Soukupová Blanka

A memoir of extraordinarily high literary
quality by Žo Langerová (1912 Budapest–
1990 Uppsala, Sweden), born to
a well-off assimilated Hungarian Jewish
family and married in 1932 to Communist
intellectual Oskar Langer (1907–1966
Bratislava), can be read for many reasons
and in many ways. Thus, in Žo’s
fate are reflected all of the hopes, disappointments
and paradoxes of the stormy
20th century experienced in traditionally
nationalistically and politically exposed
Central Europe. Žo Langerová was emancipated,
educated, talented in sports and,
above all, an immensely politically naïve
girl from a middle-class Budapest family.
She became an enthusiastic pupil and,
later, also the wife of a young Slovak clerk
inclined toward the left. Along with him,
she experienced the atmosphere of multiethnic,
trilingual Bratislava in the mid-
1930s. She was not very conscious of her
Jewishness, and she took the numerus
clausus (restricted number) in interwar
Hungary to be just some sort of data. Her
Jewish identity came out only after World
War II from negative experiences: the
Shoah, political trials with anti-Semitic
sub-texts although, in 1938, she had
already become a Jewish refugee and had
had to start a new home and new work
in the United States of America. There
she changed as a mother, as the assistant
to the manager of a bookstore, and
as the main bread-winner in her family.
However, before that, she worked as
a door-to-door sales representative and
a waitress, while her linguistically untalented
husband turned to political activity
among the Slovak Communists. In 1946,
on an invitation from the Communist
Party of Slovakia, the family returned
home and Oskar made a career as a member
of the Central Committee of the Party.
Žo worked in a branch of an export firm,
where, for the first time, after the February
Revolution, she encountered the
absurdity of Socialist planning and the
all-mighty “personnel officer.” During
that period, Oskar was arrested (1951).
From a relatively privileged business representative
of the Ligna commercial society,
Žo and her two daughters became
unwanted persons practically overnight.
They were evacuated to a worse apartment
and Žo had to step in as a production
worker. Only later was she employed
as an editor and clerk. In November 1952,
after the news that her husband had been
convicted, she was let go at work. Destalinization,
during which her husband
was rehabilitated (he was freed in May
1960 and rehabilitated in 1962) brought
relatively better times to the family. Even
before Oskar’s return, the family, at that
time already extensive, bought a beautiful
apartment and later Žo obtained a practically
unobtainable automobile. Oskar and
other comrades, including those who had
his imprisonment on their consciences,
began to work on political change.
As I have already said, Žo Langerová’s
honest confession and perceptive observations
regarding the political situation,
interlarded humor and self-irony can be
read in may ways. A historian mainly
appreciates their painful attempts at
rehabilitation of her husband, repeated
meetings with Party officials, attempts at
intercession with an influential left-oriented
cousin –- the French actress Simone
Signoret – as well as portrayals of
conditions in Communist prison and the
mechanism of interrogations and confessions.
A political scientist will read
the book as a very precise analysis of the
mechanisms of power in a totalitarian
system. For a psychologist, paramount
will be Žo Langerová’s psyche as a lonely
woman who vacillates between unconditional
loyalty to an unjustly imprisoned
husband and the longing for happiness
at the side of a sensitive man who would
devote himself to his family and not to
Party work. Very absorbing will be the
description of her childhood with an
authoritative mother and a loving, but
passive father. Similarly interesting, of
course, will be Oskar’s psyche. A convinced
Communist never admits that the
foundation of the totalitarian system capsized;
he feels that the Party only made
certain errors. Using the example of her
older daughter, Žo also analyzed relatively
precisely the brainwashing of children’s
minds by the new regime. Also very
stimulating is her portrayal of the way of
thinking of the working class, which she
calls small-town mentality (p. 86).
In the pages of Urban People, however,
we mention the book for two main
reasons: it captures very well the atmosphere
of Bratislava from 1946 until
August 1968, when Žo, along with her
daughters, one of whom was a successful
singer, decided to emigrate after the
Soviet invasion. Postwar Bratislava is,
in Langerová’s memory, connected with
apartment shortages, insufficient food,
furniture, endless lines and a wave of dangerous
nationalization. In view of the fact
that Žo herself did not know enough Slovak
at that time, she completely felt like
a foreigner. After February 1948, a privileged
layer came into being in the city.
The Communist Party prepared Action B,
the regime’s eviction from Bratislava of
members of the opposition (1952-1953).
The displacement of Žo and her daughters
to a Hungarian village, however, preceded
her being let go from her job, the
necessity of buying on the black market
(only working people received food tickets),
and, finally, the fear that reigned
over Bratislava. In Tvrdošovce, the monetary
reform (1953) also caught her.
Another Langerová picture of Bratislava
caught the city in the mid-1950s, when
she returned to the Bratislava suburbs.
Bratislava offered the possibility of
employment (translations, typing and,
later, work as a clerk and editor). Žo also
painted well her new environment of continual
housing shortages, as many inhabitants
of the city gladly exchanged their
small apartments for spacious and heated
coffee houses. (The favorite retreat of Žo
and her younger daughter was the Savoy.)
First and foremost, however, was the
lessening of fear in society. The hopeful
period around the Prague Spring, which,
however, Žo, as a consequence of her
experiences in life, perceived with skepticism,
ended with the Soviet invasion.
After 1989, literature devoted to political
trials of the Communist era began to
accumulate. Works by K. Kaplan and P.
Paleček, O. Liška, and M. Pučil, memoirs
of H. Kovályová, A. G. London, J. Slánská
and others were published. Still, however,
Langerová’s memoirs are unique,
and their way to Slovak readers was indirect,
as the epilog shows: Žo Langerová,
a great fighter against a hostile fate created
by the regime, became capable of
making a very precise analysis of totalitarianism
in postwar Czechoslovakia.
Blanka Soukupová

Vydání: 10, 2008, 2