chapter17

November 1968
P
araphrasing an obscure author, 'this is the story of the pilgrim who came one day and stayed here the day after.' I read somewhere that the word 'exile' has two meanings in Latin: it is a place of banishment and a place of refuge. One minute I felt that I would be able to go home soon, and the next I felt that I was going to spend the rest of my life there. I realised that this was just the beginning: I was safe in this new country but I had to abandon my home. I would never have emigrated if the political circumstances had been different.I figured that the best way of retaining my mother tongue was to work as a part-time translator, hence I designed a calling-card offering my services to put in the shop window. 'German-Czech translation services available here'.  I found Vienna to be a strange place but I could only imagine how this country felt like to a countryman who didn't speak German.. My only satisfaction was that the Warsaw 5 soldiers were aliens in my own country and might struggle with the language and getting on with the locals. 

I went into my new digs. I hung my satchel and my coat on the coat hook. I placed my few books on the shelf below the window-sill and my old nicknacks in the shoe-box at the bottom of the children's wardrobe. I felt that I was on a lengthy low-budget holiday. The pine bed was comfortable with crisp linen. The room reminded me of my old flat in Prague. With a bit of sourcing and DIY, I could convert this into a comfortable home. I tried not to invoke memories of Irina and Pavel. Far from it,  I also  tried to forget the Department, Janina Zpovednicá, Marina the driver, the porter, the care-taker, the black house with the white paintings, the red university and the yellow house with the cherry tree. I tried not to think too much about the comrades at SVARZAM, the Army and the Party and most of all I tried not to think too much about Uncle Nikola, and Aunt Franci... Every time I thought of them, I was welling up. Did I compromise their safety by leaving? 

I liked the bookshop. Some of the books reminded me of home. Olivia had only few magazines and novels in Czech therefore I read a few Czech novels in German: 'Metamorphosis', 'The Castle' and 'The Trial' by Franz Kafka as well as 'Tales of the Little Quarter' by Jan Neruda were my first choices. Animated by my lecture, I eventually showed my photographs and drawings of Prague to Olivia, I told her more about Franz Kafka's black house with the white figures, the castle on the hill and the absurd trials of Milada Horakova, Jan Beneš and others. Finally, I showed her Schaden's letter for the Dokumentationsarchiv and asked her what to do with it. Puzzled at first, she helped me translate it into German. During lunchtime we went to the Old City Hall in the Wipplinger Gasse to hand it over to the archive.After that, Olivia finally said that Anton was very brave to risk his prominent position because she would have believed that he was bound by the official secrets act from his country. 

There are some people in Austria who say that we should move on and stop reminiscing about the war. However, as long as the Sudeten-Deutsche Landsmannschaft uses sharp rhetoric and associates themselves with far-right clubs, and as long as Alfred Frauenfeld is allowed to recruit young neo-Nazis in Hamburg, West Germany – we will need to testify against them. Not a month passes without a revelation of a former war-criminal holding a prominent position. This is an uncomfortable subject.  At the same time, it was important to stay in touch with current affairs, and not forget what is happening in my home country. It was difficult to exactly find out what was happening because of media censorship. Foreign correspondents from the West were not able to report from Prague. Olivia was impressed about my photographs of Prague and frame some of those for the shop of Prague. She also warned me that visitors from the ČSSR would probably not be able to visit us otherwise they would be in big trouble for fraternising with the locals. 

On  that Wednesday, I went shopping at Meinl for bread, instant coffee, cherry jam, Manner-biscuits, and I thought about the expression 'Rakouský Slovanský'-  an Austrian living in Prague. Bizarrely enough, when in Vienna, I felt like a Czech using Kafka's and Rilke's literary German. And yet the place felt familiar. There was a plaque commemorating Antonin Dvořak who lived on the Wiedner Hauptstrasse for a while. Fifty metres away, there was the Rilke-Platz square.. I had ended up in the former capital of the Habsburg Empire like countless other Austro-Slavs. And yet I had a fake Czech name, a pseudonym coined by an Austrian. For all his cleverness, Adolf did not even translate Schaden right, he forgot the hat over the S in Skodaček. It should have been Škodaček or even Škoda. At the flat, as I unpacked the bread, the instant coffee, the cherry jam, the Manner-Waffles, I knew I was stranded in an old imperial antechamber. I did not open the boxes because I did not want to be confronted with more truths about Adolf. I liked the fact that these boxes were mine. Indeed, I was a local, not a Czechoslovak citizen on a visit. Despite all my efforts, I was one of those counter-revolutionaries bohemians that Brezhnev warned the Warsaw 5 about.

Comments