chapter09

 January 1968

When I woke up, at about 5am, I found myself in bed attached to a potassium drip. There were five other male patients in the observation ward. One old man, who had a jaundiced face, stood up. He had an unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, his abdomen was inflated like a balloon underneath his loose yellow night-shirt. I was wearing such a night-shirt myself. I was still feeling cold, sweaty and nauseous. Above my bed, there was a sign which read: “Karel Skodaček – b. 1938 – nil by mouth”. The patient next to me was called Herr Peter Engel and he looked well for someone who was in hospital. He was eating some chocolates and said he would offer me some but pointed at the sign above me. I nodded. He asked the man with the jaundiced face whether I was a 'Czecho refugee'. This was the first time I ever encountered the German word 'Flüchtling'. Another man moaned “Leave him alone, he's a Commie. It's not breakfast time yet.” Herr Engel said more to himself than to the grumpy man, that he hated commies and was glad to have left Karlsbad in 1946. I did not understand much of his subsequent disjointed talk. I couldn't work out whether he had been a Henleinist supporter or not.

As  I was trying to get back to sleep, Peter Engel coughed up blood. The jaundiced patient rang the nurse's bell. The male nurse came and rolled the bed out of the ward.. A few hours later, the grumpy man told the jaundiced man  that Herr Engel  was dead. Another nurse  changed my drip to glucose and checked my temperature, pulse and blood pressure. I felt depressed by the idea that only the day before, I was sipping posh coffee in an Art-Nouveau café and attending a film screening. Now I was in a hospital, attached to a drip and I had witnessed the dying moments of a real person. The cleaner came to wipe the floor with bleach and the smell lingered on for a while.

The medical team was waiting for the result of my blood test and I was waiting for a diagnosis for my illness. The staff served breakfast to the jaundiced man, one man had to be spoon-fed and the others were all nil by mouth. The grumpy old man was still grumpy. I wanted to get up and wash myself but the nurse told me to wait until he could assist me. I had to urinate in a measuring jug so that they could monitor my fluids. Later, the doctor made his rounds with the hospital admin worker, some colleagues and two nurses. They pulled the curtain around the bed to give us some privacy. The doctor greeted me with a friendly “Dobrý Den, Pan (= Mister) Skodaček .” but that was as far as his knowledge of the language went, then he examined my abdomen. I was more or less able to understand that I had an inflammation of the pancreas because all doctors use Latin words for diseases. He prescribed intravenous antibiotics  and he told  the nurse that I had to stay 'nil by mouth'; finally he asked the social worker whether the immigration officer had been in touch and to send the translator to his office.  The group left, the nurse pulled back the curtain and the group continued the ward-round to the bed in the corner opposite mine. I drifted back to sleep. 

Because it was Sunday, a chaplain came to administer communion to the two men who were able to eat and pray with another who was nil by mouth. The grumpy old man looked at the display of religion with disdain, put on his glasses and read a detective novel that had a sleazy cover.

The admin worker came again shortly before lunchtime with Professor Kulyakin and a nurse. I asked him about a possible date for my return to Prague. Professor Kulyakin explained that the doctor thought that I might be able to travel by the end of the week but in the meantime,  I needed to get better. The nurse asked me whether I was suffering from gallstones or had similar problems. I replied that I never had such problems before. The nurse then said that the doctor recommended to stop drinking alcohol and that it would be much better for me if I stopped smoking as well. My heart sank at the idea of a future with no drink nor smokes to soothe my nerves. I asked Professor Kulyakin to kindly bring me some reading material; perhaps an article about the pancreas as I had no idea what it contributed to the human body. Professor Kulyakin smiled and said that that the rational approach is always best to defeat an illness. He would look up in his Russian encyclopaedia. Meanwhile, he hoped 'Voina i Mir' (War and Peace) in Russian would satisfy me. The grumpy man looked intrigued, this did not escape Professor Kulyakin's attention as he swiftly asked the nurse about the possibility of transferring me to a single room. The nurse said that he would put the request to the doctor.

Apart from those visits, nothing happened to me apart from the nurse changing the drips and measuring urine. The IV antibiotics gave me a bad taste in the mouth. There was nothing to do except waiting. Joseph Blumenthal, the jaundiced patient did probably not wait but passed the time. He kept on telling Alfons Reimichl, the grumpy man, that he was homeless. Reimichl told him that the social worker would find him a home. 'Obdachlos' is another word I learnt. In my country, it is a criminal offence to live on the streets. Of course I wasn't a refugee like Peter Engel, nor a homeless person like Josef Blumenthal. I was luckier than my ward comrades. I was a little disappointed when they wheeled my bed to a single room. Isolation stops infections from spreading. I was stuck with Tolstoy's epic and it kept me busy when I was not sleeping.

Later that evening, Josef Blumenthal poked his head into my room. He was reeking of cigarette smoke. I waved at him and he came in. He had a crumpled newspaper in his pocket. He cadged a cigarette and he gave me his newspaper, saying that there were plenty more where that came from. Then he shuffled off again. When he was gone I remembered my conversation with Ammereiner, was this a trap to test my loyalty to the law of not fraternizing with the locals? I dismissed the idea because Old Blumenthal did not look like a snooper. He went to see everyone on the ward to cadge cigarettes.The Austrian newspaper looked odd to me. I had never seen one of those bougeois papers before. It was filled with advertising and attention-seeking headlines which had nothing to do with current affairs - only one international event made the front page: Heart transplant patient Mike Kasperak was in critical condition in Palo Alto hospital in California. There were some photos of women wearing floral dresses and knit-dresses from New York and Milan fashion week. A whole page of the paper was taken up by the new Ford Escort advert. There also seemed to be numerous furniture sales and personal ads. The listings highlighted a cowboy film at the cinema. The bulk of the paper was made of pictures of celebrities,  pin-up women and sports coverage. There was a column authored by a priest who was ranting against ecumenism. Compared to my local rag, there was no state-sponsored propaganda, quite the opposite, the paper used an irreverent tone towards the city fathers: 

“Yesterday, I went to a screening of a documentary on Slavkov/Austerlitz partly IN RUSSIAN at the University. It's about a small town in the ČSSR made by a film-crew from the Soviet-Union and generously co-PRODUCED BY AUSTRIAN TELEVISION. The buffet was sumptuous, the Russian-speaking guests were mostly invited. How come our CITY FATHERS are paying for this with OUR TAXES?” It was signed  Amadeus Leuchtengruber. The picture showed a display of blinis and wine and was credited to Primus Beilermann. I laughed hysterically.

The newspaper reminded me of Genosse Ammereiner words and the address that he mentioned. "ask for Olivia sister of Anton Schaden". At least I wasn't alone in this strange country. Then I realized that Olivia Schaden was probably not working in the bookshop on a Sunday evening. Nevertheless, dragging my perfusion stand with me, I went to the phone-box by the reception downstairs.  I put a Schilling coin in it and asked the directory enquiries to find me a number for Votova Antique Books, Wiedner Hauptstrasse, 1040 Vienna". I wrote the number down and went back towards my room. On my way there, I passed the TV room where there was a news report about the musicology department in Warsaw/Poland discovering Joseph Haydn's Symphony in F-Major-Allegro Andante Presto. Researcher Danuta Idazek discovered the sheet music in the Guzco archive and the work was premiered in Budgosczcz. Back in my room, I tore the article on Slavkov out of the paper and folded it. I threw the newspaper in a bin in the hallway. By then, I was very tired and slept for a while.


The next day, after the doctor's rounds and Professor Kulyakin's visit, I went downstairs with my cigarettes to the public phone. I called the number and asked for Olivia Schaden. A woman with a soft voice replied asking, whom she was speaking to. I introduced myself as Anton Schaden's son, currently in Klosterneuburg Hospital but resident of Prague. She said that I ought to be careful and asked me to name one of the ward patients. I asked why, and she said that she would come to the hospital under the pretence of visiting that patient and then look for me and give me some information about Anton Schaden. I told her that she could visit Josef Blumenthal who was a homeless old man with jaundice. Olivia replied that she would come down to the hospital in a few days but meanwhile, I should be careful and get better.I was not entirely convinced that the lady would come and visit me. She seemed very alarmed. I passed the smoking room and the TV news said that Mike Kasperak had died - the men in the room looked glum as if death in a hospital was their fate as well. I was about to walk on when the news reader announced that the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis was appealing against his prison sentence - he was charged of plotting to overthrow the right-wing Greek regime. This felt a little bit too close for comfort to me. Then, I said to myself that we, the patients at Klosterneuburg hospital were slightly more fortunate than Mike Kasperak and Mikis Theodorakis. A junior doctor told me that I shouldn't be up and about and advised me to go back into my room. I had to pretend not to understand German, so he led me back there. 

I spent the rest of the week ploughing through 'War and Peace', and glimpsing news that could lead to war or at least seriously compromise peace. An English lecturer called Gerald Brooke was in a Moscow prison serving five years for 'anti-Soviet activities' and not even Margaret Thatcher, his local MP nor Harold Wilson, the UK Prime Minister were able to help him. Leonid Brezhnev told the latter in a 'frank, constructive and friendly' manner that he was concerned about European safety. While I was reading about Pierre's adventures in Tsarist Russia, in North Vietnam, General Giap and his army of 40.000 Khmers Rouges attacked a US marine base with artillery and rockets. At the same time, at a disarmament conference in Geneva /Switzerland, Austin Fisher from the US government announced that in Rio Arriba, New Mexico/USA,  a controlled underground nuclear explosion released considerable quantities of natural gas and thus he hoped that Project Gasbuggy would herald a great future for all by securing our common energy needs. Professor Kulyakin visited me every day and I was gradually feeling better. The consultant explained via Professor Kulyakin that my pancreatic troubles were caused by neither gallstones nor alcohol and therefore it was a so-called 'idiopathic pancreatitis' My bloods still needed to be monitored and my antibiotic course to be finished. Kulyakin left on Friday afternoon with the news that I was on the mend and that my CRP looked much better. Soon afterward, Josef Blumenthal poked his head through my door. I waved him to come in. He entered the room with a man whom he introduced as a friend of his. I was not convinced that this was really a friend of his, more like someone from the chaplaincy who provided spiritual comfort to the patients. I did not get any such visitors because my admission form said that I was an atheist.

There is an assumption that atheism is compulsory for people in Eastern Europe. The fact is that only Albania outlawed religion. Religion is part of our cultural heritage. Otherwise we would have taken Jan Hus on Old Town Square off his pedestal and thrown him into the fire, and drowned all Nepomuk statues in the river. Believers were usually arrested when they ranted against the regime, but this is the fate of anyone who rants against the regime. Having said that, in my region at least, religion was on the decline, and people such as Pastor Luki Hromadka tried to engage people into the ecumenical dialogue. In his book called 'Gospels for Atheists' from 1958, he displayed the idea of Christianity and Marxism finding common ground. I did not read it because religion wasn't really my thing. Having said that, I certainly was not interested in listening to Josef Blumenthal's friend whom he introduced as a German-speaking Jehovah's Witness.  The man clutching his copies of 'Der Wachturm' (the Watchtower) looked at me through round spectacles and smiled meekly. Josef Blumenthal told him to read me a story from the paper. I was about to wave both of them out but thought it would be rude to do so. The old man wandered off after I gave him a cigarette but the young religious visitor stayed. He hung his anorak, and sat down on the armchair beside my bed. He had slightly tousled ash-blonde hair, and wore a tidy but drab grey suit. He opened his magazine and whispered in German:
“Mr Karel Skodaček, my name is Stefan Votova. I'm Olivia's son. My mother asked me to come and see you.”
“Oh!.. Pleased to meet you, Mr Votova. So you have come to talk to me about Anton Schaden?”
“The man I know as Adolf Schaden is my uncle. Olivia is his sister. Anton married a girl called Maria from the South Bohemian region.”
“That's him. He must have changed his first name. He went missing in 1938 and he is presumed dead. My mother passed away some years ago. I have no photograph of my father... What about Blumenthal?” 
“The unfortunate man has dementia. It's a horrible thing to say but  this is... convenient for us. He doesn't remember things. Although it is tragic to end up like that, I am not sure that you be keen to remember the truth once you hear it. Unlike the poor man, you will not forget. I understand that you need closure. Are you sure you want hear that?”

I nodded. He continued:
“There is a photograph of Adolf Schaden inside this magazine. I wrote some basic information on the back of the photo. Here is the story: Anton was a frequent visitor to my father's workshop. Until 1934, he worked at the Hochschule für Welthandel in Heiligenstadt. Adolf's hobby was photography until he met Alfred Frauenfeld and Princess Stephanie at a social event. As you may know, Adolf Hitler supported Frauenfeld's Austrian Nazi party. Their aim was to destabilize the Austrian government and blame this on the Reds thus justifying demands for an intervention from Germany. Their plan did not work until 1938 when Mussolini finally gave Hitler his blessing. In 1934, Adolf travelled to what used to be called the Sudetenland in order to assist the Henleinist Freikorps. Using his cover as a traveling insurance salesman for Generali, he was part of a liaising committee who negotiated between several pan-German groups who aimed the annexation of their countries to Hitler's Germany, they also exploited their contacts with the British Union of Fascists. This is all the information about Adolf Schaden that I could find at the Dokumentationsarchiv which is run by Simon Wiesenthal. This is why it took me several days before I could come here. As far as I know, we don't have any relatives in Vienna. The Schaden family is from Presslau. This is the Adolf Schaden that I know of, but I do hope that this wretched creature is not your father. You said that your father was called Anton.  I don't want you to risk your safety for that Nazi scumbag.”
“Don't worry about my safety, Herr Votova. Thank you for your research. It must have been difficult for you. Even if people find out about this conversation, there are no worries because my government and yours are opposed to Fascism. This case is one more proof for Hitler's malevolence... Will you transmit my respects to your mother?”

Stefan Votova smiled wearily:
“But certainly. If you need me, I'm here for you. Will you be travelling home soon?”
“I will indeed, the doctor said that I can go home this weekend. Thank you so much for coming.”
“I'm pleased for you. Get well soon.”

Then he left. I felt sad that my quest had unsettled the young man. Unfortunately, nobody can be shielded from the truth. It is better to to know it and face the facts rather than to deny their existence.  Now convinced that I was on the wrong track, I nevertheless looked for photograph that was tucked inside the magazine and when I saw it, I gasped in horror. I recognized that man. There was no time to lose. I needed to get home and confront him. He was not the first and he would not be the last Fascist infiltrating post-war structures. Whoever seeks the truth must prepare themselves to the fact that what they find out may not be what they wanted to hear. I told the junior doctor in charge that I had urgent business to attend at home and needed to return as soon as possible. The doctor asked me to reconsider because he would have preferred me to stay until the return of the consultant on Monday. As I insisted, he wrote a note for my doctor in Prague with a list of medication. He left me with a week's supply of antibiotics. I visited Blumenthal and gave him my packet of cigarettes. Then I phoned Ing. Zpovednicá. 

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