It will take generations to free Czech and Slovak people’s minds from the suppression that they suffered for 41 years. Although it no longer falls under the heavy burden of communist power, Czech and Slovak families remember the lead balloon that weighed down upon Czechoslovakian history.
“My house is seven storeys,” Jan tells me. “I built it myself.” His words would suggest that he is proud of such a feat, yet his tone reveals otherwise. His face portrays a sense of resignation, and from his eyes it is evident there lays beneath the surface a certain festering torment. Intrigued by his statement yet hesitant to prod further at his internal anguish, I try to be polite and exclaim that to build his own seven-storey house is quite a notable feat. Jan’s eyes shy away and he gazes despondently down at his hands in his lap, shaking his head. It seems Jan has just unwittingly opened up an old wound, a wound that has been passed on to his children and to his grandchildren.
During the Czechoslovakian communist era, up until 1989, citizens would often construct and renovate their own homes. Private construction companies were illegal, which meant that employing contract workers was out of the question. In a regime that was supposedly intended to establish equality of the people, personal and familial dreams were quashed; people were prisoners of their own land. Fear ridden and paranoid, the people of Czechoslovakia were for so long afraid to speak out against communism, and rightly so as verbally expressing one’s discontent could deliver you straight to jail, or unable to find work for the entirety of the communist epoch. Citizens who didn’t join the party were considered inferior, and definitely weren’t to be trusted in the eyes of the State.
Even attorneys, doctors and professors who did not abide by the communist rule or simply refused to join the party were often bound to working in factories or manually. Yet it didn’t stop covert trade, which took place quite literally behind closed doors. Jan explains how when he needed to expand or repair electricity wires in their home, he would call up a freelance electrician who worked illegally, the electrician would pose as a friend of the family and stay for the weekend. They would pretend to the communists that it was an innocent visit; meanwhile the electrician would do his work and leave on Sunday evening – a sort of black-market electricity affair.
Jan’s daughter, Eva, lived under communist power for the first 15 years of her life. During the length of the regime, her family refused to become members of the communist party. It was a stand that they are proud of today yet at the time caused them much strife. For to join the party would mean to relieve some of the prying communist eyes yet would signify their submission to their government. It was a daily dilemma that played on many of the minds of Czechoslovakian people. Eva recalls when she was at school, looking at a map of the world and dreaming in vain of visiting these other forbidden countries, places that were free of this censorship that she had known her whole life. Now living in Switzerland, life is “something completely different”, she repeats, often wondering if the burden of such a period will ever be fully relieved from the countries’ histories.