My Crazy Century: A Memoir
Grove Press, 2013, 534 pp., $30
Czechoslovakia’s last Ambassador to Washington, Rita Klímová, used to call it “the question”: How could a moral, courageous, educated, and intelligent person like her have been a communist? In Klímová’s case “the question” begged another less abstract one that was even more perplexing: Whatever possessed an educated Jewish family—in this case the Budin family earlier from Romania, where Rita was born in 1931—that had the good sense and better luck to immigrate to the United States in 1939 to decide in 1946 to leave Brooklyn and return to Prague?
The answer, apparently, was ideology—the secular religion of communism. Rita was headed toward her fifteenth birthday when her father, Stanislav Budin (formerly Bencion Bat), a prominent communist writer who used the pen name Batya Bat, decided that the new socialist Czechoslovakia was the place for them. Klímová became a loyal communist and then married Vladimir Mlynář, Gorbachev’s college buddy who became the chief ideologue of the Prague Spring in 1968.
After the August 1968 Soviet invasion, Klímová lost her academic position as an economist and eventually worked as a translator. She wrote pro-free-market articles in samizdat under a pseudonym (the Czech equivalent of Adam Smith) and, in 1989, responded to Václav Havel’s invitation to be the spokesperson of Civil Forum to the foreign press and his personal translator. The Brooklyn accent remained and also the humor: Klímová coined the term “The Velvet Revolution.” Few noticed at the time or since that “the Velvet Revolution” was also the advertising slogan of a lingerie company at the time.
Klímová’s answer to “the question” included Czechoslovakia’s disappointment with Western democracy in the interwar years, betrayal by the Western democracies in the 1938 Munich accords, the brutalization of the war, and the idealistic hopes of young people who grew up under Nazi totalitarianism and were liberated by the Red Army. These reasons must have indeed affected many Czechs and Slovaks who became communists after World War II, amid middlingly ambitious others who merely went along to get along. But Klímová’s family, like some members of the family of writer and dissident Ivan Klíma (no relation—Ivan’s original name was Kauders, his parents changed it to Klíma to sound more Czech), was communist before the war, before the democratic betrayal in Munich and the brutalization of the war. After the war, the small minority of Central European Jews who survived had the historically rare luxury of choosing where they wanted to live. Unlike a decade earlier, they could acquire refugee status and resettle in the West, or they could easily immigrate to Israel after its founding in May 1948. The Jews who stayed in communist Europe by and large chose to stay; most of them because they believed in communism.
That faith, as a substitute for the discarded Mosaic one, could be incredibly tenacious. In August 1968, as Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague, the Polish Communist Party unleashed an anti-Semitic campaign to separate workers from intellectuals, since some leading intellectuals had some Jewish background. Consequently, many of the few thousand communist Jewish families who survived and remained in Poland emigrated. Even all these experiences still did not suffice to help some of them to lose their false faith. A few years ago, I encountered an Israeli academic who immigrated to Israel from Poland as a child after 1968. Still a true believer, she blamed Stalin for distorting the pure Leninist legacy. I spent the evening reluctantly discussing recent revelation about Lenin’s syphilis.
Ivan Klíma has been a prolific and internationally renowned author of realist fiction. He came into prominence after the 1968 Soviet invasion when he chose to remain in the Czech lands and write about its people, though he could only publish abroad. As the founder of the Czech PEN club of authors, he was an important intermediary between the underground culture and the outside world through foreign diplomats and writers like Philip Roth and William Styron.
Klíma’s political autobiography, My Crazy Century, aims to answer “the question”, but we immediately run into a translation barrier. My Mad Century would have been a better translation of the Czech (Moje šílené století) than My Crazy Century as it does not capture the serious and negative connotation of šílené. In American English, “crazy” can be cool, and inevitably brings to mind Saturday Night Live’s Wild and Crazy Czechoslovakian guys. No such connotation applies to the Czech title. The first part of the book ends with Klíma’s expulsion from the Communist Party and the second ends with the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The twenty years between the end of communism and the publication of the original Czech version of the autobiography in 2009 receive no attention because these were for him, as the Chinese say, “uninteresting times”: For the first time since he was 8 years old in 1939, he was not in danger of being arrested for who he was. In his political autobiography nothing happened after 1989, because the mad century had ended.
Consider the elements of madness as they must have seemed to Klíma. Two of his Czech maternal uncles were sent from Moscow to the Sudetenland on what he describes as a suicide mission. The Gestapo caught and executed them, and they became a part of the communist pantheon of martyred heroes. Klíma’s father was an engineer who was sent on the first transport to the Terezín ghetto (Theresienstadt) to prepare the former military garrison town for its role as a model ghetto and transit camp. He remained in charge of the electricity in the ghetto, and this probably protected his family from being deported to Auschwitz like most of the Jews who survived the overcrowding and poor conditions. Klíma cannot know for sure, and anyway, he is right to refuse to spend his life pondering and apologizing for being alive.
Toward the end of the war, the Nazis sent his father to forced labor details outside the ghetto. He eventually survived a death march and was united with his wife and children in Prague—something of a miracle under the circumstances. Klíma does not speculate on the reasons for his family’s attachment to communism, although we know that its strength was so total that Ivan grew up not knowing his parents were Jews before ending up in Terezin at age ten and being made to wear the yellow star there. He knew close to nothing of Judaism because his parents had converted officially to Czech Evangelical Protestantism.
After the Communist Party purged all the Jews in its leadership in the 1952 Slánský trials, Klíma’s father was arrested for “economic sabotage”, a common method for deputies to achieve promotion in a command economy. He got off with a light prison term because his trial took place after Stalin’s death, as the waves of anti-Semitic terror subsided. Still, even before his father was released, Ivan Klíma as a student joined the Communist Party; he was allowed to do so apparently because the Party organ decided that the dead uncles trumped the saboteur father. Upon his release, his father applied to be readmitted to the Party. The appeal was turned down with the official reason that he had not participated enthusiastically in enough Communist public manifestations since his release from prison.
It may seem mad indeed to continue courting the Communist Party while it was conducting anti-Semitic purges and had put one’s father in prison, and for that father himself to seek readmission to the Party after it had just sent this Holocaust survivor back to prison on trumped up charges. It was mad, but there were compensatory considerations. Ivan Klíma’s Czech literary generation (for example, of Škvorecký, Kundera, Kohout, and others) was lucky in having little competition and much encouragement from the state. As Klíma explains, the new Communist state distrusted the older generation of Czech authors and artists who had established their reputations in the interwar democratic republic. The Party hacks who dominated the literary world of the 1950s lacked talent, and their “symbolic products” generated a vast public apathy. The solution was the promotion of new young authors and artists, who knew little else than the Communist system but who could write within its limits the sort of fiction and non-fiction people wanted to read. The regime then promoted and bestowed resources on these new artists, the result being a new wave in Czech 1960s cinema (led by Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel, among others) and a new generation of authors who had reached adulthood after the 1948 Communist takeover.
The liberalization of the Sixties was selective. The economy remained unreformed, and foreign policy still towed Moscow’s line. The buds of freedom appeared in two unrelated spheres of life that both affected Ivan Klíma: expanded but still constrained freedom of expression, and sex.
While Czechs and Slovaks could not elect their leaders or affect their decisions, they gradually gained the right to talk about it, culminating in the abolition of censorship in early 1968. In the years leading to that abolition the written word gained extraordinary significance and unusually wide circulation, especially the periodicals that published articles on the shifting frontier between the permitted and forbidden. The literary magazine that Klíma co-edited, comparable to, say, the New York Review of Books, had a circulation comparable, as a percentage of the population, to an American magazine that sells nine million copies per issue. Klíma pushed the boundaries of freedom of expression in his editing, writing, and public pronouncements. Consequently he was expelled from the Communist Party more than once. (He was readmitted once or twice without its consulting him, by which time he could not have cared less.)
As to sex, Soviet communism could be quite puritanical about the intimate realm. Bohemian communists, however, did not attempt to regulate sexuality. As Klíma notes, in an unfree society, where people could not choose their vocation, their education, or where they lived, and where consumer choices were very limited, the freedom to choose mates was so rare that it was exercised repeatedly. In August 1968, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, Ivan Klíma was in London with his lover while his wife was in Israel with her lover. Never at a loss for a sense of irony, Klíma notes that he became like a character in one of his novels when, on the very night that the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague unbeknown to them, his lover insisted on wearing her new boots while they were making love.
After some fearful hesitations, Klíma reconnected with his wife in Vienna and they drove together back to Prague. He dropped off his wife’s lover in Brno, on the way. Still in that same year, while the new regime was tightening the screws of oppression, he was able to accept an invitation to teach at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. By the spring of the next year the Czechoslovak embassy gave them the choice of returning immediately to Prague or becoming exiles. They chose to return home as dissidents.
Following the Soviet invasion very few remained faithful to the Party; the reasons for the persistence of the regime were clearly the Soviet troops, their local collaborators, the opportunists who served them, and the majority of the people who adapted numbingly to the new conditions. Klíma became an “official dissident”, a category that should not logically have existed but did because, as an internationally known author with an income from abroad, the regime could do only so much to harass him. Unlike an unknown teenager writing anti-regime graffiti on a wall somewhere, who could be snatched, beaten, and jailed, the secret police could only “invite” Klíma to interrogations; they could not use violence or jail him because it would have generated an international outcry.
Not that he had it easy. He could not get any official job in his profession as a writer. He had a steady stream of income from abroad, but to avoid the crime of “parasitism” he needed to demonstrate that he had a legitimate domestic source of income. Like other dissidents, he took occasional manual jobs, working in land surveying and as an orderly in a hospital. He caught a break when by oversight or a hidden helping hand he gained employment as a scriptwriter for the wordless children’s cartoon Krteček about the exploits of a cute mole. (My six-year-old loves these cartoons, which are available on YouTube, and so do many others internationally since there is no language barrier. How perfect was it that a dissident was hired to direct plot action without the use of language, like some samizdat Marcel Marceau?)
Since Klíma could not be brutalized, the Czechoslovak Communist secret police (the StB) played cat and mouse games with him. As a prominent dissident, he would have been expected to sign Charter 77 along with his friends Václav Havel and Ludvik Vaculík. But, as he explains, his daughter graduated from high school in 1977 and he was reluctant to jeopardize her chances to gain access to higher education. The secret police noticed the absence of his signature on the Charter and so attempted to create a public rift between him and the other dissidents. They planted a false news item in the Communist daily Rudé právo, which reported that a German journalist was caught in Prague carrying a letter that instructed him to contact Klíma as a major signatory of Charter 77. The secret police hoped Klíma would write a letter to the newspaper denying the news item. They would have published it to show a supposed split within the dissident movement. But Klíma did not take the bait.
Next, he was brought to an unusually cordial and friendly meeting with a secret police colonel who confessed to being a fan of literature. He gave Klíma his card and invited him to call him if he needed protection from other arms of the state apparatus. Next, the police impounded Klíma’s car on suspicion that its driver had struck a pedestrian in a hit-and-run accident. Klíma called his new “friend” who did not ask any details about the car or the accident, but knew immediately how to have the car released. Klíma, having not been born yesterday, pretty quickly figured out what was going on.
The “relationship” took a turn for the absurd when the secret police colonel suggested the new friends get together to do something. Klíma suggested they go on a mushroom-picking expedition. The colonel suggested that the best mushrooms could be found in the closed military zone on the border with Germany. (I have to agree with the colonel about the mushrooms.) The colonel could arrange for them to go there together, and, he offered, Klíma could bring a friend. Klíma said he would invite Vaculik, one of the leading Charter 77 dissidents and the founder of a samizdat publishing house. Finally persuaded that Klíma could make his life more awkward that he could make Klíma’s, the colonel then “stopped calling him”, or, to be precise, he stopped sending his goons to collect Klíma for interrogative meetings.
Then the madness ended. Klíma could have given his autobiography a happy ending. The next 25 years of quiet writing brought international accolades, grandchildren, success in its conventional sense. But that would have made for a different book about sane and uninteresting times.
Klíma raises “the question” in all the painful urgency it has had for his generation. Yet he does not really answer it. The reader learns more about how people became part of the Communist system than why. Scholars today know much more about the workings of the system because the archives are open and there is a deluge of new information about their oppressive workings, their internal frictions and corruption, and more besides. But we understand totalitarianism as a psychological gestalt much less well both because of the historical distance that has opened up, and because it is simply a much subtler phenomenon to understand.
As for the Jewish angle that puzzled both Rita Klímová and Ivan Klíma, one suspects that the well-trodden path from Judaism into the secular salvationist doctrines of the 19th and 20th centuries can be clear only to those familiar enough with Jewish historical self-consciousness. In these cases, as in so many others, parents for one reason or another denied that awareness to their children. Hence the irony that worldly Jews who never had their traditions snatched away from them in the cradle are often in a better position to parse “the question” than Klímová and Klíma. It is all for the best, then, that Klíma wrote a political autobiography, for an attempt at a broader one might have driven him crazy.