My books in English:
oks in English:
The Fools' Pilgrimage
The Kabbalah: a timeless philosophy of life
( & The Robber / translated from the
Czech, edited and introduced
The war had ended...
... and we, the four of us, were on our way to homeland. Together with many soldiers and their families being repatriated, we too flew to Prague on a plane, which was a Dakota bomber converted to people mover. To England my parents arrived on a boat with the dog Lenka, back home they went on a plane, with me and a cat Kai-Kai. The cat caused problems to Mother. During the flight she had her in a wicker basket with a lid that was tied up with a rope. The moment the aircraft motors had started, the cat panicked in a big way and tried to get out of the basket. She even managed to stick her head through the gap between the lid and the rim of the basket, and Mother had to push her back, and by stroking her constantly tried calm her down. It was a struggle all the way to Prague, but in the end she managed to pacify the poor creature. She was destined to live a relatively long and fruitful life ─ Mother estimated that she had brought about 120 kittens into this world. She was with us until 1953, when she died about 12 years old, As she was a relatively rare breed, Russian blue, she became a part of the collection of the National Museum, where she still was in 1969, when I went to say goodbye to her prior to leaving the country. Maybe she is still there, though I doubt it; stuffed animals don't last forever.
Mother with Kai-Kai
The last kitten Kai-Kai had was not so long before she died, and it was only one. We kept the tabby Tom, who became my faithful companion throughout my childhood. He died under a car when I was in the Army.
After the return to homeland, we lived in Zbraslav, where Father was born and where his oldest sister, aunt Jiřina still lived, while Father was looking for a suitable accommodation. From that time I have my second vivid memory. I sit on the front steps leading to the house, which were not in use, because the back entrance was being used. I sit and I have soiled my trousers. I'm scared of going home and having to confess.
I Played With the Future World Leader!
For a time we lived in Prague, where Father worked at the Foreign Ministry. In the years 1947-48 however we were with him in Belgrade, where he was the trade attaché at the embassy. We stayed there for about a year, and as a four to five-year-old I was beginning to retain some of the memories. One is about playing in a group of several children, all presumably sons and daughters of the embassy workers. The undisputed leader of the group was a girl, somewhat older than the rest of us, and certainly the tallest. She might have been about ten years old, while I at five or so would have been probably the youngest in the group.
Only nearly half a century later, when my Mother was already dead a year or two, President Clinton named the new American Secretary of the State. When I was able to read her biography, did I realise who was the girl from the Belgrade embassy, several years older than I, who had ruled over the group of us children while we played in the embassy grounds. Of course that she was entitled to it, and for several reasons: her age, the fact that her father was the Czechoslovak Ambassador, and most likely, some in-born leading and diplomatic abilities. These have developed further, in the personality of Madeleine Albright, when in the 1990's she became the most powerful woman on this planet. After the change of the regime in Prague, when in 1948 the Communists took over, her father decided to take his family to the USA, where she grew up, and eventually gained her married name under which she became known all over the world.
For a time we have been accommodated in a hotel in the centre of Belgrade, it was a plush one, that I remember, with the main dining room having a marble columns and sunken middle floor. I also remember running about and playing there with a boy of about my age, while being always followed by a couple of minders of a sort. Later I was told that the boy was supposed to be a crown prince, but I don't remember of what ─ apparently soon after the war there were claimants around of all kinds of thrones, the Serbian, the Yugoslav, the Croatian, and probably more. It could have been the last, named prince Amedeo, later also the Duke of Savoy, who was born in the same year as I, as my searches tell me. Was it yet another rub of the shoulders for me, with the famous?
In my searches, also I have found out one more thing. When I was born in Pitt Street, Kensington, the said Madeleine Albright, little Marie Korbelova as she was named then, had lived only a couple of streets away. Obviously, more Czechs have found Kensington and the surrounds to their liking, and even nowadays the embassy of the Czech Republic is to be found in the same area. Still, I can catch a a bat squeak of synchronicity (to parody Evelyn Waugh) here, and I wonder, if there is to be yet another chance for me to meet with this remarkable woman. I doubt that, somehow.
The House in Hanspaulka
My dad had rented the house in Šárecká no. 55. He probably got it at quite advantageous conditions, for the reasons I had discovered only recently. An article of mine was published in the supplement of Lidové Noviny, the Czech daily that goes back into the late 19th century, where I presently have a column. In it I mentioned our former adobe in relation to the current place of operation of the now retired president Václav Klaus, which is a former hunting lodge built in the 17th century by a certain Hans Paul, after whom the suburb is now known as Hanspaulka. It's only a few houses away. A letter came to me from a reader, who was interested in the history of the house. I translate here the relevant part:
I am interested in the history of the house # 55/923 in Prague 6, where you have lived. I would like to get some information about the factory owner who had hanged himself in the house. If you could help me in any way... etc.
Well, the house that I used to love as a child, where I used to play innocent games, and dream my childhood dreams, had suddenly undergone a transformation. It has become a place where some industrialist, down on his luck, had decided to end his life, and in the most ghastly way! Suddenly it became obvious how could Father afford to rent this place, in one of the most affluent quarters of Prague. He certainly was not poor, but being able to get such a good address, and so soon after arriving from London, and on his salary as a clerk at the Ministry, which couldn't have been too high at the time, always made me wonder. Now I had the answer: The house with its reputation, which could have lasted years, was probably hard to rent out. I'm pretty sure now that Father knew about the house's history. Did he tell Mother? Probably not. My guess is that she would have hinted something in the later years, after we had left the house, if she knew. He probably kept her ignorant, just as he did in case of the war missions and even some of the secrets that he had held later, of which I'm now pretty sure. Which had most likely cost him his life, but we'll get to that later. As it happened, I wrote back to the reader of my article a somewhat ironically toned letter, in which I basically thanked him for muddying the memories of my innocent childhood and the house where it happened, and telling him that I cannot help him in any way. I didn't expect to hear from him again, but he wrote back:
(...) About the factory owner I found out when I was buying the house on behalf of my employer. The unfortunate incident occurred in the light well above the stairs to the second floor. Otherwise, the house is now full of positive energy, the energy of the unfortunate industrialist is no longer there. There were a number of tenants in the meantime, now my boss has had the house renovated and has been living there happily for several years (...)
I wrote back to him that at the beginning of the 1950's the negative zone was still there and that it was strong. Suddenly I had the explanation for something that puzzled me for many years. Together with the neighbouring kid Vašek Vojtěch we have climbed onto the attic and stood next to the light well. The bottom of the well was made of glass to let the light through, and the cup that I was wearing suddenly flew off my head and fell into the bottom of the well, onto the glass. I had persuaded my companion to climb down to retrieve my cup. The glass was not strong enough and as he also had put his foot in the wrong place, where it was the weakest, it cracked and his foot and part of his lower leg went through it. He was trapped there, screaming, with blood streaming down his leg, while I was running down to get some help. Vašek was eventually rescued by a neighbour I found, taken away in an ambulance and made to stay in hospital for a day or two. Inevitably, I was blamed for instigating the whole thing. The truth is that I was not keen on going down to retrieve the cup, because something told me not to. My friend was quite happy to step in, though. But, could it have been in the first place the ghost of the hanged man that had caused my hat to fell into the well? From the perspective of what I have learnt since, it looks suspiciously like a number of poltergeist-like incidents that I have read about!
Even now I could hear Vašek's screaming, see his bloodied leg hopelessly hanging through the remaining glass, as I was running downstairs to raise the alarm. After the e-mail I received from that reader, I can now also see the body of the man who committed suicide in the same spot, slowly turning at the end of the rope, tight up to one of the rafters, and sending shivers down my spine. Because this is how it must have happened; the place was a perfect one for someone wanting to have his body discovered soon after the event, indeed it would have been unmissable. What still puzzles me is: why has this man contacted me at all, when, according to his own words, his employer had been living happily in the house?
All this, though much of it explains some of the mysteries to me, was not known to me at the time I lived in the house, up till the age of about ten. The house was a big one, there were many rooms, there was a kitchen, a maid's room, a garage and the boiler room in the basement, the ground floor held two large rooms with bay windows, a sizeable hall with ornamental wood casting, with the bent staircase leading to the first floor, where there were another four rooms, yet another staircase, the one below the infamous light well, leading to a landing and four or five more rooms, perhaps originally meant to be guest rooms, and above it the already mentioned attic. A big house. People who lived there with us have constantly been changing. Father grew up in a large family and presumably was used to being surrounded by people. Strangely, hardly anyaround us would have been relatives, except one from Mother side, who lived there while studying at the university. There were a couple of other students that stayed in the rooms in the second floor. For a time, even the already mentioned French Consul Sorlot with his wife stayed there ─ Father obviously was repaying some favours done to him while the Consul had some business in Prague. I remember their parot name Jacco, a large grey bird that occupied the hand railing on the top floor. It had learnt my name a yelled at me whenever I was near. But it's beak look too threatening to me to come really close to him... Nada, the sister of the woman who was burned and whose son Mother had nursed, lived there for a time; she was an excellent card reader by reputation ─ I never had the chance to try her out, though she had later predicted my Mother that late in life I will gain some reputation as an artist.
My half sister Lada stayed for a time too, but soon she moved to the Slovak capitol Bratislava, where she was accepted by the medical school. I was to meet with her again, and get to know her at least a little bit, only many years later. There were other people, coming and going. I remember one young man, he might have been one of the students. It must have been either 1949 or 50 ─ incidentally, do you remember how the opinions differed about when the 21. century actually began? The same confusion must have been present even then, hence the uncertainty. In any case, the young man with a straight face was telling me that on the New year eve he had booked a seat at the Prague main observation tower, to see how the century was being broken in half! Though he was vividly describing to me what loud sound would accompany the even, to my credit I didn't believe him. Not much, anyway.
I mustn't forget about the garden. Once it must have even held a swimming pool of sorts, which by then was partially filled in with soil and rotten leaves. I could imagine that in his times of prosperity, the unfortunate industrialist had it kept sparkling clean, and full of giggling girls drinking champaine during the wild parties being held there, though now this amenity was not of any use to me. For having a proper pool, and also the climate to match, I had to wait till I got to Australia. Meanwhile, there were other things to do. Even today one could tell from the satellite picture I reproduce here that the garden is full of trees. I can still detect a little opening, we used to call it a glade; adjoining it was a small wood, as we called it, really a scrub pine, where one could hang on the branches, hide in the space underneath it, simply fantastic! There were many trees that a kid like me could climb on and some that I couldn't manage. Though, behold! One day, a girl from our class, I even remember her name, Lída Líkařová, came to play with us. A pretty blond little girl. She looked around, picked up one of those by me as yet unconquered trees, stuffed her skirt into the underpants, and climbed up the tree like a monkey! The English word "tomboy" was as yet unknown to me, but there it was. Small wonder I still remember her name, she is hard to forget!
Between Prague and Berlin (1949-50)
In my first year of regular schooling I had not been sitting very often at the school desk. By then, Father was named the Consul General in Berlin, where he now spent most of his time. To be able to have his family around, Mother made an agreement with the school that she would teach me at home. She was given some outline, but it had proved to be quite easy, because I had already learnt to read by myself, some two years earlier. Maths was very basic, so it was mainly the writing we had to practice, which I was not so good at. But I had been improving rapidly even in this area. In addition to the "three r's" I was getting quite a good run in the German language, because I was spending much of the time with our maid, Frau Keller who, of course, could not understand a word in Czech. So I was forced to speak to her in German, it seems. I don't remember much of this, but I don't remember having any difficulties in communicating with her, so I must have been doing fine. Much of what I had learned in those days I had forgotten in the years to come, though.
The Consulate was in the quarter of town known as Pankow, in its main road. Above its offices on the first couple of floors, there was the flat that belonged to us, which had taken up the whole floor of the house. Our family of three thus had to its disposal eight or nine rooms, I canůt remember exactly how many. I remember though that it was a lot of space, through which I was running, like a six year old child would. In my youthful exuberance, full of unspent energy, I would run from one end of the flat to the other, through a number of doors that I had opened. I only tended to avoid the very last room that some of Father's predecessors in the office had decorated with furniture resembling the Rococo era and with the awful looking, mostly pinkish, colours, which terrify me even now. From time to time I was taken to some places where I could play with other children, but not very often. But Mostly I was on my own though, and running in the flat, except when I was ill ─ at some stage I went through a rather heavy bout of flu, which had lead to a relatively minor case of pneumonia.
In the evening it was often Frau Keller who was taking me to bed, as Mother was busy either entertaining some guests, or making visits with Father; all this a part of the diplomatic post that he held. I remember one occasion when the Consulate itself was holding a reception to mark some Czech National holiday or other. Mother later told me that we had been entertaining some three hundred guests on the evening, and it's easy to believe, because the firm impression I have in my mind is that all the rooms in that large flat, with all the doors open, were full of people, some standing, others sitting. There were waiters carrying trays with delicacies and drinks, there were tables full of exotic food, unavailable to a mere mortals in those days, less than five years after the end of war, when in our homeland as well as in Germany pretty much everything was still rashioned. But we were the privileged ones!
The place must have been full of representatives of various states. At the time Berlin was already divided into four zones, but the infamous wall was still a good decade in future. I was the only child present, and I was left to roam the rooms pretty much as i liked, most guests finding it refreshing having me around, I guess. Or maybe not, who knows... In any case, as I was running about, sneaking between the legs of so many people, when suddenly a pair of firm hands grabbed me and lifted me high in the air. From a distance a mere few centimetres I was looking at a hideously unsightly nose resembling those the circus clowns wear, only this one was for real! It was red, with a number of small repugnant little hole, as was a part of the face. I had begun to cry. From somewhere, my Mother had appeared, quickly took me out of the arms and apologised to the black wizard, who was laughing. Later I found that the not so handsome man was the president of the German Democratic Republic, Wilhelm Pieck (left). The clown-like nose, the result no doubt of many vodka-drinking sessions with the Russian advisors, is quite visible on the picture, which must have been retouched to satisfy the censure that no doubt ruled at the time.
How did Father do as the main representative of Czechoslovakia in East Germany at the time, I can't tell. Later however, this seniority was passed onto the newly named Ambassador Otto Fischl, who a couple of years later became one of the victims of the regime, having been trialled and together with ten others sentenced to die on the gallows, in the process with the so called traitors that Stalin had ordered. The odds are that Father would have been convicted by the same or a similar trial, had he lived long enough. Meanwhile, he a we with him, were enjoying the privileges that his diplomatic post had offered. Often we used to drive to the Krakow Lake, about 200 km to north-east from Berlin. The diplomatic mission had a summer house or a kind of recreational facility there. I remember the caretaker's name was Bohl, and that he had a daughter named Anabel. Father hired one of the smaller lakes in the area, where he went fishing for carps and pikes. Once he took me with him, but we were not too successful on the day. He was also shooting wild pigs, mostly with various guests, apparently in one season he had killed thirteen of the creatures. This is the side of him that I don't very well understand and don't like much at all. But at the same time i understand that one had to run with the wolves, that this was the way of life in the diplomatic circles in these parts of Europe. And naturally, in Russia, where the hunting of bears for instance is popular even now. He must have been dealing with various Russian diplomats and more or less concealed secret agents on a daily bases! But I was far to young to understand what might have been going on behind the official scenery, and Mother was only told the essential things, of that I'm certain.
I have a vivid memory of one folk celebration of something or other, taking place on grassy meadow near the lake. There were various competitions for kids, in running, climbing up the pole, jumping in sacks, etc. I have even now in front of my inner eye the picture of a rather dirty boy in tatty clothes, who had won one of the competitions. The winners were awarded a largish round brown cakes, with a bit of jam in the middle. To me, a spoiled child, they did not look appealing at all. But it was a manna to the boy, who could not let his eyes off it, and when he was finally given his price he devoured it in a matter of seconds. He was either very hungry, or in the post-war Germany it was a particular delicacy. Perhaps both.
Father's Sudden Death (6th Aug 1950)
Sometimes we went a far as Warnemünde, a port in the North Sea. Father had bought a black BMW, a top model, with it he employed a proper chauffeur, Herr Exner, who wore the proper uniform with the proper jackboots, and who generally behaved the way that the chauffeur of a man of substance should do. One day dad took us to Warnemünde, where we were to stay with mum for a week or so, in a hotel on the shore. Two days later however, Herr Exner came suddenly alone with the car, to take us back to Berlin. On the way, crying most of the time, mum had told me that dad had died. I was about seven and a half, I did not understand much, until I saw dad laying dead on bed, he looked like he was made of wax. Frau Keller told mum that she brought him some hot drink into bed at about midnight, that he thanked her, smiled on her, but suddenly his head fell to the side and he was dead. A stroke, perhaps? Nevertheless, later she had told another story, about a couple of late night visitors he had, who had stayed for some time. Who were these people she did not know...
There was no official enquiry, there was no post mortem, a doctor simply declared that death was due to cardiovascular accident, or whatever the official medical speak is for it, and that was that. When some twenty years later I found myself in London, I had met some people who had known Father from the war times or even longer. One of them, who looked trustworthy to me, told me that he was certain that Father had been working for the British Secret Service. And that it had cost him his life. Knowing what I do now, I would agree. His chances of surviving, of course, were minimal, in Berlin at the time. It must have been a melting pot of all kinds of spies from both sides of the divided world of politics, most likely he would have been hat is generally called "double agent", and he might have become a liability to either side. I have no illusions about this, at this level all is grey, there are no "goodies" or "baddies". Those amongst the diplomats or politicians on the Communist side, who were on the western front, like Father was, did not have it easy at all. They might have been war heroes, like many of the pilots, yet they were lucky to escape prison when the Communists took over about three years after the war. Father probably would not have lasted long in the position he was in, maybe a year or two. The faith of his colleague Otto Fischl¨is an example of what might have happened to him. At best, he would have ended in the uranium mines, like many others, who were less exposed that he was.
Mother much later, when I could understand these things better, told me that she she tried desperately to talk Father into leaving Berlin and the Czechoslovakia altogether, like many others did, for instance his boss in Belgrade Josef Korbel, father of Madeleine Albright. Or Bohuslav Kratochvil, until 1949 the Czechoslovak Ambassador in United Kingdom, whom I was to get acquainted with later ─ which is another story. When she tried to convince him that we should all go to the West and ask for the political asylum, which Father could do at any time, in a moment of weakness he told her: "You know, I can't do that, yet!" He wouldn't tell her more, just that. She too was firmly convinced that the official line that Father died of a stroke was not right. At the moment of his death, as far as it could be determined time-wise, in the study of his best friend in Berlin, a doctor, a picture fell off the wall...
The state funeral of Dalibor Korejs in Berlin, on 9th August 1950
The Czechoslovak Government gave Father the State funeral. On the picture above, in a gathering of mostly men, and only a few women, all solemnly looking in the Berlin Crematorium, I am squeezed between Frau Keller and Mother behind a dark veil. My father's ashes we had brought with us to Prague, where they were later put into the family tomb in Zbraslav. In 1992 the urn with my mother's ashes was put next to it, which I had done myself. I noticed, that next to our tomb was a fairly new grave of Jaromír Vejvoda, the composer of the song Škoda lásky, that was made famous by all the western armies, and which many nations erroneously still regard as their own, and which under its English name "Roll Out the Barrels!" had followed the troops to the front during the war!
My Father's Book
It must be obvious to the reader that I did not have much chance of getting to know my father really well. His profession of a diplomat meant that he was not home or about very often. When he died, I was only seven years old. A few direct memories remain, and a fairly large number of photographs taken in various parts of the world, some documents, even one portrait ─ a largish drawing mase by Velen Fanderlik, known as a propagator of the Scout movement, who had lived the rest of his life in Canada. Well covered is the period of life of my father after he married my mother, about 12 years of his life, about a quarter of it. Of what went on before these two had met, Mother knew something, but hardly a great deal. Much of what I know is due to the remembrances of Father's youngest sister, aunt Jaroslava.
From her I knew that sometime in the 1930s, Father wrote a book, of which she only knew that it was supposed to be an autobiographical novel, with much of the plot centred on the period shortly after the 1st. WW, when he was an officer of the Czechoslovak Army stationed in the North/western Slovakia, near the border with Poland. This is an almost totally forgotten period in the European history. The German occupation had made impossible publishing of the book, and the events after the war, when both Czechoslovakia and Poland became members of the same pact, the Warsaw Agreement. By than it would have been unthinkable publishing a book about something, which amounted to a war between those two countries, caused by territorial disputes. Nowadays, only a handful of historians know about this episode, but at the time there was fighting, with casualties on both sides.
My aunt didn't know where the manuscript of the book might be, or if it still exists t all. She thought that Father might have even destroyed it, which seemed a reasonable assumption. To me it just became a family legend, with the mounting years moving farther and farther into the realm of fantasy. After all, Father might have started to write something and then abandoned it, just as many writers, including myself, sometimes do. Aunt Jaroslava was his great admirer; after all Father had of all the members of her family by far the greatest success in life, small wonder that she had put him onto a pedestal.
I have already lived in Brisbane, Australia, for several years, when the long lost manuscript had suddenly been found! Father's very good friend Julius Dolanský, professor of Slavic studies at the Prague University, had died. His widow, Jelena Holečková-Dolanská, the professor of operatic singing at the same university, who was also my private tutor, had found Father's manuscript amongst her deceased husband's documents. She had contacted my mother, who had collected the manuscript from her, and eventually managed to smuggle it to me here in Australia.
The book is an interesting document of the place and the time, written in a good but rather dated Czech. It would not say much to the present Czech reader, and there would be little point in trying to have it published. It told me, however, a great deal about my father, particularly the part of his life thus far unknown to me. He had met a young teacher in the Slovakian village near the post he was in charge with, a romance had blossomed, and the two had eventually married. They lived mostly in Prague, but Father had ran a business, exporting various articles, such as carpets and antiques, from the Balkan countries. I still don't know much of what he was up to in that decade or so, except that he must have eked some sort of a reasonable living, had one daughter born to him and his wife, and eventually seeing that marriage end in a disaster. It's unlikely that I would ever learn more, but why should I, anyway?
Back in Prague
After Father's death we had returned to the house in Šárecká. All had suddenly changed. Our life standard had dropped sharply. Not so long ago, the whole villa in the top Prague suburbs was ours to live in, as well as a huge flat in Berlin. Now we were left with only two rooms on the ground floor, which the Council that had taken over the ownership, allowed us to live in for the rent Mother could only just afford to pay. There was hardly anything left after Father, except some debts. He could make money fast, but he could spend it even faster. Mother hoped that she would be able to get at least something from the sale of the BMW, but the Customs had set the tax for importing it so high, that she was in the end lucky to get enough to pay them what she owed them.
There were hard times to come! Mother's widow pension was at the lowest possible category; once Father was gone she was of no use to the Government. The crab and smoked salmon meat had gone away somewhere and the same tidal wave had washed away the caviar. My staple diet was ray bread with second quality butter, topped with a few drops of Maggi sauce. I would have thrived on Vegemite, had I been living in Australia, where someone had invented this extract from yeast about a hundred years ago. Australian children love this black salty spread, and a child that had any is instantly recognisable, having the mouth and face painted. A well contented person in this country is therefore known as "happy little Vegemite". Australian, when going abroad, often take a supply of Vegemite with them, knowing that they would not be able to buy it. When we went after the change of regime to Prague, with our 5 year old son, we also had a glass of it. Apart from myself, Darius did not have to share it with anyone ─ the Czechs generally hated it!
I was happy, even without Vegemite. The garden that I loved to play in, was still there. So was the asphalt road in front of house, where we rode our push-bikes (Mother somehow managed to save enough to buy me one), which in those days, when traffic was near zero, was quite a safe activity. Unless you happen to fall and got some abrasions. On the black surface we had painted various works of art, mostly with the chalk-like stone the source of which I found in a valley nearby. These day we would surely be known as "graphiti artists". Mum was not happy at all. The Council had given the flat above us to a large family, and she was so used to being the lady of the house! I didn't mind at all. There were two boys of approximately my age, and I finally had someone to play with, which used to be quite a problem.