Czechoslovakia had its share of heroes during the 40-plus years the Eastern European nation endured Soviet domination — most notably the reformers crushed during the infamous Prague Spring of 1968 and the protesters whose nonviolent Velvet Revolution ended that domination in 1989. Their stories have been well documented, and such figures as Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel have achieved worldwide fame.
Less renowned, however, were the men and women who struggled against the iron-fisted rule thorough the 1950s and early 1960s — intellectuals, the religious, even everyday citizens who were interrogated and sent to slave-labor camps, often merely for being perceived as a threat to the established order.
Jana Kopelentova was born in Czechoslovakia in 1968; 26 years later, she left what had become the Czech Republic for the U.S., marrying Baltimore photographer Frank Rehak. But while she lived through the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, she had been a part of neither. And that bothered her.
"I was born in '68, so I missed '68," says Rehak, whose father and grandfather, both professional photographers, had their movements and their livelihoods restricted by the Communist authorities. "And when the revolution happened, I was very young; I wasn't formed. I was in the underground, but I wasn't in a position and place to do anything, to fight or to resist."
During a return visit in 1995, Rehak found her way to contribute. A chance meeting with a group of '50s-era camp survivors — known collectively as mukls — led to a years-long research project. She interviewed dozens and photographed them, chronicling a chapter of Czech history she came to believe had been forgotten by many Czechs. The result is her book, "Czech Political Prisoners."
Rehak, 44, has lived in Baltimore since 1994; she is currently a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Loyola University Maryland and also teaches at Towson University. The Rehaks live in Tuscany-Canterbury with their daughters Frances, 14, and Ester, 6.
What prompted you to write this book?
I returned to Prague in the summer of 1995. … One Sunday morning, we're in one of these Prague cafes, and I saw this group of older men — perhaps 10, I guess. They were all dressed up. They looked formal. They were in their 70s, 80s. And I was curious about them. There was this question about who they were, and what was this occasion?
I asked, 'Can I ask you who you are and what makes you collect here?' They sort of looked at each other, and they said, 'Well, we worked together in the '50s. And slowly, they started to tell me that they worked together in the uranium mines, and it tuned out they were political prisoners. Right after '48, when the Communists took over, they were the people who were arrested as the resistance and sent to basically the Czech version of the Soviet gulag.
This group that I met ... they were not in high positions. They were just ordinary men involved in the resistance. They started to tell me fragments, bits and pieces, of their time in this work camp.
Do you have the sense that the world at large didn't understand what was going on in Czechoslovakia?
I thought theirs was an important story to tell, as an addition to what is known about '68 and Dubcek, about the Prague Spring. That story has been told by people who were allowed to publish and write — like Havel, for example. Not to say that Havel didn't suffer, but he was a different generation; there was a great support form outside intellectuals. The '50s generation was trapped in a sort of dark isolation from the rest.
Did you come away from this process optimistic about the future of your native country?
When I wrote the first draft, there was a sense of future hope, I guess. I would spend time with them, and I saw their acts of reconciliation, of possible future hope.
But now, in finishing the book, I wrote about this sense of tragic continuity. They lived through the Velvet Revolution; they lived to the point where they could express, in front of me and in front of the rest of the country, their pain. But they also had this sense that nobody wants to listen, there's a denial. There are still the Communists, who were actual guards in the prison, alive. And they deny. And the rest of the country, the middle-aged people — [the mukls] had a sense that they were not interested.
When I spent time with them, they would tell me snippets, segments of various experiences — how they were mining, and how they were coming out of the mine covered in dust, and of course uranium as well.
Then, all of a sudden, in the middle of a conversation, they would switch to joking. They would talk about these horrible experiences of being hungry, being called to interrogations, working many hours. But then, they would tell me a lot about how they re-enacted theater to each other, how they joked, how they marched.
They would talk about these horrible things that they had to go through, And yet always in their speech to me, mentioned either poetic moments or joking moments. I heard from many of them that, as horrible and as dehumanizing as this experience was, after many years, it was what they knew. It was scary to return back to the world outside.
Do you see your book as a reminder of what that period was like, so it doesn't become romanticized?
I don't want to oversimplify it, but that is one of the reasons I wrote it. There is a balance between wanting this to be an academic book and a personal story that I felt I needed, to reconcile my own feelings.