Wednesday, July 30, 2003


Max Wyman: My life as a critic

Oscar Wilde talked about criticism as the truest form of autobiography. If you do it honestly, what you write often reveals as much about the writer as about the subject, and the job becomes a very public form of personal growth and exploration.
I blush to think of some of the pronouncements of that callow son of the 1960s. But then, I blush still when I run up against the daily evidence of how little I know and how much remains to be learned. Blush, then feel that old thrill of anticipation at what fresh experience in the creative world might bring: what Robert Hughes famously called the shock of the new.

· Shock of the New [Vancouversun]

The Underdog's Filmmaker

John Schlesinger was once quoted as saying, 'What interests me is not the hero but the coward... not the success, but the failure.' That sense of empathy and melancholy pervaded the director's best films, which will be remembered as compelling portraits, not just of their particular times and places...
· But of characters at their most vulnerable and damaged. [Washington Post 07/26/03]

Velvet Revolution

The day will come when after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.
- Pierre Teihard de Chardin (1881-1955, French paleontologist and Jesuit priest)

Making Music as a Political Act: or how the Velvet Underground Influenced the Velvet Revolution

Dedicated to the Memory of Mejla Hlavsa

In the fourteenth way of looking at America in the Czech lands I will discuss some unexpected transatlantic correspondences in the realm of underground music: how the music of The Velvet Underground - via its Czech mediators The Plastic People of the Universe - contributed to the coming into existence of the "Velvet Revolution."

· The Plastic People of the Universe [Angram ]

Tuesday, July 29, 2003


Literature Taking liberties: Memoirs as fact, memoirs as fiction

The old saying used to be, There are two sides to every story. But when it comes to memoirs it might be more appropriate to quote lyrics from musician Don Henley, who suggests three sides: There's yours and there's mine and the cold hard truth.
· Cold Truth [Minneapolis Star Tribune 07/27/03 ]

Monday, July 28, 2003

So what is an Iron Cage?

So what is a Cage? - by Rebecca Belliveau

It is secure.
It is a barrier.
It is a home.
It is a life.
It is a death.
It is a body.
It is an existence.
It is sleep.
It is someone else's reality invading your own.

If I force my world upon yours, I will blind you.
When you make me live in your truth, you deny my own.
I am an artist because I want to create my reality.
I have always lived in others', and wondered who was right.
I joined a group of people who denied the reality imposed to search for their own.
But there was nothing when they looked inside, so began the need to create - to destroy - to create again.
I keep searching for someone to tell me I am not insane to need my own reality, to be honest with myself.
I so need another to validate my sanity.
When something is wrong, you know it. Deep inside, even if everyone around you tells you it is not, you still know the truth.
To live in someone else's world means to deny yourself this truth simply to survive.
These are the reasons I create.

· Creative Chaos [Courtesy of Conversations with Dina]

Sunday, July 27, 2003

M y L a s t M a t c h

2.6 billion web pages on the Internet... and you managed to come here! Welcome....

The acid test for Cold (War) River will be your honest reviews

The Last Match: Carry out your literary dream, no matter how unlikely it may seem

In Jack London’s short story, To Build a Fire, an Alaska prospector breaks through the ice of a frozen creek in the middle of winter, then finds he has only a few dry matches left to start a fire. The suspense builds as each match flickers out before a fire can catch. His fingers begin to freeze. Desperate, he tries to kill his dog so he can warm his hands by plunging them into the animal’s steaming guts. But it’s too late: his hands are frozen. He can’t even handle his knife.
Finally, as hypothermia overcomes him, he sits down in the snow to die ...

The badly written Cold River has now gone beyond unhappiness and is in danger of committing literary suicide...

I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author's thinking he has sinned against something - propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that the work will not be realised without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgivable transgression.
Karl, of course, was of the same profession as the forbidding-looking guard in Kafka's The Trial who stands at the door to The Law and who tells the poor supplicant at the end of his life that the door had been his to pass through had he tried. My doorman Karl stood at the door to The Music and addressed me unambiguously in my teen age and for that I owe him my life.
"Open it," he told me. "Go ahead, my boy, this door is intended for you. It's your door to open. Open it."

· Edgar Doctorow

PS: I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it,” rich ’n’ famous artist Damien Hirst once said. These days, he can get away with it. So can lots of others. (I attempt to put on that enfamous Slavic smile worn ever so proudly by my countryman Andy Warholla )

Saturday, July 26, 2003

Language, in the words of Ahab, Taxes me

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
-- Mark Twain

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction.
-- E. F. Schumacher

My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I'm happy. I can't figure it out. What am I doing right?
-- Charles M. Schulz

It's All Over the News...

As anyone who has broken down on the motorway will know, to stand at the side, waiting for rescue, is a revelation. Nothing better conveys the frictional potence of speed.
-William Eastlake

Cold (War) River Online editing

Jozef Imrich published his book Cold River as an e-book last year, but wasn't satisfied with the results -- admitting that the book could use considerable editing.
He's taking an interesting approach to getting that done, publishing the book online (at where he's soliciting outside help to fix things up (join in !) -- as well as in this way allowing readers to track the progress and changes of this work-in-progress

· Work-in-Progress [Saloon: Mr Michael Orthofer, Managing Editor, at the Complete Review ]

Chapter 6 (1 of 4): SLEEPLESS IN VIENNA



7 July - 7 September 1980

I don't think Americans even want to know about this stuff [the Iron Curtain]. A lot of people I know back home think I'm out of my mind doin' what I'm doin'.
- Elvis Presley
(Oct. 1, 1958 - March 5, 1960
Friedberg, Germany, Scout Platoon, 32nd Armor, 3rd Armored Division)

Send editorial suggestions to

A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefolds.
- Henry Miller The Books In My Life (1969)

What's the point of being a sole survivor if you're not convinced the world will read your story in the end? Somehow an awareness of death encourages us to live more intensely. I know writers who are smarter than me, who are more talented than me, who have stronger instinct than me, who know more literary agents than me.I am preoccupied with more guilt than all of them.
The struggle against forgetting is unending and according to Elie Wiesel: Any survivor has more to say than all the historians combined about what happened..
Somewhere in the depths of my foolish soul I nurture one conceited notion: One day, perhaps - one day - something shining will be prised out of all this raw skeleton...
L ike a good father or a beautiful view, a work of art is harder to describe than to recognise. Professor Gombrich once said that there was no such thing as art, only artists. Which begs the question, what makes an artist? V aclav Havel says that they are those who ‘celebrate our existence by making us more conscious of it.’ Art is a language and that it must have something to say:
Having my first daughter being born exactly 9 months after the Velvet Revolutiont is, perhaps, one of the most remarkable illustrations of how hope can spring from the most appalling of tragedies.

Jozef was born, which has made a lot of bullies angry over the years, and has driven several to taste justice. He has survived many attempts to rectify this obvious mistake and now finds solace by editing in short, hair raising bursts of energy. He welcomes your comments, hopes like hell you'll buy his book, and wishes you all the very best in everything except being mean to each other, which, he claims, is a game enjoyed by bullies and politicians alone.

Prove the naysayers wrong!
To download "Cold River: a survivor's story" use this link:
· Three men with courage to escape make a majority [Double Dragon Publishing]
· via Microsoft
· Via Fiction

On 7 July 1980 I became the enemy of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and sentenced to a life in prison.
On the eighth day of July my parents died a little. On Radio Free Europe my parents listened to my obituary. Five years after Aga’s death, their last born was reported dead, turning their world upside down.
In my family everything disintegrated like wet paper. For 40 hours my parents thought I was dead, the longest hours in my Mamka’s life. When my cousin Tibo eventually informed my family that according to the latest reports on Radio Free Europe I was alive, Mamka just cried.
No words can do justice to the fact that on the 8th of July I would stand before the mirror as if I were another person from the one I was on the previous morning. I would experience a rude awakening to the outside world, a dark liquid world. My first thought was, 'What if I'm dead but don't know it?' Where did the strange nagging voices come of 'How am I ever going to ...' and its evil twin, 'If only I had ...' come from?
So this was supposed to be my happy morning. I began my new chapter in life by referring to myself in the third person, not 'I', but 'he'. Closing my eyes brings only strange darkness and a chilling sense of emptiness. It was a moment in my life where my eyes and ears questioned everything. I wanted to drain every river in the world. I wanted to drain every drop of my perishable dream. The distant past was present in every moment, and the future had already happened. Coincidences, errors, accidents, feelings. My only satisfaction was the fact that the iron curtains of Communism turned out to be more flimsy than they appeared. I was part of something much larger than my own life.
It was like a cloud gradually blocking out the sun. The world was losing its light and meaning. There was a hole within me. I could not make sense of anything not even of the only communist coin in my trouser pocket, which dropped to the floor. The sound and air felt like a great machine crushing the subconscious mind. I had no proof that I was I. No papers. No face. No mind. My head was filled with an echo of doubt. I stood near the window and talked to my nonexistent self, a self hungry for information about the outside world. I became a tale of two personalities, noting how quickly emotions changed with each question. My eyes said, 'Where is Ondrej?' 'Am I free?' 'Where is Milan?' I could not answer; I had a stone in my throat.
As I leaned against the cold metal door of the bathroom and recalled the helpless shrug of the Austrian guard's shoulders.
You cannot help thinking of Shakespeare's tragedies when you stand across a mirror staring at a third person who looks like you. A person who was without doubt the unhappiest soul in the world. A gloomy, ravaged character who could only think he was just putty in someone else's hands.
Life imposed on me that I would feel strange and even stranger in the very depth of my being. I could not really think. I could only feel. Everything seemed surreal. I knew that I, the stranger, was one lucky bastard. I knew that. As July 7 unfolded in front of me in slow motion, I experienced how slamming the mirror with a bare fist feels. I, perhaps with some embarrassment, can still trace my first encounter in Austria with blood. I still remember the blood dripping from my hand on the broken mirror of defeat in victory. All the hopes that had underlain the heroism of the escape had suddenly been punctured, partly by their fulfilment and partly by my loneliness. Courage is seven-tenths context. What is courageous in one setting can be foolhardy in another and even cowardly in a third.
'Dear God, help me', I prayed, and that is the first time in adulthood I acknowledged a need to pray, because I could not do this alone no matter how alone I felt. Once the hazy veil of tears were lifted from my eyes, there was no reason to doubt that I was not going to see Ondrej and Milan the next day. Words of comfort came from strangers, instilling the false hope that I would see them again. Freedom granted from heaven it was not. But, there was no reason why I could not feel the same sense of spirituality as my grandfather did 60 years ago when he walked on Austrian soil.
Still, I went to bed only to toss and turn. I slept in waves of nerves and exhaustion. I was sowing the seeds of uncertainty that would rule the rest of my life. I had no idea then or any day since what the morning might bring. The sense of permanent doubt and self-doubt buzzed inside me loud and clear. I was too scared to think or close my eyes and even more scared to open them. Our escape was like a text with several possible meanings, some of them contradictory. I could feel a convincing story of myself as a victim who had suffered failure and loss or a story of myself as a success, who had gained freedom and choice.
The inexpressible smell of the Morava River, like some unseen phantom, lingered around my nose. Guilt can be insidious and to repress thoughts. I was exhausted by moral complexity. I was plagued by repetitive thoughts and fantasies about the drowning of Ondrej and Milan. I couldn't get them out of my mind. These thoughts would fill my mind even when I was awake. They were in my dreams when I slept. And the thoughts were insatiable. Whether in dreams or reality I just felt I had failed. That was probably the hardest thing that was stopping me accepting what had happened.
Every thought involved a thousand-meter-deep fall into nothing. That nothingness kept taking my breath away. In my nothingness, I talked to Ondrej, Milan, Mamka, Tato, opening the door of my bedroom, reading the magazines, switching off the lights.
An ancient well of revenge scenarios flooded my mind.
I suffered from a peculiar sense of distorted time. While I planned revenge against Gustav Husak, everyone around me only knew only one Gustav, Gustav Klimt, the father of 14 illegitimate children, who, like me, feared voices in his head. The dark furniture of my mind was all rotten. I merely drifted in what Milan Kundera might term 'unbearable lightness'. I needed a Kundera, or better yet, a Havel to describe my life's twisted deviation. I didn't know what I wished to do or how to search for meaning in the existential vacuum. Words failed me here. Memories failed me too. I wished I had my Tato to tell me what to do. 'Tell me, Tato, what is the best move in the Austrian world?' To be sure, any kind of answer would be an oversimplification of my situation.
Inside the Austrian police station near a large reception desk a photograph of Rudolf Kirchschlager, an Austrian politician, hung on one of the walls. Feeling lost and forlorn sitting on the cold bench of the Austrian police station, I recalled learning at school that there was no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land. It was a saying belonging to many centuries earlier, but it captured my feelings at this point, and many times beyond it.
It was dawn, July 8, 1980. And in a small cell across the way from the reception desk I sat with Bessie, clinging to the familiarity of her form, her smell, my only connection with my home. I felt nauseated and haunted. It was as if my greatest fears had caught up to me. The Morava River tried to drown me yesterday. That was hard to even comprehend.
I woke up several times during the night and each time it dawned on me that yesterday was not a nightmare. It had really happened. I recall wondering for hours how our escape could have been executed better. My whole body dreaming, remembering, thinking. Once I woke when a bright light was pouring in on me, and I started to open my eyes. I didn't know where in the world I was. I felt like screaming in pain, but I didn't scream; instead I turned the yell inward as I had taught myself to do.
The room seemed empty, and I didn't even know where the room was - it was all just floating in empty space, and I couldn't say what planet or star I'd landed on. All that was running through me in that one second was the loneliness of being this tiny insignificant particle in the universe, and how a life weighs nothing in all that light, that what happened at Moravsky Jan actually did happen.
The silence of the cold and dark morning was broken by the sound of lisping Austrian voices fading in and out through invisible gaps in the wall. The window rattled in an unfriendly way. The memories flooded into my mind, obliterating the present so I would experience myself back in the river, and feel again the original horror. Bessie's tail vibrated frantically, not comprehending my sweaty forehead. As I lay there, reliving the nightmare of the escape, sweat slithering down my shivering spine.
My mind was now plagued by doubts I never knew existed. Death seemed better than sleep. I was surrounded by an incomprehensible language and an unknown world of water. Much as the water envelops the planet, so sleep hides one third of a human life. Water and sleep have tides and cycles, risings and fallings, and each may be calm at one moment, stormy and filled with sudden, hidden horrors the next. For both sleep and the water have their shallows and shelves that drop without warning into sunless trenches. While both sleep and the water are familiar, each remains a strange and secret place.
Many strange questions swirled voraciously inside my head, shaking my sanity, my senses. I could hear the voice of my Mamka asking me why I had done it. I wanted to rush into her safe embrace, feel the security of her arms around me, taking me away from this mess. Why? Why? Why? If only I did things for one reason as a time. If only I was capable of dissecting and explaining my motivation to myself, let alone to Mamka. Logic had nothing to do with wanting to drink from the dangerous river of capitalism rather than from the secure teacup of Communism.
I went numb. Fighting panic as ice tore like electricity through me, I felt like a squashed insect under a microscope, a huge eye stalking me from above, and I sensed my own guilt and failure melting in my heart like a huge block of ice. I sat there with mud between my toes, grit in my hair, fear in my mind. The air around me reeked of body odour. Fear of suffocation filled my brain cells and stomach. And my lips moved against the will of their surrounding facial muscles.
This was not how I had imagined the first moments of freedom would feel. I did not immediately recognise that I was free, which was understandable, given my position in the police station cell. As I gritted my teeth, my courage was seeping away like the strength of my muscles as I struggled to swim across the Morava.
My life was not based on reality. It was based on an ideal. It was based on fantasy that swam out of the watery darkness. Somehow in this cell my life ended and I was being born out of the currents I left behind. I tried to draw strength from my memories of childhood, as I had done after Aga's death and during my time in the army. However visions of communists, fascists, and the high ranking powerful men who had transformed this part of the world into chain-ridden cells for millions of people dominated the scenes in my head.
In particular, my mind could not help draw the parallels between Hitler and the Slovakian communists. How could the Austrians and the German bear the ease with which they had been manipulated, the same ease with which the communists manipulated us?
I dwelled on the events of 1938 when we were sold out by France and Britain. I felt rage for events not even belonging to my own lifetime that had led me to this dark and threatening cell. A single tear travelled down my unshaven cheek. I missed my comfortable chair, my bed and the familiar marks on my bedroom ceiling, my own bathroom, familiar sounds. I sat still the entire time while my thoughts whirled around at lightning speed.
I remembered emerging from the river, the feeling of joy when I realised that I had made it. Then a gripping numbness when I realised that I could not see Ondrej and Milan.
'Oh, Mamka, oh Ondrej, Milan, I am alone.' I cried into Bessie's fur, or the wall or the mirror or whatever. That night my debilitated, but inexhaustible inner voice taught me that the basest of all things is to be afraid. My loneliness was exaggerated in this state.
My thoughts were caught in a flood, moving in all directions. The water blasted out. It sipped slowly into my consciousness. The water was like a metaphor for a loss of who I was and what was to become of me. My old sense of humour had drowned for ever.
If a country can cry, it cries in its escapes. The escape was mine, but the cries were Mamka's. 'Why, why did you leave us? Aga left us at 22 and now you ,' she told me on the telephone. Those words crushed every breath out of me. The feeling that I would not be at the centre of Mamka's world. Escape is a journey of trespass that is not an escape. I knew then that ahead of me was a lifetime of dealing with the crossing. Getting past the physical journey was easy. Getting family and me past the mental journey, was the hardest thing. I almost went mad thinking about the 'if onlys.' As the world was moving from summer to autumn, my eyes had no other expectation but to drift through icebergs of my tortured interior. My stare could freeze a lava.
I was unsure how to encourage the watch to tick with meaning again. Unsure why keeping correct facial expressions was beyond my abilities. How many times have my parents forgiven me? Surely, more than seventy times seven!
It is so ironic, but only when we lose something or are about to lose something do we realise how much we value it. When you catch a glimpse of death, it's amazing how many things you think vitally important aren't even in the picture; and the things that you have been taking for granted, the things that you can't buy, those are suddenly the things of matchless value. Mamka always left the lights on for me. Here I was in darkness, I did not even know where the switch was.
Whenever the 7 July comes around, I become a different person. I am moved by memories in a resentful way. I have no inclination to go to work, nor to walk along Bondi Beach, as is my usual custom.
The most vivid recurring image in the nightmare is watching Ondrej and Milan drowning. I try to reach them with my hands. Then the unidentified officer in a Nazi uniform throws me into the river. Despite repeated efforts, I too am drowning. I slip deeper and deeper into the Morava River. Every morning after such nightmares, I awake sweaty and in a mood as dark as a mad man's depression. Our escape was timed to be symbolic in its reverence for the day that Charter 77 was signed. It was meant to say to the world, hey look at us, what the young are having to do in Czechoslovakia.
Aga, who died so tragically young from leukemia, had no hope in this system. The hospitals and medical supplies were inadequate to help her and so quickly she slipped out of my life, with no time to fight. Maybe she would have died similarly in another part of the world, maybe medical care might not have been able to do anything for her. However, the fact remains that no-one could assist her in her dying hours. There was also the suspicious nature of the onset of the leukemia. If Aga hadn't been working at that plant, would she have suffered a similar fate? In my youth, I blamed it all on Communism, the uncaring system that was supposed to be a caring one. I still can feel that disbelief that it happened, and that insatiable sense of loss.
I held other memories of the communist putsch time. Most vivid were of my Auntie Otta, who daringly escaped across the marshlands of Sudaten land. Then there was the land confiscation, when my grandfather lost everything he owned. Not that he was alone in this as everyone had to 'make do', living each day as it comes and never knowing where the next meal was coming from or whether it would be the last.
Imagine a book, an encyclopaedia, that held the information you needed to conduct all aspects of your life. A book that could instruct you on your health, your business, the food you ate and even your future ... History tends to repeat itself. Humans don't seem to learn. Through my escape, I was running away from it all.
I spent fourteen hours on the polished wooden floors of the unfamiliar Austrian police station. All those hours I felt cut off from the world, lying in a darkened room in a cocoon of loneliness. I could hear the border guards and policemen and knew that I faced more uncertainty ahead.
At one stage I looked into the mirror and saw my eyes were bloodshot, my head heavy, my face unshaven. My darkened eyes felt like tinted windows - I could see out, but no one could see in. I turned quickly from the pull of my tinted eyes in the mirror. I did not pause to look inside them. Instead, I swallowed the strange sensation of seeing a man in tinted glasses poking a wounded dog with a stick. Bessie was engrossed in licking the salt of my right hand, the taste of my tears, maybe in the hope that I was going to take her out for a walk. It was summer and that was what we always did in summer. Bessie received no solace. My brain was still fogged with chilling images of me wrestling with masses of water. 'Oh, God did I do that? 'My eyes seemed stone cold. They had aged beyond their years.
When at last I brought myself to look out the window, I was at first surprised. The village resembled an elegant album of nostalgic snapshots, Austrian workers in comfortable shoes with bags in their hands, a cluster of pastel stately homes on the hill. Beyond them lay the motionless Czechoslovak border. In the distance was the mysterious Devin Castle. It was there, at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers, where Slovak and Austrian citizens in 1948, separated by the infamous Iron Curtain, gathered to wave to family and friends on opposite sides of the border.
The sun mirrored the freshly starched and pressed pastures in the window panes. The grass fields rose behind the Morava River. I whispered good-bye in my heart. Although there were some gaps in my memory, I did not require a map to tell me where the splendid Austrian countryside ended and the Slovakian concrete slum began. I focused my gaze on the concrete barbed wire fences - a line that was drawn on our map in Kezmarok several hours ago.
At the height of the Cold War, the world nervously watched as superpowers tested their chemical weapons. This was a time when most of my country men were being 'brainwashed,' many subject to torture, rape, manipulation, suppression. The treatment of conscientious objectors, democratic sympathisers, and other 'undesirables', was nothing less than legalised genocide. Combined with the full force of controlled print, radio and television, it produced a subservient nation, which was the intention of the communists.
I wondered why I was in an Austrian police station: the horror seared part of my memory. The full force of my fears came to fruition in that police station, whirling inside the chaos of my head. I scanned the faces of those Austrian police but was unable to tell whether they sympathised with my plight or not. Even if I had understood German perfectly and even if the translator had spoken Czech fluently, I could not possibly have relayed what I had been through in the last twenty-four hours, the culmination of many hours and years of my life as a Slovak...

Chapter 6 (2 of 4): SLEEPLESS IN VIENNA

Chapter 6 (2 of 4): SLEEPLESS IN VIENNA

The difference between Czechoslovakia's token economy and Austria's market economy was startling. I was struck by the change. How was it possible that Vienna, a city which at the beginning of this bloody century had more Czechs and Slovaks than any city except Prague and Bratislava, was surrounded by so much beauty? By such spine-warming aura? The contrast with the Czechoslovakian landscape was too stark.
I remember a strange tension as we headed for the city centre. I passed the endless circles of friends, dressed in so many different styles and colours, relaxing their souls and sunning their smiling faces outside dozens of solid stone cafes. Every cafe made a particular artistic statement. There were no grim-faced party apparatchiks, no soldiers on point duty with rifles at the ready, no regulated state businesses. So many newspapers. Banks so huge. The scenery along the avenues was majestic, particularly the sections above the cafes, where the charm of the past was projected by the massive balconies of the Ringstrasse. Ever since I was a kid I had always wanted to have a coffee in Vienna in this famous semicircle of avenues.
In me Ringstrasse had a fascinated audience. I kept thinking, Rambacher, my amusing neighbour, was right Vienna was richer than any totalitarian God. Here I was, the first Imaret since 1948 to set his eyes on the Ringstrasse, the largest open air cafe in the world. I was getting used to something that my generation had never experienced: freedom. The psychology of freedom and its acquisition is a fascinating subject. No phrase can convey the idea of freedom as vividly as the size of my eyes as I watched Vienna walking past. Men moving with Vienna speed; it was only a matter of time before their shirts came out. A woman's skirt caught in the summer wind revealed every paradox: the pleats stretched, flew, shrank and raced to a mysterious angle. At the traffic lights, her determined face pretended that her cream knickers had never seen the light of the day. Never mind that my poetic heart glued the connection between shirts and knickers and the wind in the trees.
For my maternal grandparents, citizens of the multicultural world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna was where their parents bought the few precious pieces of furniture from well-known cabinet makers. The Imperial Vienna my parents treasured was made up of tales that became woven into mythology. Everything was supposed to be better here. However, my first images were coloured as I pined for the company of Milan and Ondrej to share this new experience that we had long dreamed about.
Vienna seemed only a short journey from the border. In summer, dead flat Vienna wore golden colours and blue skies, the Danube River a metallic-green, the masses of rooftops a velvet orange. The trams reminded me of Prague, as so many other things did. Like the girls who glided remote and vacant-eyed along avenues, stopping only to examine their reflections in the windows of shops. I imagined what in their life would prompt them to embrace escape to Czechoslovakia: stress of having so many shoes to choose from in the window of the shop, a lonely existence in the streets without undercover police to watch every move and mood, or maybe the worry of having every newspaper story and film uncensored. Their eyes, I fancied, spoke for escapees across the land, yearning for Communism and, yes, for the May marches.
So here I was peering through a half open window in a stationery car, when I notice three huge television sets turned on, propped way up on top of metal hooks inside a shop, and the song 'Yellow Submarine' was playing and the Beatles dressed in colourful costumes were dancing in front of my eyes.
The band had so much charisma and energy on those huge screens that it was captivating and I was mesmerised. Yet few young people my age paid the band much attention as they walked briskly past the window each holding onto some kind of colourful plastic bag. For a minute or so, I forgot everything, that I was in a police car, the ordeal I faced and was still facing; none of these things mattered as I watched this guys with so much talent.
We did not stop for long and I would soon consume miles of colourful signposts and disorientating advertisements from a moving car, mostly filled with virile men and sleek women. My heart travelled the sidewalk and rooftops filled with the warning signals of the loneliest day in my life.
When I looked at the young men and women at the supermarkets and cafes, I was reminded of Milan and Ondrej. Vienna was to be where we all would meet together following the escape, symbolising our new futures together. The brief feelings of joy disappeared.
For many years I had toyed with the thought of what would it feel like to be in Vienna, I mean, I have dreamt about Vienna, but what could I feel? Perhaps fear? Why? For those of us born in the post-holocaust world, it was hard to imagine living life as an Austrian or a German. My history lessons were dominated by my teacher's hysteria about German barbarism and psychotic Austrians, French and Americans.
Given my emotional tidal wave, I was not ready to face more questions inside Traiskirchen, the Viennese refugee camp. The walls of the camp kept the worst kept secret: that the eastern block idyll countries were the worst places to live on God's earth. Degenerated Communism was the source of the human flood moving in and out of the detention centre.
Traiskirchen was the headquarters for the interrogation of hundreds of defectors from the East. The courtyard full of ill-dressed refugees who cast glances in our direction. Some spoke to the uniformed men as we walked through the jig-saw of bodies. Because of the bright sunlight and my blurred eyes, every face seemed in a haze.
I wondered if my feet would continue to work. I felt like I was walking in several different directions. I could hear myself telling others what had happened without being aware of what words I was using, although 'Morava,' seemed to keep on being repeated.
Whatever the cause, it was clear that all Eastern European refugees had one thing in common. The willingness to risk everything, for one thing: freedom. It was here that I placed my story on record, even moving my translator to tears. This surprised me, given the number of political refugees there were in Vienna at this time. The ruthless orphans of the Cold War, the graduates of the schools of Marxism who happened to be born into a society that had no soul, no joy.
A mean wind and flood swell the number of asylum applications. In Austria it peaked at 35,000, mostly Poles, in 1980. I was just another amongst the thousands and that sense of anonymity was haunting. For fifteen minutes, everyone wanted to meet me, but who would care about my fate? My future would be addressed within the context of merciless economics, never-ending racial prejudices and inescapable language difficulties. If most of the refugees were broke, I was destitute. A few came by car and some by train. Some walked and one swam, but we were united in our homelessness and hope for a better future.
I had become another statistic, another escapee from the repression of Czechoslovakian life. For most of the 20th century, it was accepted that the view of Czechoslovakia that Czechs and Slovaks knew best was looking back from a train or a car heading for somewhere else.
What is a detention center? A thin skin between you and the doubts. Anthropology is there. It is in the sunrise; it is in the toilet; it is in the metal beds sighing to the slivers of the moon. Future does not yet exist, but memory and making of the past fills the air. Here we talk about the temperature of the soup but we mean the coldness of the soul. Life in the refugee camp was another new and unexpected experience, one that has provided me with considerable insight into the lives of migrants anywhere in the world and makes me sympathise with many that enter Australia today. The emotional trauma of having left your homeland is compounded by Spartan conditions and a prison-style regime, where your movements are dictated by authorities, who may or may not be oblivious to your fate.
Our sleeping arrangements in the camp were on a par with my Nitra army experience. Privacy was non-existent. Through paper walls I could hear the Hungarian couple having sex on one side, the Polish family of five constantly arguing with one another. I resigned myself, with Bessie, to sharing a tiny room with two other Czech and Moravian boys, Milan and Peter. Our room was exactly six paces by seven, with three beds, a palm-sized white window, a single wardrobe, one chair and no sink. As a result, we shared the bathroom with twenty other occupants of similarly tiny rooms and drank the dregs from others' wine glasses beneath a naked light bulb. I existed nervously, never knowing what was going to happen.
There were thousands in a similar predicament,: families, young babies, all desperate for a new existence. It is heart-wrenching to leave one's family and homeland. However, it is desperation that drives one on to other lands. I was not alone in my predicament, just alone in my thoughts.
Life became less and less predictable. We all have our comforting little routines, our sense of control over what we do. There is no sense of independence in a refugee camp. You are at the whim of others and never know what each day will bring.
Of all topics of conversation, the most predictable was how migrants were unable to stop thinking cigarettes, about how they started smoking again. The shame they felt for picking up the disgusting, habit. The price of cigarettes was part and parcel of the small talk, as was anyone who happen to be caught picking up butts outside restaurants and pubs.
Freedom was a new, strange world pressing in. I had to face the implications of my escape: that my experience of the new world, my own identity, was fundamentally altered by one swim across the river. Who was I without my roots? As long as I was in Czechoslovakia, I had never wondered what I would do with my life beyond getting out of Czechoslovakia. Now I had a whole new set of fears and trepidation as to what I would do now.
At the same time, I was constantly confronted with the hideous memories of the Morava River. I was ill-prepared for a single hour, even less a whole day, without a word from Milan and Ondrej. Only twenty-four hours ago I thought nothing could touch me. Could 'we will not die,' mean 'we will not live?' How could I counter this loss of heart? Where could I find courage to face the future? What was the future?
While I was prepared to knock my head against an Iron Wall, I was not prepared to be a stranger. I was not prepared for freedom among strangers. I had never been a 'stranger', locked inside Czechoslovakia with my family and friends who had also limited experience of being strangers. Until my landing in Austria, I knew nothing about the elements of distance except for those between Slovak villages, with a hint of it through the Tatras to Poland.
Nevertheless, my life slowly evolved within the confines of the refugee camp. Given that I was relatively penniless, I secured part-time work in several cafes doing odd jobs, earning a meagre amount. I saved what I could, having lost all my possessions during the escape, knowing also that I wouldn't be staying here long. As much money as possible was desirable given that I was determined to start again in a new country.
Besides, the refugee camp was utterly depressing and I knew that I could only stay for a short while whilst I recovered from the shock of what had happened. Not only was the camp dispiriting, the food sickened me. I knew somehow that in order to save my spirit and my tastebuds, I had to get out soon. I would look around dazed, watching the milieu of nationalities mingle, a melting pot of Eastern European exiles sitting over a table fiddling with cutlery, many half-shaven Romanians and Albanians, dressed in Traiskirchen T shirt and old fashioned trousers. I did not want to be part of this culture for long lest it taint me with its own sense of despair.
Some Czechoslovaks and Poles wanted me to tell them the story of my escape. I felt uneasy as I studied their faces, interested but cautious in case I was considered mad. They somehow knew that I was not swimming alone and that my companions were missing. Our escape was unusual, as most exiles escaped safely by bribing a guard on Yugoslav border or simply walking or driving through unpatrolled border areas.
Then, one day I walked into an art gallery called the supermarket. I was so excited to see thousands of goods in the supermarket that I walked through three in two hours. I still remember the supermarket where I counted twenty different kinds of pasta. For hours, the corners of my mouth held pools of thick wetness of a savage beast: does not this smell nice, or that looks enticing or how about the cakes looking so tasty ... It was hard to know where to look. I still remember the revelation of my first cappuccino in the cafe where I counted twelve different kinds of coffees. In the evening in a letter to my Mamka I found it impossible to explain the food descriptions: sugar-free, cholesterol free, fat free. The cholesterol free salami was nice enough, but you'd only write home about it once.
There is nothing you cannot have in Vienna. Dolce & Gabbana, Dior and Hermes are among the scores of prestigious names above the doors.
There were bookshops full of readers, contrasting with my homeland where so many books were forbidden and the only ones allowed not worth reading given the extent of propaganda that they preached. Under communism, a good book had to be read beneath one's bed covers. Interestingly, I counted seven books on the High Tatra Mountains, and one of them was by Chamillova’s friend Karol Plicka, the famous photographer.
At Traiskirchen I was befriended by the hostel’s director Karl Radek who kept telling me stories to fuel my already deepsense of paranoia. Sometime debriefing with Radek was like opening up a wound and not sewing it back up. I had been warned not to indulge in story telling. Karl Radek pointed out the danger of media exposure and the rumours and gossip within the refugee camp. He had documented literally thousands of escape stories. None was through the mine-dotted Austrian-Czech border that we had crossed.
Once he told me a two-year old story about Georgi Markov, a popular writer exiled from Bulgaria, was walking to the BBC in London where he broadcast to his homeland from Radio Free Europe when he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his leg. Turning around, he confronted a man picking up an umbrella. The man apologised and went on his way. Markov took ill that night and died several days later. The autopsy found a small metal pellet coated with ricin, a toxic substance derived from castor oil plant. You could never be sure what could happen to you.
There was a worse scenario that ground rocks of salt into my fresh wound: the embarrassed communists wanted me: dead or alive. The possibilities of a diplomatic car taking me back across the border to Czechoslovakia. Fear gripped me by the throat and I felt sick. There could be no going back, surely. When I walked the streets of Vienna, every car seemed to take on the shape of a communist diplomatic car. I once thought one car swerved on the pavement in order to get me so I ran and ran. I could escape my homeland but not this paranoia. My great therapeutic dream was that the past paranoia was escapable, but my heart felt still romantic then.
Under the original plan, I was to join my cousin in Reims (France) or Lugarno (Switzerland) and work on the samizdat magazines for either the Open Society Foundation or Radio Free Europe. In surviving the escape, I felt such pain and guilt for not drowning with Ondrej and Milan that I felt the need to get away again, to a new land which was not wrapped up in dreams gone wrong. I kept mistaking passing strangers for Ondrej and Milan.
That same afternoon, a Slovak refugee took away the last sliver of hope when he told me that he heard on Austrian radio that the border guards had found one of my friends in the river. The day I identified Ondrej, a swollen blue corpse almost unrecognisable after almost three days in the river, I felt that someone had a permanent hole in my heart. I looked down at the corpse that appeared deformed in death. I felt a wave of enormous regret settling over me like a brick-filled army backpack.
The faceless men who stole my friends were everywhere. Revenge and regrets are flooding rivers in the middle of the night. At midnight I found it hard to trust in laws of nature or chance to keep me sane. My only wish was to be boiled like water and transform into a thin air. As I steamed my anger towards the communists, I named one and every disgusting thing I had said or done. I pestered many of my memories for punishment. Characteristics which I once thought were not so repulsive proved to be true beyond reasonable doubt. I saw black floating spots in my eyes as the oxygen drained from my malfunctioned brain. I heard every pounding heartbeat. Such heartbeat would melt even the coldest of hearts.
Terra Nova by Ted Tally slips in and out of dreams and visions, not because the playwright thought it was a neat theatrical trick, but because the play’s main characters are dying on the Antarctic ice, hallucinating, grasping onto dreams to fend off reality.
I was incapable of crying when two days later I identified Milan who had been found after being in the river for five days. There were few remnants of human left - just bloated, decomposed organisms. I was dumbstruck with grief and horror at the sight before me. I had lost my handsome friends, my good times, my fellow rogues. I acquired my new mask, my new identity of filled with biblical contradictions when the glimmering sparks of hope went dead. This was the day I started to pretend to be a person I was not in my new fiction of exile.
My new knees went weak, my new stomach turned. My new hope drifted away. As their deaths began sinking in, the threat of loneliness and self-loathing made itself comfortable in my heart. Why had I lived when they hadn't? It is impossible not to pity oneself when your best friends die, especially when the friends are one's own age and so brilliant, lovable and unique as Ondrej and Milan.
The detention Doctor said, ‘Herr Imrich, you will from now on become prone to hallucinations.’ I did not believe him. I took Bessie out for long walks and I never hallucinated. There were times when Bessie was off the planet, but not me.
I was trying to remember everything about my most memorable moment with Milan and Ondrej. And the detail that announced themselves was an afternoon a day before the escape when Ondrej, Milan and I pretended we were having a glass of wine in Vienna.
Under the leaden skies of Austria, my days were marked by silent brooding. Somewhere in Austria two freshly dug graves cried. The cry of the graves is impossible to imagine until you hear it. At first flush it chills the blood and fixes you rigid while the brain scrambles to workout the last five days of headaches and five nights of nightmares. My thought began with a funeral, a soulless funeral without friends and then my thoughts got more gloomy. Everything was a fake. To hell with this futile wasteful life. Was our escape pointless? If not what was the point?
Language, Slovak, Czech or English, refuses to express what I experienced when I saw their iced-over eyes. There was nothing as loud and clear as my pain. No amount of the usual questions asked in mortuaries and paper forms took my mind those eyes. The eyes made sure they followed me through the corridors, garden, even everyday traffic. A world without my dear friends was like world without sunshine. I walked outside and watched jasmine scented puddles in the street grow. The shattered raindrops of dreams were lying at my feet. Moonlight on the surface of the puddles reflected the silver light like broken mirrors of my heart.
How broken was my heart? Who can tell me? My heart, that small thing, inside my other heart. What is it trying to tell me? ‘Life is spent walking in and out of doorways of dreams.’ There is something shameful about being a survivor and alone in this kind of dreamless setting, as if one were undesirable or friendless and had only oneself to blame for everything. For a few days, I received much sympathy. My and Bessie’s picture was on television and in the newspapers. I even received a proposal of marriage. But even before I became yesterday’s news, I had fallen into the category of the business as usual in the world of the Iron Curtain.
If you wait and wait and wait for someone who never comes you start to experience gulps of ghostly grief. Grief which deposited its iron paws in the seat of my chest as if my mouth and nose were full of water. In moments like this, there was no point in trying to move it was as if my legs were made of lead. If you wonder about home for seven sleepless nights, you feel many things. You start to bruise like a pear. I would be overwhelmed by emotions I could neither name nor control. I learned how fragile a grip I had on my faith. I had many moments when I denied God.
When Douglas Dunn wrote his poem Supreme Death in 1972, Milan, Ondrej and I were fourteen.

Fishing on a wide river from a boat
A corpse was caught, her black hair like a huge weed,
The hook stuck in a black shroud strangely marked.

There were others. Hundreds gathered round the boat,
Some turning, their white faces like pillows.
I lost my oars, and the river quickened.

On the towpath, men in their hundreds
Ran with tide, singing, and pushing,
When they felt like it, some poor fool into the river.

Death, the best of all mysteries, layer
After layer is peeled off your secrecy
Until all that is left is an inexplicable ooze.

Too late, it is myself.
Too late, my heart is a beautiful top.
Too late, all the dead in the river are my friends.

Chapter 6 (3 of 4): SLEEPLESS IN VIENNA

Chapter 6 (3 of 4): SLEEPLESS IN VIENNA

'Say it is not so..' I pleaded with Karl Radek. I turned to see his eyes but he only looked at his shoes. I close my eyes and wait for the gentle pressure of Mr Radek’s hand. I did not feel his comforting hand, but I take it on faith that he had. Instead, Mr Radek makes a lame attempt at bravado 'Do not think of throwing in the towel. You lost a battle. The war against communism is on.' I didn’t consciously memorise his words, but a few weeks later I could vividly recall them word for word. Then he gives me a book on coping. The book said something about suffering being part of something bigger.
I was also worried because I knew that people who hear voices shouldn't let the rest of the world in on their secret.
What else have I got to lose. I have lost my dreams.
Death came quickly, unexpectedly to Ondrej and Milan. Now it could not come quickly for me. I ached for death. I started to seek it out, entertaining thoughts of drowning myself, and embracing it the day I drank two bottles of vodka. In my alcoholic poisoning oblivion I had time to draw up lists in my head of all those I blamed for the drowning. A hate list of communists. The insensitivity of my feelings terrified me. I seemed so remote as to be a total stranger. I became a prisoner of my own heavy iron curtain drawn. I denied myself to dream. I did not want to make plans any more.
What would there be if there were no Ondrej and Milan? What would there be if there never had been anything? What would there be if nothingness itself had not existed? What would there be if there were no existence, nothing created or not created, nothing drowned or not drowned? How could one be? Did I really exist at all?
I asked myself whether I was going crazy. Crazy and busy occupying my thoughts with biblical characters like Jonah who spent three days and three nights in fish’s belly. I can never understand what made Wolf Mankowitz and Gordon Bennett give bizarre titles to their plays about the Old Testament prophet. The titles somehow tried to tell me something. While Mankowitz called his play It Should Happen To A Dog, Bennett’s went one better Why Does That Weido Prophet Keep Watching the Water? The stories came to me more frequently and seemed more real than sounds of Bessie’s nightly bark or of the clocks that happen to be at sleepless Vienna. After the Crossing, it took me a year before I even learned how to sleep again. I was too busy staring at the water or worrying when my next meal would arrive to look up to the stars. When I had some reason to look at the sky, it too reminded me of water and the lack of air in it.
Privacy to lick my wounds however was not forthcoming. Like it or not, I was known to everyone in the camp. There were a few who decided to look after me. Strangers seemed to feel a sense of intimacy with me given the tragic circumstances.
I received more attention than I needed. Someone called from newspapers and there was a certain amount of attention on Austria's radio stations. Radek told them that I did not want to make any comments. Over the next few days I read about our escape in the Austrian newspapers. There was even a picture of Bessie and me.
As I placed a black armband for a fourth time in five years around my right hand, I couldn't help but ask myself 'Is there still anything to live for?' I had worked hard to be cut loose from my old country, but now I was being sentenced to an exile so complete, so distant, that I wondered if I'd ever see my parents again. But I had to be on a go. Go where?
Even more unsettling, I began to talk to myself like Ondrej or Milan would, repeating parts of conversations from weeks before. This did not seem to be some communication with the dead. It was Milan and Ondrej alive. I began to suspect that they existed outside of time. I also suspected that I could identify with the expression "God protects fools and drunks"? I qualified for both. Vodka and red wine, any red plonk, was my most faithful companion. Everything and everyone else have largely failed me. Because I lost a will to hope.
When Milan and Ondrej were not communicating with me, ugly thoughts crowded my head, mostly anger at the regime that had unnecessarily death. My best friends had drowned, yet it could have been prevented. My sister died of leukemia, and that may also have been prevented if medical attention had been forthcoming - I blamed the regime a lot for my immediate fate. I know with the hindsight of experience that death and tragedy occur daily all around the world irregardless of political regime, however I still hold anger against 'them' because the regime provided the context for most tragedies in my life to date.
For some reason my freedom stunned me. What to do? 'What ifs' and 'if only' still haunt me. Suppose on the day before our escape rain had not suddenly turned into ashes. Or that we had gone the next day as was also suggested. Then, Ondrej and Milan would not have drowned. The hardest thing now was not to want death myself. Not to go on thinking to myself about a different life, an existence without a tragic mistake. The easiest thing was to feel empty and vacant. People treated me like I was easy and vacant. All that hard shell that I had developed, my obsession with staying in control, planning and advancing myself so I could experience freedom - none of it mattered any more.
Sleep would not come for many nights during my time in the camp. I woke up at night with the sweat pouring off me and shouting at my room-mates to swim faster. On those nights, huge currents would rise out of nowhere, dragging me in all different directions. The daytime was often not much better. My pain made my room-mates uncomfortable. I was not surprised that two of my room-mates turned their backs on me. There is a shortage of good days in the detention centre. It was hard to come by good stories.
I was asked by one of the Vienna Television stations to tell my story, but on the advice of Radek, I declined the interview. He pointed out that there had been some successful attempts by the diplomatic corps in kidnapping exiles over the border. I certainly didn't want to risk that. I was also concerned naturally about my family back home. I thought of my Tato and Mamka being interrogated by the police: 'What did you know about his escape?' The less publicity, the better, I was advised.
‘Brave is when you have a choice. I didn’t have a choice. I just had to get on with it.’
This quote, written by Havel, is one of my favourites. As an escapee, I was sure it was written for me. Because, you see, I had no choice. Ask the Morava River, it will say to you that in spite of the difficulties and almost drowning, I still believed that I had no choice. My destiny was rooted in the Mitteleuropean tragedy.
There were other outcomes of our escape. Some officers at the border were court-marshalled or faced disciplinary action. The head of the security resigned in Poprad and some other officers were stripped of rank. And in the Morava River lay a plastic container of grey powder marked for export to Libya. It contained anthrax stolen from a 'hot lab' chemical factory in Svit in November 1979, however 'Neratovice' was typed on the container. These were the substances that chemical factories like Svit in Czechoslovakia made and sold to other communist countries and the Middle-East, the 'poor man's nuclear weapons'. We wanted to show the world the truth. Unfortunately I was never able to do that.
Once having learned the skills of survival under communism, how can the survivor adapt to new life in which those skills are no longer appropriate?
After seven days of mechanical “how are you’s” and “fine, thank you’s,” I struggled with my little German and little skills and little connections to get any job. I got used to nodding, interjecting with “oh’s” and “mmhhmm’s.” The very stones in Traiskirchen had jumped in joy when they learned that I was offered a manual job at a glorious palace of a prince with Slavic Catholic connections. I was taken to the prince’s palace in the middle of Vienna. I looked around. Nice artwork on the wall. The frames were lovely, too. Gilded with speckles of gold. They coordinate nicely with the pastel fibbers in the paintings and looked wonderful amidst the soft lights, glossy wood and crisp linens. But, these kind of frames wouldn’t look beautiful just anywhere. In the wrong setting they’d look garish and obscene.
Nothing could have been stranger than meeting my new boss, Karl, in such opulent setting. Karl was a tall architect with blue knowing eyes who matched the frames perfectly. Handsome and confident people like my boss architect always make me feel inferior. A dwarfish looking man walked in, I later learn that was the prince, and rested his eyes and conversation on Karl, while his eyes skimmed my presence. Both chuckled. One of those familiar chuckles I give out when I realise someone is a complete loser. Loser or not, this was one of the better paid odd jobs I had secured. Bessie was allowed to run in a garden filled with flowers from expressionist paintings. However, like with all fairytales, the job didn’t last long enough.
I once saw more money being paid for a meal at the Schwarzenberg Palace Restaurant than my Tato earned in a year.
Watches are annoying little creatures especially when you have not got any or come late for work from time to time. One day, in the middle of August, the Catholic architect Karl who was in charge of the renovations at the palace gave me, and three other fellow exiles, a watch and a day off from polishing gold at the Schwarzenberg. While we took to the freedom of Prater, the architect went to watch his R-rated videos. Bessie and I walked down the strausses and plazas. We had seen the things one ought to see. Opera House, the museum, Parliament House. We have sipped thick coffee in the round cafe in the Vondelpark. Harry Lime, a ghost from Graham Greene's The Third Man, lurked in the shadows of Vienna. Under the shadow of the rotating 60-meter high Ferries Wheel, Bessie and I hanged around licking ice cream and wandering how to thank the charming prince.
Karel Filip Prince Schwarzenberg was the victor over Napoleon I and Commander-in-Chief of the allied forces in anti-Napoleonic coalition who proudly proclaimed his Czechoslovak roots. It was a celebratory day, marking the assumption of the Madonna. Fiakers, horse-drawn open carriages with bowler-hatted coachmen, criss-crossed the Ringstrasse.
It was however a huge sum of 800 shillings to enjoy such a ride - I travelled by the underground where for fifty shillings we travelled to different parts of the city. One of the five lines took us that day to a platform that was within walking distance of the Danube River. The jaw-dropping image that I want to remember is the view I witnessed as I walked along the Danube where some cheeky Catholics bathed nude on the banks of the river. It was an Indian summer day, humid and quite damp. It was ideal for swimming, but I could not help but see the Danube as the Morava River. I heard the same hissing flow and saw the same bends in the river although none actually existed.
I had developed a phobia swimming. I could not even bare to watch people in knee-deep water.
I developed another phobia, in oblique kind of meaning, arising from Radek's tale of the diplomat's death by a poisonous umbrella tip. On rainy days when people come out with their umbrellas, I was so paranoid that one day I almost fell under train when someone accidentally brushed an umbrella against me.
How many people in 1980 would remember the fate of Leon Trotsky? Somehow to me his name almost rhymed with the migrant detention centre Traiskirchen. Leon Trotsky, one of the two leaders of the Russian revolution, was murdered in a suburb of Mexico City, in 1940, by an assassin sent by his enemy, Josef Stalin. The point of the story, for me, is that the assassination, and this intimate glimpse of its effect in every pub in Czechoslovakia, left many with an acute sense of how easy it is for despots to kill, and how slight a hold most us have on our own lives.
Walking past Stephansplatz, Vienna's prime landmark, I felt the need to pause and say a quick prayer at St Stephen cathedral (Stefansdom), I slowly said my prayers, and stared deeply into the stainglass windows. The first Christian martyr’s sunny aspect looked like the face of an angel. The sudden, utter stone silence felt eerie. The tourist guide had abruptly ceased talking, and all traffic noise evaporated. Not even an intimate whisper was audible. It was as though the earth had taken a deep breath, and was deliberately holding it. Then, so softly it almost seemed imagined, a pure, sweet note from an organ breached the silence. First, one note, then another. Perfect and clear, it sang just to me.
As luck would have it, a priest with a grand smile exchanged a light story at the altar in Slovak with a woman who had placed flowers there ever since she escaped from Slovakia in 1969. Yes, he had the time for my confession and to tell me that in Catholic teaching, whoever commits suicide is condemned to hell. Successful Iron Curtain crosser and failed suicide. I left the Cathedral with a feeling of redemption while the Slovak priest offered me empathy I found touching. He also offered me a wisdom of an American freedom lover, Abraham Lincoln, who had supposedly said that reading the bible was the best cure for the blues.

Chapter 6 (4 of 4): SLEEPLESS IN VIENNA

Chapter 6 (4 of 4): SLEEPLESS IN VIENNA

The Moravian born and Austrian based Siegmund Freud was, perhaps above all things, an unparalleled encyclopaedist of the perversity of human misery, detailing in countless volumes every conceivable means by which men and women bollix their own hopes, wishes, dreams, and capacities. Freud argued that while the lower animals, like Bessie, have an innate instinct for survival, humans like myself must wrestle with a drive toward self-destruction he called “the death instinct.” Bessie was full of life and every time she licked my palm a small happiness circled my soul.
Freud once wrote, “Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their objective relations." When you feel invisible and isolated somehow there is almost no prospect of improvement. And yet due to Bessie’s affection I went on living! Bessie exuded character even when she was sitting Bessie seemed to rise above me who was standing. She had so much energy to burn: jumping up and down demanding to be thrown her ball. The idea that near death experience grants survivors deep insight into truth is a damaging myth.
A famous meditation by Henry Scott-Holland has helped me a bit: 'Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I and you are you; whatever we were to each other that we are still...'
Another devotional text come from Anthony of Sourozh: 'With every person who dies, part of us is already in eternity... we should not speak of our love in the past tense. Love is a thing that does not fade in a faithful heart.'
Perhaps the greatest meditation on death is to be found in John Donne's Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. This volume, which contains the famous 'Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee', also includes the equally memorable 'When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language'.
I was haunted by my own shortcomings. I failed Ondrej and Milan. I think every survivor must have a sense of failure merely in remaining alive. One feels that it is not right to live when your friends drowned, that one should somehow have found the way to give one’s life to save their lives. I did not speak the same language as other Czechoslovak exiles. I spoke different dialect. My grief had no borders, no limits, no known ends. Readers love closure, love a thing that can, as they say, be gotten through. This is why it comes as great surprise to find that loss is forever, that two decades after the event there are those occasions when something in you cries out at the continual presence of an absence.
That I suffered and yet wanted to go on living was the delicate irony that seems to sustain us all. Praying to God was like watching Slovak-American Andy Warhol's Empire. Even as the object in the centre of the frame grows in mythical force, everything else means progressively less until you want to throw yourself off a tall building. In Vienna the image in the mirror was not part of life. Life did not belong to me. I did not seem to have much to do with the definition of life I used to associate my breathing with. A battle of wills was played out between me and poetry of life. Yet even poetry did not seem to matter. Some self generated poetry gave me an involuntary shudder. This is the kind of poem that would wear well in Vienna in July 1980.
Razors pain you
Rivers are damp
Acids stain you
And drugs cause cramp
Guns aren't lawful
Nooses give
Gas smells awful
You might as well live
Written by that well-known girlie Dorothy Parker who attempted suicide more than three times, but never quite succeeded.
Only writers could put my anguish into words. Mark Twain once observed following the unexpected death of his 22-year old daughter, “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live.” Czeslaw Milosz, Polish author who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in the year of our escape wrote a poem entitled ‘What Does It Mean.’
It does not know it glitters
It does not know it flies
It does not know it is this not that.
And, more and more often, agape,
With my Gauloise dying out,
Over a glass of red wine,
I muse on the meaning of being this not that.
Just as long ago, when I was twenty,
But then there was a hope I would be everything,
Perhaps even a butterfly or a thrush, by magic.
Now I see dusty district roads
And a town where the postmaster gets drunk every day
Melancholy with remaining identical to himself.
If only the stars contained me.
If only everything kept happening in such a way
That the so-called world opposed the so-called flesh.
Were I at least not contradictory. Alas.

By 1987, 3000 border guards had made successful escapes. Of the 14000 prisoners in East Germany's jails in 1963, 8000 had been caught trying to escape or helping others to do so. Twenty drowned. The scope and quantity of escapes were breathtaking. Several are on a display at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Homemade submarines, homemade hot air balloons, tunnels dug over the course of few months. East German Law stated that force was “justified in order to prevent the immediate, impending commission and continuation of the crime that is, under the circumstances, felony. It is also legitimate to capture a person who is suspecting of felony.” Felony included trying to escape.
Germany's last communist leader, Egon Krenz, was sentenced to six years imprisonment for his part in the 'shoot to kill' policy at the frontier. A year after the Velvet Revolution, in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, both Parliaments passed a law which lifted the statute of limitations for acts of treason, murder, and manslaughter during the communist period. The law 'Lustrace' (purification) dictated that whole categories of people-including high Party officials, members of the People's Militia, agents, and what it termed 'conscious collaborators' of the state security service- should be banned entirely from a wide array of positions in the public service.
There were many other ramifications of the separatist state of communist existence. Over the years East Germany sold 33,775 political prisoners and another 215,019 citizens seeking to join relatives already in the West for hard currency payments totalling 3.5 billion Deutschmarks. This traffic included numerous spies for both sides - the U2 pilot Francis Powers and Colonel Rudolf Abel; the BND mole Heinz Felfe, the HVA spy Gunter Guillaume, among a total of about 150.
Back at the camp, I knew that now I had to make some hard decisions about my future. Although it broke my heart, I knew that Bessie would not be able to make the next journey with me. It was even hard for Bessie to stay at the camp as well as very dangerous as too many people recognised Bessie, and the officials were concerned for my safety. I knew that if I wanted to leave Austria, the quarantines for United States or Canada were too long. Kafka's Amerika was on my mind all the time.
For weeks, Australia did not even enter my mind. I only heard of Bondi once or twice, I could not recall what the kangaroo looked like but I knew it stood for the Praha's (Prague) soccer team with the same name. Someone told me that Aborigines came from India and as a result were cigany (gypsy).
There were many Viennese who wanted to adopt Bessie. However, most wanted to treat her as some kind of toy, an accessory. I relied on my instinct and gave Bessie to Wanda and Hans from Klosterneuburg who after reading about our escape at the metropolitan papers made an appointment to see me in the office of the Traiskirchen Director.
Unlike other people who wanted to take care of Bessie, including a large dog food canning company, they were the only couple that did not insult me by giving me money. My gut feeling was that Bessie also felt at ease with them. That set my mind at rest. Having my faithful companion in the best of hands was my priority. At least they never had to buy dog food, as a television station and a dog food can manufacturer supplied Bessie with thousands of cans. A small reward for her stoicism in our journey. There is a photograph from the day the cans arrived an advertising department took a photo of me and Bessie and a tall blond spokeswoman slipped 5,00 shillings in my pocket.
I spent my weekends whilst in Austria with Bessie in Klosterneuburg with Wanda and Hans. Situated on the right side of the Danube (Dunaj for Slovaks) it is a warm town with a few untouched Baroque houses and dominated by its Augustinian abbey.
Wanda laughed that people in Klosterneuburg were recognised by their dogs’ names. Wanda was, in local slang Bessie’s mother. In many ways Wanda was so much like my Mamka. ‘Go on, take a piece of strudel. Have another.’ Wanda called me a silly strudel. In Austria, praise came no higher. Wanda, the Einstein, warned me that there are only two ways to live your life. ‘One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.’
Wanda's life revolved around making and eating meals. Her house was like a mansion. Wiener Schnitzel was her culinary concoction. Her goulash was great too. Cohr im Hemd, chocolate pudding with a chocolate sauce and great coffee, nearly persuaded me to stay in Austria! The joy of Austria's countryside for me was that Klosterneuburg boasted the same landscapes as Kezmarok: the baroque church set in the enclosed market square, the inn, the Gasthaus, and the local string or a brass band, whether they be firemen or folkloric groups from nearby valleys.
Wanda not only settled Bessie within a week or two, she introduced me to a potential bride, a post mistress of two years my senior. While I could not resist her animal attractiveness, I indulged in a number of white lies as to why I would not like to take advantage of an offer of citizenship that comes with marriage. Despite Wanda’s matchmaking effort, it was not all very well for a guilty survivor to do what the song says and start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. The problem was my beginning was marked by two deaths.
One day Wanda tried to be deep and meaningful, she tried and tried, ‘Jozef, your friends did not die any death that day. They drowned for a purpose.’
The decision to emigrate I did not question - it was just a matter of where to. On Wanda’s property, nearby to Nicky Lauda’s farm, I could search long and deep within myself to relive happier days. It was Wanda's friend who lived in Australia and spent every summer in Vienna that led me to select Australia as my destination. They were the only people in Europe who had encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt, was vanished while sea surfing. No trace of the drowned politician was ever seen again, but they still insisted that Australia was a lucky country.
I knew all about drowning and I needed all the luck I could get. They were the only individuals who insisted that it was uncommon for Australians to be killed by hollow distances, dingos, snakes, spiders, sharks or crocodiles. For Wanda, Azaria Chamberlain case, who I believed at the time was related to the British Prime Minister the signatory of Munich treaty, merely validated that Australia waited to get people.
Back at home, not many people were feeling lucky. On Tuesday 8 July 1980, the Imrich Dlubac and Brejka families awoke to the knocks of the secret police. Questions pelted down all day and night. They had known nothing of our plans, as we had sworn to secrecy, thinking it better that they not know of our preparations. Beneath a grey summer sky, the towns and villages under High Tatra closed in on the world to wrestle with their grief over the terrible tragedy of the drowning. State shopkeepers in our villages closed their doors that day. The three red roses tied in blue ribbons in my cousin Gejzo's pub spoke of the tragedy.
Bad news travels fast. Milan and Ondrej's drowning touched thousands, regardless of whether they wanted to be touched or not. Generations shaped by world wars and communist putsches could not provide explanation of why they drowned, but no one could let the moment pass and not ask as what it said about their society when their youngest decide to escape. It was not the first time Slovakia's young had to die to make the region focus on what was going wrong. One sermon described them as the sort of boys that every father would choose them for a son-in law, every mother for a son.
The opening scene of Kafka’s Trial is very familiar to our parents. One morning, without notice Josef K is woken by government apparatchiks and placed under arrest. The remainder of the novel details his efforts to try to establish not so much his innocence as his guilt. Of what, exactly, ahs he been accused? No-one is saying, least of all his accusers. Not only he wrecked with guilt and unable to get a trail-its endless deferral drives the story on - but his condition cannot be alleviated. My parent’s only crime was to give birth to a child in the communist world. Like all of Kafka’s Trail, our families’ trial is unfinished and possibly unfinishable. A nightmare of reason continues as my car which we left at the border has never been returned to the family and my grandfather’s land on which the fishing pond and swimming pool built has also never been returned back to my family.
Milan's parents, Dlubac, could not accept the fact that their son drowned. They believed, or wanted to believe, that he lived somewhere in the new world, but was too afraid to come back, even after the collapse of communism. Sadly, they were mistaken. It is a parent’s nightmare: a the only child drowns and the authorities are perfectly happy to interrogate them and tell them lies about their son.
Opinion remains divided over our escape. To many it was cowardice. Others said it was heroism. To us it was a chance to make a single moral judgment in the sea of mindless conformity. Everyone seemed to accept Aga's death as just an aberration, an accident. If Aga was born to a natural environment that lacked basic environmental necessities, like clean air, safe working environment, healthy rivers, it would be one thing. However, Aga was born into an environment that lacked civil society, honesty, and liberty. This lack permeated the physical environment in which we lived and hence her plight. Unfortunately, our proof lies somewhere in the Morava River, or more probably in the silt of some other unfortunate tributary.
At a mountain-range grave below High Tatra, villagers still talk about the day Ondrej and Milan became victims of the system that drove them to a senseless escape. Their graves are the memories of the hard-liners of the 1960s 'the Soviet shestidesnatyik', who killed off 'Socialism with Human Face'-the Prague Spring. Morava River was the closest my friends ever got to freedom, to Austria. The graves of July 1980 said it again 'we could not live like this any more.'
Imagine my last hours in Vienna. My entry for 6th of September simply read, “24 Hours to go!” Whenever Maria glanced at the smiling photograph, permanently positioned on her glass night-stand, total, black despair overwhelmed her. ‘Will Jozo ever see him again?’ she tearfully pleaded, her voice breaking into a sob.
I am not a hero, but I am not a dead fish either. The fact is that I know just a little too much about the price of freedom, and those who read between the lines also know how impossible an undertaking it is to ever express in words how priceless freedom really is.

This is the song that never ends
It goes on and on my friend
Someone started singing it not knowing what it was
And they'll go on forever now because
It is the song that never ends.
-Theme song to children's television show: Lambchop's Playalong

Chapter 5 (1 of 5): YOUNG BLOOD



1980, Five Winters of Aga’s Cold Ashes

The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public, he offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin, and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.
-Vaclav Havel

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A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefolds.
- Henry Miller The Books In My Life (1969)

What's the point of being a sole survivor if you're not convinced the world will read your story in the end? Somehow an awareness of death encourages us to live more intensely. I know writers who are smarter than me, who are more talented than me, who have stronger instinct than me, who know more literary agents than me.I am preoccupied with more guilt than all of them.
The struggle against forgetting is unending and according to Elie Wiesel: Any survivor has more to say than all the historians combined about what happened..
Somewhere in the depths of my foolish soul I nurture one conceited notion: One day, perhaps - one day - something shining will be prised out of all this raw skeleton...
L ike a good father or a beautiful view, a work of art is harder to describe than to recognise. Professor Gombrich once said that there was no such thing as art, only artists. Which begs the question, what makes an artist? V aclav Havel says that they are those who ‘celebrate our existence by making us more conscious of it.’ Art is a language and that it must have something to say:
Having my first daughter being born exactly 9 months after the Velvet Revolutiont is, perhaps, one of the most remarkable illustrations of how hope can spring from the most appalling of tragedies.

Jozef was born, which has made a lot of bullies angry over the years, and has driven several to taste justice. He has survived many attempts to rectify this obvious mistake and now finds solace by editing in short, hair raising bursts of energy. He welcomes your comments, hopes like hell you'll buy his book, and wishes you all the very best in everything except being mean to each other, which, he claims, is a game enjoyed by bullies and politicians alone.

Prove the naysayers wrong!
To download "Cold River: a survivor's story" use this link:
· Three men with courage to escape make a majority [Double Dragon Publishing]
· via Microsoft
· Via Fiction

James Bond once said, ‘You only live twice.’ Once when you are born and again when you face death. He may well have been referring to my life on 16
May 1958 and 7 July 1980.
This wouldn’t have happened except for the way of all dreams.
Like a scar on the face of a strict yet handsome woman, the Iron Curtain divided nations and disfigured landscapes. There are very few of us who have not daydreamed about winning the lottery or gaining something our heart has long desired. Whether it is money or freedom, material possessions or travel to a special city, we have sat and, with that unique expression reserved for a daydreamer, pondered the what ifs. Most of us are the stars of our own little melodramas and what we wish for is usually well beyond our grasp or ability to achieve. Confronting the cardinal taboo is not easy when your back is against the wall.
In a totalitarian regime people feel about freedom as a woman who would like to have a baby and can not. How could anyone stop people from pretending that they did not want freedom, even though we all knew we desperately wanted it. I knew that everybody knew what I knew what we all wanted. One and all of us in the deepest recess of our heart wanted to take Benjamin Franklin’s war of existence seriously, ‘If you are willing to sacrifice liberty for safety, then you deserve neither.’
Most people seemed to settle for neither. As I looked around me and every street corner was overshadowed by Lenin’s statutues. As I observed the faces and the bearing of the folks I passed on the streets, in the malls, in the markets I could tell that most people have given up. Most, not all. Their spirits were submerged. Their daydreams were smoke rings.
‘Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me,’ Orwell wrote in ‘1984.’
In 1980 Husak’s Czechoslovakia tree was twisted and starved. It lacked the sap even to spread.
Powerless voices became more audible than voices of hope. I knew few people for whom this quote would not resonate; it spoke to a particular truth of our historical condition, it was all too true.
‘How do people get power over one another?’
I wrestled with another question, ‘How do you turn words into action?’
This kind of thinking used to make me flood the room with rage. You cannot tell anybody about your rage. There you are going through the day, going to dinner with friends, going to the movies and going swimming, but you have this desire going on and you cannot tell anybody. Language and attitude were all about irony. Totalitarianism arrived at a point that in every conversation we made at least some of our points by saying the opposite of what we wished to communicate.
Although you may find this hard to believe at the age of 21, I daydreamed there was no communism - I longed to choose not to choose. The soul was the part of me that saw beyond the dream. The snake of my daydreams advises me to try the fruit of that forbidden tree. In my dream I did not want to march in the May parade, or read about lies in a newspaper ironically christened ‘The Truth,’ or to listen to another New Year message. Looking round the streets lined with Soviet slogans, he could understand only too well why he'd been desperate to escape. This boy dreamed of exotic streets, loud rock ‘n roll, and t-shirt with anti-communist slogans.
The night tended to revise his opinions, changed his accent and exaggerated his thirst for change. Life seemed to be full of second and third chances. In one sense this boy was someone’s grandfather, and in another sense someone’s unborn grandson. A night had passed and he had come to the end of an endless journey, closing an infinite circle in time and space. In my dreams I could not silence voices telling me that if you dream a thing more than once, it's sure to come true.
I knew enough about fairy tale dreams not to take them too seriously, but still when I opened my eyes it was ‘sloboda’ I still daydreamed and desired. A Czech or a Slovak speaker looking at this chapter would see the first word of the title, Sloboda, as a noun, thus reading the title as ‘All for a Seven Letter Word: Freedom!’ Words and dreams were all we had really. ‘Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily ... life is but a dream in different respects.’ The Iron Curtain had this immense, powerful grip on my imagination. While the image loomed, communism and I were as compatible as hot water and ice.
In 1980 listening to young men or women talk about western freedom was a bit like eavesdropping on a child’s conversation with St Mikulas, Santa Clause. A youth under communism without sharply defined western freedom was like a war without uniforms.
And we just have to see the world! The desire for freedom is like a gigantic bread oven. Once the fire is lit in it, there is no limit to the heat it can generate.
Yet it is extraordinary the hold freedom has taken on the imagination of Czechoslovak youth, as though freedom and every democratic country in it had been brushed by a certain magic. Yes Virginia, there is freedom. In totalitarian countries the temptation to believe in freedom is great. Freedom is a dream that would not die.
Every generation is vulnerable to imagining itself either uniquely blessed or uniquely cursed. And for an understandable reason. It is human nature to attach more importance to the time in which one has been fated to live and die than to either the past or the remoter reaches of the future. However, the slogan ‘see this world before the next,’ numbed more senses of my generation than any other. My youth was haunted by the vision of a distant freedom that refused to be extinguished. The drama of my youth was its lack of freedom and richness of daydreams. In my youth I lead a double life, the disparity between a fundamentally communist culture and its Western dreams dogged my real character. There was only one reality: either collective dreams of a better life in the West were occurring or they were not—reality is not somewhere between the two.
One did not have to be Carl Jung to see that obsession with our daydreams about freedom was connected with the dire world of communism. Our world had become too crazy to deserve serious reflection. Trying to stop me the youth from travelling to the West was like trying to stop a fire in your house by turning off the fire alarm. You walk and dream on the earth until one day the earth moves and takes you to a different direction.
Among all the versions of myself scattered throughout parallel dimensions of time and space and daydreaming, which was the real self and which was only shadows? My real life seemed to continue on without me, distant, separate, and sealed.
Every random raindrop, every living river knows that Sloboda has enemies everywhere. Indeed, rivers are much wiser than people, they don’t give a damn about borders. Rivers don’t give a damn about dividing lines. Freedom is knowing that no matter how few or how many rainbows you experience, it never lasts.
River is the index of the diabolic in the memories of Slavs who craved freedom and were willing to throw the dice and change their station in life. No wonder that the river is an inexhaustible metaphor. Explaining slobodu has always been difficult due to our dysfunctional rivers. How do you explain the birthrights at the heart of the universe when the plastic world was so out of kilter with this? Sloboda by name but not by nature.
Explaining the nature of freedom was impossible: vision over visibility; instinct over logic. They told us that fear served a very important purpose. Fear of freedom. I loved slobodu in those fearful underground years in Czechoslovakia more than life itself. Back when I was passionately alive, I felt like a chess piece being moved by an unseen force. In freedom as in love we are surprised at what is chosen by others.
True desire is sharp as a whip. It leaves no room for any other desires. To be told in the army not to dream about freedom was useless, I discovered, for the spirit will rebel. Bad enough the freedom attraction grew with each passing day. But did I have to surround myself with friends who were also desperate to escape? Did Khrushchev have to close the Autobahn to Berlin exactly on the day of my first birthday? Why was not the primary aim of human judgment accuracy rather than the avoidance of paralysing uncertainty?
For centuries the Hungarian and German migrated generations of Slovak souls. Now it was the Soviets who stole Slovak history. The old Slovak insult, “Don’t trust a Hungarian unless he has a third eye,” now applied to Russians.
When Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in March of 1980, Czechoslovakian youth felt America’s pain. We trusted America.
At this crucial time many exiles and American writers helped to smuggle dollars, photocopiers, and magazines into Czechoslovakia. Americans also wrote about the eleven men and women, all professionals and leaders in the human rights movement in Czechoslovakia, who were arrested: Otta Bednarova—journalist, television editor; Jarmila Belikova—psychologist; Dr. Vaclav Benda—philosopher, mathematician, Charter '77 spokesman; Albert Cerny—actor; Jiri Dienstbier—journalist, broadcaster, Charter '77 spokesman, Vaclav Havel—playwright, Charter '77 spokesman, co-founder of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS); Dr. Ladislav Lis—attorney; Vaclav Maly—Catholic priest; Dana Nemcova—psychologist; Dr. Jiri Nemec—psychologist, philosopher; Petr Uhl—engineer, economist.
The majority of the more than 1,000 Charter signers have been dismissed from their jobs or subjected to continuous harassment since the group's human rights manifesto was first published in 1977. The eleven were charged with "subversion" under Article 98 of the Czechoslovak Penal Code. On October 22, Otta Bednarova, Vaclav Benda, Jiri Dienstbier, Vaclav Havel, Dana Nemcova, and Petr Uhl were tried on this charge. On October 23, all six were found guilty and received varying sentences up to five years.
This was a year when President Gustav Husak decided to put out a political bushfire - with petrol. Their detention, violated both the Helsinki Accords and the International Covenants. The act offered further proof of the pattern of human rights abuses which motivated the formation of the Charter (Chartar - pronounced as in loch) two years ago. Truth and charter were like my Tato’s napping in the dining room chair. He could rise up at any unexpected moment. Truth had an oxymoron of Pravda for a name. Truth was everywhere but napping. Napping everywhere, except on underground posters and magazines.
This was the period of one of the most controlled and sinister atmospheres yet also the time for New Hope during which young people still believed in the revolution. I was profoundly under the spell of so much elegant passion, the aura of human tolerance to suffering, soulful conversations, the doubts about the reality of the present, the restless, the obsessive repetition of ‘Chartar, Chartar, Chartar.’
Nothing ever begins. For some time I had kept hidden in the surrealist recesses of what passes for a rational mind an imaginative notion: What does the western freedom feel like. I come from a generation that followed the concentration camps, the dirty tricks of the Communist Party, the generation fed itself on underground stories when there was nothing but a void. There is no single minute or hour from which this or any other chapter grows.
One does not become an enemy of the state, a smuggler of underground magazines, a defier of the communists all at once. The treads can always be traced back to some earlier half forgotten plot. No matter how paranoid you are, you aren't paranoid enough. One's first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding samizdat magazines under a matresse. I can say that Vaclav Havel was my playmate. However it was everyday life which imitated satire. There was less and less left for Havel and other scribes to make mock of. How could my imagination outstrip real life.
No event in Czechoslovak history which was so improbable at the time had seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the Velvet Revolution.
When I came back from army I thought of Socrates who returned to Athens from his military service at Potidiae, and one of the first things he did was to find out what had been happening in philosophy while he was away. Socrates was so disarmingly old-fashioned that he began to seem novel in the communist climate.
A normal civilian life was scary. Because it was really all about control. It was about telling you how you will live your life, what books you will be allowed to read, what movies and television shows you may watch, how you will dress, what you will be permitted to believe, with whom you may associate, whom you can love, whom you must hate. I thought that was really scary. So I decided to do something about it. I did not know what. Something.
Philosophies buried in samizdat magazine sent messages of hope, but also explosions of anxiety that turned into anger. Twenty one years had not taught me what I learned reading an article one spring night in 1980: ‘when you’re pushed, push back; when a shove negates your existence, shove back.’ I felt a confidence and a lust that were altogether new.
Who has not been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini. Houdini was a hero to big and little boys. Houdini's first magic act was called 'Kafka’s Metamorphosis': It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation. Lost among the see of samizdat digests was one story which noted one escape across the Iron Curtain can be more powerful than a nuclear bomb.
Throughout the centuries, men sought to define and protect their fundamental human rights - those birthrights all men innately hold as their own. To misquote Lyndon Johnsons, We had two choices: we either could be inside the tent or I could be outside the tent. We had two choices as where we wanted to be. Our dream was not a case of rocking the boat. We wanted to rock the river.
Threats to what people really want can go as far as America. Someone like Judy Garland captured human imagination as she dreamed of a place ‘somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I heard of, Once in a lullaby.’ A better world to which we might escape when trials and troubles threaten to overwhelm. ‘Somewhere over the rainbow, Blue birds fly; Birds fly over the rainbow, Why, oh why can't I?’ Czechoslovakia was a cradle of dreaming. One dreamt about Vienna, New York, Paris. A Lifetime is long enough to wait for a happy ending.
There I was, mysteriously not having to march to the early morning beat barks of army officers: Left, Right, Turn Around. It all seemed hallucinatory and hard to believe. But it all happened, strange as it was to contemplate and dream. I was home. I was in Vrbov again.
Yet somehow the subconscious part of me had simply refused to catch up. To make matters worse, the dreams were nearly always the same too terrible for words: I was somewhere in East Berlin squashed by iron gates. There were other people as well, but I did not recognise them. Iron gates came into their own again, and little by little, in its concealing evil way, had pressed against my chest. The iron stood in the way of some fantastic adventure. Inside my chest was the feeling of unlimited desire to experience freedom. My heart echoed the motif of hunger. My heart was constantly busied with something somehow very far distant. My heart did not just want a future, it wanted a present as well.
The idea of domesticity and marriage under communism was dull even repugnant to me. It would be a crime to bring children to a world where the enjoyable sensation of freedom existed only in forbidden books.
The year that John Lennon was shot, the communist talkfest, the New Year message, started with a devastating lie from the President, Gustav Husak, who said that 1979 had been a year of outstanding achievement in economy and liberty...