Life in a Police State Is Pretty Funny if You Don't Have to Live There


Recently I attended the opening night of "Largo Desolato," a play by Vaclav Havel, the dissident who became president of Czechoslovakia. The play mixed three influences: the absurd theater of Samuel Beckett, the inhuman power of the state, a la Franz Kafka, and the cajoling pressure of modern communism.

The Americans in the audience laughed heartily at the quasi-comical repetition of scarcely barbed threats by the police and the ludicrous repetition of paranoid or hectoring comments by the lead character's friends. The Czechs in the audience did not laugh. Nor did I.

In 1980 I spent several weeks in Czechoslovakia with my father, who was born near Brno and was doing research on our family history. I meanwhile collected notes for several articles I eventually published in the Atlantic and elsewhere, describing the state of mind that Mr. Havel dissects so chillingly in his play.

So frightened of the "system" were the Czechs at the time that I wrote under a pseudonym, convinced that otherwise the state security apparatus could identify the hotel I had stayed in and collect records of whom I had telephoned and visited. By law all Czechoslovaks who met with foreigners were required to report to the police the following day and list the subjects they had discussed. The law was rarely enforced but inspired fear.

If a neighbor, colleague or police informer reported your contacts to the authorities, it was entered in records at the block committee, office or interior ministry. One's children could be yanked from high school and barred from ever attending university; career prospects ended; apartments for married children were denied, and no visas for foreign travel would be granted.

Even though I changed all the names, professions and towns of the people cited in my articles to protect their identities -- and I carried at all times my notes on my person -- the fear felt by Czechoslovaks made me worry for them. That is why Mr. Havel's "absurd" dialogue seemed amusing only to those unfamiliar with the life millions of Czechoslovaks and other East Europeans have known for 40 years.

Perhaps when the terror of living inside such a system is stripped away, there is much that is laughable. Imagine that millions of Czechs had to sign a petition condemning the Charter 77 human-rights document even though they had never been allowed to read it! It's laughable -- until one thinks of the humiliation of such an act and the consequences of resisting it: dooming one's parents and children to living cooped up together with you in a tiny flat for decades, working at low-level jobs and ending hopes for education and travel.

Those brought up under repressive regimes that threatened and often consumed their homes and families have a deeper sense of terror, reaching into the bones and sinew of the physical body, than do most Americans today. No one would hope for his children to know the sufferings of the past. But lack of that knowledge leaves Mr. Havel's message unintelligible to most American audiences.

I remember pulling out a New York Times at an outdoor cafe in Prague with my father and some relatives and friends. The Czechs at the table turned gray and nervously glanced at the other tables to see who might be watching. One man started sweating and ran his finger around his collar. When I put the newspaper away, the bubble of tension evaporated. Simply being seen at a table with a forbidden foreign newspaper was terrifying.

I remember having a beer and some knedlickly (dumplings) and schnitzel with my father outside Brno, a decade before the rebirth of democracy and freedom in Middle Europe. Czechoslovaks always share occupied tables in restaurants. Our neighbor wore several pins on his hat; to make conversation, I asked what they stood for. My father kicked me under the table. Our fellow diner did not reply to my question. Later my father explained that "the pins were from the munitions plant -- one doesn't mention that here."

My father was outside Czechoslovakia when Hitler seized the country. He joined the Free Czech Army which formed in France and was evacuated to Britain, fighting with the Allied armies until the liberation of Czechoslovakia. When it became Communist in 1948 he settled in Canada but returned often enough to learn the ground rules. I wish, as do many of my generation descended from Eastern Europeans, that my father had lived a few more years to see the liberation of his native country.

Even under the heavy hand of communism, the Czech character remained calm, decent and full of a gentle wisdom I think has disappeared in the consumerist West. In the tiny town of Rousinov, where our 300-year-old family home was located, the school teacher Edvard Kalina exemplified that spirit. He had welcomed us on frequent visits and helped keep the Jewish cemetery protected. Early in the century most of the town's 400 Jewish residents had moved to the nearby Moravian capital Brno; those who remained were killed in the Holocaust.

When my father returned with the Czech forces in May 1945, he turned over the 400-year-old synagogue to be used as a church by the townspeople. Our own home, for which we still received a few dollars a month in rent until recently, was a tobacco shop on the ground floor and a home above. In the attic lay mounds of papers from the time my great-grandfather ran a large leather business.

Edvard Kalina was not only kind to my father and me. He was a skilled woodcarver and his wood-block prints hang in many homes in the town. He was stopped along every path by people with smiles and a kind word. Perhaps he was as close as one gets to a saint in a socialist society, showing concern and affection to people without touching on those ragged edges of the power structure that reached down into every street -- the heavy-set Party guys with leather jackets and scowls.

What will happed now to Czechoslovakia? My uncle recently visited there and I asked him if it was anything like it was when he and my father grew up and attended college in the 1930s before the war. "Not at all," he said. "Those people know nothing. They grew up with nothing."

Yet the Czechoslovak thirst for knowledge and ideas was vividly etched on my mind in 1967 as Alexander Dubcek's "Prague spring" liberalization gathered steam, to be crushed the next year by the Soviet invasion. Even in the stagnation of the 1980s, the longest lines were not for food or clothes but for books.

Czechoslovak fervor amazed the entire world a year ago as millions of people peacefully pushed aside the hated Communists once they saw that the Soviet army would no longer intervene. That fervor runs counter to the survivalist skepticism portrayed in the fictional character who is supposed to embody the nation's soul, the passive, unimaginative Good Soldier Schweik. He is a legacy of 500 years of Austrian domination, Vaclav Havel the child of the 20 years of independence after 1919.

It is good that Americans find the notion of sudden but anticipated police visits to one's home absurd. It is good that Czechs are unable to laugh at the absurdity. May Czechoslovakia rebuild a secure society in which such acts are indeed laughable curiosities.

Ben Barber is a free-lance journalist.

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