Eda Kriseová, Part 1: I understood the meaning of normalisation at Jan Zajíc’s funeral

Eda Kriseová, photo: Ian Willoughby

When Eda Kriseová was barred from journalism after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion she chose an unlikely escape from the grim reality of that time: voluntary work at an isolated mental hospital. She also wrote in samizdat, which led to her gradually becoming part of Czechoslovakia’s anti-Communist dissent. As we will hear, Kriseová – whose husband is filmmaker Josef Platz – found novel ways to resist secret police pressure. But the first part of this two-part interview begins with the author’s early days.

Eda Kriseová, photo: Ian Willoughby
“My father was an architect. He was born in Prague. And my mother was also from Prague – she was a sculptor.

“I was born in the Old Town, on Jilská Street, which is really in the middle of the Old Town, so my childhood is connected to old Prague.”

Do you have any memories of the war? You were born in 1940.

“I have. My brother and I went with our grandfather to Žofín, which is on an island, and the Americans started bombing and we went in the cellar.

“There were barrels of beer there and we were standing on them.

“A bomb fell on the house where the Dancing House is now.”

So quite near.

“Very near [laughs]. So I remember that.

“And then our parents woke us during the night and we went to the cellar, which was from Roman times, in the Old Town.

“So were sitting and waiting for the bombing to end.”

Jumping forward quite a few years, you studied journalism at Charles University and you entered the university at the end of the 1950s. How was it studying journalism in those days, when you must have expected that at least some degree of censorship would be automatic?

“My brother and I went with our grandfather to Žofín. The Americans started bombing and we went in the cellar.”

“Yes, I was very naive. In those days I was rowing for the national team at junior level.

“And because I was interested in the Far East I wanted to be a sports correspondent from the Far East.

“I didn’t want to have anything to do with politics – only with sport.

“That was very naive, as you see [laughs].”

You worked for the magazine Mladý Svět, which must have been a huge magazine in those days. Also it was the mid-1960s. It was a different kind of ‘60s here in Czechoslovakia than in, say, the UK or America, but still it was the ‘60s. Was it exciting to be at Mladý Svět?

“Yes, it was very good. It was the, let’s say, golden time of Mladý Svět.

“Because there was a little less censorship and there was a nice group of young people there, so I have good memories.

“And then I went to [periodical] Listy, because I started to do social reports for Listy and [Ludvík] Vaculík invited me to be a reporter on Listy, which for me was a privilege – there were better journalists there than at Mladý Svět.”

Photo: Kristýna Maková
You told me earlier that your final report for Listy was about the funeral of Jan Zajíc. I think a lot of people know about the funeral of Jan Palach, because there’s all the video footage and much was written about it. What was Zajíc’s funeral like?

“It was very different, because he was buried in a village which was called Vítkov, by Opava.

“And we were the only journalists there. There was a photo-reporter with me.

“My husband, who was studying at FAMU at that time, was also there with his colleague and they shot the whole funeral.

“Now on TV, for instance, there was a documentary film by Olga Sommerová, who is a friend of ours, and she used this material from Zajíc’s funeral, because there is no other.

“At this funeral I realised what had happened, what normalisation was – that was the difference between the funeral of Palach, where there were speeches and there was a march through Prague and so on, and Zajíc’s funeral was already very modest.

“In fact, it was a local matter.”

Husák and the Communists closed down the publication Listy and your life was affected quite a lot by normalisation. What did you end up doing after journalism?

“After Listy was cancelled I went to work in a mental hospital – voluntary, because I was not qualified.

“I was working in a monastery, in the country, because it seemed to me that life in the mental hospital was much more normal than the life outside [laughs] in normalisation.

“At this funeral I realised what had happened, what normalisation was – that was the difference between the funeral of Palach, where there were speeches and there was a march through Prague and so on, and Zajíc’s funeral was already very modest.

“I couldn’t understand that what was black was once white and the opposite.

“I felt much more free behind the bars [laughs] than outside.

“Then I also started to write literature, because there was no sense in writing reports and putting them somewhere and waiting for better times.

“So I started to write literature, short stories about these people who were in a mental hospital for almost their whole life.”

Was it writing that led you into the dissent in the 1970s?

“Practically yes, because I had written three books and I found out that they would never be published – that I was forbidden as a name, you know.

“Even children’s books. I had written two children’s books and they were later on published in London by Rozmluvy. So it was not political literature.

“But I was forbidden as a name.

“I had written three books and offered them to publishing houses but they were always speaking with me as if they could get some infection or something like that [laughs].

“So when Vaculík founded Edice petlice [Padlock Editions] he offered me to sort of publish, in samizdat.

“I gave him my three manuscripts and they came out one after the other.

“And that was when I sort of crossed the legal border [laughs].

“It seemed to me that life in the mental hospital was much more normal than the life outside in normalisation.”

“Then a publisher from Switzerland came so my books were published in German, in German-speaking countries.

“And I became sort of illegal.”

Did you have much interaction with the StB, the secret police?

“Yes, quite [laughs].

“On one side it was nice, because I entered into this ghetto of writers who were banned.

“They were not only writers – they were also historians, political scientists and so on.

“So it was nice to be with these people.

“The disadvantage was that I started to be followed by the State Security [StB].

“I was asked to interrogations and, well, had quite a few troubles.

“But I started to practice yoga, which helped me a lot, because I learned the system of breathing and how to relax.

“So I think that helped me a lot against having fear.”

And did it make them angry when you would just sit there calmly and they were trying to force something out of you?

“The StB used to work with fear – and when there was no fear they were out of their roles.”

“Yes, they were really disappointed [laughs], because they used to work with fear – and when there was no fear they were out of their roles.

“Also I invented such a method that when I went there [to StB interrogations] I did a big shopping and came with two bags full of bread and vegetables and everything.

“They said, What is it? I said, Well, I don’t have time, I’m on the way home and when I came here I did my shopping on the way.

“That was the first shock, you know…”

Basically you were saying to them, I’m not taking this seriously.

“Yes. I said, I’m in a hurry, just tell me when I will be released, because as you see, I have to go home and cook for family.”

How did the experience of being a woman in the dissent differ from being a man, if there was any difference?

“I think there was a difference.

“There were not so many young ladies who were put in prison, because we had children.

“The older ladies were at greater risk than the young ones.”

But even still, did having children affect how you approached things? Did it change your behaviour in any way, with regard to the secret police and so on?

“Well, of course they were always saying that my children would never get to middle school.

“There were not so many young ladies who were put in prison, because we had children. The older ladies were at greater risk.”

“Of course they were telling me they would put me in prison – and what would my children do, and so on.

“They were using the children against me.

“Also the StB sometimes came here [to her family home] and my children were afraid.”

By the late ‘80s, I understand your daughter themselves were protesting, taking part in the occasional protests. Did you encourage them? Or were you worried? Or both?

“I think both [laughs].

“Because they were among those 5,000 people who were protesting and they were always beaten.

“I felt it was very unjustified.

“On November 17 [1989] they went to demonstrate and I was sitting here and writing something, but then I was so nervous – I just felt that something would happen.

“So I just put on my shoes and coat and went out, went to Vyšehrad, and went with the students all the time to Národní Street.

“Because it was much better to go with than to sit here and wait to see whether they would come or not.”

I’ve interviewed your daughter [Magdaléna Platzová] about that day and if I’m right you didn’t meet her until later, or till the night?

“I met my older daughter on the march and we went together.

Národní Street, November 17, 1989, photo: archive of Charles University
“Then we were standing at Louvre, Perštýn [the spot where riot police hemmed in the crowd], and I was very cold.

“It was very cold that day and I was completely frozen.

“We were always standing up and sitting down, and singing. There were these soldiers there.

“And she made me leave. She was saying, Please leave.

“Because I was blue [laughs].

“So I went and I somehow got through the crowd and went home and was waiting for them.

“Then they got home, both of them.

“But then I disappeared, because [Václav] Havel founded the Civic Forum and I went to help him.

“Then one evening we were sitting in the kitchen and I said to Tereza, the older daughter, Were you serious when you told me on Národní Street that nothing would happen, that it’s always the same?

“She said, Oh, you stupid – I wanted you to go home, because I knew that something would happen [laughs].”

In the second part of this two-part interview, Eda Kriseová will discuss entering Prague Castle as part of Václav Havel’s team, his transformation into a statesman and her time at the Office of the President’s Complaints and Pardons department, which was inundated with letters from citizens who finally had a chance to share their concerns with a figure of authority.