Frantisek Zahradka - from boyscout to 'class enemy' and a lifetime literally underground

Frantisek Zahradka got a 20 year sentence for treason

Political prisoners had been forced to work the mines of Czechoslovakia long before the Communists seized power in the "bloodless" coup of February 1948. Under the direction of the hard-line Stalinist leader Klement Gottwald, however, securing workers to unearth weapons-grade uranium became policy; a top priority. The camps served two purposes: a way to purge the land of "class enemies" and to build up the atomic arsenal of the Soviet Union, when few could have guessed the ideological war with the West would remain a "cold" one.

During Klement Gottwald's five year reign as Czechoslovak president, some two hundred thousand people were sent to prison and forced labour camps for supposed crimes against the state. Among them was Frantisek Zahradka. Barely nineteen years old when handed down a twenty-year sentence and sent to work the mines, to this day, he considers himself a fortunate man.

"They planned on sending 180,000 people to such labour camps without court proceedings - 3,000 people every month for the duration of a five-year plan -- and with the assistance of the StB, the secret police. They especially wanted to cleanse Prague and other large cities of the bourgeois; Communists took over the apartments of those imprisoned - or killed - and, in many cases, sent their families to live in isolated border regions. Many prisoners had no idea why they had been arrested or how long they would be interned. And that was the horrifying beginning of Communist rule."

In the autumn of 1949, Frantisek Zahradka was still in high school - or should have been - when he was arrested for high treason. For a good six months, the former boy scout had been leading small groups of anti-communists - including former airmen who had fought alongside the British RAF in independent Czechoslovak fighter squadrons - through the Sumava Mountains, across the border into Germany and back.

By the time Mr Zahradka was caught, the Communists had begun trying such "class enemies" in court -- such was the international outcry over the thousands of extrajudicial imprisonments. One month after his nineteenth birthday, the defiant and wiry teenager was tried alongside 23 others, including an American intelligence officer who had joined one of the RAF Czech fighter squadrons. Mr Zahradka got twenty years; had he been a year older, he might well have received the death penalty.

"We were not depressed. We were mainly focusing not to get capital sentences for the two officers in the group: it was a victory not to get the death sentence; a life-sentence was a victory because we were convinced that this criminal regime was not going to survive long, we believed that truth and justice would prevail. It was our slogan, when they were lining us up for the hearings, like scouts, we were saying: 'a year or twenty, the main thing is not to get the hangman's rope'. No rope for me, only twenty years. Seeing the fathers during the trial, that was hard. We had it easy! It was very much worse for those who had small children and left behind pretty wives."

Diminutive in stature, dressed in a hand-knit sweater, and armed only with a ready laugh, it is hard to imagine that Frantisek Zahradka was once considered among the most dangerous of prisoners. In the prime of his youth, he spent two years imprisoned in solitary confinement, before being sent to his first labour camp, Nikolaj, then to Jachymov and Vojna to work the uranium mines.

The prisoners would work twelve-hour shifts and were assigned additional chores at the base camp. They were kept in a constant state of exhaustion; many succumbed to tuberculosis and lesser diseases, their immunity systems - and will to live - stripped bare. Many scores would later die of leukaemia and other forms of cancer from exposure to the uranium.

Today, Mr Zahradka gives tours of the Museum of the Third Resistance, in the southern Bohemian town of Pribram. It lies just a few kilometres from Vojna - which was declared a national heritage site in 2001 and just this summer was opened as a memorial, after years of lobbying by Mr Zahradka and his compatriots in the Union of Political Prisoners. Of the eighteen forced labour camps Vojna was the best preserved - having served as a Ministry of Defence storage facility in the seventies and eighties.

"Watch your head."

A bunker at the camp was purposely built with a ceiling too low for the average man to stand upright. Mr Zahradka recalls how one year on May Day --a holiday celebrated by the Communists in honour of work-- the camp authorities put the most disruptive prisoners inside it to keep them quite during the parades. There is some graffiti marking the event, scratched out in chalk.

"Much around the bunker has been destroyed, but the inside is preserved as well as the door --the Barrandov film studios borrowed this very door when they needed some interior shots."

Perhaps the most famous person to do time in the bunker was Vladimir Valenta, best known abroad for his portrayal of the Station Master named Max in director Jiri Menzel's 1966 Oscar-winning adaptation of the Bohumil Hrabal novel 'Closely Watched Trains'. Valenta, who had run afoul of both the Nazi and Communist regimes, spent seven years in prison and labour camps, four of them working the uranium mines In 1953, he spent 27 days crouching here in the cold darkness.

Frantisek Zahradka never spent time in the Vojna bunker, or to the windowless cells directly below the camp offices of the StB, the much-feared secret police. He was always careful to fill his quota in the uranium mines 100 percent - and he has the documents to prove that he was criticised for not doing more. But after Mr Zahradka's mother launched a successful appeal to the Czechoslovak president who replaced Klement Gottwald to have his sentence commuted, he was thrown into the 'correction' centre on fabricated charges, so as to blot his record and kill his chances for an even earlier release.

"My mother managed to convince President [Antonin] Zapotocky to commute my sentence to thirteen years imprisonment, and then there was the possibility I could have been released in half that time on good behaviour. I was in the 'correction' centre for ten days before I heard the charges - that I had stolen a box of ammunition. It was freezing cold, the cells were unheated, and we were dressed only in thin pyjamas. I spent another twenty days this way in solitary confinement after promising to fight the charges. Every three days I got a warm meal, otherwise just a bit of bread and water."

While the former Nazi concentration camps were preserved in the West as memorials to honour it victims, on the other side of the Berlin Wall, little changed but the uniforms worn by the guards and the inmates, says Mr Zahradka.

"Arbeit Macht Frei - Praci k svobode - it was exactly the same slogan above the gates of Nazi concentration camps."

In the early 1950s, above the entrance to the Vojna camp was written "Praci k svobode" - a direct translation of the infamous slogan "Work Sets You Free." In fact, the first inmates at Vojna were German prisoners of war, transferred from the uranium mines around Jachymov.

By the summer of 1951, however, the inmates were almost exclusively Czech and Slovak "enemies of the state," most of whom had been transferred from the State Penitentiary in Bory, outside of Plzen. Only those ethnic Germans who considered themselves Czechoslovak dissenters remained. The Vojna camp was in use until 1961, when the uranium ore in the surrounding hills had been extracted.

Frantisek Zahradka was there nearly for the duration. There was a general amnesty in May 1960, but he was transferred to another camp and not released until September 1962. His mother died before she got to see him set free, as did his father months later.

The regime then only allowed Mr Zahradka to work in manual labour - ironically, he stayed on in the mines as an electrician; he is listed in the Czech Who is Who as an inventor, having patented two electronic monitoring devices during that time. Mr Zahradka worked well into his sixties, as the nine years he spent doing forced labour were not counted towards his pension.

Like other former political prisoners, Mr Zahradka got a one-time payment from the post-Communist government of 50 crowns - less than 2 US dollars -- for each month he served. Today, he is the unpaid curator of Pribram's Museum of the Third Resistance, and one of the most light-hearted and optimistic men one could ever hope to meet.

"I worked underground until my retirement. I had my share of injuries - just look at my hands [his gnarled fingers attest to the fact] - but I am terribly happy that I never injured my head."