The dream garden of a 1950s political prisoner

The story of Lubos Hruska is a remarkable tale of persecution and despair but ultimate survival. Born in 1927 he was too young to play a role in World War II, although he witnessed the bombing of Plzen and the liberation of Czechoslovakia. His fight started after the war, when he refused to sell his soul to the Communist regime and was punished.

Lubos Hruska,  photo: CTK
Lubos Hruska became a soldier in 1948. A year later he was transferred to patrol the western borders of Czechoslovakia. Opposed to the Communist Party and its spreading influence, Hruska launched an illegal anti-communist group, but after a few of his close friends got arrested he decided to emigrate. He knew the area too well to make a mistake. At least that's what he thought. Here is his testimony, as told to the makers of the Czech Radio programme "Stories of the 20th Century".

"We had three days off so I took a holiday. I forged the signature of a regiment commander and got on a train. I wasn't wearing a uniform so nobody noticed me. I had a loaded gun in my pocket. I got off the train and walked through the country for about four hours. I was about a hundred meters from the border, sweaty and tired so I decided to have a wash in a canal. I put my gun away and bent down to the water. "Hands up," said a voice behind my back and I knew I was in trouble. There were two young guys from the State Secret Police with a dog. If they had fired at me I would have fired back, but they didn't, so I didn't defend myself. "

Officially Lubos Hruska wasn't found guilty of an attempt to emigrate but of the treason he would have committed if he had managed to escape. He was sentenced to eighteen years, which in comparison with the life sentence he could have received seemed like a blessing. All his possessions were taken away, he was fined 30 000 crowns and a few times a year had his meager food rations cut, together with other regular cruelties.

His "tour of prisons" started in Prague's Pankrac and continued at Bory, near Plzen and near his birthplace. The prison had a strict regime. There was no running water in cells and prisoners got one liter of water for drinking and washing a day, and they were humiliated and beaten. Each of them was welcomed by a guard called Brabec and his horsewhip.

"It hurt but you could cope with two, three lashes. But more - especially to the kidneys - were very painful. I bit my tongue and decided not to scream and beg. People used to beg, 'Please, let me go', but I didn't say a single word. He hit me twenty five times and left."

Four days later Lubos Hruska noticed the first symptoms of the serious kidney problems he suffers to this day. Guards from the prison have never admitted bullying. The notorious Brabec was later accused of a murder but was never sentenced. In 1950 Hruska and many others were moved to Opava.

"Suddenly I heard names being called out. The names of seven generals, a few others and then me. I was told to pack all my stuff and get changed. As I looked out I saw about 40 - 45 officers. They were all pilots who had fought in the war. I couldn't get my head around it. That regime was liquidating heroes who we should have thanked for liberation from the Nazis. I spent ten and a half years with those boys moving from one prison to the other."

The prison in Opava was heaven, relatively speaking. The prisoners were not beaten and not guarded very well. It was the best opportunity to escape.

"My friend Vlasta Majer came up with the idea of escaping. Somehow we found out where there was a sewer. It led to a river and ended with a grid and a lock so we needed a file. I was the first one to go to work on it. I did it during a movie screening that took place once every two weeks. To be honest I was frightened and didn't get to do much. I moved a few bricks. It was a sewer and when somebody flushed a toilet everything fell on me."

Despite his efforts that escape never took place and Hruska was soon moved to the worst prison in the former Czechosovakia, Leopoldov. Many prisoners died of starvation. The only fresh air was enjoyed for a few minutes at noon, from something that only roughly resembled a window.

"We took our clothes off and the screws said 'You won't need them anymore'. The commander warned us that this was our final prison and we were never going to leave it alive. We didn't believe it, thinking we had already gone through the worst. We had to exercise every day. Old generals fainted after a short time. They splashed water on them and shouted 'Three hounded squats'. They didn't use any other number. Those old, ill men did three, four and fainted again. It was the start of our liquidation camp."

Among the prisoners were also a number of priests. Lubos Hruska, previously an atheist, turned to God as his last hope.

"Franta was a Jesuit, a doctor of theology and a great person. I asked him to baptize me and he agreed. We used to walk around the cell and talk. He was preparing me illegally. No one knew, none of the prisoners, there were spies in every cell. And one day they ordered us to line up. I asked Franta to baptize me as it was not likely that I would see him again. I saw him after I got out of a prison. That day I made a promise, that if I ever got out of the prison I would turn our garden into a place that would heal and cure the soul."

Hruska was transferred once again in 1953, this time to a labour camp where he worked in the uranium mines. The majority of prisoners were intellectuals such as professors or priests; many of them died. Lubos Hruska was pardoned in 1960, after eleven years in various prisons.

The return to reality was more than hard. The former prisoner couldn't find a job and was seriously ill. Nevertheless he immediately started fulfilling the promise he had made to himself in the prison. Hruska started creating the garden, which he named the garden of victims of evil.

"I had decided that the garden would take the form of the Stations of the Cross. Each of us has some kind of trouble; some pain, misery and we have to learn to live with them. We all carry our cross, one day it is lighter, the next it is heavier."

Lubos Hruska cut fruit trees, planted evergreens and created a unique garden architecture. A sculptor and friend Roman Podrazsky took Hruska's idea to the final stage and made twelve sand-stone monuments, each of them picturing the Stations of the Cross.

"I was rehabilitated, I was made a colonel and we were given some small compensation. They worked out how much money we would have earned during the years we spent in the prisons, and gave us some money depending on the length of our imprisonment. But that is not important to me. The only thing I want is for the Bolsheviks to disappear. That is the most important of all. I would do anything for it to happen, but our people help them instead of getting rid of them. All politicians say that they don't want to have anything to do with communists, but I don't believe them anymore."

Lubos Hruska's story was told to the non-profit organisation Post Bellum, which records and publicises the stories of people who suffered and fought during World War II. Its journalists record their memories, which are broadcast by Czech Radio in a programme called "Stories of the 20th Century".