece of dark-yellow rosin, now lying idle without a sound coming out. With the enclosed piece of velvet, I kept the violin polished. I lay on Rudolf’s side of the bed, closed my eyes, tried to remember our trip to Nouzov and heard Dvořák again.


Reflections of Prague: Journeys through the 20th century, Wiley, London 2006 


copyright: Ivan Margolius 2006—07