Czech Political Prisoners: Recovering Face is the title of a book of photographs and texts by Jana Kopelentová-Rehak, a Czech anthropologist based in the US city of Baltimore. When the Šumava-born academic was in Prague recently we discussed the political prisoners, or “mukls”, she met and how they were marked by their experience of brutal communist labour camps. But first we spoke a little about her own life, starting with a key encounter in the 1980s, when she was taken in by Charter 77 signatory Miloslava Holubová.
“Through friends, Milu Holubová offered me a room in her place. And I didn’t realise that it was more than renting a room. I basically became her adopted granddaughter, daughter, companion.
“It was probably the biggest school of my life. I learned a lot from her.
“She was very spiritual but she was also very worldly. She travelled to New York, France – she could travel at that point because she was so old that it wasn’t ‘dangerous’.”
Did you meet interesting people through her?
“It was very much intellectual as well. Milu’s apartment in Malá Strana was a centre of the intellectual underground.
“I had the opportunity to meet Zdeněk Rotrekl, a Czech poet, Radim Palouš, who was really my mentor at that time, and other important figures.
“In fact, Václav Havel was someone that I met through Milu and her circle.
“So again it was a kind of philosophical school for me, a university of my life.”
Moving forward a few years, I’ve often heard that émigrés who left this country and came back in the 1990s had a hard time – people tended to be critical of them. And I saw an interview with you in which you said that was one reason you left this country – that people were so negative toward these returning émigrés. Why did you do that?
“Right after the revolution I was accepted to FAMU, the film and television faculty, and it was a very exciting time.
“Many of the latter were interested in coming back, connecting, giving. The giving was quite wonderful, but I was shocked by how resistant the established faculty was, and how stubborn and critical.
“So in my own little profession I saw that it was going to take many, many years.
“I was at the point in my life where I felt I had no power to fight all this. I thought maybe I would go away and learn and get stronger and come back and then help.
“But I felt I was bullied and pushed to the side and really felt like I had no chance then.”
And you married an American guy called Rehak. Was he of Czech background?
“Frank Rehak. He had one grandfather who married an Irish woman, so it was a Czech-Irish marriage.
“The grandfather died very young so the family were brought up in an Irish Catholic tradition. But the name was Czech.”
Was that a kind of point of connection for you two?
“Well, he was in Prague many times before we met. He spoke Czech well and knew Czech history and literature. His connection to Czech was intellectual, not so much familial, but we just had a really good connection.”
On one of your visits back to Prague you met a group of political prisoners at a café and then produced a book called Czech Political Prisoners. What was it that drew you to that group?
“It was my first return to Prague, in 1995. I came and was walking on the streets and thinking about the way of recovering. I thought about my own recovery in the post-communist time.
“I had questions about how people were still in a way negotiating what happened, reconciling. I was very curious about reconciliation and was looking in the faces on the streets.
“But I had no idea and walked up to them and asked them who they were. I was thinking I might photograph them. I have always been driven to older people, maybe from my time with Milu Holubová.
“And when I approached them and asked who they were they said, We worked together in the uranium mines in the 1950s – sit down and we will tell you more.
“That’s how the whole project started. That summer I went every Sunday and spent from 9 to 12 with them and we talked about their experiences in Communist labour camps.
“But I also asked them if I could set up a studio in Louvre and photograph them, and I did.”
The book is subtitled Recovering Face. What was the aim of the book?
“As I said, I photographed them and my first aim was to give them back their visibility. I believe that the Communist regime tried to make them invisible. An invisible social condition was part of muklhood.
“So I thought of my photographs giving them back their visibility, giving them back their social face.
“That was the photographic aim. And then of course their stories, narratives, oral histories that I recorded were intended as a partner, a parallel to the photographs.”
You mention the word “muklhood”. In preparing for this interview, I heard the word “mukl” for the first time. What is, or was, a mukl?
“A mukl was a ‘muž určen k likvidaci’, a man intended to be liquidated. Mukl is the male, muklyně is the female.
“It’s a shortcut for a person who is intentionally selected to be liquidated.”
And what is muklhood? A kind of brotherhood of these victims of communism?
“Many men worked in uranium mines, coal mines, women in factories and prisons, in the fields, agriculture.
“They were people who were connected by the shared suffering and pain that they experienced during this time.
“They were constructed, they were part of political fiction, they were victims of political fiction.
“And this construction of muklhood created their sense of identity in this country.”
I understand that you went with them on trips back to some of these camps. Could you please describe that experience?
“These returns were very interesting. I decided that in order to describe or to be cohesive about muklhood that I needed to not just ask them questions and interview them but be with them.
“So in the period 2000 to 2005 I travelled with them to their memorial sites. They would visit Jáchymov, for example, Příbram, where disappeared uranium camps used to be.
“What surprised me about these returns was that while these were places of pain and suffering, they would often speak about them as like returning back home.
“In this moment I realised that there was not just suffering and pain.
“In order to really present muklhood in its fullness, I needed to talk about how they formed a family, how these places of horrible experiences after a long period of time became also places of home, and familial.
“From there I began to describe them as a social subgroup that had its own language, that included its own humour, for example, and incredibly strong camaraderie.”
How were they typically marked both physically and mentally by the experience of these camps, sometimes I presume for many years?
“Many of them have injuries, illnesses. Working closely with uranium was very dangerous and they had no protection. They would describe how they came out of the mine and they were covered. No gloves.
“Of course many of them, if they had illnesses during these years, there was not sufficient medical care.
“The process of recovery for them was not just these annual events at Jáchymov and various memorial sites. It was every morning – from the last night’s nightmares.”
I presume also they had seen a lot of their comrades die?
“That was really interesting. At the end of my book I write about this.
“In their old age they witnessed old friends dying. But if they were connected mutually and they maintained friendships they cared for each other.
“They care for each other with kindness and tenderness that you hardly see.
“I think in any society being old is often marked by solitude and loneliness. And it was something that I think they have as a part of the gift in their life – they lost their real family, they lost their professions, but they gained this friendship of other mukls.
“That was really critical and important in the end of life.
“I write, almost as a free narrative in the last chapter of the book, about a visit to the hospital in Motol, where I went with three mukls to visit a fourth, a friend who they knew was dying.
“We were in the car on the way to Motol and they started to sing the mukls’ hymn, which the one who was in the hospital had composed.
“One of them said I’m going to go in and tell him that the police are here and he got a death sentence.
“They laughed. Then when we got there they brought him out on a wheelchair and he took a sip of bourbon and inhaled a cigarette.
“His face opened up. He was in the midst of camaraderie. There was this incredible bond, and they would hold hands and hug.
“And I was thinking, I wish one day when I’m old I could have something like that.”
That’s quite a story. One final thing I’d like to ask you about – you say that sometimes in the Czech Republic people overvalue the archives of the StB secret police. Why do think that?
“One thing I learned from my research is that StB archives are really closely connected to narratives of death.
“In other words, when people were interrogated, when they were forced to sign either a blank paper or a paper with nonsense about what they did or didn’t do, it was political fiction.
“They were forced to sign under pressure of pain, under pressure of being tortured, beaten.
“Very often the interrogators could claim victory if they had a signature… or, even in the camps, spread false rumours about collaboration.
“I think the regime worked with this psychological moment and twist. And I think the archive is a place where political fiction is hidden. Even though the regime fell, this continues into the next generations.”
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