My Seven Lives (Extracts)

Agneša Kalinová in conversation with Jana Juráňová

This book-length interview with a famous personality of the magazine Kultúrny život and the Slovak service of Radio Free Europe - journalist, editor, translator, film critic and political columnist - is the first in a new series of interviews from the Bratislava publisher ASPEKT, in which she talks to Jana Juráňová, herself a distinguished writer, editor and translator.
Agneša Kalinová will introduce her „seven lives“, which have taken place in a number of cities and countries, against the backdrop of turbulent times and changing regimes. The book My Seven Lives offers fascinating testimony about private and public life in Czechoslovakia between the wars, under fascism and communism, in a convent and in prison, during the Prague spring and under „normalisation“, and finally in exile.

The school holidays in the summer of 1940, after I had completed the sixth grade of the (8-year) gymnasium, were still very enjoyable. There was this old swimming pool in Prešov, it had wood panelling that was quite rotted away and the water wasn’t exactly crystal clear either, but unless it was pouring with rain we’d be out there every day. The older girls would sit on the wooden terraces above the pool flirting with boys and we would sit below, watching and gossiping about them. We had spent the whole summer of 1940 at the swimming pool and I was just beginning to grumble that school was about to start again what a bore.

But then – it was on the 28 or 29 August 1940 – a decree was issued barring Jews from all secondary schools. Jewish children were allowed to complete compulsory primary education up to the age of fourteen, but only in specifically designated schools. On that day all the newspapers announced it in their headlines. As a sixth former, I still had two years to go before the matura, the school leaving examination. As I held the newspaper in my hands I broke down in tears. I suddenly felt so sad that my schooldays were over, that six years exciting years of my life were over, and that the chance of getting my matura was gone. I couldn’t really believe it was possible, that it was really happening.
I was still crying when my mother went into the other room. I remember that she put on her hat – in those days a lady wouldn’t be seen dead without a hat – and then went out. When she returned she told me that the next day I could be starting at Mrs. Erdős's on the High Street as a trainee seamstress. There would be also other girls there who had just been kicked out of school, I would learn how to use a sewing machine, sew nightgowns and men’s shirts, and later on Mrs. Erdős would also teach me how to cut patterns. I agreed without protest, I was quite glad that something was going to happen, it might even be quite interesting, who knows. I’m not saying I was overjoyed but I accepted it as a solution.
* * *
A year went by, the spring arrived and in March 1942 the first deportations of Jews began. As far as I know, Slovakia was the first country apart from Germany that started to send transports directly to Poland, and as far as I know it was the only country whose government actually paid the Reich for it. Deportations started simultaneously throughout Slovakia.
I don’t think anyone in Prešov had any idea what was in store. But since it was a small town, rumours started to circulate a day or two earlier. The authorities must have received their instructions a few days in advance and the information must have leaked out. The day before the decree was actually issued, my mother, a very energetic person, went into town. I don’t know what exactly she discovered, I don’t know what information she had, but she must have learned that something would be happening to Jewish girls the next day, that they would be taken somewhere.... I don’t know how many people my mother went to see but eventually she visited her beloved nephew Ernest Neumann, an orthopaedic surgeon, whom I called Uncle Ernő.  When she came back home, she said: “We’re going to see Ernő, he wants to explain something to you”. We went to see him and he told me that if they came for me, I should pretend I had sciatica. Apparently sciatica is difficult to diagnose accurately, especially in those days it wasn’t possible. Ernő told me about two basic symptoms, neither of which can be proved or disproved.
* * *
Then came the day that the decree ordering the deportation of Jewish girls was issued. It was in all the papers and probably also posted all around town. All I know is that we didn’t receive any summons at home. But we knew that all unmarried Jewish girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 30 were to report to the courtyard of the Reform primary school that I had attended as a child. There was a big courtyard between the Reform synagogue and the school and that’s were all the girls were supposed to assemble. I didn’t go and instead stayed in bed reading Franz Werfel’s famous novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, [about the Armenian resistance to the Turkish genocide].  [...] 
After I failed to turn up at the courtyard, they came to see me. They were looking for girls who had failed to report. Most of them had gone into hiding or managed to escape. By then some girls had managed to get hold of false papers somehow and hide in a village, in other cities, or their parents had sent them illegally across the border to Hungary. They sent a doctor to see me. He went through the whole sciatica exercise with me; I played my role and he conceded that I was sick and left. But that wasn’t enough. A few days later we were told they would take me for another check-up at the courtyard. I was carried there, as I was pretending I couldn’t stand up on my feet.  I was brought to the courtyard of the Jewish school on a stretcher and in an ambulance; it was slowly getting warmer, a pale March sun was shining. I was wearing only pyjamas and was covered with a blanket. [...] They carried me inside and I was examined by some doctors and in the end I wasn’t taken, I was declared unfit for work, because at that point they were still selecting girls under the pretence that they would be working. All we knew was that the girls would be going somewhere abroad with just a small suitcase. I have to say, I still admire my mother for her determination not to let me go. I think some eighty to ninety per cent of the girls had gone, because they didn’t know where they were going but mainly because neither they nor their parents had plucked up the courage to defy the decree, the order from above. I was seventeen then, almost eighteen, but when I imagine what it was like – sending girls as young as sixteen God knows where and why, “for work”... There were also rumours that they might be taking them to German brothels. My mother deserves all credit for my not being taken. She had the courage to pull it off. My father, who was otherwise a big risk taker, was rather passive in this respect. He approved her decision, he supported her, but it all depended on her. Because if she hadn’t put her foot down, I would have had to go.

With the help of relatives Agneša was able to escape to Budapest and survived the war and the deportations of Hungarian Jews hidden in a Catholic convent and later hiding in the city.  Sadly, her parents were deported from Prešov a few months after her escape and died in Auschwitz soon afterwards; many other close and distant relatives and friends, of whom she writes movingly in the early chapters of her book, also perished.
After the war, she married the writer Ján Ladislav Kalina, Laco, and as we heard in Martin Bútora’s introduction, she went on to become a leading journalist on the weekly Kultúrny život. Along with her husband she was one of the supporters of the Prague Spring. Following the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968 the Kalinas lost their jobs. Later they were targeted by the secret police because of their political views and extensive contacts in the West. In February 1972 they were both arrested: Agneša was released after 10 weeks while her husband was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment charged with anti-communist incitement; he was released after one year under an amnesty. But their harassment continued: their daughter Júlia, who took her matura exam just weeks after the Kalinas were arrested, was not allowed to go to university and eventually the family emigrated to Germany, where Agneša spent the following 20 years working for Radio Free Europe.

The following extract describes what happened after the Kalinas and a neighbour in their block of flats discovered a bug hidden under the floorboards of the study in their home.

Laco and our neighbour Miro set to work, removing first the moulding and then some of the floorboards. Underneath some grooves had been dug in the concrete and in the hollow there lay this bakelite apparatus about the size of a man's palm, and four long cables. This horrible little black thing was just sitting there with four dirty-white snakes crawling out of it. When I got home they showed me what they had found. Miro went home to get his camera and took pictures of the thing. Our friend, the painter Imro Weiner-Kráľ, had a photographic studio at home so we asked him to develop the film and make some prints for us.
Afterwards we started thinking, wondering what to do about it, where to put that thing.  Eventually we concluded that if we got rid of it, they would just put it back, they would just crawl in there again and install another. ‘This way at least we know where it is, so let’s just put it back and make sure we don’t discuss anything of importance in that room and leave it that.’
We could have dumped the thing in the Danube, of course, but we decided not to. But then we had to live with the constant feeling that there was someone lying under our beds eavesdropping on our conversations. The whole thing was starting to get on our nerves and we found it more and more repulsive. The TV set was in Laco’s study; when people came to visit we used to sit around it and watch the news on Austrian TV, we had two comfortable armchairs there, a round coffee table, and a couple of chairs. Now we had to chase people out of that room, tell them ‘don’t sit there, let’s go to the living room.’ We felt we were betraying our friends’ trust – they would come to see us and feel they could speak their minds, without knowing  they were being recorded by the secret police .  [...]  Laco decided to write a complaint to [Gustáv] Husák, who was then  General Secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee in Prague, and to deliver it in person to a friend from his student days in Prague, Slovak minister of justice Pavol Király. Then we remembered seeing an inventory number on the black bakelite box and decided to include it in the letter to Husák. It meant unscrewing the moulding again and taking up the floorboards. I remember that the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova’s speech in Prague was being broadcast on the radio as we were taking up the floor. But now there was nothing there. The grooves in the concrete were empty. Only two or three weeks had passed since we had discovered the bug. In that period we hadn’t been away at all. We have never understood when and how they managed to get in, as Laco had been at home most of the time. It came as a real shock. [...]  Laco did send off the letter to Husák anyway, and although he couldn’t include the inventory number, he added a PS saying the object in question had disappeared from our apartment. And as proof that he wasn’t hallucinating or, god forbid, slandering the socialist state, he attached two photos of the bug.  Laco was convinced that it was this letter that led to our arrest a year later.
* * *
They threw me into a cell, where apart from me there was one other woman, not much older, quite nice, normal, civilised. She said she was a teacher, that they had concocted some charge against her and that she was due to be released soon. The very next day I was taken to an office on the ground floor for questioning. About four people took turns to interrogate me. They started accusing me of all sorts of things. [...] For the first few days I was interrogated by the same three or four, incredibly stupid and furious secret policemen. They kept asking me over and over again whether I was the one who had written my husband’s book of jokes, and if I had translated it. They kept getting everything wrong. They claimed Laco had written my articles for Kultúrny život. They had no idea what an original text was and what was a translation, or what it means to edit or to be responsible for a text. They kept trying to prove I had done something, to accuse me of something and I just could not understand what crime I was supposed to have committed. Some of our friends, who had also been brought in for questioning, told me later that as they passed by they could hear me screaming at the men behind the locked door. I find stupidity incredibly irritating; it drives me up the wall.
I knew nothing about what was happening to Laco but I was sure he was also being held there. It was a terrible feeling. All in all, the prison was really horrible. I wasn’t allowed to lie down or sit on the bed during the day, I had to sit on a chair. The cells had iron doors with a spyhole, and uniformed guards would go up and down the corridor all the time and keep peering into our cell:  suddenly there would be an eye staring at me through the hole.
* * *
Then one day a guard came for me but instead of an interrogation room I was taken to a kind of storeroom. They brought my clothes and said I could get changed and was free to go home. It was Good Friday. And after they told me I was being released I was cheeky enough, and – mainly – furious enough, to insist I first wanted to speak to the prison governor.
I had four points to make. I said I wanted to register my protest at the fact that they didn’t observe their own rules, because we were supposed to be allowed to wear our own clothes, it said so in the prison rules which were posted in each cell. I also protested that female prisoners were made to walk around the courtyard with their arms crossed behind their backs, as this was no way to improve our posture and it only made it more difficult to get some fresh air. I also said it was very offensive and humiliating to make women ask male guards for sanitary towels: the guards were reluctant to oblige and would never bring enough. And finally I told him it had upset me to see an old woman being made to sit in her underwear for hours while she was waiting to be released. Instead of running home to [my daughter] Julka and letting her know I’d been set free, I first went to tell the governor off. But I just had to get it out of my system.


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red. My Seven Lives (Extracts) In ASPEKTin - feministický webzin. ISSN 1225-8982. Uverejnené 25/07/2012. Získané 23/05/2024 - 20:28. Dostupné na