Prague Prison and the Communist Legacy
by Richard S. Ehrlich
PRAGUE, Czech Republic In this prison's grim maze of communist-era, secret police interrogation, torture, and jail cells, Big Brother locked up Vaclav Havel and other dissidents for opposing the regime.
Even now, while living in these cells for one week as a paying guest, this eerie, thick-walled unit exudes the ambiance of a vicious, subterranean trap.
These downstairs cells are linked by a zig-zagging corridor, which is lit by bleak lights and enlivened by a low, weirdly pink ceiling, and fat, pink water pipes.
Inmates and guards satirically dubbed this extensive basement, "Prague's Pink Prison."
Black metal, double bunk-beds still sleep four people in each cell, while offering a pessimistic view through barred windows, just above ground level.
The windows allow inmates to see a cement-covered inner courtyard surrounded by protective walls.
Today, this former secret police jail is a hostel for travelers.
Instead of screams from torture victims, occasional laughter ricochets along the hall's linoleum floor, though an entrance sign demands "night silence" from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Across the street stands Prague's big police headquarters, still decorated with Russian-style, neo-realist, redstone facades featuring workers, scientists, peasants and others toiling in Marxist glory along perches high on the outer wall.
The huge police headquarters continues to function.
On one recent morning, a fat woman was brought in handcuffs by police from the headquarters' holding cells, and scrunched into a white security vehicle which bore the big blue letters: "POLICIE".
But on this side of Bartolomejska Street, the former communist secret police jail only allows people who pay about 30 US dollars a night depending on the season to live in its renovated cells, now known as the Unitas Pension.
Popular with backpackers, the ex-jail provides an ideal base near the National Theater to wander Prague's hypnotic, cobblestoned streets.
President Havel knows the occasional jail time he spent slammed in here forms his badge of honor against the hated, toppled communists.
Politically-minded guests now make reservations to sleep behind the heavy metal door of Havel's infamous former cell, known simply as "P-6."
P-6 is virtually identical to the other cells, complete with an evil, thick, plate-metal door that seals this room shut.
All of the former jail's freshly white-washed cells now offer spotless, basic modernity, including wall-to-wall carpet, bright lighting, a mirror, shelves and curtains.
Toilets and hot showers are down the hall. Some cells, such as P-6, include a sink.
An all-you-can-eat breakfast, and the bustle of backpackers, makes living here vaguely reminiscent of a typical European youth hostel.
An Internet-linked front desk, a Coca-Cola machine, tourist brochures and pricier hotel rooms created from secret police offices upstairs elevate the former prison's otherwise somber mood.
The communists ran the jail for 40 years.
Some interior walls were apparently too damaged to be repaired. Those areas are modestly covered with white pegboard.
Visions of Jesus
Before the cops and prisoners, visions of Jesus blossomed here.
The complex was originally built in 1731 as the Church of St. Bartholomew, part of the Jesuits' religious institutions.
In 1772, it fell into the hands of the Third Order of the Gray Sisters of St. Francis as their convent.
The end of World War Two changed all that.
When the so-called Iron Curtain fell on Eastern Europe, Prague's nuns were ousted by the atheistic communists.
According to a Unitas document, "The congregation of the Gray Sisters occupied the premises of the maternal convent up to 1949, when unlawfully forced out by the communist regime.
"The convent, with the church of St. Bartholomew, was utilized by the Internal Affairs Department for the purposes of interrogation, torture and imprisonment facilities, as well as offices of the secret police."
The document added, "The House of Prayers turned into a House of Horror. "As a result of the events launched by November 17, 1989 that impeached the communist rule, after a 40-year gap, the estate of the Gray Sisters was returned to the Order" in 1990.
"At first, only convent buildings, except for the church of St. Bartholomew, were returned in an utterly disastrous condition. In the course of 1991 to 1994, general reconstruction work was launched with the support of the Unitas company.
"Two buildings of the complex became hotels after the reconstruction the Cloister Inn on one side, and the Unitas Pension situated next to the church of St. Bartholomew.
"There are preserved cells in the basement of the Pension where also the Czech President Vaclav Havel was once imprisoned in the so-called 'Pink Prison'," the document said.
"The Convent, together with the chapel, was re-dedicated and the Gray Sisters returned to Prague.
"The church of St. Bartholomew, used as a warehouse by the communists, was returned to the congregation of the Gray Sisters recently, in 1995, also in a ruinous condition.
"A step-by-step restoration plan has been launched. First the roofing and the facade have been repaired. Because the small tower was destroyed completely, a new one has been built in its place, where we are placing this commemorative document."
Traces of Terror
Though the communists are gone, the terror of their reign still traumatizes Czech society.
In 1998, a Prague court sentenced former Secret Police Supervisor Ladislav Macha to five years in prison, even though he was, by then, 75 years old.
The judge said Macha "belonged to those members of the STB (communist secret police) for whom the goals of this organization were more important than the rights of citizens."
Macha was only the second secret police official jailed for politically persecuting Czechs. Other cases are under investigation.
The death toll from communism is also still being tallied.
"The numbers are not final yet, but 208 people were executed, more than 350 were killed at borders when trying to leave the country, and more than 2,000 died in prisons," said Tomas Hornof, spokesman of the Office of Documentation of Investigation of the Crimes of Communism, known as the UDV.
Despite the communists' extensive human rights violations, officials say prosecutions are slowed by a lack of evidence, few surviving witnesses, and Prague's current court system which is often run by communist-installed judges.
Archived secret police documents are also riddled with lies, investigators said.
The secret police slotted fake, incriminating statements into their own STB files, and also manipulated, rewrote and distorted other "evidence," either by accident, or to destroy reputations.
Daniel Kumermann, a journalist for Pravo newspaper, wrote, "Now many of those who originally wanted the files, to find out which of their friends were 'watching' them, are having second thoughts.
"Why destroy friendships just because some plainclothes pig wanted a special bonus for his extracurricular activities years ago?"
More than 800 Catholic priests and ministers, plus Prague's former chief rabbi, allegedly collaborated with the secret police, making the clergy the biggest group of informers in Czechoslovakia, according to a study published in 1997.
Teachers, health workers, university graduates, scientists, journalists, managers at government-owned companies, and others also became informants, the study added.
Most were aged between 30 and 40, collaborated for an average of 4.5 years, and were not communist party members.
Prague's Interior Ministry which oversees police activity arranged for the study by sociologist Vaclav Hradecky, who drew on archived STB computer files which officials discovered after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
According to fragments of STB lists, which only covered a period of five years, a total of 20,686 people collaborated with the STB.
Catholic church officials pointed to the repressive nature of the totalitarian regime which paid the clergy's salaries and issued priests permits to perform religious rites.
"Not all Catholic clergy were prepared to go do manual work," Miloslav Fiala, spokesman for the Catholic Czech Bishops' Conference, was quoted as saying after the study was published.
Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, reportedly claimed Prague's former chief rabbi, and several other people on the list, had limited involvement with police.
The rabbi was ironically uncovered only after he became a candidate for parliament, according to Czech news reports. Later, he apparently moved to Israel.
Pavel Bret, a deputy of the Committee for the Investigation of Communist Crimes, said, "Many innocent people were given the choice of death, or being an informer. These are human tragedies."
Sylva Danickova, an editor at the Academy of Sciences, experienced "the biggest shock of my life" when she read in the newspaper that her name was on the STB's list of informants.
"I was ashamed to be seen on the streets. I thought everyone would be staring at me," Danickova said.
She insisted police had interrogated and physically abused her, and banned her from working as a historian and journalist in the 1970s and 1980s, so she had no idea why they code-named her as Agent Siva.
Famous Prague photographer Antonin Novy despaired after seeing his name on a published STB list.
"The whole experience left me depressed for months," he said. "I was living like a zombie."
Novy gained widespread respect for smuggling photographs to Western news agencies of the 1968 Russian invasion, which crushed a brief "Prague Spring" liberalization.
He said secret police interrogated him in 1972 about foreign correspondents, and his other international sources.
"The psychological pressure was very intense," he said later.
Novy reportedly signed a so-called proclamation of loyalty, which confirmed allegiance to the communist regime, and pledged he would inform about subversive political acts or statements made by other people. Novy said he reneged on the agreement when the STB later telephoned him demanding information.
The communists, meanwhile, also jailed thousands of common criminals, in addition to political dissidents such as Havel, who was an outspoken playwright before becoming president.
In 1990, Havel released 13,800 prisoners convicted of various crimes a whopping two-thirds of the total prison population because they were jailed by unreliable communist courts.
According to the Criminology Institute, about 60 percent of them later returned to prison after committing fresh crimes.
Richard S. Ehrlich has a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, and is the co-author of the classic book of epistolary history, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews.
from The Laissez Faire City Times