I went back behind the Iron Curtain
Marika Robert’s account of her return to the homeland she escaped 12 years ago
“Actually I don't know whether it was better or worse. Oh yes, it was better in that we could buy everything, and the food was good and quite elaborate, and no one we knew had been arrested lately, and the people were gay and satisfied. That was just what bothered me "
DURING THE TWELVE YEARS that separate me from the starless night when I escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia I often dreamed of being “home” again. They were sweat-heavy nightmares of streets adorned with party slogans; hard-faced men and women pointing their sickles and hammers at me; friends turning away from me in fright; menacing steps behind my back; and a stunned, desperate wondering; Why did I do it? Why did I come back? And how am 1 going to get out of here again?
This fall I decided to make the dream come true and return to Prague and Budapest, the two cities where I grew up. It wasn’t easy to decide to put myself at the mercy of a state that doesn’t recognize my Canadian citizenship. As a matter of fact neither my husband nor I was quite sure whether we wanted to go until the last minute and even then, when we happened to miss the plane from London to Prague, my husband was willing to regard this as a heavenly sign and retreat to the French Riviera instead. If it hadn't been for the efficiency of a British airport official who insisted on expediting us to Prague via Brussels we would not have had a chance to find out for ourselves how the truth compared to the benevolent descriptions of some Western reporters and the horror stories of visiting expatriates.
The Iron Curtain closed behind us after we boarded a Czechoslovak plane in Brussels. It was an ancient two-engine contraption furnished with spartan simplicity and three passengers who gave us the shivers. Actually the white-slave merchant and his concentration-camp-warden wife and AI Capone’s brother concealed behind the folds of the Red Law (the Communist party’s daily) were undoubtedly prominent citizens—or they wouldn’t have been allowed to travel to the West. But not yet being used to the New Look of the present elite we found them frightening.
Lunch was a redeeming feature. It came served on a white tablecloth and was as fresh and tasty as grandmother’s special Sunday treat. Through some miracle the plane didn’t die of old age in the air and managed to land in Prague.
“Do you intend to stay here or will you visit Kosice?” a Czech officer asked me the minute my head emerged from the plane opening. It was a w'ell-takcn question, for I happened to be born in Kosice, but the fact that he knew it without opening my passport before I left a plane I wasn’t sup-
posed to be on gave me a rather uncomfortable sensation.
No one bothered to open our bags. But they did encourage us to exchange some money.
"They’re waiting for you with open arms there,” the customs clerk pointed to the exchange office. We got fourteen crowns for a dollar. The offic.al value is seven but Czechoslovakia is trying to encourage tourism.
And so I was in Prague again — the golden city with the ancient houses and the wide squares; and the past was calling from statues and bridges, from mountaintops and basement bars. Rattling along in the limousine, I felt like a returning lover whose childhood flame had chosen the wrong path but now everything was forgiven and forgotten and all that mattered was that he was going to see her again. Has she changed much? Will I still like her, and will it hurt? I wondered in lover's fashion. This romantic train of thought was soon interrupted by the prosaic reality that our luggage was not on the bus.
Before taking off for the Communist world we had been told that porters were non-existent there. This proved to be a lie. Descending from the limousine we immediately spotted two with impressive badges on their chest. They must be Heroes of Work, I thought (a treasured decoration in Communist countries). Unfortunately it turned out that handling lost luggage was not part of their duties and so they showed little heroism in that respect. Behind the Iron Curtain no one touches anything that is not part of his duties.
Since we couldn’t find an appointed luggagehunter, after twelve years of absence we spent the first three hours in Prague in a waiting room waiting for our trunks to materialize without any outside help.
Eventually they did turn up. We piled them on one of the very few cabs and set out for the hotel. Here I received proof of the folly of my nightmares. Our friends did not turn away from us. As a matter of fact the minute we entered the lobby I found a blonde hanging around my husband’s neck.
"A childhood pal,” he said and I chose to accept the explanation. She was having coffee in the lobby and didn't want to believe her eyes when she saw him enter. Her husband had been in prison for five years. Now he was doing fine, she said. Having been in prison
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“I don’t know whether our hotel room in Prague was wired, but friends were certain it was”
(they refer to it as “sanatorium”) is considered unfortunate but it's too frequent an occurrence to arouse deep pity.
The Hotel Alerón where we stayed had always been frequented mainly by visitors from the West and I used to look at it
with awe and admiration. Even a cup of coffee in the lobby used to be a special treat. And now we had a suite in the Alerón (for $(•> a day) laden with heavy crystal vases and ashtrays, and belonged to the once-envied group of foreign tour-
ists who use a magic language (favored with words like Air France and Pan Am and who can have a drink at the bar and then get up and fly to Madrid or Tokyo.
It should have made me extremely happy and in a way it did but neverthe-
less I hated the Alerón. Perhaps it was because the receptionist told me sternly that I had better speak in Czech to him from now on when I asked for the key in English; after nine years in Canada I am not really used to taking orders from hotel clerks or anyone else. Or perhaps it was because of the tape recorder we’d heard about. I don’t know for sure whether the rooms in the hotel are wired but some of our friends insisted they were.
"Don't forget to praise everything when you are in your room alone.” someone told us the second night. "It’s not enough to watch what you say. You should take five or ten minutes every day to tell them how much you like it all.”
So from then on we made little enthusiastic speeches nightly before we turned out the light.
The first evening we spent alone, strolling along the familiar streets, trying to recreate the atmosphere of our student days. There were the little hotdog stands (nationalized now), the cafés on the first floor and the nightclubs in the basements and the line-ups in front of the movies. We were surprised to see the posters of Western films (War and Peace, Twelve Angry Men). Naturally, the majority of the theatres featured Russian or satellite pictures. There were no line-ups there.
There are still meatless months
Prague has become the meeting place of the Communist world. Students from Africa and Chinese trade delegations mingle with the Romanian and East German tourists. When we left twelve years ago the Germans were so much hated in Czechoslovakia that to say a sentence in their language could have got anyone into great trouble. Today the slogan is “One German is not like the other,” meaning that only the West Germans are responsible for the occupation and the wartime atrocities — the East Germans are all "brothers.”
There have been other changes too. Twelve years ago you couldn't buy a decent meal in Prague; to get a bunch of grapes you had to stand in line for hours; and the only things displayed in the stores were the salesladies. Today almost everything can be obtained although we were told that there were still meatless months and eggless months, lemonless weeks and so on.
But the prices are high. The average person earns around 1,500 crowns a month. A nice coat for a woman costs 1,300 crowns. For his monthly wages a worker can buy four pairs of shoes or 10!/2 pounds of good coffee. For a washing machine he would have to work four months.
Even though the rents are incredibly cheap and the basic food isn’t expensive either, people are constantly short of money and to buy one item they have to give up three others. Most would be quite willing to give up almost everything to buy a car but this is nearly out of the question. Prospective buyers have to fill out a form and wait for three or four years. There is also a free market for cars but the prices are so high that people daren’t show that they have that much money — even if they do have it.
To me the most conspicuous change on the face of Prague is what I call the New Look. It would be hard to explain exactly
how the New Look is achieved but it does make the crowds look frightening. New Lookers don't wear cloth; they cover up their bodies with something that always looks grey no matter what color it may be and always seems three sizes bigger or smaller than its owner. It is not so much a sign of poverty as a deliberate manifestation against bourgeois fashion. Ties for instance are extremely cheap yet no one wears them and the white shirts seem to attract only the African visitors, who are usually dressed with all the care of an Esquire model. And Prague used to be an elegant Western city!
Whether it was because of the New Look or because of the years that had passed I didn't quite manage to retrieve a bond with it. Most of the time I repmined a tourist visiting the capital of the Czechoslovak Republic.
The day after we arrived our friends descended on us. They were quite the same as the last time we had seen them except that there were twelve years piled on their faces and none of them rebelled any more.
‘You haven't changed at all! You haven't changed at all!" they kept exclaiming. ‘‘We thought you must be Americanized by now."
“What exactly do you mean by that?"
"We thought you would talk only about money.” said one, "and wear light blue suits and violet hats and show off terribly.”
Most of our friends didn't come to the hotel.
"The Alerón is a foreigners’ hotel.” they explained. "It’s being watched and to be seen there is a point against you."
They preferred to walk while they talked and so we walked incessantly up and down the streets until three o'clock every morning. This was mainly necessary because of the kader. The kader is the file the state has on every citizen. It is the story of his life and includes everything from the social position of his parents to his behavior in school, at work and at play, to his preferences in books, in food and in friends. Nothing a citizen does can ever be forgotten, for it is all there in black and white and wherever he goes his kader follows him. From time to time lie has to fill out questionnaires to keep the kader up to date. An always recurring question is whether he has friends or relatives in the West. For people in a preferred position, it is advisable not to.
Most visiting expatriates will find that friends behind the Iron Curtain can be divided into two groups. There is the group of complainers. Members of this group go to great trouble to obtain some suitably impoverished rags before they meet the "rich Westerners." I hey also avail themselves of the services of hairdressers who specialize in "heartbreak hairdos.” As a result the Western relative returns home with a gnawing conscience and the firm resolution to invest all his savings in parcels for the miserables from now on. And then there are the proud ones. Most of our friends belonged to the latter group.
It's much better than you thought it would be, isn't it?" we were asked again and again.
Actually I don't know whether it was better or worse. Oh yes, it was better in that we could buy everything, and the food was good and quite elaborate, and no one we knew had been arrested lately, and the people were quite gay and satisfied. But that was just it. It was all so final. Nobody we met seemed to conceive that there could be another way of life. They have accepted it and given up all thoughts of change, and all hope in the West, which they regard as weak, stupid
and doomed to extinction. They didn't seem to want to be freed or saved or treated like human beings who have the right to choose and decide and say and read what they want. Freedom is like a rare piece of art that only a few treasure highly — the average man seems to have little use for it.
“It's much better than it was,” they kept saying, and this is true. It is better than the war and better than the Nazi occupation, but to those of us who have something else to compare it with, it still seems pretty grim.
Undoubtedly, the state does give certain things. It gives free books and pencils to schoolchildren. It gives employment to everyone; this is sometimes achieved by shifting the people from place to place, from town to country, whether they want it or not. The state gives insurance against sickness. Socialized medicine in Czechoslovakia isn’t always honey. People can't choose their physician. Consequently many try to bribe certain doctors they trust into seeing them. Next step: certain doctors get arrested for taking bribes or just for curing people they were not supposed to treat.
However, the truth remains that if someone is really sick he will get all the care and attention and all the drugs he needs free of charge. He will also be
flown to another country for an operation by a specialist should that be needed.
In two weeks befind the Iron Curtain we saw hardly a pregnant woman. Abortions in Czechoslovakia and Hungary are free and legal. There are special committees that decide whether they are justified or not. Besides health they also accept social reasons: if there is no husband, or if the husband is not the father, or even if the woman already has two children and doesn’t want to have more.
The more you talk to the inhabitants of Communist countries the more convinced you ;ue that one can do just about everything with people and they will get used to it. In 1953 rumors about monetary reform started to spread in Czechoslovakia. These were discouraged. On the eve of the exchange the state radio branded everyone who would spread such an unjustified lie as a traitor and enemy of the state. Next day the old money ceased to be accepted. Prices went down five to one but for every new crown people had to pay fifty old ones.
"Isn't this simple theft?" I asked the man who told me about it. It was on the street after midnight so I felt safe.
“It was bad," he said stoically. “Many committed suicide. Mostly old ladies who lost all their savings. But I suppose it had to be done.”
We didn't always walk on the streets. Sometimes we went to wonderful old restaurants where Czechs were drinking beer before America was discovered. We sat around in the parks of patricians' castles — which we were told were now open to the public. (This would have been impressive if we didn't happen to know that they were open to the public before the war too.) We visited our favorite spots and former hangouts and looked down at the
Moldau and up at the Royal Palace but it didn't mean as much as I thought it would.
Over huge wiener schnitzels and pork with cabbage as only the Czechs can prepare it, we were asked over and over how it felt to be home again.
It felt uncomfortable. Everyone was extremely nice and friendly and as far as I know no one followed us with or without sickle in hand. After the first two days I never thought that any harm could come to us but it w'as still a great relief to board the plane to Budapest.
Compared to Prague. Budapest at first sight is poor and shabby. Parts of it are still in ruins and it is difficult to distinguish between the ruins of 1944 and those of 1956. Although the greater part of the damage from the 1956 uprising has been repaired there is hardly a house without bullet holes and the entire city looks as if it hadn't seen a painter's brush for decades.
It was heartbreaking to see the conditions under which some of our friends live there: the dark corridors, the slummy courtyards, the paint peeling from the walls. There are no landlords to care — nearly all the houses belong to the state now. To have anything repaired one needs special permission. It takes ages to get it. But the people there are used to such conditions.
“Wait until you see the boulevards all lit up,” we were told. And so w'e waited and saw them. They were swimming in just about as much light as the main street of a Canadian village. Neon signs are almost non-existent.
Apart from that Budapest is paradise after Prague.
“The only place where 1 would like to emigrate to is Hungary,” a friend in Prague had said. “For us, Budapest is the West.”
It isn't the West but the difference between the two capitals is unbelievable. There is definitely a "they can’t do what they want to us; we showed them once and we can show them again” spirit in Hungary. The rebellion was not entirely in vain. At the moment Hungary is being handled with a gloved hand and thus enjoys privileges that other satellite countries don’t — for how long no one can tell.
In Hungary private property still exists. Many small stores have been returned to their owners. Private manufacturers are allowed to operate if they employ only members of their family. Medicine is socialized but there is a free choice of doctors and many physicians have a private practice too. The prices of industrial products are even higher than in Czechoslovakia yet people we talked to seemed to live better.
No one in Budapest whispers or turns around three times before uttering a word. We walked considerably less. Instead we sat in crowded cafés where friends and strangers discussed with us the pros and cons of the regime at the top of their voice. In one of these crowded cafés a girl overheard our mentioning Toronto.
"You are from Toronto?” she yelled over the heads of half a dozen strangers. "My husband escaped to Toronto too. How long are you staying?”
"We’re leaving tomorrow,” I said.
"That’s too bad," she shouted. “I would have sent him something, a little gold perhaps. You know. I am putting all my money into gold now. I hope to escape too.”
None of the coffee-drinkers who heard her paid any attention.
Yet not many of the people we met expressed a desire to go to North America. They knew that people there were making
more money and had better kitchen utensils. "But we have socialized medicine,” they said, “and no unemployment.” Some of them did complain that they missed the spirit of competition and free enterprise; others, however, thought that capitalism was horrible.
“Why would you say it’s so horrible?” I asked a former schoolmate.
“Oh you know,” she said. “Jungle law. The survival of the fittest. Who wants that? Here you know that that’s what you have and you will never have more. You don’t have to drive yourself.”
We found that most of our friends both in Czechoslovakia and Hungary were active party members. This is a special privilege, hut not one that means better salaries or faster advancement. It is good for the kader. Yet it is not good enough to balance out the handicap of their bourgeois birth. For a classless society, the Communist is more class - conscious than any other. There are four classes: children of workers, of peasants (not nearly so good), of intellectuals, and of others. Those who belong to the two latter groups have to be punished for choosing the wrong parents. There are different ways of doing this; the most common is education.
Tuition is free and everyone has the right to higher education as long as his marks are good enough and as long as he doesn't belong to the two latter groups.
There are ways to circumvent this law. If someone is willing to show his good will and do manual work for a few years he may eventually be allowed to study. The job, however, has to be well chosen. After working for two years in a morgue a prospective medical student was told that washing bodies wasn’t enough penitence. He had to put in two more years in an iron plant before he was allowed to enroll for medicine.
The same discrimination is supposed to be used on good jobs too but it doesn't always work that way. A friend of my husband’s explained the situation with a joke. Question: If the son of a chimneysweep and the son of a lawyer apply for the same position, who will get it? Answer: the party secretary’s brother-inlaw. Good connections are worth even more than good parentage.
"But don’t you mind it that people are judged by everything else but their talents?” I asked a handsome blond Communist on whom 1 used to have a crush at a time when he wasn’t yet a Communist.
"Most of them don’t really care what
they are doing,” he said. “This is a wonderful regime for lazy people. Father State takes care that no one should starve and everyone should have a job. As for efficiency, it doesn’t pay. Opportunists are hated and ambition is frowned upon. No one wants a responsible job. for responsibility means a chance to make mistakes and the mistakes arc entered forever on the kader sheet. Besides, people in responsible positions are being watched and they are more likely to have enemies. It isn't advisable to have enemies in our society.”
Curiously, if anyone resents the regime it is the youth—or some of the youth at least. 1 talked to a twenty-year-old boy from a poor home who has a relatively wonderful job now and he said that he and his pals felt as if they were “locked in a cage and covered up with a dark blanket.” '¡ hey would give their right arm to get out of it. he said. But the spirit of the older ones seems to have been broken.
To Hungarians, 1956 was a victory
Wc kept humping into friends and acquaintances all the time.
"You’re living in Canada now?” they asked without a trace of envy. "Is it very cold there?”
Some felt sorry for us for being exiled to such an icy faraway land and suggested that we move hack to Hungary. 1 was even invited to put my “talents” into the service of the Hungarian People's Republic.
"You could publish books if you wanted,” I was promised. "They let you travel within the Bloc, perhaps Italy too. Writers have a good life here.”
Actually no one I met had a particularly bad life. "It used to be much worse before the revolution." they said. We in the West tend to think about the Hungarian uprising as a heroic attempt that failed, but in the eyes of the Hungarians it is the great turning point and even though they were defeated they consider it a victory. Even the Communists are proud of it.
"We didn’t want to overthrow the regime." said one. "but we had to clean it of some of its mistakes. There was no democracy in the party; we did what Moscow ordered.”
It’s hard to imagine that it would be any different now. but since the uprising the Hungarians have become more confident and some of them seem to believe that they hold their fate in their own hands. János Kádár's government, al-
though it is seldom hailed, isn't genuinely hated. Many are willing to credit him for the new chunks of freedom.
"He’s better than his predecessors,” said our bourgeois friends. "And we shall see.”
What the Hungarians expect to see and what they would do if they didn’t see it 1 don't really know, but they all sound as if someone had given them a promissory note of whose value they are somewhat skeptical. During the revolt the Communist party was dissolved. I talked to a few former members who had failed to take out new membership cards. They claimed to be as Red as ever but before joining the party again they had to see.
Even though no one seemed to envy me for being a Canadian tourist, 1 myself thought it a very enviable position to be in. For ten dollars a day per person (payable in advance in Canada) we had a most luxurious room overlooking the Danube in the newly restored Hotel Geliert. In addition we got an abundance of meal tickets valid in all good restaurants in town. For seven days we wallowed in superbly prepared delicacies and wonderful wines. We invited one or two couples for every meal and even so it was hard to use up all the tickets. The attitude of hotel porters, waiters, even customs clerks made us think that our personal comfort was the only aim of their life.
“Do come back again.” they begged us in the hotel when we checked out and I would gladly have promised it. I’d go back to Budapest any day — as a visitor — as long as I knew that I didn’t have to stay for good in one of those rundown apartments with the leaking water taps and the stairless staircases, waiting to see.
On the plane to Istanbul I dug up the question again: Was it all better or worse than I had expected?
Twelve years had passed since 1 left and so there was bound to be some progress. Compared to the things that happened in the West it is a diminutive progress but this is something the inhabitants of the isolated circle don't know. They have no freedom. But who in Central Europe remembers freedom? The sun is shining behind the Iron Curtain too. People fall in love, they eat and sleep and bring up their children. It is possible to exist there. For someone who has no ambition and no initiative, who likes to have his ideas pre-chewed and his actions prescribed, it might be Heaven. But I wouldn't want to live there again for anything in the world.