The deep scars of the Cold War: Victoria Dougherty draws on own family’s dramatic history for The Bone Church

Victoria Dougherty, photo: Ian Willoughby

In the profile on her blog site, Victoria Dougherty writes that she comes from “the ultimate Cold War family”, a description it would be hard to disagree with. In this special programme, the author, who lived in Prague in the early 1990s, discusses their dramatic, sometime heart-wrenching stories – and how her grandparents’ experiences helped inform her novel The Bone Church.

Victoria Dougherty,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Victoria Dougherty’s grandfather was part of an entire Czechoslovak ice hockey team that defected after the communist takeover, while her grandmother made her own escape soon afterwards.

However, in what must have been a nightmare for the entire family, they were not able to get their children out of the country, causing divisions that never fully healed.

In 1967 Dougherty’s parents also made it across the Iron Curtain illicitly, crossing Yugoslavia’s border with Italy before making a new life - like her grandparnets - in the United States.

Just over two decades later, after the fall of communism, the writer found herself moving in the other direction as one of the thousands of young Westerners in the “Wild East” Prague of the early 1990s. Unlike most, however, she had a deep personal connection to the city and Czech culture.

Earlier this month, Victoria Dougherty was back in Prague for a visit that included a reading from her novel The Bone Church. Partly set at a macabre ossuary just outside Kutná Hora, the book also partly draws on her own family’s dramatic Cold War stories.

The morning after her reading, the author came into Radio Prague’s studios. We first discussed the wartime experiences of her grandparents.

“They were pretty dramatic. My grandparents had hidden Jews. Maybe hidden isn’t exactly right.

“What they would do is they would be a stop-off point – the few people who they helped cross would come and stay with them for perhaps a week and then go on to the next point.

“I think only one time they drove somebody across the border – they had them in their trunk – they were stopped.

“My grandmother had to charm the agent into not looking in the trunk and was offering him sausages and everything that they had, that they were taking with them into Slovakia, where my grandfather trained.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“My grandfather was a hockey player for the Czechoslovak national team; they were very mobile so kind of ideal for this kind of underground work, because he had privileges that other people didn’t.”

Where did they live?

“In Prague. But he trained in Slovakia so they would go to Bratislava during training times and they spent their time going back and forth.

“But apart from that I guess their wartime experience was just like everybody else’s.

“It was afterwards, when the new communist government really didn’t like dissenters of any type, and when they saw that they had worked against the enemy, even if Germany was a common enemy, they started cracking down on people like that.

“My grandparents ended up fleeing in ’48 because they had heard from reliable sources that they were about to be arrested. I think they got 23 and 28 years in prison, in absentia, after they left.”

Was it the case that your grandfather defected while on an ice hockey tour?

“Yes. I believe it was in Switzerland. The whole hockey team defected. It was a pretty famous defection, although it was sort of rubbed out of the history books, like they tended to do back then.

“I think a couple of the hockey players returned and they were put to work in the uranium mines and died of bone cancer in their 30s.”

Your grandmother left separately from him, in that case?

“Yes, she left and crossed the border on foot, from Bratislava to Vienna.

“She left my mom and her sisters behind. She was going to take them with her, but when she talked to her parents, they said, no, no, no, it’s going to be too difficult to cross the border with three small children.

“My aunt, who was the youngest, was six months old. My mother, who was the oldest, was six years, and she had another sister who was four.

Photo: Dmitry Poliansky / freeimages
“They just didn’t believe communism would stick, and they thought they could get their children back through international intermediaries, or that it would be over soon. They were wrong.”

It must have been a complete horror for your grandparents when they realised they couldn’t get their kids out.

“I think it was. It definitely left tremendous marks on our family. It’s something that we still deal with.

“Her daughters still have problems with her. My grandmother has passed away, but it was very difficult. They never quite reconciled, after that.”

I’ve known of cases of families where one of the parents left. But not where both parents left, and left all the kids.

“I think that’s the point that my mom and her sisters make. They just don’t really understand how my grandmother could have left.

“In a sort of chauvinistic way, they understand how the man could have left. But they don’t understand how their own mother could have left them behind.”

Was your grandmother remorseful?

“I think she was. But she wouldn’t admit it.”

What did your grandparents do in the States?

“They had several businesses. When they first got there they just took anything that they could, like people did.

“But my grandmother had an economics degree and she ended up having a pretty high-flying career.

“She ran three five-star French restaurants. She was the business end. This was in the 1970s and somewhat in the 1980s, when French food was really big.

“So people like Mick Jagger would come in to one of the restaurants. She had no idea who Mick Jagger was and didn’t care [laughs], but she would, you know, try to get me an autograph or something.

“I didn’t even really know who Mick Jagger was either, but it was just kind of fun. Whenever she knew somebody famous came in she’d try to get something for us.”

Did she trade on the fact that she was a defector? Was that something that she was proud of, or told people about?

“She was very proud of being a defector, but I’m not sure she traded on it.

“One of the things they do, when they were trying desperately to get their children back, was to talk to various organisations that they thought might help them. And my grandmother would give talks and try to get help.

“Newton Minow and [two-time U.S. presidential candidate] Adlai Stevenson had a law firm in Chicago and at one point they were working for her pro bono.

“And Adlai Stevenson flew to Czechoslovakia to meet with, not the president but someone high in the government and he was refused.

“So they had pretty big help but it just was to no avail. The Czechoslovak government really put their boot down, especially since my grandfather had been famous and had been part of his hockey team that defected.”

Your mother and her sisters were brought up by their grandmother?

“Correct. Their mother’s mother.”

How did that go?

“You know, it was difficult [laughs]. I think as a grandparent you don’t expect to be raising your grandchildren.

“There was so much stress in the household, because their life style had changed dramatically when communism came…”

Also there must have been repercussions because their daughter had left the country.

“All of that. The family was punished for having the girls, on top of it, and that put the girls in a pretty bad situation.

“She was in a pretty tough spot too, but she was not the best guardian for especially my mother and her younger sister.

“She actually loved my mother’s middle sister very much, and just didn’t show that love to the other two at all.”

Your mother married here and she also left the country, in 1967. How did they get out?

“Well, they had permission to go to Yugoslavia for a vacation. They knew that there was a point where they could cross more easily than in other places in Yugoslavia.

“The Yugoslavs were pretty lax in terms of how they dealt with defectors, compared to the other communist states, of course. And they had sort of broken from the main Soviet cluster.

“They just sort of had to find a way to somewhat credibly get across. They were caught twice… my father was saying last night at my reading that he remembers crawling and suddenly he sees a pair of boots; and he looks up sees a border guard ready to take them in.

“My brother had nightmares for years. Because he remembers guns being pointed at him.”

How old was he?

“He was eight years old. They tried three times to get across the border and twice they were caught and got in all sorts of trouble.

“The third time they were able to get across. They had befriended this Yugoslav couple and had given them everything they had in exchange for their passports.

“My father was saying they were 30 years older, but nobody really looked too closely at their passports, so they let them go through.”

And when your parents left your mum’s sisters were interrogated, I understand?

“Yes. I definitely know that her middle sister was. They were very close so they assumed that the middle sister had known about the defection.

“But she had not. Because my mother had tried defecting several times before and made the mistake of telling somebody in the family – not her sister – and they ratted her out. So she wasn’t taking any chances this time.

“They brought my aunt Vicky in for questioning and they brought a large, maybe two foot tall dossier on my mother that they’d been keeping since she was 12.

“My aunt says that she just remembers the first line of the dossier, which was ‘even though she is only 12 she thinks like an adult, and therefore she is even more dangerous’.”

Also your mother must have had a process of getting to know her mother in her, what, late 20s?

“Yes, she was 26, I think.”

Do you know how that reunion went?

“I think it went awkwardly at first. But my mom was the only one of the three who really remembered her mother, and really pined for her mother.

“Because she was six when her mother left. My mom says she remembers just sitting at the window, waiting for her, every day, hoping against hope that she would come that day. She did that for years.

“So she desperately wanted to have a relationship with my grandmother, and of the three she did. Actually she cared for my grandmother until the day my grandmother died.

“They definitely did have a relationship but it was very bumpy, because my grandmother just didn’t want to go there. I think it was too painful for her.”

When you were growing up did you have much awareness of your Czech culture and background?

“Oh yes. You couldn’t avoid it. When my mom first came to the US she was pregnant with me and Czech was my first language, because she didn’t speak English very well [laughs].

“We ate Czech food and I think that we had a pretty rich Czech cultural experience at home.

“I felt very much at home when I moved here. But at the same time I had never felt more American.”

Could you speak Czech when you moved here, which was in 1991, was it?

“Yes, about then. And yes, I spoke fluently. I spoke much better than I do now. I was translating for the EU. Now my Czech is pitiful, because I just never speak.”

I guess you must have met many people of your generation similar to you, whose parents had left at the end of the 1960s and they were moving here themselves in the early ‘90s?

“Here? Not many. Most of the people I met strangely had no connection to Czech culture. I felt like I was an anomaly.

“There were always a handful of people who were kind of like me and had Czech parents, but it really was just a handful.

“The vast majority of expats that I met here just came because they thought it would be an exciting place to be.”

Which of course it was – I remember those days. What are your standout memories of that time?

“Oh, most of them are just funny. I remember the way contracts meant nothing.

“I worked for a Czech company and was also a partner in a theatre.

“We would sign a contract for our theatre and we would be set to play on those dates, we would have posters printed and everything, and a better offer would come along and they’d say, sorry.

“We’d say, but we have a contract and they’d rip up the contract right in front of us and laugh.”

I guess those were the days of the Wild East.

“Those were the days of the Wild East. But then I also have beautiful memories of this man who would sing opera right behind Old Town Square…

“He was probably about five feet tall and he had a Hitler moustache, and he would sing opera. He would sing these beautiful arias.”

Was he busking or just doing it for pleasure?

“He was just doing it. He didn’t have a hat out or anything. I remember the full moon behind the church on Old Town Square.

“I remember walking to work, which I did every day because it was just too beautiful not to.

“I remember running for a tram that was not very far, less than half a block away, and I was so winded by the time I got on the tram, because at that point the pollution was so bad.

“And I remember the friendships I made, which will take me through the rest of my life.”

And you met your husband here, I believe. What was he doing here?

“He was close friends with some of my friends who were living here. They were Wall Street Journal reporters. He’d know them for years.

“He just came for two weeks. He treated himself for his 30th birthday to a trip to Prague and then to Auschwitz; he’s a quarter Jewish.

“We met an Irish pub called Molly Malone’s. It was very charming and candlelit… But I moved back to the States maybe 10 months later and we were sort of reunited through these mutual friends and just started dating, right away.”

Staying in Prague for a second, you were involved with the start of The Globe, the famous English-language bookshop and café?

“Only in that I was friends with the owners and before it opened I would go in and I would help them scrub the floor [laughs].

“The space was a disaster when they first moved in and they had to get it completely ready. I think it had been a laundromat before.

“They had to completely renovate it, so I just kind of went in and washed things and scrubbed floors. It was fun.”

You were also involved in theatre in those days.


What was the Black Box Theatre?

“It was an English language theatre. I think originally the concept was to exclusively do Czech plays, or at least plays that somehow related to this country and what was going on, and for the most part it.

“We did everything from a communist propaganda play, which was great fun…”

Because it was so simple and stupid, I’m guessing.

“Oh, it was awful. And it was the best one – that’s why we picked it. Of all the communist propaganda plays that we read, this was by far the best and it was just excruciating.

“First, the cast was enormous, because of course the whole point was to employ people [laughs]. It made no sense how the dialogue went, apart from the fact that the dialogue truly was terrible.

“Everyone got a piece of the dialogue, so it was completely unnatural. It was like [in four different voices], hark, who, goes, there?

“But it was great fun and it was actually a huge hit. We weren’t sure how it was going to go over, because for the English language audience it was just a terrible play.

“And for the Czechs, we didn’t know if they’d be offended or if they’d find it interesting. But they found it hilarious. I think of all our plays, that was the most attended by Czechs.

“I want to say that 40 percent of the audience was Czech. Because mostly we had tourists and expats at our productions and a maybe 10 percent Czech audience. But that audience really swelled for this communist propaganda play [laughs].”

Did your parents visit you during your years here?

“My father had always been coming. My parents are divorced. And my mom came, finally, towards the end of my stay. She had sworn that she was never coming back but she ended up coming back several times.”

How was it the first time she came here?

“I think it was good. She had a good time. But she has some pretty bitter feelings about this country and how she was treated. I think she has a hard time letting go of that.”

Victoria Dougherty and I spoke the day after a reading from her novel The Bone Church, which took place at a more recent incarnation of The Globe bookstore and coffeehouse.

The novel explores the underworld of wartime Prague and the early Cold War period through the fates of her characters Felix Anděl and Magdaléna Růžá.

Along the way it takes in Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels and other unlikely figures, while a key location is a real-life ossuary created in the late 19th century on the outskirts of the medieval town of Kutná Hora.

Dougherty says she has drawn on her own family’s history in writing The Bone Church. So how much is it actually based on her grandparents’ story?

“I’d say it’s inspired by them. That’s probably the most accurate way to put it.

“I didn’t set out to write a novel. I’d been writing… I’ve been writing all of my life, I’ve written comedy skits and essays and speeches and stuff, but I’d never done anything that was really long.

“But I just started writing down my family’s stories because I wanted them for posterity. I was spending a lot of time with my grandmother at the time, so I had the opportunity to transcribe her stories.

“In my downtime I just suddenly started noodling around with this story about a hockey player – which my grandfather was, but that’s where the similarity ends.

“But also when my grandparents were trying to get their daughters back, they were working with an underground network that smuggled Soviet bloc dissidents out.

“It was operating out of Vienna and the man who was running it was a Czech Catholic priest.

“So that’s where I sort of fused the two characters, in my protagonist Felix, who is this hockey player who has this very dramatic defection and ends up becoming a Catholic priest and running this network.

“He ends up having to go back into what was then Czechoslovakia to help smuggle his former lover out – a woman who was having some pretty serious political problems here. That’s where it sort of grew from.”

The actress Lída Baarová also figures in the book.

“She does. She was Josef Goebbels’ mistress and my grandparents actually knew her. They weren’t friends with her, but with my grandfather having kind of been famous, they had certainly met her.

“My grandmother said about her, she never actively did anything to hurt anybody, but she never did anything to help [laughs].”

Did they know other interesting people before they left?

“They knew the Havels. Not Václav Havel, but his uncle, because he ran Lucerna, the nightclub… My grandfather knew Johnny Weismuller, who played Tarzan [laughs]. But that’s all I can really remember.”

Sedlec ossuary,  photo: CzechTourism
Getting back to The Bone Church, what was the appeal of the venue, the ossuary just outside Kutná Hora, in Sedlec?

“You know, I had no idea that it was going to become part of the story until we visited about 10 years ago, when my son was about 18 months old.

“It was actually about this time of year. I really wanted to see the bone church. I had been there once before and had these really strong memories of it.

“I took my son. It was really just me and my husband and our son. I was surprised at how much it affected me – and how differently it affected me, now that I had become a mother.

“I felt a very strong connection to my mortality after I’d given birth, which seems kind of strange, but after you have a baby you really see how you give over your life to somebody else.

“That really made an impression on me and it was brought home when I went into the bone church…”

Where there are the bones of something like 40,000 people.

“Yes, and for anyone who doesn’t know what it looks like, it’s a pretty extraordinary sight. You have this chandelier that is made entirely of human bones and utilises every bone in the human body. It’s stunning.

“You have the Schwarzenberg coat of arms. You have these garlands of bones, like skull-femur-kneecap-skull, or whatever it is [laughs].

“It’s eerily beautiful. I was saying this last night and I wrote about it on my blog post, but I was looking around and thinking about all the ways these people died.

“They had died of small pox, they had died at childbirth, they had died of measles, or of a broken heart, the plague, all the ways that people tended to die.

“It just felt tremendously noble to me, and it felt very spiritual. I really felt like I was in the presence of God and a great sort of circle of life, standing there.

Sedlec ossuary,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“That experience started making its way into the book. That became the anchor of the book. And I really had no intention of it being part of it, until that visit.”

On this visit you’re here with your son and your dad. And your dad is selling the family farm, is that right?

“My dad actually lives here half the year. So he was already here. And I decided that I wanted to take my son, just him and me. I want to take each of my kids here separately, so that they can kind of have a more intimate experience of it.

“And yes, my father just sprang this on us. This is a farm that’s been in our family for generations, maybe two or three hundred years, something like that. I think since about the time of the American Revolution. Maybe even before that.

“When it was restituted back to our family, there was sort of this intention that we were never going to give it up.

“But of course for 40 years it was no ours. We lost that institutional knowledge and we were scattered all over the globe and it became sort of impossible for them to keep it. So yeah, he just sort of sprang it on me that he’s selling it.

And it’s going to be a brewery?

“It’s going to be a brewery [laughs]. I was saying last night, I really hope they name the beer after our family. I doubt they will, but it would be nice to be able to drink Čejka beer.”

Victoria Dougherty’s blog can be found here: