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CHILDREN of STALINISM – The consequences of their parents' imprisonment

  • Date: 14 Jan, 2014 at 10:19AM,
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  • The documentaries Children of Stalinism for Czech TV depict the consequences on these children of their parents’ imprisonment. The following is a commentary on two opposing points of view.

The seven documentaries expose the persecution of the political prisoners’ children (now middle-aged) using their oral history. This has led to discord among members of the NGO Enemy's Daughters. For some, the family’s political orientation background matters. For others, children are not responsible for their views or deeds of their parents.  

The children feel obligated to speak about their mothers’ and fathers’ suffering rather than their own. If they do not, they feel guilty for taking the attention away from their parents by placing it on themselves. Yet, they want their voices to be heard. As one of the women I interviewed told me, “At least my parents had a life before they went to prison. I was three when they were arrested and I have had no life since then.”

Anyone who has experienced emotional trauma of any kind will tell you that one of the worst aftereffects is that people do not speak to you or do not let you speak. For the Czech and Slovak children of former political prisoners not to be silenced by the silence of others can help heal their emotional wounds. But who ought to decide whose voices will be heard?

Psychotherapist Irene Bloomfield says, “There is a verse in the book of Exodus (20:5) of the Hebrew Bible, which says: ‘The iniquities of the fathers shall be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’.” This quote can be applied to the children of political prisoners or any traumatized communities. The cause for the transmission of emotional trauma, according to Bloomfield, comes from experiencing humiliation, loss of self-esteem and the wish for vengeance that finds no adequate outlet.

Most of the Czech and Slovak political prisoners did not live to witness the fall of Communism in 1989. The legacy they left for their children is to grieve over the injustice the parents experienced and the lack of acknowledgment by post-communist society.

One of those children is Margita Zimanova; today she lives in Slovakia. Her father helped his cousin to cross the border to the West which was illegal. He was tortured by the Secret Police to coerce him to inform on others, and he was sentenced to death. In his cell, he managed to pierce his leg with a rusty nail, hoping that an infected and then amputated leg would save him from the death sentence. It did not. The prison guard wheeled him to the gallows and he was hanged. Her mother received a life sentence and so did her brother and maternal grandfather.

In July 2010, a few days before Mrs. Margita Zimanova’s documentary was to be aired on Czech television, the Editor of the NGO web site www.enemysdaughters.com  [Czech version] received and published information, based on one letter about Mrs. Zimanova’s father obtained from The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. It states that her father was in the Hlinka Guard, i.e. a fascist during WWII, a communist after WWII, and an agent of the dreaded Secret Police. This accusation invited a reaction from some Daughters who accused her of deception by not letting everyone know “the sins of her father.” Afterwards, the Czech TV web site explained, "…Margita was prohibited from continuing formal education after completing elementary school. She worked in a quarry, later as a food inspector in vegetable shops… [and]she offered to the filmmakers Rehabilitační posudek Pavla Valenty

— [The Rehabilitation Verdict of Pavel Valenta 1992].

When I became aware of this, I defended Margita Zimanova because of my personal conviction that children are not responsible for their parents’ deeds. The reaction against me was fearsome. There were a few Daughters who supported me, however none publicly.

One of the protagonists from the seven documentaries published on the Czech web,

“… I dare to say that most of us (definitely those six of us who did not have to be silent about the truth concerning our fathers’ past) would not agree to participate in the television documentaries but we did because of sense of a moral obligation, a trait that we inherited from our fathers… “

Another Daughter Mahulena Slamova wrote, “…I am disappointed that ‘fake’ Daughters are allowed to join our organization, i.e. daughters/children of those who were not real anticommunists… It is not meant to discriminate against those daughters/children — and nobody questions Mrs. Zimanova’s difficult childhood — but their context is different and their belonging to our organization is not desirable. …when facts become known — just like Mrs. Zimanova’s story — then such a Daughter must be asked to leave our organization.

Maja wrote, "…I was surprised, based on the controversial past of Mrs. Zimanova’s father, that her story was included…I agree with the daughters that in view of her father’s past, it does not belong to this [TV] program and it ought to be removed even though it is a very emotional story. Her trauma and suffering are indisputable, but it is a story of a child and a family that, in my opinion, belong to a different group; let another group be formed. I do not know why Mrs. Zimanova’s story was chosen as representative of Slovak daughters. There are other interesting and powerful stories that deserve attention on television screens.”

My American friends here say, “It’s a no brainer. It’s about the children and not about the parents. Therefore, Margita Zimanova’s story should be included.”

Individuals who consider themselves the real victims of the communist regime wish to distance themselves from the “others.” I began with Bloomfield’s notion that emotional trauma can be transmitted across generations when the wish for vengeance [here I prefer non-forgiveness] finds no adequate outlet. Vengeance may be too strong a word here. Yet, as Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman’s points out, “Recovery requires remembrance and mourning… Like traumatized individuals, traumatized countries need to remember, grieve, and atone for their wrongs in order to avoid reliving them” (1997).

Mrs. Margita Zimanova may fall on deaf ears among those who ought to have compassion. But there are three stars on the Czech stage, the FAMU students who took on the project, Czech Television that is airing all seven documentaries, and the protagonists, the Daughters. It's up to the reader to form his or her own opinion about this painful subject.

Editor, January 7, 2014 Hilda Bank, Ph.D.