Letters bring to life prison experience of Alice Masaryk facing execution for treason during WWI

Photo: Anne Johnson

T.G. Masaryk’s daughter Alice was imprisoned in 1915 for treason, a charge that carried the death penalty. Her time in a grim jail in Vienna is the focus of Charlotte and Alice, a freshly published and highly illuminating collection of over 200 letters between her and her US-born mother, Charlotte Masaryk. The book is the work of Anne Johnson, an American editor and translator who lives in Brno. She explained its genesis when we spoke recently in the city.

Photo: Anne Johnson
“I have a friend. She lives in the United States and she’s very interested in Charlotte Masaryk.

“She got sick and I said, You’re in Montana, I’m here, what can I do to cheer you up or distract you?

“And she said, Find out something about Charlotte.

“So I went to the Masaryk Archives and said, Hi, what have you got?

“I expected that they would have shelves, or a book, or something.

“They had seven boxes and they hauled them up from the cellar and just sort of handed them to me.

“So I went through these boxes: her diaries, birthday cards that people had sent her and things like that.

“And in hunting through her things I found this collection of letters between her and her daughter Alice, when Alice had been in prison.

“This was already translated into Czech, but it hadn’t been translated into English.

“I thought, Well, that would be a good thing for me to do for my friend, to cheer her up.

“And so five years later it’s done [laughs].”

Why was Alice Masaryk in prison in 1915?

“She was in a cell with people who were being taken out and executed while she was there, for much lesser crimes than treason.”

“In 1915 World War I was still going on. Tomáš Masaryk, who would later become the president of Czechoslovakia, was living in exile with his younger daughter Olga.

“Charlotte and Alice and Herbert were in Prague, sort of holding down the fort while he tried to get a government going and get the Austro-Hungarian Empire out.

“Herbert died of typhoid in March 1915 and in October of 1915 they came to the house and said, We want all of Masaryk’s political papers.

“Alice and Charlotte said, We don’t have them.

“And they said, We think that you do, we think that you’re hiding them and we’re going to arrest you and try you for treason – which is the death penalty.

“They took Alice to prison in Vienna so Charlotte was left alone in Prague.”

Did they actually have the papers, do you know?

“She insisted until the end that she didn’t.

“But they seized a lot of her paperwork, including a lot of the artwork that her brother Herbert had left behind, which is still missing to this day.

Anne Johnson,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“So they may have seized something.”

Was there a serious danger that she could have been executed at that time?

“Yes, definitely.

“She was in a cell with people who were being taken out and executed while she was there, for much lesser crimes than treason.

“Charlotte was an American citizen. Alice had worked with Jane Addams in the US for some time and they had connections there with social workers.

“While she was in prison, news came out that this young, 36-year-old American woman – nothing but a do-gooder – was in prison, because they wanted to catch her father.

“A huge letter-writing campaign probably saved her life.”

She and her mother exchanged around 200 letters at this time. What does Alice say about the conditions in the prison in Vienna?

“It’s strange to me, because she got to have her own clothes and her own soap and her own perfume, even.

“Initially she was imprisoned in Prague, which was much more humane. She had pet fish in the cell with her.

“When she went to Vienna, she was rather in shock.

“There were lice, some of the prisoners had scabies. She was in a cell with prostitutes and common criminals as well as political prisoners.”

“There were lice, some of the prisoners had scabies. She was in a cell with prostitutes and common criminals as well as political prisoners.

“It must have been terrifying for someone like her, to have between five and 12 people in the room with her, when she was such an independent person.

“She got a 45-minute walk a day. Two of the highlights of the day that she reported were emptying the chamber pots.

“But, for example, she wore a red dress there, because she thought that the prison would be grey and drab and that a red dress would help her cheer up.”

Was she just left with the other prisoners, or was she in any way targeted by the guards for mistreatment, or anything like that?

“In the beginning she said that they treated her badly.

“But from the reports from her fellow prisoners, it was so obvious that she was not meant to be there.

“She taught English lessons and German lessons in the cell. She was just from a different world and I think they came to respect her.

Alice Masaryk | Photo: archive of Czech Radio
“But in the beginning I think they treated her a bit like a freak.”

What do the letters tell us about her mental state?

“In the very beginning she was a little bit saucy. Like wearing a red dress to cheer herself up and telling the guards that she would prefer a bed without lice in it, even though she loved animals.

“Slowly she went through a real mental break.

“The recognition that her father was not going to come and rescue her. That maybe nobody was. That she was really probably going to die in this dire circumstance – just like she had watched her brother before.

“She wasn’t well. She was taking bromide to help her sleep at night and even so wasn’t sleeping.

“She was like you expect somebody in prison to be – not psychically well.”

If she was in prison for eight or nine months and the correspondence was 200 letters, that’s a lot of writing. Did they have complete freedom to write to one another?

“Not at all.

“Every single letter – and this was one of the things that I thought was very moving – every letter has a stamp on it from the military attorney.

“They couldn’t talk about Tomáš Masaryk at all. They couldn’t talk about a lot of things.”

“So every single letter that they wrote was read.

“And although they had been communicating with each other in English from childhood, the letters had to be written in German. So for the most part they are.

“Each one has a stamp that says the letter has gone through a censor.

“Some of the letters have parts scratched out where you can see that the censor didn’t approve of something.

“For example, Alice asked her mother to send her a book by Jan Hus and that’s crossed out.

“That feeling of somebody constantly watching you pour out your soul… They couldn’t talk about Tomáš Masaryk at all. They couldn’t talk about a lot of things.”

What sense do we get of Alice’s and Charlotte’s relationship from the letters?

“Charlotte had originally been a highly-educated, New York, American woman in the sort of suffragette-feminist-pacifist movement.

“When her husband left, when the pressures started, when Herbert died, I think she cracked.

“Her heart was already weak and I think it just about broke her.

“She had already transferred the management of the estate to Alice, because she trusted Alice to do it well, and when they took Alice she had no-one.

Photo: Anne Johnson
“And she was under constant police surveillance.

“What seemed interesting to me in the letters is that through her time in prison Alice finally becomes an adult – outward, focused on people – and Charlotte sort of fades.

“By the time Alice got back Charlotte was never well again.”

Doesn’t Alice say in the letters that she wants to improve as a person when she gets out?

“She constantly wants to improve. In the beginning she’s thinking about just studying social work, so that when she gets out she’ll be better prepared.

“But what shifted for me, in the letters, is that she started actually helping the people in the cell and using the things that she learned about prison as soon as she got out to help prisoners elsewhere.

“It kind of removed her snobbery and removed her feeling that socially disadvantaged people were different.”

And she came from a real elite background, I guess, for those days?

“Yes, exactly. So I think she finally understood that it was a luck thing, and not an actual superiority.”

How did Alice eventually get out of prison in Vienna?

“It’s not really certain, because of course they’re not going to say that they bowed to pressure from the States, from a foreign government, although that’s probably true.

“There were volleys of letters going into Vienna and also the US Department of State, which probably had an opinion about a person with American heritage being executed for wanting democracy.

“First they commuted her sentence from a death sentence to 12 years and then they let her go.

“Through her time in prison Alice finally becomes an adult.”

“I don’t know how true this is, but they told her the shock would kill her mother if she just went directly home.

“So she went home and stayed nearby. They told Charlotte that she would be having company for dinner.

“And this is another thing. This is a family that had been extremely connected in Prague, within Prague literary and political circles, and suddenly nobody was going to visit her – maybe one or two people would come.

“She had no source of income.

“So just having a visit was exhausting for her. But they told her that somebody was coming for tomorrow and she should get ready.

“And she set the table and then it was Alice.”

During this time did Alice at all correspond with her father in the States?

“Gordon Skilling is a historian who wrote a book about Alice and Charlotte.

“In his book he says that Alice was preparing to correspond with her father, to ask him to tell them that she was innocent.

“Because I guess he hadn’t intervened at all, for whatever reason.

“And she was on the verge of doing that when she got set free.”

Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk | Photo: public domain
Tell us about the language aspect. These 200 letters are mostly in German, but also mixed with some Czech and English, is that right?

“Yes. You have a Czech wife – there are words that just don’t come to you automatically in Czech and there are words that don’t come automatically in English, right?

“You sort of have this… Last week I was in the lékárna.

“So there are words that they struggle over and they must put them in either English or Czech.

“A couple of times Charlotte just writes in Czech or just writes in English, even though she knows it’s going to slow the letters down.

“I think part of her illness was… maybe Alzheimer’s? But she felt herself losing Czech.”

How good was her Czech, do we know?

“Supposedly her Czech was excellent.

“She wrote articles for newspapers here. Of course, we can’t know how edited they were.

“My Czech isn’t perfect, but in looking at the things that she wrote in Czech I would say that they were good – certainly understandable.”

If most of the text was in German originally, who translated the German?

“I have a friend [Michael O’Rourke] who’s American and lives in Austria and has lived there for longer than I’ve been here [since 1994].

“We’ve worked on a lot of projects together and he’s super fun.

“He translated the German. He doesn’t speak Czech.

“These are handwritten letters and what he did was go through and write all the words that he knew and then if he came to a word he didn’t know he just drew a little line and then kept going.

“Then I got it and went through and filled in the words that I knew.

“Then because the letters had already been translated into Czech, Tereza Semotamová, who’s a German translator, went and compared our translation with the Czech translation and pointed out any places that it was inconsistent.

“And then Mick and I went back to the originals and tried to verify that our translation was correct.”

How can people acquire this book, if they’re interested?

“I self-published the book. I just couldn’t find a publisher who was as passionate about it as I was.

“It’s going to be available on Amazon at full price and through Lulu, which is how I published it, at 20 percent discount, which I think is 13 dollars.”