Boston Review
CURRENT ISSUE
table of contents
FEATURES
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
poetry
fiction
film
archives
ABOUT US
masthead
mission
rave reviews
contests
writers’ guidelines
internships
advertising
SERVICES
bookstore locator
literary links
subscribe

 

Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind


Site Web



 

Lost Lives
Portraits from the Velvet Revolution

by Helen Epstein

Early this summer, I embarked on a kind of tourism peculiar to Americans of the, twentieth century--a visit to an estranged family past. My destination was Prague, from which I had been carried in a canvas bag by my parents a few months after the Communist putsch in 1948. I booked my ticket quickly, because I was not sure how long freedom would last. My first return to Prague had been cut short by the Russian invasion of 1968; my second, by visa problems. This time there are no border hassles, no questions, no lines. A few stamps in MY passport and I am face-to-face with my Aunt Kitty.

I am also face-to-face with politics. There are three kinds of people now living in Czechoslavakia: those who were active Communists under the old regime; those who were active anti-Communists; and the vast majority, ordinary citizens who spent the last forty years trying to get by. Kitty and her family belong in the last category. Like most women in Prague, she spends her "free" time stockpiling supplies for her family. Every transaction, including medical services, involves a queue, the cultivation of a personal relationship, and a "tip." The duty-free liquor and cigarettes I bought at Frankfurt Airport will wind up in the hands of Kitty’s butcher or dentist or auto-mechanic. But the two giant jars of Pond’s face cream in my suitcase are for her alone.

Kitty is a widow, one of Prague’s one thousand Jews, and her manner—a Czech version of the feminine mystique—disguises a difficult past that includes concentration camps, a husband long an invalid, and life under Stalinism. At sixty-eight, she pampers her skin, colors her hair blonde, and is well-dressed. But her days begin at six-thirty and end at nine or ten, and her face has the haggard look that makes everyone in Prague seem older than their Western counterparts.

For the past fifteen years Kitty has lived with her boyfriend Jarda, sixty-four, a Protestant and a "good old boy," who walks around at home in his underwear, likes his beer from the bottle, and his women attentive. During victorious February of 1948, when the Communists took over, Jarda. was one of the workers who marched with his rifle in Wenceslas Square. (My father, a former lieutenant in the Czechoslovak army, watched from his windows on the Square; he later said that the sight of that armed workers' militia was what finally convinced him to emigrate.) Jarda was young then and eager to throw out the capitalists. But soon he stopped expecting better from the Communists. He concentrated on his family, on eating and drinking, and on maintaining his own work standards even as he saw Party hacks being promoted over his head. He divorced his wife nearly two decades ago-about half of Czechoslovak marriages now end in divorce-but is still listed as living in his old apartment for Byzantine or rather, Czechoslovak reasons involving inheritance laws and real estate.

We drive to Prague's Old City. Kitty chatters away in Czech, the jawbreaking yet musical language of my childhood, and the city unfolds before us like a fairy tale: spires, towers, statues, lilacs, a river replete with swans. We arrive at her prized two-room flat: a living room, a bedroom that used to be a kitchen, and a kitchen that used to be a closet, all crammed with furniture. We sit down to a dinner of bread, hardboiled eggs, salami, and beer and watch TV.

Months after the Velvet Revolution, the evening news has not lost its exoticism We watch Viclav Havel addressing the European Parliament, saying yet again that his country has to learn everything, build everything, from scratch—including a democracy. Jarda likes Havel but thinks Civic Forum is not tough enough on criminals. Last year, a general amnesty emptied the jails and threw all police into disrepute. That's appropriate for the secret police, Jarda says. The secret police should be dismantled and all their weapons turned in. Instead, they've just kicked out a fraction of them.

This kind of liberalism confuses people, Jarda says. A motorist runs a red light, and if a policeman stops him for it, he says: "leave me alone. We're a democracy now!" And the policeman, unsure of his role or who it is behind the wheel, lets him go. Instead of protecting the public, policemen have to protect each other. The other day, the chief of police was robbed in the center of town by a gypsy woman who screamed "Rape!" when he ran after her. In the confusion, she got away.

Next he says, Havel needs to get tough on the Czech workplace, to end such practices as doing a job poorly and then sitting in a tavern for five hours or using company materials and time to do private jobs "for personal profit. Then end baksheesh. Medical care in Czechoslovakia is officially free, but Jarda has just had two total hip replacements, each requiring 4,000 koruny in "tips." And that was a bargain because the physician was young: an assistant rather than a professor, who would have charged 5,000 koruny!

Kitty does not talk back to the TV. She loves watching Havel speak Czech to the European Parliament. She loves watching statues of Lenin dismantled and hauled off before the cameras. Relatives from America can come to see her now; with some scrimping, she may even get to drive to Paris. We watch an internist comment about radioactivity levels in Czech meat since Chernobyl and view devastated forests in northern Bohemia. For Czechoslovaks, ecology takes second place only to democracy.

Kitty unfolds the living room couch and produces an old-fashioned duvet. I go to sleep thinking about tomorrow. I will see a friend I have not seen in twenty years, Jiri Tichy.

My cousin Mickey parks in front of the elegant Mayakovsky Salle, where several hundred people are sitting in rows, listening to speaker after speaker at the first meeting of the lsrael-Czechoslavak Friendship Society. In 1948, Czechoslovakia provided arms to Israel for its War of lndependence. Under Communism, diplomatic relations between the two countries worsened, then were broken off after the Six-Day War. Now, people have come from all over the country to try to recreate the bond. My friend Jiri is sitting up on the dais. Unlike my relatives, he is a former dissident, the subject of both State Security and Amnesty International files.

I first met Jiri in 1969 when we were students in Jerusalem. The son of a Jewish father who emigrated to Israel in 1948 and a Christian mother who remained in Prague, Jiri had grown up in Prague and come to Israel after the Russian invasion. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1970 because he could not imagine living out his life anywhere but in his native city. He was never a writer; we lost touch. Now as I try to catch his eye and see how intently he is listening too the speeches I realize that this meeting, tedious for me, is momentous for him.

Mickey and I decide to wait in the café downstairs. My cousin asks me about Jiri, a man his own age and more or less his own background, who has been imprisoned for his political beliefs and who now is on a first-name basis with the people running the country. Mickey is forty-two, a middle manager, a family man. Like so many Czechs born after the war, he has no political or religious affiliation. The Velvet Revolution has not changed his life. "You see more on TV, you read more in the paper, you're moved when you hear Havel speak," he says. "But basically nothing much has changed. The economy's a mess. People don't know what to do with democracy..

Mickey is more interested in my explaining international politics to him. "What, exactly, is the situation in Israel?" he asks, and suddenly I am faced with the full impact of totalitarianism. Though born to two Jews, Mickey does not know Chanukah from Passover. (His wife doesn't know much more about Catholicism.) He was born in the year Israel was established and, since he discounts as Soviet propaganda all he has heard about the Middle East, he has no information at all. I try to provide a capsule history, but it is so complicated that Mickey himself changes the subject. The conference finally ends, Jiri appears, and we meet in a great bear hug.

"Tell me," I command. "Start at the very beginning."

Jiri orders a beer. He is flying. Someone just asked him if the new organization could use a photocopying machine! The impossible has happened: his side has won.

When Jiri decided to return to Soviet-occupied Prague in 1970, he was determined to do all he could to end Communist rule. He was twenty-four then, reckless and passionate. "It was dear to me," he says, "that I'd never get to do anything I really wanted to do. So my life was my family and the underground, and l drank. "At first Jiri worked in a print shop, but there came a time when he refused to print "some piece of nonsense," and he was thrown out. He then worked for a theater that the government closed down for political impropriety in 1972. He worked at the National Gallery installing exhibits and writing and printing samizdat before his underground activities were discovered. Along the way he married, fathered a son, divorced, and then met Marcella, the art historian with whom he currently shares a home and three children.

It is Marcella who has kept the family solvent for the past decade. During that time she has served as curator for over fifty shows of contemporary Czech artists, doing everything from choosing the artists and the art to researching, writing, and editing the catalogue, installing and opening the show-and even making the opening speech each time. The kids learned independence early with two busy parents and the concept of babysitters yet another casualty of 1948.

Jiri spent the eighties, like most of the men now governing Czechoslovakia, as a menial laborer. The first four years he worked in construction--"boots, mud, cold"--and the last five as a laborer for Prague's Parks Department, '"planting tulips, mowing lawns," sometimes driving a tractor right outside his daughter's school. Her teachers were wonderful, Jiri says. When he was jailed for hiding Charter 77 files in his country cottage, they said her father was a responsible citizen-not a criminal, as the television news had it. When the Velvet Revolution began, the teachers gave him chairs, desks, paper--anything that Civic Forum needed. Jail was not terrible. No one beat up on him, and he had extraordinary conversations. But now he is now no longer a gardener but an accredited journalist for Respekt, the new Prague weekly! Isn't it amazing?

Mickey is quiet during Jiri's recitation. Then I hear him say, apologetically, the words that my parents used to mock when they were said by Germans recalling the extent of their understanding of Hitler’s Germany. "I feel I have to tell you this, Jiri: we did not know."

I watch Jiri carefully. It is Civic Forum's wish to understand the vast majority of citizens who remained silent while they were in prison, to bear them no grudge, and to enlist them in their campaign for a democratic Czechoslovakia. Jiri himself is an uncommonly forgiving sort. But l can sense the chasm between my cousin and my friend. How can they ignore their difference? It is written in their faces as well as in their clothing, in Mickey's son's Lego sets and the fact that Jiri's stepson was one of the two leaders of the student demonstrations that sparked the Velvet. Revolution. I wonder, what would I have done had I remained in Prague? How would I have weighed the needs of my husband and children against my need for a free society? As I will several times during this trip, I thank my parents--both dead now--for having emigrated to the United States.

I awake at seven to hear Kitty insisting that I register at the Central Police Station. Registration of travellers is a relic of the Hapsburgs, adopted by the Nazis, then the Communists. I argue that surely it is now obsolete. Kitty is adamant. It is clear that she is scared of the consequences for her of my failing to register. Once again I am reminded how much psychological baggage Civic Forum is carrying and we compromise: I will register tomorrow.

When I leave the house at eight the streets are already crowded. Stores, offices, factories, and schools open at seven and the influx of tourists has swelled the numbers of pedestrians. It is hard to walk anywhere fast in the Old City of Prague because nine centuries of architecture, every other building in the twisting cobblestoned streets, demands your admiration. But I head resolutely for Wenceslas Square and sit down in a café just under the windows of the apartment in which my parents and I lived in 1948.

Wenceslas Square is now a crowded pedestrian mall; the mood resembles San Francisco before the drug scene got ugly, except people here are high on expectation, not drugs. A statue of Tomas G. Masaryk, president of the First Republic of Czechoslavakia (1918-1938) marks the start of the huge outdoor-indoor museum show, Kde Domov Muj? (Where is My Home?) that stretches down a row of kiosks, on Prague's equivalent of Fifth Avenue all the way to a large exhibition hall. The show is named after the national anthem and is part of Civic Forum's attempt to fill in the hole that, for most citizens, is twentieth-century Czechoslovak history.

The kiosks are pasted over with documents which, for the put forty years, were banned from the news and from school curricula and extirpated from libraries, bookstores, and archives. They include blow-ups of newspapers and official documents, material from the Second World War, and photographs taken during the infamous Slansky Trial in 1952 and the Prague Spring of 1968. The excitement is palpable. I watch people reading, for the first time, the record of lost lives, lost years, a lost country--all the information Americans can access with a touch of a computer. What will the Czechs do with the information explosion that is coming? They are so starved for data that, as I learn at lunch with Jiri's daughter, every scrap coming in from the West becomes common knowledge.

Eleven-year-old Adelka and I talk about John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Jackson in an intimate garden cafe, surrounded by lingering couples. She likes John Lennon's music, which Jiri has on cassettes. She loves the way Jimi Hendrix looks. "But I don't really like Michael Jackson," Adelka says, "because he's afraid of the air in the town where he lives and wants to be frozen so he can live longer. And besides--he sleeps in a gas chamber."

"Excuse me," I ask the couple nearest us, who have dropped all pretense of conversation. "Does she mean gas chamber?"

"No," the man says promptly. 'She's gotten it mixed up. Michael Jackson sleeps in an oxygen tank. We read a lot about that here and all the children think he's crazy. You'll excuse me but we are interested: do Americans always give their children the choice of what to order in a restaurant? Here we're told what to eat and what to do until we're of age."

I explain that my two-year-old and four-year-old choose thew own food, but that they were not toilet trained at thirteen months the way Czech babies routinely are. The diners are shocked. When do we stop using diapers?

"Sometimes at two, sometimes at three," I say, trying to be diplomatic and to remember how Penelope Leach explains it. "The feeling is that they'll all use a toilet eventually. Americans don't want to traumatize their children."

"Trauma," repeats the bearded man. "That’s the answer. we're a traumatized nation."

Adelka starts squirming and I remember that in Prague during the past forty years the exchange of any information with strangers could be dangerous.

Late that night, my friend Jiri hands me one of twelve copies of From May to May, his book of essays, and once again I am struck by the vast difference in information flow between my world and his. I have never held a samizdat book in my hands before; the nearly illegible carbon copies, bound in plain cloth, do not meet American standards of what a "real" book should look like. He explains that before November it was illegal to participate in the process of publishing such a book. It’s clear to me that, despite its appearance, despite having had no reviews, it has been read in a way no book in America is ever read. I take the book with the understanding that I will pass it on to others.

Jiri and I agree that we will not say good-bye. I will telephone--even if the fines are still being tapped. I will come back to Prague, not in twenty years, but next summer.

Monday, I take the train to Cer-nosice, the suburb in Prague where Helena lives. My mother often told me that her best friend, Helena, was so beautiful that men became obsessed with her, including the Czech painter Jan Slavicek, who married her. When my father suggested I be named Helena for his mother, my mother thought the name would honor her friend as well.

Helena greets me in the garden where she grows her own potatoes and onions and cucumbers. She is a frail woman of seventy-two now, but her spine is straight and her eyes are steel. Raised by a literary father, a friend and colleague of Tomas Masaryk, Helena was always a maverick. At eighteen she trained as a "Czech connection" for the Resistance. She can still send a man fIying halfway across the room, she says with pride; she still has a photographic memory; and she still speaks English, French, Italian, and Spanish as well as impeccable German and Czech. During the war, she transmitted information and hid and moved documents and people—all without the knowledge of Slavicek, the husband who drank, beat her, and was so jealous that one night, after Helena ran away, he called the Gestapo to track her down.

When the war was over, divorced, worked at repatriating survivors, and became a single mother. She refused to emigrate although the Party (which had presented her with a card for her wartime activities) had begun to view families linked with Masaryk and former Resistance members with suspicion. Except for a few years in children's television, Helena has spent most of the last three decades blacklisted, doing translations.

She now lives with her fourth husband, a fifty-nine-year-old engineer; his children live upstairs. Downstairs, Jan Slavicek's paintings adorn the Wall; upstairs there are magazine centerfolds of naked women. When l ask what that’s about, Helena explains that anything that was forbidden these past forty years is now the rage. Pornography is not viewed as sexist; it’s just another expression of anti-Communism--like religious affiliation.

Helena views the Velvet Revolution with a jaundiced eye. She is worried that Civic Forum has already been infiltrated by wolves in sheep's clothing and that Havel, whom she first knew as an actor, has been too soft on the secret police. Havel himself has too great a sense of the absurd to be corrupted, she says, but she worries about his lack of political acumen and practical experience and the similar deficits of those who surround him.

Six hours go by in what seems an instant. Kitty and Jarda are coming to pick me up, and, as the time nears, Helena tells me casually that she has had massive stomach and duodenal surgery (an operation I later hear is obsolete in the U.S,). Unlike Jarda, she tipped her surgeon 1,000 instead of the requisite 5,000 koruny, with the result that he did not come back to do follow-up care. Every day she needs to take three expensive digestive enzymes made in West Germany. Couldn't she translate one of my books to help pay for them?

I tell her that there are foundations in America and Israel for people like herself--Christians who helped Jews during the Nazi occupation--and that they might pay for her medication. Helena finds this possibility attractive but strange: she did what she had to do--she never asked whether the people she helped were Jews or Christians. When I suggest that she write a book instead of translating one, she laughs: "My account of everything that’s happened here in the last fifty years is so inconsistent with what everyone else says--no one would believe it."

I tell her that my friends Jiri and Marcella have a need for her "inconsistency," and that in America, academic fields such as women's studies and Jewish studies exist precisely because they take a different view of history. Helena listens, but I can tell she is being polite.

Kitty arrives to fetch me. The two of them exchange cold greetings, and suddenly that chasm I saw divide the ground between Mickey and Jiri opens up again, in this case exacerbated by both women's personal claims on my mother and myself. It is clear that Kitty and Helena can't stand each other, that forty years of rife in Communist Czechoslovakia have poisoned any possibility of dialogue. Our small talk hangs in the air. I say good-bye wondering: will Helena live out this year?

My family and I hold our farewell dinner at one of Prague's exclusive restaurants. Jarda is uncomfortable with the deferential service—he is wearing sports clothes and keeps repeating "a lot of hogel fogel"--irritating Kitty, for whom the spotless tablecloths, the grand piano, and fine view are a reminder of her youth. My cousin Mickey orders and then consumes an entire bottle of Moravian red wine by himself. The hors d'oeuvres are a gussied-up version of what I've been eating all week: ham, herring, and hard-boiled eggs (this time, garnished with caviar). There are rolls instead of bread and, on every table, small bottles of Heinz ketchup!

The pianist eavesdrops on our conversation and then launches into a heartfelt rendition of the themes from Exodus and Doctor Zhivago both outlawed until November. Jarda gets antsier and antsier as waiters dance around us in the nearly empty dining room and, after our main course, he grabs his crutches and says he's going for a walk. I jump up after him and we walk slowly in the park above the restaurant, where he played as a child. He tells me about his mother and father, the poverty he grew up in during the First Republic, how hopeful he was about Communism, and how fearful he is now, not for himself--he's almost a pensioner--but for his children and for this beautiful country which in its long history has had so little freedom to be what it could be.

I pass through customs quickly, then sit down at the bar, where I order a cup a black coffee and some plain Czech bread. The passage from Prague to Frankfurt is perhaps not as dramatic as that from mainland China to Hong Kong but it is a passage nonetheless and I find myself lingering. I wait until everyone has left. Then, alone, I watch a large color TV set suspended from the ceiling: a little girl wearing a gas mask is pushing her toy baby carnage through a Prague street, shots follow of devastated forests. Kitty has gone on to the dentist--the last thing I remember her asking Jarda was if one hundred korany was enough of a tip for a tooth extraction. I wipe my eyes, squeeze the brown bread in my pocket, and climb the stairs up to the plane. I'm going home.

 

Originally published in the October 1990 issue of Boston Review



Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |