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)
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.
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.