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- Back issues of the Heights student newspaper from 1919 to 2010, courtesy of University Libraries (pg. 6)
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‘Cela’ (the cell)
Escape from a Communist prison
In 1952, while a student in high school, 18-year-old Rudolf Dobiáš was imprisoned by Czechoslovakia’s communist regime on charges of acting against the state. In a country known to have some of the most brutal prisons in Eastern Europe, he was sent to the worst of them, the Jáchymov labor camp, to work in its uranium mine. Dobiáš was released in 1960, and he went on to become a writer of children’s books and radio plays. In 2000 he published Bells and Graves: Stories from the Shadows, a book about his eight years as a prisoner. The account that follows—of his “longest winter,” 1953–54, which he spent in solitary confinement—first appeared, in Slovak, in that volume. This translation is from Harold B. Segel’s 2012 book, The Walls Behind the Curtain: East European Prison Literature, 1945–1990.
The cell is the space between the door and the window. I can almost fill it with my entire body. The way from the door to the window is the shortest and at the same time the longest distance that I am allowed to cross several times a day. According to my reckoning, a man in a cell walks 60 kilometers every 16 hours. The floor of the cell is plain and cold, you don’t stumble on it, and you can’t lose your way on it. But sometimes I have the feeling that I’m running downhill or, on the contrary, that I’m climbing up.
Sometimes it seems to me that I’ve reached the end of my strength. You have to understand that I’m unable to sit down and besides I have nowhere to sit. A bed, a small table, and a board for sitting are made to clap up, and so the first concern of the guards after wakeup is, as they say, to make them unusable. But what if I’d like to have a nap after a heavy night’s interrogation? Then the proven method of detention would lose its significance.
And so it remains only for me to walk. In the beginning it was a walk with my head raised since sleep had refreshed me a little, and breakfast, consisting of a piece of bread and half a canteen of camp coffee, strengthened me. But as noon approaches, my strength wanes and my gaze concentrates on my feet and on the floor. I check my soles hidden in black boots and my ankles to see if they’re swollen.
I don’t have anyone to complain to, anyone to advise me. I’m alone. In the morning I’m finally able to see my own shadow on the cement floor. For a long time this has been my sole companion, and it’s not excluded that at this moment I wouldn’t find another in the entire world. But I don’t look him in the face. It’s then I realize that I haven’t seen myself in a mirror in a long time. If someone put one in front of me now, perhaps I wouldn’t be able to recognize myself. And if someone were then to order me to “Spit in the face of that individual, that creature!” maybe I’d obey him and spit at my image, my forgotten shape.
Despite the deadly fatigue, which often grips me during this involuntary walk, I look forward to another, also anticipated feeling: suddenly, as if something invisible is broken, an intolerably taut cord, I feel a strange relief, a lightness. Not only have I rid myself of the burden that weighted me down, but I have succeeded in freeing myself of earth’s gravity, in lifting off from the earth and rising above it.
Perhaps it is the feeling that a person experiences at the moment of death. You live although you’ve actually died. Or, on the contrary: you’re dead but you actually live. Everything depends on the order of words or perhaps on the number of kilometers you’ve covered, on the intensity of light in the barred window with invisible glass. And one day it will even decrease the intensity of the sun’s light. It’s not that it got dark outside, or that fog hung over a landscape that you can’t see. The ringing of a tramway is similarly penetrating, given its metallic base, but it is unbearably provoking in its meanings. My movement in the cell is the flitting of Einstein’s fly of relativity in a train. But this tram is carrying people, who are going in some direction with someone or to someone; they get out at a stop and continue on their way by foot, or transfer to another tram that—ringing—announces its arrival even from afar.
These agonizing sounds and similarly painful images compel me to ponder the reasons why the light coming from outside is suddenly somehow different, whiter, as if there were millions of neon bulbs and milky bulbs turned on outside and that flap in the cold air like butterflies. No, no way can they be butterflies, or May bugs, since it’s the end of December, and not long ago I celebrated Christmas in my soul, I, Lazarus, whom Jesus freed from the grave. So what’s going on outside?
It’s snowing! Snow falls, snowflakes stick to the glass plate, reinforced by wire netting, unbreakable and opaque, and maybe they are attempting to peep inside in order to find out what kind of an individual is staring at a blind window. They’d be surprised if they saw how that screw brought me here. He took me from the interrogator with a blindfold on my eyes so he could see half of my face, and when he removed the blindfold from my eyes and saw that I am a very young lad, he shook his head at me for about twenty seconds and finally noted, surprised: “So young and already such a swine!”
So what if it’s over! In the meantime we’ve already gotten used to one another, it’s important that snow is falling outside, that snowflakes have flown down to dance for me before the window, and I can suddenly see them very close and I know that they are not snowflakes but angels, the sky is full of their wings.
And now no one in the world can prevent me from joining them, this silent squadron that instead of coming down to earth climbs upward, and at that moment I become an angel.
Farewell, Mr. Interrogator!
Harold B. Segel is professor emeritus of Slavic and comparative literature at Columbia University. His translation is reprinted by permission (copyright © 2012 by University of Pittsburgh Press).