chapter08

January 1968

Welcome to the free West! Well not quite: theoretically, Austria is located within the neutral zone between East and the West. Austria likes to call this part of the world 'Mitteleuropa - Central Europe',  indeed a much better word than 'buffer zone'. There are several buffer countries in Europe. Yugoslavia is a Marxist buffer state that doesn't belong to the Warsaw Pact; Austria and Finland are neutral capitalist states that do not belong to NATO. Since a ČSSR person only needs a natty grey passport to travel to Yugoslavia and a flashy green for the other two countries, I concluded that Austria was regarded as part of the West.Our car followed to old path of the Franz-Josefs-Bahn via Budejovice, Český Velenice, Gmünd, Tulln, Klosterneuburg and we arrived in Vienna through the district of Heiligenstadt.Vienna was now a fading name in the 'European Concert' so at least it tried to maintain its cultural reputation by organizing arts events. We drove on the Friedensbrücke Bridge over the Danube canal. The Wien river meanders underneath the Karlsplatz Square. Ing. Zpovednicá asked the car to be parked in the Bösendorfer Strasse, 'where they build the famous pianos'. The University was located on the Schottentor, - the name refers to the Irish-Scottish missionaries that settled here in the 12th C. The medieval city walls were put down in the 19th century to form the Ringstrasse .

We had arrived three hours too early yet Professor Kulyakin and Genosse Ammereiner were already waiting for us in the lobby of the Künstlerhaus Building. They shook our hands and, speaking Russian, they invited us for a coffee at the Karlsplatz Café.There was an opulent smell of coffee in the room. From its bay window with the Art-Nouveau arch and gilded foliage decoration, there was a view down over the south of the city and the red-and-white trams driving up the Wiedner Hauptstrasse. On the left, we could see the Karlskirche Church with its green dome and its tall white and golden pillar. A magnificent place indeed.  I wanted to wash my clammy hands before touching anything, so Professor Kulyakin asked Genosse Ammereiner to show me the rest-rooms. Obviously nobody wanted me to abscond.

As we went down the stairs, my rotund companion with the grey suit and the round glasses whispered in German:
“I'm not sure whether you can understand me, Občan (=citizen) Skodaček. If you do, simply nod and listen.”

Petrified, I nodded. He went on saying:
“Your name sounds familiar to me. Many years ago, my friend Max Sebesta used to go out with a girl called Olivia Schaden. Her brother was called Anton Schaden. Sebesta told me that Schaden went to Czechoslovakia where called himself Skodaček. I am not supposed to tell you all this because you people are not allowed to fraternize with Austrian nationals. Do you know this Anton Skodaček?”
“Possibly. Do you by any chance know his wife's name?”
“His wife was called Maria something from Krumlov”.
“We are talking about my father!”

I could not disguise my excitement. Ammereiner looked alarmed:
“You could be in great danger. Your father was murdered!”
“I know that. I want to know who murdered him. Everything I know points to the Henleinist Freikorps because they kidnapped him. Why am I in danger?”
“Don't you know that many former Henleinists reside here in Austria?”
“I am aware of that. They were expelled from our country after the war. I would be grateful if anyone told me the name of the murderer.”
“How vital is this information to you, Občan Skodaček?”
“More important than my safety.”
“If you manage to visit Austria on your own, then go to a place called 'Votova Antiquarian Books'. It is on the Wiedner Hauptstrasse opposite the University of Technology. However, refrain from going there today because your superior may report you.”
“'Votova Antiquarian Books' on the Wiedner Haupstrasse.”
“Yes. Postcode 1040. If you go there, tell them that you would like to speak to Olivia. I implore you: under no circumstances can you tell anyone about me. I don't want any trouble.”
“Thank you.”
“Don't let Professor Kulyakin nor your superior guess how well you understand German.”
“I've never spoken German before.”
“Here are the rest-rooms, see you later.”

That day, I had reasons to be proud for I was able to understand spoken German. However, far from being able to boast about my exploit, I had to pretend to be stupid. This was very frustrating. I washed my hands, then we went back upstairs. I felt nauseous. Marina Sochorová said:
“Soudruh (=Comrade) Skodaček is learning German.”
“Oh wonderful!” Ammereiner exclaimed in German
“I can translate things with a dictionary on hand, but I have trouble understanding it. I would be lost without an interpreter.”
“Soudruh Skodaček translated an Hapsburg-era engineering manual for our university.” Inspector Zpovednicá said.

Professor Kulyakin translated for Genosse Ammereiner and added that he was glad that Soudruh Skodaček was not relieving him from his job. Then he thanked us again for helping him to arrange the film-shoot in Slavkov. After that the conversation revolved around the documentary. As the Russian-language event was about to start, our two hosts left us in the foyer of the university. They left through the stage exit, and we took our assigned seats in the front row of the stalls. 

While Professor Kulyakin introduced the film and quoted from Professor Varady's book, behind me, two journalists were talking to each other in German. Unfortunately, I understood every word that the reporter with the lion mane was whispering to the photographer in  the yellow checked suit:
“And I'm telling you, Beilermann, the thief can never be sure of himself. From Silesia to South Tirol.”
“Too much politics for me, Leuchtengruber. I consider myself a society photographer.”
“Today, we are lone wolves amongst the Red pack. I can't spot neither celebrities, nor any of our local politicians. Not even Karl Blecha, never mind Anton Benja. Without celebrities, no column.”
“They are probably at the Thomas Bernhard lecture. He always says such outrageous things.”
“Every time I quote Thomas Bernhard, the paper receives stacks of complaints. It's good for business. However, the boss can't stand him, he says Bernhardt is a failed Mozart tenor who holds the whole world responsible for his incompetence. How much do you bet that he'll be the next festival organizer?”
“There is far too much culture in this city. One can't anticipate where to go for the best shots. At least the Russian buffet was good.”
“Paid by the city. Don't you ever forget that.”
“Franz Antel's birthday party was good, pity it can't be his birthday every day. Uschi Febemayr got a press pass for Peter Alexander, bet her photos will make the paper.”
“I had a great time at the Alois Brandstetter lecture. We all had Mohnnudeln, Saumeise and fine wine. Forget about the lecture on birds and linguistics: The Count was there getting drunk and he was blubbering about his mistress. The editor was over the moon. Scoop!”

“Let me get this right: A documentary made by the Soviets in the ČSSR and financed by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation?”
“A propaganda piece about the Sergei Bondarshuk adaptation of War and Peace, and it focuses on a battle that WE lost!”
“Here's an idea: you could write that this evening reminded you of Soviet occupation.”
"The film itself is up for an Oscar this year."

Ing. Zpovednicá turned her face towards the reporters and shushed them. The two gossips stopped talking. Lion Mane muttered to himself:
“Na geh', prissy missy, don't get your knickers in a twist”. 

The photographer stood up, then went to the buffet where he hovered around the podium ready to snap any human worth his interest. He even snapped the photogenic Janina Zpovednicá. Then they showed our documentary and I took notes. I told the inženýr that I didn't catch much of Kulyakin's introduction speech because of these two yapping behind me. I added that I could ask for a copy of Kulyakin's speech. She looked at my notebook which read: 

“The 1956 version with Audrey Hepburn was a romantic love-story whereas the USSR version was based on meticulous research. There is no room for cheap sentimentality, Leo Tolstoy's work deserved better. Is it not a form of censorship to lower the tone of a novel in order to please a fickle 'Zeitgeist'? Is it not humiliating to second-guess public taste and to anticipate box-office sales? This is how capitalism works, this is not how our system works. Sergei Bondarshuk's version is ambitious. It aims at educating the public about one of the most important works of world literature, as well as enlightening the audience about the History behind it. There is no nostalgia for bygone Tsarist decadence, it is an indictment to a corrupt ball-gown society where the young characters grow up fast and are sent to the horrors of war. We could draw an analogy with the Viennese Ball season and the Vietnam War where countless young American are dying under the flag of imperialism. The documentary explores this very angle as well as showing how a local historical society re-created the atmosphere of a bygone battlefield. Slavkov deserves to be documented: It is more than a location for a battlefield. It is a small town that has seen centuries of turmoil. A Teutonic order built the St Catherine fortress, its Czech name is mentioned as far back as 1361. Anabaptists created a commune to find their God and cut themselves off the world by living amidst a Slavonic population. They spread their message through pictures. The Baroque castle is a strong metaphor for the luxury enjoyed by the aristocracy who dwelt in those 115 rooms. 'In Slavkov' -The one-hour documentary ends with reflections by the peace memorial. The construction of the latter was interrupted by the First World War and finally completed in 1921 by Josef Fanta. It was touching to see the faces of the Prague Charles University students and Slavkov Sokol Choir as they were shown these locations. During the day they had been role-playing as Austrian soldiers on the Battlefield. The documentary was narrated in German by Max Ammereiner an Austrian Napoleonic Historian at the Austrian Army Museum and Professor Alexeij Illitch Kulyakin of the Society for Austro-Soviet Friendship. The music score was adapted from Paul Robeson's 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child' by Red Skipper Somerset and performed by the Slavkov Sokol choir. The University of Prague and the Slavkov Historical Society were credited in the end titles.”

The Inspector nodded, put the notebook in her bag and said:
“It's fine, we'll get the text edited by the Professor and you can type it when we get home.”
I hoped that I didn't make too many mistakes.

When we left the screening room,  she asked me:
“I hope that you don't mind this extra work on a weekend.  If you don't mind me saying, you don't look too well today.”
“Extra work? Of course not. I'm feeling fine.Today felt like a holiday. Thanks to you, Comrade inženýr, I attend extraordinary events. I'll rest when we get home.”
“I thought you were disappointed working for our department. Professor Varady is a bit difficult, with him speaking Russian most of the time.”
“It has been my pleasure working for the Department.”
“Good to hear that. We'll have to head home soon. Early start for me tomorrow..”

I felt increasingly tired and nauseous, but ignored the symptoms. The inženýr asked Marina Sochorová to get a bottle of water from the buffet. Our driver came back a few minutes later saying that Professor Kulyakin wished us a safe journey home and that if we needed anything while in Austria, we could not hesitate to contact him.

When the car reached Klosterneuburg outside Vienna, it was dark and the two spires of the monastery were brightly lit. By then, I felt very sick. The inženýr stopped the car at Kierling train station and I ran to the toilets. I drank some water, but seconds later, I was throwing up. 

The station master saw that we were Czechoslovaks and showed his phone asking 'Spital? The word in our languages is the same. Zpovednicá nodded but I asked her not to fuss and beside wasn't this illegal? She reassured me that it had happened before that some travellers fell sick abroad. As long as the authorities were informed, there should not be any problems in seeking medical attention and besides the university would arrange to pay the expenses. The station-master drew a rudimentary map giving directions to the hospital and gave me a an empty paper-bag. Reluctantly, I went back into the car, and we drove to Klosterneuburg hospital. 

Ing. Zpovednicá gave Professor Kulyakin's card to the A&E receptionist. We waited in the bay area and then the receptionist asked the nurse to give me a cardboard sick-bowl and to take me to the cubicle. She added that the translator was on his way. Half an hour later, Professor Kulyakin arrived and told Ing. Zpovednicá that he was glad to help. The inženýr asked him to keep her informed and told me that she would be in touch. She left me some money which she put into my coat and left soon afterward.  After that, things became very blurry. I can vaguely remember Professor Kulyakin helping the nurse with the admission form, weight, height 1m81, Profession: Administrative assistant at Prague University, occasional smoker, occasional drinker, atheist, address, next of kin, and what I had eaten in the past 24 hours. Then the nurse checked my pulse, heart rhythm, temperature and blood pressure. She told the Professor that I had a high fever and that the doctor needed to see the blood tests for a diagnosis.

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