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An American in Bratislava in 1982

MY FAMILY and I flew into the Bratislava airport one late May day in 1982 to begin my second long-term stay in Slovakia. I was an assistant professor at Indiana University. We had two young daughters, the older a little over three and a half, and the younger had celebrated her first birthday just a couple of months earlier.
The airport did not yet carry the name of Milan Štefánik. The communist party was not too enthusiastic about him because the non-communists liked him.


OWEN V Johnson.
photo: Courtesy of Johnson

MY FAMILY and I flew into the Bratislava airport one late May day in 1982 to begin my second long-term stay in Slovakia. I was an assistant professor at Indiana University. We had two young daughters, the older a little over three and a half, and the younger had celebrated her first birthday just a couple of months earlier.

The airport did not yet carry the name of Milan Štefánik. The communist party was not too enthusiastic about him because the non-communists liked him.

We were taken to the Družba dormitory, where most foreign academic visitors were housed at the time. Another American, June Alexander, who now teaches history at the University of Cincinnati and does research on Slovaks in America, was already living there.

But we had a problem: a dorm room is not a place where little children can lead a normal life. In addition, the room had only three single beds for the four of us, with no privacy. Not only would this not contribute to marital bliss, but someone was going to be left out. We solved the problem temporarily by having our younger daughter sleep in a dresser drawer.

We could not find anyone who seemed to want to take responsibility for helping us find a better place to live. It would take a few days, we were told. A week passed. My wife pestered anyone she could think of, while I looked after the kids.

Finally, an apartment was found in a 1950s building on what was then called the February Victory Street in honour of the 1948 coup when the communists seized power. (Today the street is called Račianska).


The author with his daughters.
photo: Courtesy of Johnson

We lived one floor up, right above the noisy tracks where streetcars started up each morning at 4:30. The apartment was roomy, with two bedrooms, a living room, and a small kitchen. It was outfitted with the typical, inexpensive furniture of the time.

In a sense, the design of the house was communal. Theoretically we could turn the heat up or down, but if we did, the temperature went up or down in every other apartment. We regulated the temperature by opening the window. If the sink backed up in one apartment, it backed up in all of the other apartments.

The Figaro chocolate factory was located just down the street (it is still there). When the wind blew from the southeast, the sweet odour of chocolate would occasionally waft through our apartment. As my younger daughter grew up she became a "chocoholic". I have often wondered if our Bratislava stay had something to do with it.

A slight shift in the wind could also bring the pungent, sour odour of the Slovnaft factory into the apartment, a smell that had been part of Bratislava for nearly a century. Since I arrived in Bratislava last November, I have not had to curl up my nose at that odour.

One weekend morning, we were awakened by sound of tanks rolling down our street, on their way to some exercise. We were a block away from an Army tank unit of some kind, I learned.

Our children and a couple of playmates their age frequented the playground located less than a block from our house. Our younger daughter was not talking yet, but the older one was. Other children did not quite know what to make of our Eva because she spoke English, a language entirely incomprehensible to them.

Because so few foreigners lived in Bratislava, children were not used to hearing foreign languages. One young girl thought our daughter was dumb because she did not speak Slovak.

Our younger daughter was still wearing diapers, a real challenge for temporary residents in a society where disposable diapers did not yet exist. We had brought cloth diapers with us, but trying to keep a clean supply available was a challenge, since we had only a miserable excuse for an automatic washer and no drying facilities, except a pathetic clothesline on a small balcony right above the frequently dusty street.

Once we decided to go to Vienna for the weekend. This was not a spur of the moment decision. In communist days you could not do that. Instead we had to apply for visas for all of us for permission to exit Czechoslovakia and then to re-enter the country without having to apply for a new residence permit. It took several weeks to have our requests approved.

We also had to make sure we had reservations on one of the few bus and train links then existing between Bratislava and Vienna. We chose the bus and departed from the old Avion bus station that was replaced a couple of years later by the Mlynské Nivy station.

We reveled in Vienna. While my wife and I wanted to do some sightseeing, we had to make sure we had a child-friendly itinerary.

Our children could not have noticed some of the things that we did. After the grayness of Bratislava, the bright colors and the cleanliness of Vienna penetrated our senses. The vegetables and fruit available for sale were fresh, inviting, and washed, something that was not true in the planned economy in Slovakia.

On our last day in Vienna we bought a couple of large boxes of disposable diapers. We had planned to do this, and had even brought along an empty suitcase to make it easier to pack them.

On our return across the border we were subjected to the kind of search that sometimes happened in those days. We had to take all of our suitcases off the bus and open them so that the security officials could make sure we were not bringing in forbidden literature of some sort. The young man who looked at the suitcase with the disposable diapers had no idea what he had found. We had to explain.

We had hoped that Eva would learn to speak Slovak during our stay. But as the summer wore on she seemed to be making little progress in the playground language. We had seen a nursery school at the edge of the playground, so my wife went to see the head of the school about enrolling Eva there.

The director's first response was that this was not possible because we had no need for a place as my wife was not working. I understood because I knew from newspaper articles that Slovakia's nursery schools could not accommodate domestic demand.

My wife persisted, pointing out that we were asking about less than four months and that this would be a good experience for all the children. And she kept chatting. Finally, the school head relented, without even hinting at the possibility of a bribe, already then the sometimes necessary method to get a favourable response.

The following week, we took Eva to school for the first time. On the second day, Eva desperately did not want to stay when we took her there. We were not surprised, as we imagined how hard it must have been for her when the routine was so different from the nursery school she had known in the US, and because nobody spoke English. What if a nearly four-year-old child finds that adults do not understand that she needs to "go potty"?

Within two weeks, however, she had learned the routines and more importantly, she had learned the language. Yes, in two weeks of intensive nursery school, she had learned to speak and understand Slovak, maybe not perfectly, but in such a way that the other kids warmly accepted her.

She was no longer dumb. In fact, the girl who had thought Eva was dumb because she did not understand Slovak was convinced she had learned English because she could talk with Eva.

One day, not too long after Eva began attending the school, the director asked us if we could cut Eva's hair and have her ears pierced. This was not a surprising request. All the other children, both boys and girls, had virtually identical haircuts. All the girls had pierced ears, the only external indicator of gender difference.

Fortunately, we were able to persuade the director that because Eva would be returning to the States where short hair and pierced ears were not common at that age, we preferred not to make the changes.

Ten years earlier, we had befriended a Slovak woman who spent a semester in Ann Arbor, Michigan on a research grant in psychology. Over the years, we had kept in touch with her and her husband, whom we had met on an earlier visit to Bratislava.

When we came to Bratislava in 1982, we renewed contact. Much to our surprise, we learned that in the interim, Michal Bandžej had gone to work full time for the Communist Party. In fact, he had become the party head of the Bratislava IV district, a region that included both the suburbs of west Bratislava, and Petržalka.

One day when the Bandžejs invited us to dinner, he took us for a ride around "his" part of the city. He talked proudly of the new theatre that was being built in the west suburbs, and showed us the rows of apartment houses going up in Petržalka.

The communist system had richly rewarded Bandžej, who came from a poor family in Trebišov, in eastern Slovakia. Not only was he an up-and-coming party official, but his wife was a professor at the university, and his daughter was a member of the Lúčnica folk-dancing troupe.

Bandžej had traveled widely outside the country as a member of the board of one of Bratislava's main soccer clubs.

Whenever I heard people wonder that so many people in Slovakia were not worried that so many of the presidential candidates in the recent election had been members of the communist party, I thought of Michal. Like so many other Slovaks, he and his family found success in a communist world.

When we invited Bandžej and his wife to dinner in early November, they had to decline. They were going home for All Soul's Day, to visit the graves of their families. They were not the only communists in Slovakia who maintained Christian ties of some kind.

When we asked them over a second time, their answer was delayed. He had to secure the party's approval before accepting.

A contrast to my contacts with the Bandžejs were the several people I interviewed for my research on the history of Slovak journalism. One of them was a woman named Máša Halamová, who had been the only professional woman journalist in the period between the first and second world wars.

Another person was Aladár Kočiš, who was reporter and editor of Slovák, the organ of the Slovak People's Party, a Catholic party that promoted Slovak autonomy between the wars, and ran the government of the Slovak State during World War II.

Kočiš had become secretary-general of the party during the war, and was involved in creating some of the policies that sent tens of thousands of Jews from Slovakia to their deaths during the Holocaust. After the war, he was tried and convicted for his crimes and served many years in communist prisons.

Somehow I learned that Kočiš was still alive and where he lived. Even though I knew that his mail was probably being monitored, I bravely wrote him and asked if I could interview him. We made arrangements for a date and time.

The conversation turned out to be disappointing. Prison and life had taken the starch out of him and he wasn't very talkative. If it hadn't been for the communist system, I could have probably met with him on other occasions, and gradually encouraged him to be more open.

Or perhaps he was ashamed for what had happened and wanted to be done with it. He still had bound volumes of his newspaper in his basement that would have been valuable additions to some library or researcher's collection. I wondered what happened to those newspapers when he died a year or two later.

One day, when I was reading material in the Slovak State Central Archive along with seven or eight other men, Alexander Varga, the supervisor of the reading room, stuck his head in and reported that Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Communist Party, had died.

Brezhnev crafted the doctrine, later known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, that gave the Soviet Union and its allies the authority to invade one of the members of the communist bloc if developments in that country threatened the other countries in the bloc. It was used to justify the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Brezhnev had not been in good health for some time, so his death was not unexpected. Still, his passing was indeed news. We all looked at each other, not knowing what to say. Since we did not all know each other, no one dared to say exactly what was on his mind.

Did these men celebrate that Brezhnev has finally died? Did the room contain a devout supporter of the party who regretted his passing? The party had not dealt with this issue yet: there was no official position.

Someone commented about how long Brezhnev had survived while he had been ill, certainly a safe comment. The most daring statement came from someone who wondered who the new party leader would be, and what that might mean.

Brezhnev's two successors died in the next three years. Then came Mikhail Gorbachev, who tried to reform and modernise the party, but under whom the communist empire collapsed.

No one that day dared dream such a dream. Instead we went back to work.

Later in the day I went to buy a copy of Večerník, the Slovak evening paper. I thought surely that the death of Brezhnev would be front-page news. There was nothing. In the carefully-controlled press of the day, no late-breaking news could find its way into the paper.

Late one day I was alone in the archive, painstakingly copying down information from a 1907 Hungarian document that listed all the subscribers in the Bratislava region to Slovak and Czech newspapers. The Hungarian government at that time was growing concerned about the rapidly-increasing number of such publications, because they seemed to be increasing the number of people claiming a Slovak identity, thus jeopardizing the Hungarian melting pot that was designed to eliminate the kingdom's nationalities.

Varga stuck his head in the door and asked if I would like him to make photocopies.

Normally, making photocopies required filling out detailed forms. The copies were not cheap, either.

Do not worry, he assured me. He could do these on their office machine. A short while later, he laid them on my table in the reading room.

I instinctively sensed that, even though archival employees worked for the Ministry of Interior, which also included the police, this was someone I could trust.

On another occasion I approached him about how I might go about getting an article translated from Hungarian into English. He volunteered to find someone to do it, and I gave him the article.

I realised that this would involve some informal capitalism, since whoever was hired was going to be making some money on the side of his normal work.

I took a week off from research in the early fall to write a paper for delivery at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in Washington, DC. I was not going to be able to attend the conference, but I had arranged to send the paper to a friend who was going to send a copy to the discussant and would summarise the findings for presentation to the audience.

My topic was Slovak-Hungarian relations at the beginning of the 20th century. I produced a 40-page manuscript, took it to the post office to have it weighed for the proper postage and dropped it in the mail slot.

A week later, it came back with a notation that I needed to obtain approval to send this document abroad. Apparently the person monitoring the mail must have thought that I was sending some kind of illegal samizdat document.

I went to the central post office to plead my case. I pointed to the title page, which included the time period I was writing about. The topic, I argued, could not possibly be dangerous. That was not their concern: I needed to have approval. They did not seem to know who could give that approval, however.

After all, there were fewer than a dozen American scholars doing research in the whole of Czechoslovakia, and none of the others were presumably writing papers to send out of the country.

I began to consider alternative ways to get the manuscript to the US. One idea that came to mind was the US Embassy and the diplomatic pouch. American scholars in the Soviet Union had from time to time been able to send such things from Moscow.

The US had no formal presence in Slovakia. Some members of the US embassy staff in Prague occasionally came down for a visit, often in connection with social security problems of Slovak-Americans who had retired to Slovakia. They usually stayed in an otherwise empty building owned by the US on Hviezdoslavovo námestie. Today it is the US Embassy.

I made the journey up to Prague and went to see the US cultural attaché, who was also the person responsible for monitoring any academic exchange agreements in Czechoslovakia that involved Americans. She asked how my research was going and how the Slovaks were treating me. She asked if I was having any problems.

"Well, yes, I do," I said, pulling a copy of the manuscript from my attaché case. It quickly became clear that she was not going to send the manuscript out of the country via the pouch. It was not quite clear why, even though I argued that, as it was a paper about events at the beginning of the 20th century, it could not possibly be of concern to anyone. I took the bus back to Bratislava, the paper still in my possession.

About this time I got word that Allan Kassof, the head of IREX, the International Research and Exchanges Board, under whose auspices and with whose support I was doing my research, and an aide were coming to Bratislava to review the exchange program with the Slovak Ministry of Education.

We arranged to meet during their visit to talk about my research work and my perceptions of the exchange. Kassof quickly agreed to take the paper, confident that since he was on an official visit as the guest of the Slovak Ministry of Education, he would not be subjected to a search when he left the country.

Several weeks later, Varga greeted me with a twinkle in his eye. "I heard your name on Radio Free Europe last night," he said.

That was all I needed, I thought. I could be expelled from Slovakia. Then I began to wonder what this could possibly be all about. After all, I had not been involved in politics. I had not talked to anyone who could possibly have been remotely involved with Radio Free Europe. Radio Free Europe's Hungarian service, it turned out, had sent a reporter to the AAASS convention where the paper I had written was summarized and discussed. The Hungarian service broadcast a summary of this discussion.

The RFE Hungarian service would not be of interest to the Czechoslovak authorities. I did not need to worry about being thrown out of the country.

Almost exactly seven years later, communist rule in Czechoslovakia collapsed. Under the leadership of the Czech Civic Forum and the Slovak Public Against Violence, new governments were formed to start the country on the road back to democracy.

Four months later, in March 1990, I came on a short visit to Czechoslovakia to experience for myself the changes that were beginning.

One day in Prague I visited the main office of Charles University, with which Indiana University had developed an exchange agreement. I paged through a newspaper as I sat waiting for a meeting. A story about Slovakia caught my eye. It quoted the Deputy Prime Minister of Slovakia, Sándor Varga. Sándor is the Hungarian form of Alexander.

In the topsy-turvy world that followed the collapse of communism, the supervisor of the reading room at the Slovak State Central Archive had become a high government official.

Charles University put through a call to Varga so we could renew our friendship.

In January this year, my daughter Eva came to visit me in Bratislava. Now 25, she tells me that from time to time she is tempted to put down Slovak on some form when she is asked about her language ability, even though she stopped speaking the language within a couple of years after she left Bratislava at the end of 1982, and remembers only a few words.

"Zmrzlina!" Eva exclaimed, as we walked down Hviezdoslavovo námestie this winter. Deep in the recesses of her mind she had remembered the Slovak word for ice cream from 21 years before.

We walked on in silence in the gathering dusk, as memories of that seemingly long-ago period again flooded my mind.


Owen V Johnson is spending this year in Slovakia, completing the research that he began in 1982 on media and nation in 20th century Slovakia. Eva recently completed three years in West Germany working in recreation. Hana, the younger daughter, is working this year as a volunteer in mission in the Philippines. Johnson's former wife lives and works in Indiana.

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