pondělí 2. března 2009


Ota Ulč

For no particular reason I turned to my old papers, leafed through a fat file of correspondence with Ivan Sviták, inspected memorabilia, collected in various parts of the world – such as an official identity card entitling alcoholics to purchase and consume such sinful liquids in the puritan Gujarat, the native state of the humanist, pacifist Mahatma Gandhi. A recollection of an experience with an exceptionally hideous local whiskey Black Knight followed. Some letters carried signatures of prominent political exiles of the post-February era – Petr Zenkl, the old bachelor Josef Lettrich, the widower Adolf Procházka, whose legendary former wife Helena Koželuhová I never had the opportunity to meet.
In that pile of old correspondence was also a letter signed by hand of the then senator John F. Kennedy who was responding to my letter. The date it was written and postmarked: November 3, 1960 – less than one week before his presidential victory. That time I have been in the United States merely four months. A time far from a joyful one. - - - After my successful, very illegal disappearance from the totalitarian cage in the late June, by now a very distant year 1959, I enjoyed my life in Frankfurt, West Germany. There more than to the blessings of democratic freedoms I was preoccupied with women, wine, though not much songs. Marvellous period though without clear existential perspective, which was noticed by a friendly American diplomat of Slovak background. He persuaded me to emigrate – or, to be more precise, he kicked me out of Europe. First, I cursed him and after some time, with gratitude and humility I started to praise him. The diplomat prepared me for the first shock: the huge untidy megalopolis New York with its unbearable summer slimy humidity. That was the American reality which I entered, at the airport a representative of my sponsor – an organization called American Friends for Russian Freedom – the countess and granddaughter of the giant Leo Nikolajevič Tolstoj. A further evidence that Fate possesses a sense of humour that is not always easy to decipher. A taxi driving through a rather chaotic and less than appealing areas deposited me off Broadway at the 113th Street in a tiny hotel where for a paltry few dollars I settled down in a depressingly tiny room. In addition to the climatic misery there was another, more substantial unpleasantness to face: the responsibility for one’s own fate, this fundamental disadvantage of any democracy. A newcomer from a totalitarian realm suddenly had to cope with the burden of own decision-making, and its consequences he could not blame on anyone but himself. I made the decision of choosing the most prestigious university in town: Columbia with famous names, one of the seven Ivy League schools, a mere few steps from the campus at the 116th Street. There I was accepted without having to present the diploma of my doctorate in law from Prague’s Charles University. First pleasant surprise in the country of such freedom.
In a country where I knew absolutely no one. If I were a shipwrecked survivor on an atol in the vast ocean, such a solitude had to be expected. But I had to cope with loneliness in an anthill of so many millions human beings. My only contact was Radio Free Europe, that alleged center of imperialist warmongers with an ambition to unleash a new world war, a nuclear inferno. Address Two Park Avenue, 25th floor – quite far away from Columbia neighbourhood. I reached the place by metro, the mercenaries in charge of spreading ideological poison received me kindly though without noticeable sympathy for my laments, they had enough of their own problems. I was looking for an apartment close to Columbia and found it at the corner of 112th Street and Riverside Drive on the thirteenth floor of a rather spacious dwelling shared with a Turk who in time proved to be a nasty, obnoxious fellow. The empty room I furnished with a second hand or perhaps third hand mattress, and the walls enriched with a copy of theDeclaration of Independence and copy of a painting of a blue cat by my favourite Paul Klee. From the window on that thirteenth floor instead of a Hradčany panorama I stared at the Hudson river with the neighbouring state of New Jersey on the opposite shore. Turning my head to the right, the far away mighty George Washington bridge was visible. To the left direction Hudson was flowing into the Atlantic along the more memorable part of Manhattan. The twin towers of the World Trade Center had not yet been built, and do not exist today. And it was this river where recently the pilot of the U.S. Airways flight 1549 managed to crashland with all the passengers surviving. I did not own a TV, just a radio, constantly tuned to the WQXR station with classical music. It was the time of the ongoing presidential electoral campaign and we naturally rooted for the photogenic candidate Kennedy. - - - My illegal disappearance from the country was viewed as humiliation, an act of ridicule for the entire judiciary. So it was confirmed to me several years later, by witnesses present when Václav Škoda, the then minister of justice, thundered in fury, felt personally humiliated – and confused. (An explation is in order: Škoda, whom I have never met in person, from his limited ministerial quota awarded me with a coveted privilege to purchase an automobile. This I obtained as a result of an urgent plea to reach remote villages within my borderland court district, to get acquainted with the circumstance that led to the all too frequent collapse of imposed agricultural cooperatives. This way I became the owner of a brand new Fiat – a kind of prestige comparable with the ownership of perhaps a battleship these days. However, this was merely a part of my complicated plan of how to escape from the totalitarian country. I calculated that in case I would be stopped at such an attempt, I will be able to defend myself with an explanation blaming it all on a misunderstanding – why on earth would I want to run away, to leave behind such a precious beautiful car! Comrades, that would make no sense, you surely must understand.)
The minister reacted to my treachery with a truly stalinist punishment of collective responsibility – an immediate prohibition of all trips abroad, all planned summer vacation for his personnel. Those affected were well justified to curse me. In my native city of Pilsen, a high ranking secret police (StB) officer by name Buřič condemned my misdeed in almost poetic terms „of having betrayed the fatherland in full nakedness“ and to my brother (now residing in Carmel, sunny California) he guaranteed that I will be located in West Germany, kidnapped and brought to trial for an exemplary punishment. (This wish did not materialize. There I continued to live unharmed with identity papers under the name of Unger.) By that time, the comrades whom I betrayed, could not have known that I will be able to hurt them in a very sensitive spot – not in their crotch but in their pocket, the wallet of the state. Which finally brings me to the circumstances that led to the Kennedy correspondence. It started in a following way: I was contacted by a Washington law office with a request for an expert opinion in matters of the Czechoslovak inheritance law. Two jurists arrived in New York and we had a long chat. I tried to explain to them the peculiarities of socialist justice, the conditional quality of law, which sometimes is valid and sometimes not, I stressed the necessity to distinguish between the so-called „personal“ (osobní) ownership, the good one, and the „private“ (soukromé) ownership, which is not a good one, hence is not protected. The difference is not in the nature of the object but in its use. For example, a needle in the hand of a spouse patching up her husband’s torn pants, is looked at with favour, its theft is to be punished, whereas in case of a needle, used by a surviving, privately self-employed tailor, is not. In case of an inheritance, left in America by an uncle to his niece somewhere in Kapušany, it is impossible to know whether the American legal requirement of „full use and benefit“ will be met, without being in advance acquainted with political and social class evaluation of the beneficiary in question. My visitors from Washington thanked me and I promised to produce, for a fee of course, a written analysis , which I did.
Thereafter I was contacted by the exiled former deputy premier Lettrich who expressed his puzzlement for what I have done. Done what? That particular law office was retained by the Czechoslovak government to represent its interests, which of course was not known to me, did rewrite my expert analysis to suit the needs of its client. Hence, my qualification such as „perhaps, it depends on various criteria“ were transformed into assurances „always, under all circumstances.“ This infuriated me substantially. At that time I was not yet fully acquainted with the veracity of the definition „American lawyer = liar for hire“. I got quite involved in this particular legal issue and my article „Transfer of Inheritances“, published in The American Journal of Comparative Law, No.1 (1965), pp.142-156m, contributed to the courts' lack of willingness to authorize such property transfers which amounted to the total loss of several million dollars. (This judicial practice lasted only for a few years. A subsequent decision of a court in Oregon became a new precedent, to the full satisfaction of the communists.) During the presidential electoral campaign I found out, that this particular law firm in Washington, had a close cooperative arrangement with an office in Ohio, tied to the name of a senator in the opposite Republican camp, which perhaps could be of some interest and eventual benefit of the Democratic candidate Kennedy. That time, after all, anticommunism was not yet a stand one had to hide, to be embarrassed to admit. The fashion of self-destructive animosityagainst all matters American, democratic, and of that inane enthusiasm about socialist nirvana, had erupted in few years thereafter. I don’t think that my information was to Kennedy of any noticeable use but here I do have an evidence, that he did respond. - - - My time spent at Columbia was not the most pleasant one which, on the other hand, had its advantage. It prompted me to rush as fast as I could to get my doctorate. To reach the coveted goal of a PhD required on average close to seven years and I managed to accomplish it in three years and few months. From my apartment, shared with the treacherous Turk, I moved to the predominantly Puerto Rican neighbourhood at 136th Street, to an old Hungarian lady, a lonely Jewess, living in memory of days long bygone.
Prior to my leaving the metropolis, I visited my countess sponsor – on the wall of her office was a big portrait of her friend, a fellow exile, with his signature and few words – Albert Einstein. Subsequently I received from her a hand written message „All my congratulations, I am really happy and proud – as a European, of your success and achievements ... Lydia Tolstoy.“ And president Kennedy visited Dallas. All of us remember the moment we heard about the tragedy. I was standing at the entrance to the campus where regularly marched, back and forth, a lunatic with a poster with letters GOD which could be read as DOG, the lunatic assumed that God spoke English, which in case of an Almighty could be easily assumed. I managed to get a temporary teaching appointment in faraway Iowa, at the Grinnell College, the oldest four-year institution west of the Mississippi. The bus ride would have cost me 60 dollars. That time an Iranian friend of mine was trying to dispose of his antiquated car - a Dodge, vintage 1956. At a junkyard he was offered seven dollars and fifty cents. I offered him ten dollars and with this vehicle managed to reach the distant bucolic destination. Plenty of papers I disposed off in New York. Fortunately, this letter was not among them.