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My prison image was formed by the legends of Middle-Ages Daliborka

  • Date: 10 Dec, 2007 at 11:13PM,
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  •  Helena Goldstuckerova — Vavrova

    What is your most pleasant memory from childhood? d

    There are many until they arrested dad. The best one was when he returned home, and we had our first Christmas together.

    What do you think was the worst moment?

    The worst was, (long pause) when they imprisoned daddy. I was four and a half and nobody told me anything. Before I started 1st grade, mom decided to tell me because she was afraid that I would find out from somebody else. I cried a lot when mom told me — I never told this to anyone — because when I was a child the prison image was formed by the horrid legends of Daliborka http://www.prague.net/daliborka .

When we went to visit dad in prison for the first time, I was six and a half. That visit in the fortress Leopoldov http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopoldov_Prison confirmed my mental picture of a prison. Because the trains that brought visitors to the prison arrived early in the morning, they left us waiting outside the fortress for several hours. We were freezing in the winter. In the summer we stood outside in the intense heat. The first thing I noticed when they let us in was the very thick bars dividing a small opening in a partition. The prisoners stood on one side of the bars with a guard next to each one of them. We were on the other side of the bars. Then suddenly the guards rushed the prisoners out and locked them up somewhere because a physician was coming to walk through the room. The physician walked through and then the guards herded the prisoners back. This experience, I remember as one of the most upsetting.

Do you remember how other children or teachers treated you in elementary school? Who, do you believe, had the most significant influence on you?

Nobody was friendly towards us. Of course, the elementary teacher had significant influence. Definitely, our grandmother because she spent more time with us than mom. Mom worked long hours. I remember how jealous I was of Nadia because her dad, our uncle, threw her up in the air and I did not have a dad like her to throw me up in the air. It didn't’t occur to me that our dad probably wouldn't’t do that anyway. He returned home with serious health issues, but we did not realize it at that time.

Negative experiences then? And do you see them as negative looking back?

Yes, I remember the negative behavior of some people around us. In 1954, at the end of my 1st grade, we visited Leopoldov. The train arrived at 6 in the morning, and we saw those guards‘ dogs that looked like they were going to attack us. The Slovak fascists, who were also imprisoned there, had their wives let in first. But we had to wait, honestly, till 12. Later, the sun became very strong and I started to feel terribly sick. On top of it, we were forbidden to stand near the fortress where there was a bit of a shadow. Mom begged them to let me stand in the shadow because I wasn't well. The guards said, „no.“ And they made us wait even longer.

When we finally finished the visit and boarded the train back to Prague, mom realized that I had fever and rash. We got to Prague — the journey took all night — in the morning and then we were sent from one child clinic to another for three hours because we were not registered in Prague; we lived in a town outside of Prague. At the last clinic, the doctor said I had scarlet fever and that I had to be hospitalized. But no hospital would admit me if I came by tram and not by ambulance. But the clinic could not call for an ambulance; I had to travel by a tram again to go to a home of my parents' old friends. It took 48 hours before I started antibiotics, spread the germs for hours in Prague trams, and had side effects that were treated for a year.

Do you remember any negative comments about your family?

I don’t think I remember any comments, but I do remember the looks. When we walked from the train station, the people in the Leopoldov village next to the prison gave us looks as if we were murderers. Those disapproving looks, and the body language as if they had to get out of our way, otherwise they would be contaminated like we had some horrible disease. I remember that very well even though I was little.

What did you see as positive during communism?

During communism, of course one was younger at that time, and young people are always more positive. What was also positive, were some human relationships. For example, I enjoyed going to see a play in a theater and hear statements that made us read in between the lines. They were about issues that we all understood, but were forbidden to talk about in public. But all that made friendships stronger because we shared that. The same close relationships do not exist anymore today.

What role did your half Christian and half Jewish background play in your life? Do you feel Jewish or Christian?

We talked a lot with our dad, and he played games with us, but our mom definitely had a greater role in our upbringing. Mothers do anyway. Therefore we had Catholic customs. I don’t even know the Jewish customs. Grandma was a devout Catholic till the day she died. Sometimes, grandma took us to church and we attended Mass. When I was in high school, I heard antisemitic remarks and that led me to feel that I ought to belong to the Jews. Not because I felt that I was a Jewish, but because the Jews are a minority so they have to be protected.

What do you see personally as positive at your age after 1989 [the fall of Communism]?

Because I can teach is very positive for me. Also, that the children are no longer manipulated by the Party, and that we really have democratic elections and that they are manipulated only a bit by the media. During the Communists elections, I was fighting with myself not to vote for them. But when I was called to vote for the third time, I realized that my children may not be permitted to attend high school so I did go, but always at the last moment. I was always ashamed that I went. I am so glad that now I can vote and I don’t have to be ashamed.

Looking back at your life, what do you consider your happiest years?

My happiest years were as a student at the university. The political situation here was easier then; my student days began in 1965. I probably ought to say that my happiest years were when my children were small. In some way, it’s true and in some ways it’s not. Because for me, the 1970s were connected with a terrible feeling that there was no future here and we were locked in. Thanks to those feelings, I had a terrible time when I turned 30. It felt as if my youth was behind me and there was nothing to look forward to. That feeling was in spite of having a 5 year old and a 2 year old. I was supposed to be the happiest mother. Before my older daughter entered 1st grade, I was having horrible problems thinking how the school was manipulating the children into becoming uniformly mediocre citizens. When the children are small, every mother remembers those times as the happiest. For me the 1970s, even though my children were small, don’t bring back nice memories.

How do you think what happened to your dad, influenced your life?

His imprisonment and everything connected with that influenced my life. All who were labeled a ‚child of the enemy of the state‘ were expected to be perfect children.

Your parents are no longer here. If you could ask them questions, what would they be?

Why didn’t they pay attention to the signals when their friends were getting arrested. They were 39 years old then.

There is a shift to the right here and a prevailing perception, ‘once a communist — always a communist‘. My parents had leftist leanings; much more than me or my sister. But we always understood, my sister and I, that the communists from 1936 [the idealists who feared fascism] were completely different from the communists in 1950 [in charge of show trials] and even more so from communists in 1975 who joined only to improve their careers and had no moral standing whatsoever.

Interviewed by Jana Svehlova

©Jana Svehlova