My Surreal Vienna

“That’s what happens to exiles; they are scattered to the four winds and then find it extremely difficult to get back together again.”
Isabel Allende

On July 7, 1980, I became the enemy of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and was sentenced to life imprisonment. On July 8, a part of my parents died. On Radio Free Europe they listened to my obituary, five years after their daughter Aga had died. It turned their world inside out. My parents believed I was dead for over forty hours. They were the longest hours in my Mamka’s life. When my cousin Tibo eventually informed them, that according to the latest reports on Radio Free Europe, I was alive, Mamka just cried.

On July 8, I stood before the mirror as if I were another person from the one I had been the previous morning. I experienced a rude awakening from the outside world, a dark liquid world. My first thought was, “What if I’m dead, but don’t know it?” Where did the nagging voices come from, prompting me with thoughts like ‘If only I had …’ and its evil twin, ‘How am I ever going to … ?’

So this was supposed to be my happy morning. I began this new chapter in my life by referring to myself in the third person, not ‘I’ but ‘he’. Closing my eyes revealed a strange darkness and a chilling sense of emptiness. My eyes and ears questioned everything. I wanted to drain every river in the world. I wanted to drain every drop of my perishable dream. The distant past was present in every moment, and the future had already occurred. Coincidences, errors, accidents, and feelings no longer existed.

‘Dear God, help me’, I prayed. That was the first time in adulthood that I acknowledged a need to pray. Once the hazy veil of tears was lifted from my eyes, there was no reason to doubt any longer that I would not see Ondrej and Milan the next day. Words of comfort came from strangers, instilling the false hope that I would see them again. My freedom was not granted from heaven. Yet, there was no reason why I could not experience the same sensation my grandfather had, sixty years ago, when he had visited Vienna.

The only satisfaction I observed in the mirror was that the iron curtains of Communism had turned out to be more flimsy than they had appeared.

A cloud gradually blocked out the sun. The world lost its light and meaning. A hole was within me, and I could not make sense of anything anymore, not even of the last communist coin left in my trousers√ɬ≠ pocket. The sound and air felt like a great machine crushing my subconscious mind. I had no proof that I was who I was. No papers. No face. No mind. My head was only filled with a remnant echo of doubt. I stood near the window and talked to my nonexistent self, a self, hungry for information about the outside world. I became a tale of two persons, there was √ɬ´I√ɬ≠ and there was √ɬ´He√ɬ≠. I noted how quickly emotions changed with each question I was asked. ‘Where is Ondrej?’ ‘Am I free?’ ‘Where is Milan?’ I could not answer. A stone in my throat blocked all words.

As I leaned against the cold metal door of my cell and recalled the helpless shrug of the Austrian guardís shoulders, I mumbled to myself how terrifying this new life of freedom was going to be. I drank in my new insecurities and revelations while the tingles of anxiety grew to a tearing sensation in my stomach.

You cannot help thinking of Shakespeare’s tragedies when you stand across a mirror staring at a third person, who looks just like you, a person, who was without doubt the unhappiest soul in the world. He was a gloomy, ravaged character, who could only think he was but putty in someone else’s hands.

I had gone to bed, only to toss and turn. I slept in alternate waves of nervousness and exhaustion. I was sowing the seeds of uncertainty that would rule the rest of my life. I had no idea then or any day after that, what the next morning would bring. A sense of permanent uncertainty settled that night deep inside me, and doubt buzzed loud and clear. I was scared to just think or close my eyes and even more scared to try and open them again. My escape was like a text with several possible meanings, some contradicting others. I could easily make up a convincing story of myself as a victim who had suffered failure and loss, or I could frame a story of myself as a success, having gained freedom and choice.

The inexpressible smell of the Morava River, like an unseen phantom, lingered around my nose. Guilt can be insidious and it suppresses the capacity for clear thinking. But I was exhausted by moral complexity. I was plagued by repetitive thoughts and fantasies about the drowning of Ondrej and Milan. I couldn’t get them out of my mind. These thoughts filled my mind even when I was awake. They were in my dreams when I slept. The thoughts of Ondrej and Milan were insatiable. Whether they were in my dreams or whether they were real, I just felt that I had failed. It was my failure that prevented me from accepting what had happened.

While I was planning revenge against Gustav Husak [1], everyone around me only knew about another Gustav: Gustav Klimt, the father of fourteen illegitimate children who, like me, feared the voices in his head. The dark furniture of my mind was all rotten. I drifted in what Milan Kundera termed ‘the unbearable lightness of being.’ I needed a Kundera now to describe my life’s twisted deviations, or better yet, a Vaclav Havel perhaps. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or how to search for meaning again in this existential vacuum. Words failed me as I had failed. Memories failed me too. I wished that I had my Tato [2] to tell me what to do.
‘Tell me, Tato, what is the best move in the Austrian world?’ Any answer would have been insufficient to address the situation I was in.

Inside the Austrian police station a photograph of Rudolf Kirchschlager, an Austrian politician, hung on one of the walls near the large reception desk. Feeling lost and forlorn, while sitting on the cold bench of the police station, I recalled learning at school that there was no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one’s native land. It was a saying that belonged to many centuries before, but it captured my feelings at this very moment, and many times afterwards.

It was the dawn of July 8, 1980. In one of the small cells located in the hallway across from the reception desk, I sat with Bessieís head resting on my trusted lap. I clung to the familiarity of her form, her smell; she was my only connection with home. I felt nauseated and haunted. It was as if my greatest and deepest fears had caught up with me. The Morava River had tried to drown me yesterday. That was hard to even comprehend.

I suffered from a peculiar sense of distorted time. I felt rage for events not even belonging to my lifetime and that had led me to this dark and threatening cell. The Slovakian communists had manipulated Slovaks, like Hitler had manipulated his people and the French and British. I missed my comfortable chair, my own bed, the familiar mark on the ceiling, and my own bathroom. I sat still the entire time while my thoughts whirled around at lightning speed.

I remembered emerging from the river and feeling joy when I realized that I had made it. Then a gripping numbness arose, when I realized that I could not see Ondrej and Milan.
The most vivid recurring image in my nightmare is watching Ondrej and Milan drowning. I try to reach them with my hands. Then the unidentified officer in a Nazi uniform throws me into the river too. Despite repeated efforts, I too am drowning. I slip deeper and deeper into the Morava River. Every morning after such nightmares, I awake sweaty and in a mood as dark as a mad man’s depression. Our escape was timed to be symbolic in its reverence for the day that Charter 77 [3] was signed. It was meant to say to the world, √ɬ´hey look at us! This is what young people live like in Czechoslovakia√ɬ≠.

Not only had I lost two friends in the water of Morava River. My old sense of humor had drowned forever too. But my communist reflexes had stayed the same. ‘You don’t have to whisper,’ people kept reminding me.

If a country can cry, it cries in its escapes. The escape was mine, but the cries were my Mamka.

‘Why? Why did you leave us? Aga left us at twenty-two and now you too,’ she told me on the telephone. Those words took every breath away from me.
Aga, who had so tragically died young from leukemia, had no hope in the Slovak system. The hospitals and medical supplies were inadequate to help her and so quickly she slipped out of my life, with no time to fight. Maybe she would have died similarly in another part of the world, maybe medical care might not have been able to do anything for her in Austria. However, the fact remains that no one could help her in her dying hours. There was also the suspicious nature of the onset of her leukemia. If Aga hadn’t been working at that plant, would she still have suffered a similar fate? In my youth, I blamed it all on Communism, the uncaring system that was supposed to be a caring one. I still feel disbelief that it truly happened, and that insatiable sense of loss.

I would not be at the center of Mamka’s world any longer. Escape is a journey of trespass, not a real escape. I knew then that ahead of me would be a lifetime of dealing with that moment of crossing the Morava River. Getting past the physical border had been easy. Getting past the border that separated me from my family was the hardest part of my journey. I almost went mad listening to the ‘if onlys.√ɬ≠

The world would move from summer to winter but I had no other expectation than to drift through the icebergs of my tortured interior. Time had frozen and I was unsure how to get the watch to tick with meaning again. I was unsure why keeping correct facial expressions was beyond my abilities. How many times in my life have my parents forgiven me already? Surely, more than seventy times seven!

As a child, Mamka always left the lights on for me when I went to bed. Now, I was afraid in darkness once more, but Mamka was not here with me, and I did not know where the switch was if there was any.

I held other memories of the communist putsch time. Most vivid were of my Auntie Otta, who daringly escaped across the marshlands of Sudetenland. Then there were the land confiscations, when my grandfather lost everything he had owned. Not that he was the only person who lost everything. Everyone had to ‘make do’, living each day as it comes and never knowing where the next meal was going to come from or whether it would be their last.

Imagine a book, an encyclopedia that holds the information you need to conduct all aspects of your life. A book that instructs you on your health, your business, the food you eat and even your future. History is predestined to repeat itself. Humans don’t seem to learn. Through my escape, I was running away from it all, escaping it all.

I spent fourteen hours on the polished wooden floors of the unfamiliar Austrian police station. All those hours I was cut off from the world, lying in a darkened room in a cocoon of loneliness. I could hear the border guards and policemen and knew that I faced more uncertainty ahead.

I could not really think. I could only feel. Everything seemed surreal. I knew that he was a lucky bastard. As July 8, unfolded in front of me in slow motion, I experienced how slamming the mirror with a bare fist feels. I, with some embarrassment, can still trace my first encounter in Austria with blood. I still remember the blood dripping from my hand on the broken mirror of defeat in victory. All the hopes that had underlain the heroism of the escape had suddenly been punctured, partly by their fulfillment and partly by my newly gained loneliness. Courage is seven-tenths context. What is courageous in one setting can be foolhardy in another and even cowardly in yet a third setting.

I looked into the shattered mirror and saw my eyes were bloodshot. My head was heavy, my face unshaven. My darkened eyes felt like tinted windows – I could see out, but no one could see back in. I turned quickly away from the pull of my tinted eyes in the mirror. I swallowed the strange sensation of looking at a man in tinted glasses, poking a wounded dog with a stick. Bessie was engrossed in licking clean my right hand, licking the salty taste of my tears intermixed with the sweet streams of dried blood. Her eyes eagerly looked at me, maybe to console me, maybe in the hope that I was going to take her out for a walk. It was summer and that was what we always did in summer. Bessie needed no solace. My escape to freedom had been nothing but a long stroll out in the field to her. Maybe she expected me to take her out again even further this time, or maybe she felt it was time to go home again. But my brain was still fogged with chilling images of me wrestling with masses of water. ‘Oh, God did I do that?’ √ɬ´Did I do the right thing?√ɬ≠ My eyes were stone cold. They had aged beyond their years.

When at last I brought myself to look out of the small window, I was at first surprised. The village outside resembled an elegant album of nostalgic snapshots: Austrian workers in comfortable shoes with bags in their hands; a cluster of stately, pastel homes on the hillside. Beyond them lay the motionless Czechoslovak border. In the distance was the mysterious Devin Castle, at the confluence of the Danube and Morava River, where Slovak and Austrian citizens in 1948, separated by the infamous Iron Curtain, gathered to wave to family and friends on opposite sides of the border.

The sun mirrored the freshly starched and pressed pastures in the windowpanes. The grass fields rose behind the Morava River. I whispered good-bye in my heart. Although there were some gaps in my memory, I did not require a map to tell me where the splendid Austrian countryside ended and the Slovakian concrete slums began. I focused my gaze on the concrete barbed wire fences – a line that was drawn on our map in Kezmarok several hours ago.

An Austrian guard opened the door to my cell and took me along the hallway. After I had signed fourteen pages of documents at the police station, I was led out through a curious crowd to an unmarked vehicle. Its driver gazed down at Bessie, and congratulated her for being the first and only dog ever granted political asylum. Within seconds, the car was speeding across the Austrian landscape, past ridges of black soil and sea-like waves of trees as we made the journey to Vienna. In daylight the inevitable suspicion of being rootless was even made more obvious. I was not in Vrbov anymore.

I was passing through new towns, heading to a new capital. Austria seemed much more from the next century than present day. Anything I was used to seeing before was now conspicuous by its absence. I was urged to compare everything with my familiar world: the seats in the car were almost as soft as Tato’s leather chair; the color of the interior was like the color of Babka’s cat, a light gray; the voice of the driver sounded like he needed to clear the phlegm in his throat, a routine practice in Slovakia; Hans the policeman looked like Ferko Hrebenar, my neighbor in Vrbov; the road was about the width of Vrbov’s cinema screen.

I had been amazed by many things in my life when I saw them for the first time: the Russian tanks invading Czechoslovakia in 1968, a naturist beach in East Germany, a disco in Krakow. But none had made such an impact on me as Austrian highways did. The first thing I noticed was the make of the cars. Mercedes, Volkswagens and BMWs glided swiftly along the well paved roads. Then, I noticed the clean streets, the neatly kept gardens and the shiny store windows with their abundant assortments of coffees and cakes. I saw mothers smiling at their toddlers.

Then we arrived in Vienna, a city long held dear in my heart for its supposed beauty. I had imagined I would arrive in different circumstances, but then, youth tends to be romantic in so many ways. Despite my fatigue however, I could still sense the magic of Vienna brimming with promises. I stared at some of the writing on the huge advertising boards. I hoped that they would resolve into something I could understand. The capitalist guerrilla attacks of color and effusion of energy, echoing from a Coca Cola poster. I promiscuously scanned the ground floors of buildings, glued with other posters of girls in suggestive poses. Images of attractively shaped breasts promoting handbags excited me. Call me impressionable, but I thought nothing could beat the magnificent colors on those posters. I saw one beautiful face on a poster, then another and another, and I tried to find words that matched the sudden sensation, but none were lovely enough. Before April 7, 1980, some parts of the world could not be mentioned. We lived in a flat world of Communism. But now, despite my misery, I could hardly believe I was here.

To dream of Vienna is an old Slovak tradition. Slovaks, having been locked up for decades in a country full of suspicious glances, developed an image of Vienna as the golden symbol of freedom. Only Slovaks like Andy Warhol could make high art with nothing but a can of soup or a toilet seat. Since I had been a child, I had heard about Vienna, which now emerged before me from those incomprehensible stories and the magic power of the Slovak imagination.

The difference between Czechoslovakia’s sham economy and Austria’s market economy was startling. I was struck by the change. How was it possible that Vienna – a city that at the beginning of this bloody century had more Czechs and Slovaks than any other city except for Prague and Bratislava – was surrounded by so much beauty? By such a spine warming aura? The contrast with the Czechoslovakian landscape was too stark.

I remember a growing tension as we headed for the city center. I passed endless groups of friends, dressed in many different styles and colors, relaxing their souls and tanning their smiling faces, outside dozens of solid stone cafes. Every cafe made a particular artistic statement. There were no grim-faced party apparatchiks, no soldiers on point duty with rifles at the ready, and no regulated state businesses. So many newspapers. Banks, so huge. The scenery along the avenues was majestic, particularly the sections above the cafes, where the charm of the past was projected by the massive balconies of the Ringstrasse. Ever since I was a kid, I had always wanted to have a coffee in Vienna in this famous semicircle of avenues. In me, the Ringstrasse had a fascinated audience. I kept thinking, Rambacher, my amusing neighbor, was right: Vienna was richer than any totalitarian God. Here I was, the first Imrich since 1948 to set his eyes on the Ringstrasse, the largest open-air cafe in the world. I was already getting used to something that my generation had never experienced: freedom.

For my maternal grandparents, citizens of the multicultural world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna was where their parents had bought the few precious pieces of furniture they owned from well-known cabinetmakers. The Imperial Vienna my parents treasured had been made up of inherited tales woven into the mythology of memory. Everything was supposed to be better here. However, my first images were ostentatiously colored, while I pined for the company of Milan and Ondrej to share this new experience that we had long dreamed about together.

Vienna was only a short journey from the border with Czechoslovakia. In summer, dead flat Vienna wore golden colors and blue skies, the Danube River a metallic-green, the masses of rooftops, a velvet orange. The trams reminded me of Prague, as so many other things did. Like the girls, who glided remotely and vacant-eyed along the avenues, stopping only to examine their own reflections of beauty in the windows of shops.

Given my emotional tidal wave of the moment, I was not ready to face any more questions inside Traiskirchen, the Viennese refugee camp. The walls of the camp hid the worst kept secret: that the countries of eastern block idyll were the worst places on God’s earth to live. Degenerated Communism was the source of a human flood toward the detention centers in the free West.

Traiskirchen was the Austrian headquarters for the interrogation of hundreds of defectors from the East. The courtyard was full of ill-dressed refugees casting glances in our direction. Some spoke to the uniformed men as we walked through the jigsaw puzzle of bodies. Because of the bright sunlight and my blurred eyes, every face appeared in a haze.

I wondered if my feet would continue to work. I felt like walking in several different directions. I heard myself telling others what had happened without being aware of what words I was using, although ‘Morava’ seemed to keep on being repeated.

Whatever the cause, it was clear that all East European refugees had one thing in common. The willingness to risk everything, for one thing: freedom. It was here that I placed my story on record, even moving my translator to tears. This surprised me, given the number of political refugees there were at this time. The ruthless orphans of the Cold War, the graduates of the schools of Marxism were born into a society that had no soul, and that knew no joy.

A mean wind and flood swelled the number of asylum applications in 1980. In Austria it reached a peak of thirty five thousand. I was but one among the many thousands and the sense of anonymity haunted me. An officer talked with me for barely fifteen minutes, but who would care about my fate, about me? My future was addressed within the context of merciless economics, never-ending racial prejudices by the officers and inescapable language difficulties. If most of the refugees were broke, I was destitute. A few had come by car and some by train. Some had walked and one had swum.

I now was another statistic, added to the many thousands of other numbers, one more escapee from the repression of Czechoslovakian life. For most of the twentieth century, the view of Czechoslovakia that Czechs and Slovaks knew best was looking back from a train or a car heading for somewhere else.

What is a detention center? It is a thin skin between you and the doubts. Doubt is omnipresent. It is present in the sunrise; it is in the toilet; it is in the metal beds sighing to the slivers of the moon in the window. Future does not yet exist, but memory and the making of the past fills the air. Here we talk about the temperature of the soup, but we mean the coldness of the soul. The emotional trauma of leaving home is compounded by Spartan conditions and prison-style regime, where new authorities, oblivious to your fate, dictate your movements.

Our sleeping arrangements in the camp were on par with my Nitra army experience. Privacy was non-existent. Through paper walls I heard the Hungarian couple having sex on one side, the Polish family of five constantly arguing with other on the other side. I resigned myself, with Bessie, to sharing a tiny room with two other Czech and Moravian boys, Milan and Peter. Our room was exactly six paces by seven, with three beds, a palm-sized white window, a single wardrobe, one chair and no sink. As a result, we shared the bathroom with twenty other occupants of similarly tiny rooms. I existed nervously, never knowing what would happen the next day.

There were thousands in a similar predicament: families, young babies, all desperate for a new existence. It is heart wrenching to leave one’s family and home. However, it is desperation that drives one on to other lands. I was not alone, just alone in the seclusion of my doubts, doubts that prompted thoughts like:’How am I ever going to … ?’

1. Gust·v Hus·k (1913-1991), long-term Communist leader of Czechoslovakia and of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s. His rule is known as the period of Normalization.
2. Tato = father
3. Charter 77, In January 1977, 230 prominent Czech intellectuals signed and published a manifesto announcing the formation of Charter 77, a “loose, informal and open association of people” committed to human rights. Signatories included the playwrights Vaclav Havel and Pavel Kohout. The manifesto was published in various Western newspapers on January 6. Czech authorities arrested several of the signatories the next day, denounced them and began cracking down on dissident activities. Jozef Imrich uses 7 July (7-7) as a symbolical reference.

April 11th, 2004 by