Ann Colley ~ Seed-Time

Excerpt from The Odyssey and Dr. Novak

There are in our exis­tence spots of time,
Which with dis­tinct pre­em­i­nence retain
A ren­o­vat­ing Virtue …
(Wordsworth The Prelude)

ENGLAND 1946–1953

This is where the odyssey begins, or where I imag­ine it com­mences. The time is a warm English sum­mer after­noon in 1946. The place is the front gar­den of the Unitarian par­son­age sit­u­at­ed in a mod­est town bare­ly six miles north of Manchester. Holding my six-year-old hand is Dr. Novak, the head of the Unitarian move­ment in Czechoslovakia. He has come, per­haps (what does a child know?) to talk with my min­is­ter father about such mat­ters as the post­war recov­ery in Prague. (Four years ear­li­er the Nazis had mur­dered Dr. Novak’s pre­de­ces­sor.) Behind us rhodo­den­dron bush­es bloom; a gar­den wall half con­ceals a row of unkempt trees. Then there is noth­ing. The wreck­age has been removed. No longer can one catch a glimpse of the sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry dis­sent­ing Chapel peer­ing through the oaks’ limbs, for, dur­ing the night of 21 December 1940,  German incen­di­ary bombs destroyed this his­toric build­ing.

While air raid sirens wailed in the dark, my par­ents, pro­tect­ing a ten-month-old child and wait­ing for their own destruc­tion, crouched in the cup­board under the stairs of the par­son­age next door. On that same night anoth­er incen­di­ary bomb fell on the Victorian Sunday School build­ing across the road, but because the device mirac­u­lous­ly land­ed in an open toi­let bowl, noth­ing hap­pened. (Later, dur­ing the mid-1950s, when this build­ing final­ly crum­pled – a vic­tim of a sink­hole – remem­brances of wartime social gath­er­ings, as well as the sounds of young nurs­ery school chil­dren, descend­ed, like Persephone, into the earth.) In the 1940s dev­as­ta­tion was every­where, for this com­mu­ni­ty lay close to fac­to­ries, mines, and tex­tile mills. Ruins were a nor­mal part of my child­hood and played with my imag­i­na­tion.

When I glance at the snap­shot, my atten­tion, as if drawn by mag­net­ic force (there is no way for me to resist), has­tens to the com­pelling gaze of the fig­ures in the gar­den. I see and remem­ber a prim child all too will­ing to bury her hand with­in Dr. Novak’s kind­ly grasp. Or did I reach for his? The two of us stand before the Kodak or the Brownie in a pose of affec­tion­ate under­stand­ing. He leans ever so slight­ly toward me. There’s a kin­dred fond­ness, a bond that, for me, was to extend miles and years beyond the frame of the moment. I can still see his slicked back hair (it lies as full and as coarse as a badger’s back), his eye­brows that hang like a cliff’s promon­to­ry over the depth of his eyes, his tai­lored suit (the but­tons seem tight – is the suit left­over from a younger time?), and most of all I remem­ber his ele­gant walk­ing stick as well as his erect fig­ure and pol­ished shoes. Dear Reader, do I sound too much like Jane Eyre? But I nev­er saw or heard of him again. I do not even recall his first name. What hap­pened before or after remains a mys­tery. Did he dis­ap­pear into the maw of the Soviet machine that was to crush a yearn­ing, among many Czechs, to main­tain con­tacts with the West? Was he arrest­ed and impris­oned?

In spite of all the changes to come, that sum­mer day in 1946 resist­ed the tyran­ny of alter­ation and cir­cum­stance. Rather, sal­vaging itself from the rub­ble of time, that after­noon lin­gered long, defy­ing the nar­row days of life, and grew incor­po­rate into me. In par­tic­u­lar, the kind­ly pres­sure of Dr. Novak’s hand imprint­ed itself, indeli­bly, on my youth­ful mind, and lat­er was to lead me beyond the gar­den wall of my child­hood to Czechoslovakia and then to the USSR, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Directly after World War II oth­er Czechs came to my father’s Parsonage. Their vis­its rein­forced my attrac­tion to Eastern Europe and con­tributed to curiosity’s charm. There was Ludik Benes (also from Prague), a young man whom I adored and fol­lowed from room to room. I have no pho­to­graph of him, but I do pos­sess a slen­der book, Little Paul Dombey (Dombey & Son): A Charles Dickens Story Told for Children, which he pre­sent­ed to me as a part­ing gift. On the title page he wrote: “To my lit­tle friend Anicka 15th Aug. 1946.” Ludik was vis­it­ing because he was part of an inter­na­tion­al team of young Unitarians, the International Religious Fellowship (IRF), attempt­ing to pro­mote a bet­ter under­stand­ing among peo­ple of dif­fer­ent nations. Fervently, yet delu­sive­ly, ide­al­is­tic, the group had ral­lied its forces and was meet­ing for a week in Manchester, dur­ing which peri­od Ludik board­ed at the par­son­age. Two years lat­er, when the Soviets seized full pow­er in Czechoslovakia and were purg­ing the so-called “dis­si­dents” from all lev­els of soci­ety, Ludik, as well as the oth­er Czech del­e­gates, was denied a pass­port by the Czech author­i­ties. As a protest, the IRF cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly elect­ed him President in absen­tia. After 1948 Ludik Benes dis­ap­peared.

There was also Mrs. Kessler, who, to escape per­se­cu­tion and death as a Czech Jew, had come, via an anguished pas­sage, to live in our area. (For sev­er­al moments when I was writ­ing this I sud­den­ly for­got her name, and sad­ly real­ized that I had no way to recall it, no one to help me find it.) She moved to a bun­ga­low a few doors from where Mrs. Rowe, my “sec­ond moth­er,” lived. (I often stayed with Mrs. Rowe when my par­ents were busy.)

To my young eyes, Mrs. Kessler seemed old, but she was prob­a­bly in her for­ties. And exact­ly how she made the pas­sage from Czechoslovakia to where we were I did not know. All I grasped was that she was dis­placed. Mrs. Rowe took Mrs. Kessler under her wing. The three of us occa­sion­al­ly drank tea and ate rationed slices of bread and but­ter togeth­er. (Fearing there might be short­ages, the Labour Government intro­duced Bread rationing in July 1946. Butter had already been restrict­ed since 8 January 1940 – the day before I was born. Affected by the rationing, I now con­sume more but­ter on my bread than is good for me.)

I liked to lis­ten to Mrs. Kessler talk – I was attract­ed to her unfa­mil­iar pro­nun­ci­a­tion of com­mon words. (Mrs. Rowe reg­u­lar­ly helped her prac­tice her English.) Mrs. Kessler was a gra­cious, cul­tured per­son who spoke of art and music; even at the age of sev­en, I found plea­sure in that. Her house was qui­et. There was no one else: no pho­tographs – just fur­ni­ture. That had not always been the case, but I did not ful­ly under­stand just what she had lost.

In 1947 I spent hours with Mrs. Rowe in her kitchen. There we kept a sharp look­out for the post­man who might bring some mis­sive from Czechoslovakia. Like a cou­ple of eagles, bal­anced on an over­hang­ing branch, and wait­ing for a fish to swim through the brook below, we eager­ly watched for the postman’s bicy­cle to appear, drift silent­ly down the road and stop before the gate of 33 Park Lane. Through the open kitchen win­dow, Mrs. Rowe hand­ed the post­man let­ters she had writ­ten on behalf of peo­ple des­per­ate to escape Soviet rule. As a naïve sev­en-year-old, infect­ed by Mrs. Rowe’s con­ta­gious earnest­ness, I joined in her endeav­ors by stand­ing on top of the kitchen table, from which stage I deliv­ered stern hom­i­lies to fic­ti­tious Stalinist offi­cials. (The script belonged to my imag­i­na­tion.) At the top of my voice I rant­ed against com­mu­nism, cen­sor­ship, and reg­u­la­tion. After a moment or two, the seri­ous­ness col­lapsed and Mrs. Rowe cried with laugh­ter – rev­el­ing in this cathar­sis, I con­tin­ued to rage with more pas­sion than ever. My play­ful­ness was strange­ly raw, for I knew enough to sense how polit­i­cal cir­cum­stances had ripped apart the lives of those I had met and those Mrs. Rowe attempt­ed to help.

In that same year I was sent off from home to a board­ing school in Highgate (London N6).

 

Good-bye, good-bye, to every­thing!
To house and gar­den, field and lawn. (Stevenson)

 

At school I lived in a build­ing adjoin­ing anoth­er, bad­ly dam­aged by a para­chute mine. The ruins were strict­ly off lim­its, but we dared each oth­er to scram­ble among the piles of rub­ble and hide among the weeds that, like a phoenix ris­ing from the ash­es, had reclaimed their exis­tence. With that move mem­o­ries of Dr. Novak, Ludik Benes, and Mrs. Kessler dimin­ished (but did not dis­ap­pear), to be replaced, tem­porar­i­ly, by the real­i­ty of author­i­ta­tive teach­ers who gave out con­duct marks, and enforced rules (the stale left­overs of a late Victorian era) that gov­erned most min­utes of the day – though there were the Sunday walks in the Highgate Cemetery, where, in “croc­o­dile” lines, we passed by Karl Marx’s grave and saw where his fol­low­ers left flow­ers. While my fel­low bor­ders strode on, eager to get back to their after­noon tea, I turned my head and cast one more glance at Marx’s larg­er-than-life dark gran­ite head. I knew enough to real­ize that even though Marx had been born in Germany and had lived in London, his writ­ings had inspired the ide­ol­o­gy of Eastern Europe. My ear­ly curios­i­ty about that area of the world had not entire­ly depart­ed.

During my time in board­ing school, when Mrs. Rowe wrote to me, she said not one word about her cam­paigns to help those flee­ing from Soviet oppres­sion; rather, miss­ing the child she nev­er had, she sent poems that in her Lancashire best she had once recit­ed, at my insis­tence, over and over again. One was “That Tempting Apple Pie.” Her round bright face, her cres­cent fore­head framed by thin­ning short curls, and her pursed mouth, glee­ful­ly had shaped each word:

 

One day, Mumsy Pig made a fine apple pie:
And till ready to cook it she put it up high
But Piggy and Wiggy dis­cov­ered it there,
And to get it, they sim­ply climbed up on a chair:
Soon they cut it and greed­i­ly ate the wet paste,
For they said t’was a shame such a good pie should waste:
But Mumsy Pig caught them and put them to bed:
And for din­ner they’d physic and water and bread.

 

In a very loud voice, she had always added, “An Natty Mediton” – her ver­sion of a child’s attempt to utter the phrase “And Nasty Medicine.”

Late in 1952 my par­ents sud­den­ly announced we were emi­grat­ing to America. We were to leave in February1953. One result was that Mrs. Rowe came to vis­it us in London, to see us for one last time. During her stay, in the rainy autumn, on what seemed to me a sad, “long unlove­ly street” (I did not want to make the move), we met with two Czech refugees with whom Mrs. Rowe had cor­re­spond­ed. They had recent­ly arrived in England. In their pres­ence, remem­brances of Dr. Novak, Ludik Benes, and Mrs. Kessler yet again haunt­ed my youth­ful mind.

As poignant as this meet­ing in London was, one oth­er morsel from this dis­rup­tive peri­od of my life remained, refus­ing to be brushed into the lit­terbin of for­get­ful­ness. Immediately before we were to be inter­viewed and approved for emi­gra­tion by an offi­cial from the American Embassy, my Mother took me aside and tear­ful­ly begged that I not utter the word “com­mu­nism.” (“We will not be allowed to enter if you men­tion the term – and don’t tell them about the peo­ple who live across the street and dis­play a ham­mer and sick­le ban­ner in their win­dow.”) The specter of com­mu­nism and Russia from my ear­li­er child­hood had, a few days before, drawn me to our neighbor’s house. Curious as ever about any­thing to do with Eastern Europe, I had stood star­ing at their flag. Aware of the hys­te­ria sur­round­ing the McCarthy hear­ings inves­ti­gat­ing com­mu­nist infil­tra­tion in the United States, my ner­vous moth­er feared I might say some­thing that would cause us to be denied an “alien” sta­tus.

 

PRAGUE 1969

In America, years passed, and I was mar­ried. My hon­ey­moon was not con­ven­tion­al. In 1969, caught in the curi­ous under­tow of my child­hood imag­i­na­tion, I spent the first weeks of my mar­ried life not only revis­it­ing England but also cross­ing into a ter­ri­to­ry that had once been vivid­ly in atten­dance, yet inac­ces­si­ble, if not for­bid­den. After spend­ing sev­er­al weeks with Mrs. Rowe, my new hus­band and I trav­eled, via ship and train, to Prague and to Bratislava. I was thrilled that I was actu­al­ly going to be where Dr. Novak, Ludik Benes, and Mrs. Kessler had once resided. My fan­tasies were to become more tan­gi­ble.

The sum­mer of 1969 was a strange (and, for me, an excit­ing) time to be in Prague, for it was just over a year since the so-called “Prague Spring.” Commencing in January 1968, gov­ern­men­tal broad-based reforms had begun to soft­en rigid com­mu­nist doc­trines rul­ing the coun­try. Under Alexander Dubek’s gov­ern­ment, Czechs dreamed of demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions, greater free­dom of speech and reli­gion; they wished to abol­ish cen­sor­ship, insti­tute indus­tri­al and agri­cul­tur­al reforms, as well as to bring end to restric­tions on trav­el. When we arrived in Prague, how­ev­er, these hopes had been dashed or at best com­pro­mised. Exactly a year before, on 20 August 1968, 200,000 Warsaw Pact Troops (from the Soviet Union, the GDR, Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary) had invad­ed Prague. (This was the largest deploy­ment of mil­i­tary force in Europe since the end of World War II.) Alarmed by what appeared to be the immi­nent col­lapse of com­mu­nism in Czechoslovakia, the USSR had ordered these troops and their tanks to roll through the streets of Prague. En masse, the city’s res­i­dents gath­ered in the streets and protest­ed against this incur­sion by block­ing and climb­ing over the tanks, tear­ing down street signs to con­fuse the sol­diers, iden­ti­fy­ing and fol­low­ing cars belong­ing to the secret police, set­ting up under­ground radio sta­tions (jour­nal­ists had tried to pre­vent the troops from tak­ing con­trol of the Radio Prague), and by sac­ri­fic­ing their lives. More than one hun­dred pro­tes­tors were shot. And in January 1969, a stu­dent, Jan Palack, protest­ing the sup­pres­sion of free speech, set him­self on fire in Wenceslas Square.

When we arrived in Prague a few months lat­er, in the sum­mer of 1969, the sen­sa­tion, if not the fact, of a hos­tile, invad­ing Russian pres­ence lin­gered at each street cor­ner and hung around the door­ways of build­ings. Dubcek, the reformer, had become increas­ing­ly iso­lat­ed, and had been replaced by a “real­ist” will­ing to coöper­ate with the Soviets. Many of Czechoslovakia’s intel­lec­tu­als and busi­ness élite had fled, if they could, to the West. The peo­ple pass­ing us in the streets were tense, con­fused, dam­aged, and dis­trust­ful. I have mem­o­ries of arriv­ing in the train sta­tion and wan­der­ing with grudg­ing assis­tance until we found a rather drab hotel with an avail­able room. My col­lege German was help­ing a lit­tle, but the street signs were still down so when we actu­al­ly found a place to sleep, we were relieved. Economic dif­fi­cul­ties were vis­i­ble; there was not a sense of plen­ty, espe­cial­ly when we spent two days in Bratislava and wan­dered aim­less­ly around fad­ed, dam­aged build­ings that lined depressed streets like dis­card­ed rags. Shopping was dif­fi­cult too. Goods I took for grant­ed were nei­ther plen­ti­ful nor avail­able. I nev­er found out how to buy san­i­tary nap­kins (what are now euphemisti­cal­ly called “fem­i­nine prod­ucts”); there­fore, I was a mess and uncom­fort­able much of the time (and annoyed with myself for not antic­i­pat­ing my needs).

Finding a place to eat was always a chal­lenge. Not rec­og­niz­ing the food and not know­ing the lan­guage, I recall that in Prague we found a cafe­te­ria where we point­ed to the tray ahead of us and sim­ply motioned “the same.” I more often than not end­ed up with boiled tripe – a dish I despised but which was a favorite of my mother’s – a taste devel­oped dur­ing poor­er times.

Unguided, and always a bit lost (some­times gid­di­ly – we were young), we strolled alone through Prague’s streets, gazed at the splen­did archi­tec­ture, and crossed the Charles Bridge (occa­sion­al­ly, whether imag­ined or not, I sensed we were being fol­lowed). Eventually George Zidlicky, the broth­er of one of the Czech refugees whom Mrs. Rowe had spon­sored, took charge of us. The arrange­ment had been made ahead of time.

With the Zidlicky fam­i­ly we took plea­sure in the warm, relaxed, and light­heart­ed moments. Within their home, along with the men, we ate gen­er­ous por­tions of meat and pota­toes while the women sat behind our chairs, watched, and wait­ed for us to fin­ish; we vis­it­ed George’s butch­er shop, where he vig­or­ous­ly wield­ed his sausages, and joined George’s wife and her pota­to-peel­ing friends in the stone court­yard adjoin­ing their house. Only George spoke English, so we com­mu­ni­cat­ed with ges­tures and smiles – and per­haps with a few phras­es of my halt­ing German, a tongue uncom­fort­ably famil­iar to them through Nazi occu­pa­tion. But there were also sober­ing, anx­ious episodes that res­ur­rect­ed thoughts about the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the refugees and vis­i­tors from Czechoslovakia I had met dur­ing the imme­di­ate post-war peri­od. In par­tic­u­lar I recall George’s dis­com­fort when he took us to the his­tor­i­cal sites, such as the Prague Castle and Wenceslas Square – places where the mili­tia was con­spic­u­ous­ly in atten­dance. In less pop­u­lat­ed areas, fear­ing we were being over­heard by an invis­i­ble secret police, and fright­ened of their hawk-like sur­veil­lance (their “eyes so sharp that they can even see whose trouser-strap has come undone on the oth­er side of the pave­ment” [Gogol]), George peri­od­i­cal­ly whis­pered that we should keep our voic­es down. Casting furtive looks, he hasti­ly led us away from spy­ing ears. On the street he was as wary as a stray cat. He refused to come near our hotel.

Walking the pave­ments where those I had known had once strolled was exhil­a­rat­ing, but para­dox­i­cal­ly upset­ting, for, strange­ly, their absence became more defin­i­tive than before. So vivid in my child­hood, they real­ly were no more. The clos­er one draws to a mem­o­ry, the more it dis­si­pates. Being where they had once breathed left me with a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what had for­mer­ly trou­bled or dis­rupt­ed their lives. I had a more imme­di­ate sense of what it must have been to be sub­ject­ed to a hos­tile, author­i­ta­tive rule. Though the vis­it remind­ed me of loss, it also opened doors.

~

Ann C. Colley is a State University of New York (SUNY) Distinguished Professor and a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. She has pub­lished books on nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Macmillan Press, the University of Georgia Press, Palgrave, Ashgate, and Manchester University Press. Her most recent work, Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain, was favor­ably reviewed in the 6 November 2015 issue of The Times Literary Supplement (TLS). In addi­tion chap­ters and arti­cles have appeared in antholo­gies and jour­nals, such as The Kenyon Review, Genre, English Language Studies, Victorian Literature and Culture, and The Centennial Review.