chapter02

1953- May 1967
Prežmysl cottage belonged to the state and my family paid rent on it. It was a half-stone, half-wooden dwelling. It had five rooms. In the kitchen there was a sink, a shelf, a larder and a tiled log-stove. The shelf housed an earthenware flask that had a deer painted on it, as well as a square tin where Aunt Franci stored important papers and household money. Mostly glass jars containing pulses, mint leaves, pickled cucumber, flour, jam, oat flakes, were stored in the larder as well as seasonal foodstuff. We always had a 25kg potato bag and we were never short of beer. As a child, I never drank beer - it was used as a hair conditioner. We did not have a fridge until 1965. That same year, a shower, hidden by a curtain, was installed in the kitchen corner. We ate our  meals at a wooden table and we sat on benches. Upstairs there were two rooms, one bedroom for the adults and one for the children. Downstairs, there was a parlour where the children were not allowed in. The house was always meticulously clean and smelt of carbolic soap. 

When my mother Maria Koblarová used the parlour, she had clothes and papers scattered everywhere. Uncle Nikola and her often argued about her sloven ways. The polluted rural idyll bored her and she left for a job in Budejovice. I could not blame her for leaving, I merely resented the fact that I had to stay behind in that cramped cottage. I did not miss her because she rarely visited and when she came, she always argued with Nikola. Aunt Franci tried to act as a peace-maker but in the end she did not bother any more. My father Anton Skodaček was hardly ever mentioned. He was pronounced dead in 1946 when the Red Cross told Maria that they could not find him.

Franci had told me that Maria did not look too surprised when she heard the news. The Henleinists had made many people disappear. The family did not like talking about these Fascists. I thought that my family were cowards for being scared by long-gone enemies! I confess that from these feelings of alienation rose my admiration for the Red Army who drove the Fascist bastards away! In the world of a child, there are heroes and villains as well as cowards who sit on the fence. 

I don't have any particular recollection about the day when Maria Koblarová died. It happened in 1953 and I was at boarding school outside Budejovice. I found out later that she died in a tram accident when the heel of her polka-dot shoe was caught in the rails and she fell right in front of the tram. Her boyfriend in Plžen did not know that she was a widowed mother. We didn't know that he was married and that his estranged wife and children lived in Prague. He paid for the funeral but did not attend. Uncle Nikola and Aunt Franci who were too devout to allow any of this to surface, therefore apart the four of us and the pastor, there was nobody at the funeral which took place on a stormy night at the cremation chapel. A string quartet played 'The Miraculous Bag' composed in 1932 by Bohuslav Martinů. Maria used to go to the concert hall with Anton and they once heard that particular piece. Uncle Nikola took care of the formalities and became my legal guardian. 

Nothing changed for me, I continued my state-subsidized education at the boarding school outside Prague. I was fifteen. I liked school and was good at Russian, maths and orthography. I was an introverted student and had no close friends. 

One weekend, as we were sorting through Maria's belongings in the parlour, Aunt Franci felt like telling me more about my parents. She said that the Bohemian china and the crystal hock glasses were all presents from Anton to Maria. There was a chartreuse overlaid crystal stem glass with engravings, I asked whether I could keep it. Franci wondered what to do about the coffee set and the remaining crystal glasses, I said that she might as well sell them. Franci said that I could give these to my future wife, and I replied that I had never thought of getting a wife. Maria had a trinket box of costume and silver jewelry and I said that I might keep those for my future wife. Perhaps she would look like Franci with black hair and almond eyes. Perhaps she would look like Maria with short curly dark hair, high cheekbones and olive complexion.

In the dresser there were also some books - copies of the Communist Manifesto in German, Russian and Czech. In Czechoslovakia, Karl Marx is known as Karel Marx. Franci said that these books belonged to Anton, 'he would love the country now.'- hence I wondered whether I am named after the author.  The family did not read anything apart from the local paper and the Bible. The family used a very battered Bible in German that dated from the times of the Moravian Church, and a more recent Czech one. Franci flicked through a slim photo-album and showed me some sceneries with Maria in it. 'Maria looks very happy in these', Franci said, and added that Anton had worked as a photographer in Vienna. I felt proud of my father: a 'real photographer'. I hoped to find a picture of him in the album but there were none. Maria had destroyed all of them. Was  she afraid of the Henleinist Freikorps? Franci explained that Anton Skodaček was born Adolf Schaden in Austria. He was a member of the KPÖ (Kommunistische Partei Österreichs). The communists moved their headquarters to Prague in 1935 when their party was declared illegal in Austria. The Nazi Party in Austria led by Alfred Frauenfeld had links with the Henleinist Freikorps - both aligned their policies with the German Nazi party which came to power in Germany in 1933. Hopes for the exile-KPÖ's laid with the Comintern also known as the Third Internationale - the international Union of Communist Parties. Members of the Communist Parties believe that the workers have no patriotic attachment. 

And now I understood.

As long as she was alive, Maria had opposed to my joining any political organization. I respected her decision and now I understood that she  felt protective towards me. Now I needed to make my own decisions. Nikola joined us in the parlour and said that the SVAZARM (Svaz Spolucradcis Armadou - Union for Cooperation in the Army) would offer me a chance of a career but they were affiliated to the Czechoslovak Communist Party.I looked at Nikola. The little man with the white moustache was difficult to scrutinize. I was happy enough to apply to the SVAZARM and continue my education with them. I preferred the idea of joining the army to going to agricultural college. We arranged an appointment with Šnabl Sr, the recruiting officer in Krumlov. He explained that this summer he would be taking the young people to a holiday camp. In my opinion, this was a more attractive prospect than spending the whole summer in Kostelec. Now I felt closer to the ghost of my father. 

I also fancied the idea of dog training and vehicle driving. I always wanted a dog to keep me company but Maria had never allowed me to get one and bought me a fiddly string marionette dog from Prague instead. The puppet was called Kira but I was useless at making this wooden object agile. My mother re-sold it and used the money to pay off a bill. Now I had a real dog. It was an Long Haired Alsatian called Ina and it was not a friendly creature at all as it bit me and almost perforated my left hand. Whoever called this monster 'Mother Figure' was as stupid as I calling my clumsy dog 'Agile'. I never wanted to own dogs after that episode. The SVAZARM transferred me to the automobile section and I eventually learnt to drive. I enjoyed this a lot, even cleaning the vehicles. The military training was minimal. There was this fatalistic opinion within the SVAZARM that the next war would be fought with nuclear weapons. When I was conscripted, I left the SVAZARM although I could have stayed with them. I had enjoyed my time there - this is not for everyone but for a bored teenager with no purpose, life with the paramilitaries was stimulating.


In 1956, when I was eighteen,  I was posted in Stará Boleslav, a town in Central Bohemia by the river Elbe. The year before, the Soviet Union had founded the Warsaw Pact - a military alliance between the USSR and its allies. The US-led NATO had welcomed the Federal Republic of West Germany within its ranks and the Kremlin was concerned. My comrades and I were no longer located next to neutral Germany but next to a state that once again looked at our country in a hostile way. 

The US propaganda radio Radio Free Europe aimed its programmes at Czecholovakia and was based in Munich. The Federal Republic of Germany also banned communists from becoming teachers and for allowing the exile Sudetes to create a group called 'Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft'. Henlein's followers were living beyond our border. Disappointingly, Wenzel Jaksch of the Sudete Opposition failed to challenge the Landsmannschaft efficiently, while his followers blended within the rest of the German society. The Landsmannschaft still made territorial demands over Sumava.  The Warsaw Pact positioned SS20 missiles on the border to Germany whilst in Germany there were NATO missiles pointed at Czechoslovakia. Within the Warsaw Pact, there was the 'good Germany', the one that was home of Karl Marx. The other brothers in the Warsaw Pact were Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Poland and big brother USSR. All things considered, the Army told me that my SVAZARM training was insufficient and that I was too soft for active service. I ended up working at the Army Sorting Office.

In 1960, as our country declared that it had accomplished the Proletarian Revolution and renamed itself ČeskoSlovenská Socialistická Republika - The Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia - ČSSR - I applied for a job at the State Paper Mill. The wages were marginally better and I thought that it was time for me to settle down. Šnabl jr was working there as well and his father provided a reference. In hindsight, I think it was a mistake to move back to Kostelec and I pretty much wasted seven years of my life trying to make ends meet and waiting for a council flat. Perhaps it is also due to the fact that I never found anyone I wanted to settle down with. Far from being a dashing ex-soldier, I seemed to have the reputation of a bumbling idiot, or a modern version of the good soldier Švejk. Instead I shut up and joined a national caravan club and spent my spare time with other caravan enthusiasts and we went a few holidays caravanning in the mountains and taking pictures of animals and landscapes. Apart from that it was work, eat, sleep. 

In May 1967, shortly after Liberation Day, I received an invitation for a job interview at Prague Charles University. The letter was signed Ing. Janina Zpovednicá for Professor Pavel Varady (University of Leningrad). I had to make a choice. Should I continue as before or take a gamble? I decided to attend the job interview in Prague and take it from there.

I visited Aunt Franci and Uncle Nikola to tell them about the good news. Aunt Franci had tears in her eyes and said that she was proud of my going to university. Nobody in this family had ever been to university. She went to agricultural college but this was not the same. This convinced me to accept the job in Prague because until now, the family had seen me as an underachiever. Cousin Rudolf did also go to agricultural college and ended up working in a medical engineering factory. Had he qualified as a doctor, they would not have been more proud of their son. Perhaps, Prague University would make a scholar out of me.

Uncle Nikola said nothing. We went into the kitchen to boil some water and prepare a vacuum flask of mint tea. Later, as I was standing in the garden with my suitcase and satchel, he wished me well for my new job. My aunt was crying asking me to come to visit. I said that I would visit as often as I could and put flowers on my mother's grave. Aunt Franci smiled as she filled my lunch-box with sandwiches and gave me the packet of mint leaves. She would have given me more provisions but there was not enough space in my satchel.

As I walked down the two kilometres to Krumlov bus-station and looked at the landscape, thoughts were conflicting in my head. The forest was a no-man's land where the wolf-dogs patrolled. In medieval times, there used to be real wolves in the forests of South Bohemia. This area is still popular with story-tellers, bird-watchers and archaeologists looking for fossils and Bojer relics. When I was a child, I wanted to become an archaeologist because I passed the digging site every week on my way to Kostelec. When I became a bit older, I gave up on the idea because I equated this type of job to grave-digging which was far too morbid for me. I had always been fascinated by the idea that this region was named Bohemia by the Romans after a Celtic tribe who later emigrated to Ireland. This is why the word 'Bohemia' (which derives from the Latin word Boiohaemum ) does not feel quite right. The people who fought the Roman Empire in the sixth century and later moved westwards, were a Germanic tribe called the Markomans. Subsequently, Czechy and his Slavic tribe  came from what used to be known as Panonia. 

According to the legend, there were three brothers called Rus, Lech and Czech. Rus settled in Russia, Lech settled in Poland and Czech settled in Boiohaemum. According to folklore, Queen Libuse was a descendant of Czech and she married Pržmysl Orac (Pržmysl the Ploughman) who gave his name to Uncle Nikola's native town. There are many other tales surrounding the forest including the female sylvanian spirit who kills boys and dances with girls. Many of these tales feature in puppet shows and colouring books. The South Bohemian forest could not be devoured neither by pollution, nor city planning nor infrastructure because the border to Austria was closed by the Iron Curtain. The next checkpoint was České Velenice some thirty kilometres away on the path of the old Franz-Josefs-Bahn railways line. In the no man's land, there is neither village nor the need for human border patrol: In 1955, the army bred an animal that was a cross between a Carpathian wolf and an Alsatian. The result resembled a wolf and liked to socialize in packs. I used to handle dogs at the SVAZARM but that creature does not need human interaction. The Czechoslovakian wolf-dog is an efficient mercenary. Not a soft poodle like me. And so, apart from the occasional tractor, lorry or bicycle, there was not much traffic on that road.I passed the Christ on the Cross. This type of monuments dots the country-side and the authorities did not bother removing them. They knew that the locals cherished their churches and religious symbols but did not really live by the Christian faith unlike the peasants from yesteryear. After all, nobody dressed like the dolls in bright folk costumes. I was wearing polyester trousers, a grey pullover, a flatcap and an oilcloth raincoat with a red scarf. This was a practical outfit for walking in the rain. I had lost some of my original stamina since I left the army when I started smoking and watching too much TV. At the SVAZARM, we practised  marathon running and cycling. To this day, I like hiking, and back then, the journey seemed even shorter because I was heading to the big city. 

I arrived at Krumlov coach station and  bought a ticket at the ČSAD counter and a national newspaper at the kiosk. Then I stepped onto the blue and white Karosa coach. I made myself comfortable, ate Aunt Franci's cheese sandwiches, drank some mint tea from my vacuum-flask. I felt on top of the world. The City! I smoked a cigarette then started reading the paper. I had a four-hour journey ahead of me. 

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