I kept house behind the Iron Curtain
“It happened to me”
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Outsiders who picture life under communism in startling blacks and whites are deluded. Secret police? Sure. And shortages. But after six years among the Soviet satellites this wife of a foreign correspondent reports that life goes on quite a bit as it does on Main Street By Flora Lewis
e were driving home to Prague after a brief holiday in Corsica. It was the kind of refresher on the “other side" that Westerners who live and work behind the Iron Curtain come to feel they badly need. My mother, who had joined us in Corsica, was coming with us for a few months’ visit to get to know her grandchildren. Early that morning we had left Linz, a cheerful white wine, dirndl, and geranium towm in Austria, so that w'e could reach Prague before dark allowing plenty of time for delays at the frontier.
But there were no unusual delays. The Austrian border guards checked us out in live minutes. stretching the tw'o minutes’ w'orth of necessary formalities for the pleasure of a little conversation to break their long, empty days. The children had been warned often enough on previous trips not to stray into the mined fields near the Czech post, so they amused themselves by swinging on the painted steel barrier while I presented passports, automobile pass and money declarations inside. The Czechoslovak customs inspection was perfunctory and half an hour later we w'cre on our w'ay again.
There had been the plowed strip, the electrified barbed wire, and a couple of watchtowers visible on the Czech side. But otherwise the vineyards sprawled over the low hills and field fiow-ers lined the road exactly as they did in Austria, as though the border were just a border anil not a line between two ways of life.
My mother stared intently at each village, each farmer, each tree. Visibly, she had honed her senses to spear and collect every impression that the first sight of a Communist-ruled country could make on her. For a long time, she soaked up perceptions and said nothing.
Then, about half w'ay to Prague, she spoke. “Well,” she asked, a trifle impatiently, “where are the signs? I don’t see anything especially communist. How do you tell?”
“That’s easy,” 1 told her. “Look at the next bus or train. There’s a big red star on the front of every one. When we go by a factory, you’ll see a big painted sign. It’s not advertising, it’s
the graph to show if workers are filling their quotas this month It's important because their pay depends on it. Look at the slogans posted lip all over. They say things like ‘Heartfelt Friendship and Brotherhood for the Soviet Union’ and ‘Long Live the Five-Year Plan.’ " "No, no, that's not what I mean.” she complained. “Not those little things. Where is the terror? We hear so much about it, how awful life is. These towns look perfectly normal. Is it all just our own propaganda?”
The reaction was so typical I couldn’t help laughing. Probably nine out of every ten travelers behind the Iron Curtain feel exactly the same way on their arrival. Some of them go away with a drastic set of new illusions to replace their drastic old ones, plus a resentful feeling of having been duped. They had read about forced labor camps and secret-police torture cells and people scraping desperately to teed and clothe themselves, and they stayed in a comfortable hotel, bought rich ( hiñese brocades and fat sausage, saw children shouting gaily on a carousel. On the lookout for stark blacks anil whites, they are overwhelmed to find that life still goes on under communism, and that for the most part it is a collection of grays.
Enough has been said about the extremes not to need repeating here, except perhaps to acknowledge that there is certainly some truth in both. Brutality and rank injustice do exist — and so do impressive industrial achievements, health and social insurance programs that the people affected would not willingly abandon, disintegration of once rigid class barriers giving workers' sons a chance at advanced |§ education even though new class strata are being formed. But most people live between the extremes, plodding through an existence which fills them with complaints but which they find a way to bear. People laugh and bicker and catch colds and go on picnics, marry and have children and grow old without much regard for the kind of government they live under. It takes some getting used to, and there are things to which you never get accustomed, or at least not happily. But you make out as best you can.
That was our own experience and the way things seemed to go for all the people we met. My husband, Sydney Gruson, and I had our first look behind the Iron Curtain in 1946 when his job as a New York Times correspondent sent him to work in Warsaw. We lived there three years then, traveling around Poland and Czechoslovakia and watching communism take hold. At that time I worked for The Observer of London. Late in 1955, we went back to Eastern Europe for another three years, just now finished. It was again a time of drastic change — the Soviet Twentieth Congress, the Polish and Hungarian revolutions — which Sydney reported for the New York Times and I for several magazines from our home bases first in Prague and then in Warsaw, and during trips to Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
It was winter when we first arrived back in Prague, before the clean, deceptive snow had come to hide the grime with its sparkle. Sydney, who grew up in Toronto, had always delighted in causing me extra shudders when we faced a northern climate, taking big gulps of glacial air and booming, “Wonderful, just like a good Canadian winter.” My California blood just froze in my veins and I huddled inside my sweaters. But when we got to Prague, I too longed for fresh snow. The city looked endlessly grey, coated with the dull grit that pours from many thousand chimneys and settles comfortably in the steep river valley enfolding Prague. But it was only a matter of adjusting the eyes, as in entering a shaded room. Little by little, the beautifully detailed baroque museum that is the streets of the city began to emerge. Signs appeared too. signs that had been there all along but that my eyes had missed when they were still narrowed from the gaudy brightness of Western walls.
One sign. Narodni Podnik, or just N. Podnik, was everywhere. It was a local joke that an American businessman had noticed this and asked, "Who is this N. Podnik? He seems to own a tremendous lot of places.” Narodni Podnik means national enterprise. It does take some time to get used to the idea that even the street vendors selling wooden dolls and sometimes oranges, even the night-club singers, even the newsboys are public employees. Grocery shops and
pharmacies and the like usually have numbers of their places in the trust's chain of outlets, not names. It is strangely warming to see the placards above Frau Braun’s Shoe Store, and Anna Stoeppel’s candy shop when you cross back into Austria, announcing a friendly human clement you didn't realize you had missed.
Another lesson on the scope of nationalization came when we finally managed to move out of the Hotel Alerón into an apartment. An office called Sprava Sluzeb (literally, service matters) attached to the Foreign Office was in charge of looking after foreigners resident in Prague, including provision of such things as housing, maids, plumbers and wallpaper. We were not allowed to rent from anyone else, so when Sprava Sluzeb finally offered us a place to live, there was no question of being choosy.
We wanted an unfurnished apartment, but the plain, sensibly dressed Sprava Sluzeb lady in charge of me explained politely that the furniture could not possibly be moved out.
The tenant w ho disappeared
The owner's portrait had still been hanging on a paneled wall of the study the first time I saw the place. Now it was removed, and I was curious about him. 1 asked where he had gone.
It was a terribly embarrassing question. “Mmm. well, now let me see, to Ostrava I think. Yes, that's it. He moved to take a job in Ostrava.”
"Then why didn't he take his furniture, or if he can't use it any more, why doesn't he sell it?”
“Oh, that wouldn't be worthwhile. You see, new furniture is so good and so inexpensive here that no one buys used things.”
I was ashamed to have forced such a brazen lie. She knew, and I knew, that across the next street there was a whole arcade of shops crammed with possessions people w'ere obliged to sell off, even used shoes and eyeglasses and battered kitchen tables, and there were always buyers in the shops. Later I heard that the ousted owner was existing in a shed on the edge of the city. After all, I was glad that his portrait was down and that the Sprava Sluzeb lady had the decency to make up a silly tale. I couldn't have slept very comfortably under his homeless eyes.
Sprava Sluzeb also provided a maid and a cook. We paid them, but S.S. did the hiring and carried them officially as Foreign Office employees. I don't know what kind of system they used to sort out the desirables and undesirables—we had one of each from the government’s point of view and it caused endless troubles.
Leo. the cook, was over sixty, a wide, warm-faced woman who had no sympathy for the regime. She used to sit by the radio, listening to the Czech news, and shouting back, "It’s not true, you lie and you know it. If things are so good, why does everybody want a passport to get out and why won't you give any?”
Frances, the maid, had some sort of tic with the government. Her husband worked as a waiter at state banquets in the beautiful old Hradcany Palace and they lived in an apartment tucked away inside the Palace gates. She worked well and cheerfully, not talking much, but now and then her irritation at Leo's grumbling grew too much for her.
“I was in America once,” she snapped at Leo. “It’s no paradise, I can tell you.
I had to work hard there too, and there was no pension waiting for me.”
“But that was twenty years ago,” argued Leo. “Things have changed.”
“Things have changed everywhere.”
Then they would refuse to talk to each other for a week.
One evening Leo happened to hear a record we were playing, recorded in Canada by Jan Rubes, a fine Czech basso who is now a Canadian opera star. She burst into tears and sobbed for the rest of the evening. The song was Flow, Water, Flow, a favorite of T. G. Masaryk, the country’s founder, and therefore a favorite of most Czechs. Like Masaryk’s name, it has been practically banned from the country, although not from its memory.
That sort of thing, and having to be careful so much of the time, is what wears people down. There are arrests, and purges, but you don’t see much of it and most people just get on with their lives, always watching out. Sometimes they are carried away with the idea of caution, inspired by the constant warnings in the press and the leaders' speeches, so that they carry an extra burden of worry. The laundry woman in Prague who refused to wash my husband's shirts was in that category. She said she would like to do it, and that she needed the money, but his shirts had foreign labels and she would have to dry them in the attic of the house where she had a room. If anyone noticed and tracked down her customer. it might endanger her son’s career in the army, she told us. Her fears were ridiculously exaggerated, but she bowed to them.
We were especially fortunate in most ways, and in one way unfortunate, so that our life was not a real reflection of the effects of communism. We were far better housed than most, better clothed because I made shopping trips to the West three or four times a year, feeling much like a countrywoman of a few centuries back who took off for a few days now and then to ride away to market. Above all, we had the vital inner security of knowing we could go away when we chose—a precious right our neighbors envied us more than any other. The one unpleasantness was the sense of isolation, of officially being a merely tolerated enemy. That did not prevent friendships, and on a personal level I never met the slightest hostility, but you don't see people often when you know that for an hour sipping tea and chatting in your house they may pay with several hours of interrogation, polite but still upsetting.
Still, there were neighbors and friends and acquaintances leading what, for their place and time, were normal lives.
Once when we had gone for a walk in the gentle, lovingly tended countryside outside of Prague, I met a farmer living in an old summer cottage. It was the kind of gingerbread house that is mocked up in cardboard for operetta sets, but it was run down and the patches and repairs had obviously been applied by a novice’s hand with whatever makeshift materials were around. He was a man in his thirties, soft of face but hard of hand, and he soon explained the contrast. His father had been a businessman, his mother a singer, and they were well enough off to give him several years
of schooling in the West. For that youthful privilege, he had been made to pay by being banned from any responsible job and from residence in the capital. But he had been allowed to keep his summer cottage, and there he moved with his wife. They made their living as farmers, growing apples and pears and cherries. He showed me a shelf of books he had bought to tutor himself on how' to earn a living from a small piece of soil.
“See. I'm determined to be a good farmer if I have to be a farmer. It’s not so bad out here,” he said, “at least they
leave us alone and we don't have to share our living quarters with other families like the people in Prague.”
Over the last few years, dating from the death of Stalin, there has been a progressive improvement of living standards. More food, more lights, more goods of all kinds. A night-club singer I knew, admittedly far better off than most people but by no means a political favorite, had a four-room apartment, a car, and a TV set. She had even had chances to go abroad, to sing in Vienna or Paris, but she turned them down.
"What could 1 do there?" she said to me. “There are hundreds of singers better than I am in those cities. I’d be a nothing. Here, I’m a star, and so long as I keep out of trouble I’ll live comfortably.” As I got to know her better. I learned the meaning of being careful. Inexplicable clicks gave grounds for suspicion (hat our telephone was tapped, and in a moment of friendly confidence, this was once confirmed for me by a person who should know. So I called her from paystations and she avoided giving her name when she called me. If it happened to be a time when we were being constantly trailed, I dropped her for awhile.
The police showed a sporadic interest in us, never molesting and never explaining but clinging like barnacles during their periodic eruptions of attention. Once —and why then and not another time I never knew—the family had them every minute for eight days. They waited discreetly around the corner, following the children to school or me to the hairdresser or to the Foreign Office, or all of us on a picnic in the tidy fresh-scented pine woods that stretch invitingly across Bohemia. Sometimes it was irritating, and 1 led them on wild chases through medieval streets only a few inches wider than the car. But after a time 1 ignored them.
The children didn't seem to notice, though. We have three, Kerry who is I I. Sheila, 7, and Lindsey, 5. We made a point of not discussing politics or unhappy stories in front of them, and the local children they played with w'ere always friendly and spirited. But in addition to the language, there was a barrier that the children certainly did see. and no matter how adroitly we tried to explain it to them, they insisted on drawing a rather nasty feeling of superiority from it and an excessive pride in their own nationality. That harrier was plain economics—clothes, housing, bicycles, roller skates that the other children didn't have in as good quality or didn't have at all, and that I couldn’t bring myself to make my family forego for the sake of social equality.
So the children were gay and happy, but our reticence with them led to some embarrassing moments. A couple of years ago, Kerry piped up quite loudly on the street. “I’m glad we’re not Communists so I don’t have to wear such ugly skirts."
I hope one day the knowledge that would now distress her mind with its childishly direct associations will also bring more tolerance.
But it was true that even styles were mostly heavy and dull, so that the eyes yearned for something bright and cheering. It is a part of the subtle gloom that is the mark of the whole area, like the pale fresh complexion that marks an Englishwoman or the round dotted scar that marks a resident of Baghdad. There are myriad things that break through and disperse the gloom for a time—jokes and parties and music and theatre, the tender fruit blossoms that tint the air in spring, raucous slapstick in a movie. But when minds relax and faces repose, the mark reappears.
To escape it and to flee cramped living quarters where too many people in too few square yards find they have no room for their temperaments, people flock to entertainments. A Czech friend of mine saw the movie African Queen seventeen times, 1 knew many who went at least three or four times to every show, but that was easy because the pictures ran for months or even years.
They talked about it with liveliness, but then they went home and shut themselves in, not with livid terror but with that vague depression. There were jokes about terror, possible because people had settled down to living with it as a man might live with an unsightly, long-lasting boil. One was about an American and a Czech who met in Prague. The Czech asked if people were happy in America.
“No,” was the answer, “1 can’t say I’m happy. 1 get up in the morning, have breakfast and drive down to the office. My wife picks me up in the afternoon, we play golf, and then we go out for dinner and a movie or have friends in for bridge!. It’s always the same. Life is really dreary. But what about you?”
“Oh here it’s very different. We’re cer-
tainly happy. The alarm clock goes off at 5 a.m. and my w'ife and I are happy that it still works. We dress quickly and she goes out to queue up for rolls while I queue for milk. We’re happy if we get them and can have breakfast together. Then we rush to catch the streetcar. If one comes along and isn’t overloaded, we re happy that we can get to work on time and not have our names on the wall newspaper as shirkers. When we come home, my wife queues for meat and I queue for potatoes. If the stove is working and we can cook dinner, we are really happy. Then we turn on the radio. It makes us happy if there is music instead of a long political lecture. Finally we go to bed, and we are happy that one more day is over. After midnight, there is a loud knock on the door. 1 have to get up to see who it is. It is the police and they ask me, ‘Is your name Zelenko?’ And I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that my name is Novak."
When people do grumble in private, it is almost always about little things— having to appear for some demonstration,
or not getting enough coal, or earning too little. So many people moaned about living standards, which are relatively high now except for housing, that 1 began to ask whether they would be satisfied if they got a raise or if they wanted something else. They shied away from the answer, saying no but always avoiding big words like liberty or democracy. I don’t know if they felt such words would burn their tongues, or if they found the words grown dull and flavorless from too much abuse. One man skirted them by saying. "We are used to living as you do, travel and all the rest. Do you understand, all the rest?”
It is hard to talk politics except with Communist party members and then it is too monotonously dreary unless, as in Poland, the party member is willing to veer from the official line a bit and speak for himself. Politics has pervaded everything—literature, art. the movies, sports, town planning, whether to plant wheat or beans, and people are fed up with it. Youngsters especially resent being admonished to distinguish between (politically) "positive” and "negative” jazz and spending hours ostensibly acquiring the "correct world outlook.”
“I’m studying to be a veterinarian.” a student from the university at Brno told me once. "What do I want with all that Marxism-Leninism bosh we have to listen to? How many cows will I cure with that? Of course we pay attention, we have to pass in the political subjects to graduate, but it’s an infuriating waste of tjme.”
Even in Poland, where there was a hot flash of achievement and exhilaration after the 1956 upheaval, the mood has turned back to a grudging resignation. It isn't a matter of what people want, but what they think they have a chance to manage.
Czechs told me they wished they could be put in a deep-freeze for a hundred years or so and then continue their lives when there would be more point to living. Once in Bucharest a factory worker put the feeling even more succinctly. He was sitting on the grass lining one of the city’s handsome avenues, basking in the sun and looking as sweetly content with the world as a horse in a clover patch. We struck up an idle conversation and he was friendly enough but when I asked how life was treating him, he snapped, “I’m not allowed to tell you.”
It was a way of telling volumes. Each country has its own expression of the numbness, but you find it even where hammers are clanging and great industries are going up and things are being built which countries have a right to be proud of. Somehow for ordinary people the air of tiredness is different from the satisfying exhaustion that follows work accomplished.
At carnival time after the 1956 turmoil in Poland, students held the first wildly carefree costume ball that Warsaw had seen in years. I went with a friend who had been a Communist all his life, and he watched half shocked and half awed as the youngsters pranced madly around the dance-floor in their fantastic get-ups, some earthy and some ultra-Martian.
"After all,” he said. “I suppose it is a good thing just to enjoy yourself without thinking sometimes, to fill yourself up with fun that has no significance.” He spoke honestly, admitting that he used to disapprove and now had changed his mind, and he added wistfully, “Somehow, though, I can never manage it."
The signs of another way of life that my mother was looking for, and did not see at first, were wrapped in my friend’s implicit disclosure—that the rulers of the Eastern European nations never particularly intertded people to manage it. Fun, or rather the peculiar delight that each human being chooses to adorn his life, is by no means officially banned, but it is simply not included in the plan that ostensibly provides for all possible needs of society.
After she had been with us for a time, my mother went off by herself to take the baths at Mariansky Lazny, once a cosmopolitan Czech spa. She chatted with the people she met there, and when she came back she told me, “I’ve never seen such an unhappy bunch of people as there are here.” And later, when we drove back to Austria for the usual shopping trip (light bulbs, good snow boots, stockings, good chocolate, oranges), she stopped me as we passed a flower shop and insisted I buy a pot of pinks to take back.
"They'll brighten up the apartment wonderfully,” she said; “you really need them.” There were plenty of flower shops in Prague. We both knew very well that it was a frivolous gesture, and that was why we both felt it was absolutely necessary under the circumstances,