A father's homeland...
Anežka Novak, a New Zealander, visited Czechoslovakia in 1984 for the first time. She was in her early twenties and she went there to meet her father's family. She arrived from Poland where she had spent nearly four months as a "stagiare" working and studying with a renowned Polish theatre company.
Anežka has mainly worked as an actor, English teacher and film-maker. She is currently living in Prague, where she has applied for residency.
She was asked, as a "krajanka", to write her impressions about the Czech Republic. This article mainly deals with her first visit. A subsequent article will deal with contemporary Czech Republic.
I have such a typical Czech name that you would think I had finally found a home for it living here in the Czech Republic; that I wouldn't have to constantly explain my origins or how to spell it. I no longer have to explain the spelling, but people often react to my name. How can I possibly have such a Czech name etc? Sometimes it is greeted by hoots of laughter when they hear my elementary Czech. Then, it seems as if I'm expected to tell a truncated family history; the story of my father crossing a border; the story of his having been a political refugee. But,I discover that the words don't seem to translate in the same way. Oh so he was an emigrant, they say, but an emigrant chooses to leave I say, chooses to travel... and he didn't exactly choose.
A Displaced Person (DP) with a number. A "Reffo."
So what happens when you are forced to leave your country? The choice is not about adventure or better economic opportunities elsewhere, but it's about life or death. Saving your skin. If you go, you might live. If you stay you face imprisonment or possible execution. Members of your family have already died. In the war. In the camps. So you leave. Escape. On foot. Taking next to nothing. In the night. You become a political refugee. You eventually arrive somewhere. A transit camp. You wait. In a queue. For three years. But you get a number and a place to go. You don't choose the place. They choose you. So you go, grateful, on a long boat journey to the ends of the earth. You're Down Under. A DP with a number. A Displaced Person. Political refugee. "Reffo." Without a future. Without a past. But you can't get rid of that past even though you packed it up in an old suitcase and dumped it in the harbour on arrival. As required. There were signs just as you got off the gangplank -- "Disembarking passengers to place all cultural and emotional baggage. In the bins provided. Dump it!" Or face persecution fines. Annihilate difference, assimilate and be grateful for a place in God's own country! So you dutifully dump it, but all the time it eats at you, at your skin, gets into your bones. And transmutes to the next generation. A daughter is afflicted with it. A curiosity about the past. And politics, prisons, wars, camps, collaborators. Nothing to do with here and now, land of milk and honey, a father's "living museum", a conception of a homeland held to his aching heart for many years of not belonging, in a country he could never bring himself to call home.
And what of home? Home became a foreign country. A barbed-wire kingdom. You couldn't enter and you couldn't exit. Your world became a dis-world. Displaced, dislocated, disjointed, disenfranchised, disinherited, dismembered, cut off at the root you inhabit a -- less world. Stateless, family-less, landless, homeless, rootless, not bound so boundless ... opportunities, openings, possibilities if you can forget and embrace this new world. Your new home. Because after all, you're welcome here! You're a boat passenger! Meeting streamers, cheers, pipe band, an official welcome. Not a boat person, meeting a barbed-wire welcome. You assume life-long gratitude. You waited in the queue. You were selected. Ticked off. An official UN certified refugee. A DP with a number!
"Máte tady rodinu?"
The train grinds to a halt. I look out the window and I'm startled by all the bright lights and the huge double fences topped with barbed wire. It looks like a no man´ s land in a war zone. A Border Guard enters the carriage. It is 2am on a Wednesday night in November, 1984.
"Pas?" I hand over my New Zealand passport with my exceedingly typical Czech name.
"Máte tady rodinu?"
"Ano, rodina." I smile into his blank face. He turns the passport over, looks at me, casts his eye over my vast amounts of luggage, passes it to another guard in the corridor. I imagine myself taken away to a dank, dark cell and locked up. I hear my mother's voice.
"What do you want to go there for?"
The compartment door opens and closes rapidly followed by hurried talking.
"You mightn't be able to get out again."
"Of course I will. That was before in the 50s and I'm a New Zealander."
The guard hands my passport back. And the train lurches into motion, past the heaving smoke stacks of Ostrava, I make out bare trees in the darkness.
Lenin, vino and slivovice!
The train arrives in Prerov. I step out of the train to see a huge colourful billboard greeting me. It's an oversized picture of Lenin, the background a mass of revolutionary red flags. Underneath a slogan, "We celebrate 50 years of Czechoslovak-Soviet friendship." I ask a woman where the bus station is. She offers to show me, at the same time she laughs at the billboard and makes a dismissive gesture with her arm. I laugh too. There's no one else on the platform. On the way to the bus stop she produces a brown paper bag containing a bottle. "Červené vino z Hodonina" and thrusts it into my hand. I take a swig. "Dobrý, že jo?" I nod in agreement. It's 4am as we walk back to the waiting room, where no eating, sleeping or drinking is allowed. I wait there until it's time for the bus that goes through my aunt's village.
When the 6am bus gets to the village, it is still dark. It's late November and it's flat and grey and the trees are bare and there's a smattering of icey snow on the ground and my feet are cold in my NZ shoes. I can't see the numbers on the houses so I come back to the bus stop . A man on a bicycle passes I call out. "Przszpaszem Pane!" I forget that it's Polish. I tell him the house number. He indicates for me to follow him. Only the sound of his old-fashioned black bicycle clunking and my footsteps crunching on the snow, a novelty for me, to be walking in snow. He knocks on a big double-doored gate. My aunt opens it, I know it's her instantly, I've seen old photos and I can recognise myself in that face.
We sit at her kitchen table smiling at each other, not many words to exchange. She speaks no English, I speak a few words of Czech and Polish. "Slivovice?" I glance at the clock.7.30am! What the hell? I nod, "Děkuju!" and we clink glasses. "Na zdraví!" I think of my father at that moment, maybe she does too, it is thirty-six years since she last saw my father, her older brother. On the eve of his "departure" he came to visit my grandmother and my aunt, not in this house but a similar one in another village. He told them he may have to leave the country, and left with the greeting "S Bohem!" My aunt tells me years later that my grandmother cried for weeks afterwards, that she'd lost her husband, another son to a concentration camp and now my father. Still alive, but gone and out of contact, unreachable, even by letter, for eight years. I look around the kitchen; there's a coal-fired stove, no telephone and outside a few scraggley chooks pick at scraps in the backyard behind a wire fence. I think of my grandmother who I've seen in photos and never met, a small woman with a headscarf, and I think of all the sadness contained in my grandmother's kitchen and my aunt's kitchen, all that is unsaid, all the unspeakable deeds which have taken place in this country. My aunt pours me another slivovice and laughs at my efforts to pronounce "ř " as I get out my Teach Yourself Czech book. She tells me I have the same eyes as my grandmother, the one I'll never meet, but whose name I also inherited.
My aunt has never been to Bratislava; nor has she seen the sea. I try to imagine a life without the sea. Most of my life has been spent about fifteen minutes away from the sea and I begin to miss not only seeing it and swimming in it, but the sound of it, the smell of it and paddling toes clinging to sand, walking barefoot along the wild coast. My great, great, great grandfather,on my mother's side, was the captain of a whaling ship, arriving in New Zealand in the 1839s. I feel as if the sea is in our blood. I dream of taking my aunt to see the Pacific Ocean.
The Beatles "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" and a sampling of Czech culture
My cousin and her friends take me out on a Saturday night to a concert in Kroměříž; it's held in a brightly-lit restaurant.
A band of four men, all approaching middle age, play Beatles songs in English, but not one of them speaks English. I wonder if they understand what they're singing about as I dance under the bright lights...
I make some friends in Brno through Polish theatre connections; some of them are actors and musicians. They introduce me to some contemporary Czech culture both official and unofficial. They take me to an underground music concert comprising unregistered unofficial musicians. We also go to hear Iva Bittová and Pavel Fajt play experimental music, she singing and playing the violin. It's in a room of about 30 to 50 people; maybe it is one of her first concerts -- later I find she is a famous singer in the newly-formed Czech Republic. I also attend an orchestral concert in Brno and feel very under-dressed; there seem to be women in furs and jewels and long frocks and men in suits and ties. My New World casualness is out of place.
The Brno friends take me to Prostějov to see a friend of theirs perform in a play presented by Ha Divadlo.
There's a party afterwards in the Municipal Building where they perform; there's a lot of Moravian wine and merriment. Suddenly the lights go out and it's discovered that the building has been locked up even though there are still about fifteen people upstairs. "Why didn't the caretaker check the building?" I ask. Someone shrugs. "Maybe he was in a hurry!" "Or drunk!", another laughs. People attempt to find a way out of the building, but to no avail. We all end up having to spend the night sleeping on wooden benches, covered by coats. Morning arrives and the building is unlocked. Everyone descends in high spirits to a nearby hospoda. I acquiesce to klobasa and beer (!) for breakfast at 9am on a Sunday morning. When in Rome....
The magic of Prague
I end up staying in Prague with a couple whose name I can't give to the Foreigners' Police it was a requirement at that time to register with the Foreigners' Police in their headquarters at Olšanka if you weren't staying in a hotel. The people are persona non grata and give me the name of a trusted friend with which to supply the Foreigners' Police. After that, I stop off at the National Museum, curious to see the stuffed moa, a two-metre high extinct bird from New Zealand. There aren't so many tourists in Prague in those days, so I get talking to an Italian at the museum. We meet up with some young Czechs in a kavarna who can speak English and drink Russian "champagne" until the early hours of the morning. The street lights are dim and minimal; the streets eerily empty as we laugh and dance our way over Charles Bridge. The Italian man and I are enraptured by the magic of Prague... We stop and kiss under a statue and remark on what a fairytale city it looks, and how romantic... But when 5am arrives I understand the late night emptiness; the bustle of people going to work has begun...
A question of $$$
Some of the people I meet ask me a lot of questions and tell me how terrible life is here, and how expensive. How much do you earn? How much rent do you pay? How much was the air ticket to Europe? etc. I wonder what I can do about it. They tell me as if I'm some rich person from the West. I try to understand; maybe I'm the only foreigner they've met. Most of them don´t believe me when I say that there are poor people in America, living in the streets, without anything, that not everyone in the West is rich. One person has a Škoda car; I try to explain that I didn't have a car, instead I'd spent that money on travelling to Europe; I couldn't have a car and travel. I had the freedom to make that choice; he didn't, but it didn't mean there were greenbacks growing on trees in everyone's garden. I'm not sure what's expected of me; if I'm to give huge presents to everyone I meet or if I should send foreign dollars when I return; or what really I'm doing here. I've never been required to answer so many questions or talk about money so much in my life. Sometimes it drives me nuts.
Two sides of an Iron Curtain
I don't know if we can ever cross this divide. I want to tell them that my father's life hadn't been so comfortable either. He escaped from this country with nothing, spent three years "in transit" waiting to go somewhere. And ended up on a boat to New Zealand because it was the country that took him, but he couldn't work in his profession there, despite the many years he had spent studying. In isolated 1950s Wellington, the small capital city of New Zealand, you couldn't buy a cup of coffee; all the pubs closed at 6pm and foreigners were viewed with suspicion. "Speak English!" people would say on the bus or train; "Go home foreigner!" As if most of them had another home they could return to! But my level of Czech is too limited to express such things and I don't want to enter into some kind of scoring match about whose life was worse, his or theirs. You can not compare it with living under a totalitarian regime, the ramifications of which I cannot fully comprehend. So we eat more kolač and chlebičky and drink slivovice and pivo, hoping the merriment will ameliorate any misunderstandings.
Vy jste Nováková?
I go to visit my uncle in another small Moravian village. He still lives in the house where my father was born. I've been once before with my cousins but this time I'm alone. I get off the bus in the village square and look around; I can't quite remember where the house is; there are no street names, only house numbers. I see an elderly woman, wearing a coat and headscarf tied under her chin. She pushes a small wooden trolley which seems to contain newspapers and potatoes. I ask her for directions; she asks me if I'm a Nováková, and tells me she knew my father, and how I look like a Nováková ! When I visit my uncle, we don't have much conversation; he gives me an old identity card of my father's from when he was a law student at Charles University in Prague and shows me one or two other mementoes. There is virtually no trace of my father left. I want to see the whole house as if by seeing it I'll know more of my father's world, but my uncle invites me to sit in the kitchen and only shows me the backyard. He points in the direction of where their fields were before they were collectivized. I'm too shy to ask to see everything, I have to just imagine it, but he shows me where my father kept a horse and tells me what a good horse rider he was. I `d never seen him ride a horse but it probably explains why he took me to the horse races once when I was seven years old!
It is nearly Christmas, but my visa is about to expire so I must leave. I try to get a day train to Vienna, but I find that they don't exist. You can only pass through the border at night! And so that was my final impression; the huge lights at the border crossing, dazzling in their brightness; the barbed wire fences; the soldiers with guns and dogs and torches, looking under and on top of the train. They are locked in and I am locked out. I think of my father planting a lipa tree in the garden when I was a child; the last link, he never saw his mother or his homeland again. The border guards enter the train compartment. I assume a suitably neutral expression to face them. I don't want the border guards to see my tears for my father and his family and his lost homeland. I clutch my bag containing a bottle of my uncle's domáci slivovice and my Teach Yourself Czech book and I smile as I think of my aunt who, by the end of my visit, concedes that my pronunciation of "ř " is, if not perfect, at least passable!
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