My Seven Lives. Jana Juráňová in Conversation with Agneša Kalinová, published in Slovakia in 2012 by the feminist publishing house ASPEKT is the memoir of the journalist and film critic Agneša Kalinová, who was born in Prešov, Czechoslovakia, in 1924 and died in Munich in September 2014. The English translation by her daughter Julia Sherwood with Peter Sherwood will be published in October 2021 by Purdue University Press.
In this excerpt Agneša Kalinová describes the moment in 1971 when she and her husband Laco (the satirist Ján Ladislav Kalina) discovered that their flat in Bratislava was bugged. This was part of the harassment the couple were subjected to in the aftermath of the August 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. They were both expelled from the communist party and forced out of their respective jobs as journalist and university teacher.
My car was hauled off from the street outside our building several times within a short space of time. If I left it just for a moment in some slightly questionable spot, as soon as I started walking away, the police would swoop in and haul the car away or at least make me pay a fine, even though in those days parking restrictions in Bratislava were barely observed. It took me a while to figure out that I was being followed by Štátna bezpečnosť (ŠtB), the secret police, and that it was them who summoned the haulage service just for fun, to spite me, whenever an opportunity arose.
But I guess it went beyond parking problems?
It sure did. In the spring of 1970, we returned from the cottage on a Sunday evening and found our apartment all upside down. We’d been burgled and it was terrible. Lots of stuff was stolen. I had been paid for my last translation in cash and kept the money at home. The cash was stolen and so was some gold—the few bits of jewelry I had left from my mother, which had been hidden in Prešov during the war, in Mrs. Štrasser’s son’s prosthetic leg. The drawers in the living room had been pulled out, bits of paper, letters, and photos lay scattered all over the floor. It was awful, our own apartment felt disgusting, it was horrible to think that some stranger had been rummaging through our stuff, touching everything. Laco discovered that nothing was missing from his study, as if they hadn’t even gone in. We called the police right away and they filed a report.
Sometime later I was summoned to the police and shown some rings. They asked—ostensibly as part of the investigation of the burglary—if I had any enemies. I thought it was a ridiculous question and said that the film director Paľo Bielik wasn’t a great fan of mine but I didn’t think that he would stoop to robbing our apartment. The culprits were never found, of course. We kept wondering if it wasn’t in fact the ŠtB that had broken into our place. What if it was a house search camouflaged as a burglary? But then we decided that the police wouldn’t have stolen money and jewelry. Then, a year later, we found a bug in our apartment. And we thought right away that it had been installed during that burglary.
How did you discover the device?
We had this beautiful old art nouveau lamp in the basement. Laco’s mother brought it over from Prešov after the war. At the time Laco thought it was too old-fashioned but now we remembered it and decided to hang it in the hallway of our apartment on the fifth floor. [Our friend, the philosopher] Teo Münz, who doubled as our family handyman, agreed to fit it for us. When he was done, we sat drinking coffee in Laco’s study—a good contractor deserves refreshments!—chatting about the lamp. Suddenly the bell rang. Laco went to the front door, looked out of the small window in the door, and left without a word.
I should mention that after we returned from our week-long exile [in August 1968], we became very friendly with Miro and Anička Šmidke, a couple who lived in our block in an identical apartment on the second floor. Lieutenant colonel Miro Šmidke was the son of Karol Šmidke, a prewar communist functionary and the first chairman of the Slovak parliament, the National Council, who died under mysterious circumstances at the time of the Slánský trial. And Julka was friends with their two sons, great fans of Western rock music.
So Teo and I sat drinking coffee and chatting away until Laco returned. He was visibly upset. He came with Vlado Šmidke, the older of the two sons, and they started talking on the phone. It turned out that Vlado had recently gotten a new radio from his grandmother Valéria Šmidke, “the national widow” as we called her. He’d brought in a friend, a radio engineer, to retune the radio to western FM frequencies so that he could listen to Austrian music stations. And as they were playing around with the radio, they suddenly tuned into a conversation. At first they thought it was some boring radio play, something weird about lamps, but then Anička Šmidke, Vlado’s mother, exclaimed—“Why, that’s no radio play, that’s Ági talking, I recognize her voice!” Apparently, the engineer had tuned into the bug in our apartment. So Vlado ran up to the fifth floor, rang the bell, and gestured to Laco to follow him. Laco went downstairs and listened in to my conversation with Teo.
When the two of them came back to our apartment we all started looking for the device: it was like the child’s game “getting warmer, colder, hotter . . .” Teo joined in, too. We kept walking up and down the room talking while the engineer, who stayed downstairs in the Šmidkes’ apartment, told us over the phone when the sound got louder or fainter, until we figured out that the sound was loudest somewhere behind Laco’s writing desk. That’s as far as we got that night.
The next day Laco stayed home alone and started to explore the floorboards in the corner behind his desk. He discovered some deep grooves behind the molding. He grabbed a pencil and stuck it down the groove—it went in almost halfway. Then he asked Miro Šmidke to give him a hand. Miro was out of work, having been sacked from the army for supporting Dubček in 1968. The two of them took up the molding and then lifted some floorboards. Underneath they found deep holes that had been dug in the concrete and in the hollow lay this Bakelite device about the size of a man’s palm, and four long cables. This horrible little black thing just sat there, with four dirty-white snakes crawling out of it. When I got home, they showed me what they’d found. Miro got his camera and took pictures of the thing. Our friend, the painter Imro Weiner-Kráľ, had a photographic studio at home, and we asked him to develop the film and make some prints for us.
Then we just sat there wondering what to do, where to put that thing. Eventually we concluded that if we got rid of it, they would just put it back, they would crawl in again and install another bug. This way at least we knew where it was, so we just put it back and would make sure we didn’t discuss anything of importance in this room, and that was that.
Was there anything at all you could have done in such a situation?
Well, we could have dumped the thing in the Danube, of course, but we decided not to. But it meant that we had to live with the constant sense that there was someone lying under our beds eavesdropping on all our conversations. It was—literally—bugging us, and we found the situation more and more sickening. Our TV was in Laco’s study, we had two comfortable armchairs there, a round coffee table, and some chairs. When we had visitors, we would often sit there and watch the news on Austrian television, but now I had to shepherd everyone out of this room: “Don’t go in there, let’s go sit in the living room.” We felt we were betraying our friends’ trust—they came to see us feeling they could speak their minds and had no idea that the secret service was eavesdropping. And since the bug was in Laco’s study, the only room that hadn’t been messed up during the burglary, we had no doubts anymore: the burglary had been just a diversion.
Eventually Laco decided to write a letter of complaint to Husák, who was then general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Prague. He was going to deliver it in person to Slovakia’s Minister of Justice Pavol Király, whom he knew from his student days in Prague. Then we remembered there was an inventory number on the black Bakelite box, so Laco thought it would be a good idea to write it down and include it in the letter to Husák. That meant unscrewing the molding again and taking up the floorboards.
The next day I came home from work. It was the anniversary of the February communist takeover and there was the sound of Russian on the radio: the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova’s speech in Wenceslas Square in Prague. I should have mentioned that, as soon as we discovered the bug, Laco went and bought a new radio, placed it right there in the corner above the bug and left it on full blast all day long. I remember as if it was yesterday that Tereshkova was speaking on the radio while the four of us were taking up the floor. But this time there was nothing there. The grooves in the concrete were empty. Only two or three weeks had passed since we discovered the bug. During that time we hadn’t been away at all. We’ve never understood when and how they managed to get in, as Laco had been home most of the time. This came as a real shock. We had long suspected that we might be bugged. When we found the bug, it was a nasty surprise, but this was even more of a shock. I started to scream: “That thing was my property and they’ve stolen it!” I was truly enraged because of the sense of powerlessness, as I realized they really could do to whatever they liked to us, that they were able to come and go in our apartment as they pleased, plant something, and take it away again.
By Jana Juráňová and Agneša Kalinová
Translated by Julia Sherwood with Peter Sherwood
MY SEVEN LIVES. JANA JURÁÑOVÁ IN CONVERSATION WITH AGNEŠA KALINOVÁ
translated by Julia Sherwood with Peter Sherwood
Published Purdue University Press (October 2021)
The publication has been supported by SLOLIA (Slovak Literature Abroad) and a grant from the Slovak Arts Council (Fond na podporu umenia).
Jana Juráňová cofounded the feminist educational and publication project ASPEKT, where she is still a coordinator and editor. She has translated over twenty books from English, including Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, and Trauma and Recovery by Judith L. Herman. She is a playwright and author of both children’s books and literary fiction. Her novel Naničhodnica (The Woman of No Worth) was published in 2020. She has been nominated three times for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary award, Anasoft Litera. For My Seven Lives both authors were awarded the Egon Erwin Kisch prize in Prague. In 2018 Jana Juráňová received a state prize for her literary activities and the promotion of human rights and democracy from the president of the Slovak Republic.
Agneša Kalinová (1924–2014) was a journalist and translator. Born into a Jewish family in Prešov in eastern Slovakia, she lost most of her extended family in the Holocaust while she survived by hiding in a convent in Budapest. After the war she embarked on a career as journalist and film critic, serving for many years as an editor with the cultural and political weekly Kultúrny život. As supporters of the Prague Spring, both she and her husband lost their jobs following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia and were imprisoned in 1972. She later emigrated with her husband and daughter to West Germany, where she became a political commentator for Radio Free Europe. She died in Munich a few weeks after her ninetieth birthday.
Julia and Peter Sherwood are based in London and work as freelance translators from and into a number of Central and East European languages. Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia, and is the daughter of Agneša Kalinová. She spent more than twenty years in the NGO sector in London before turning to freelance translation. Peter Sherwood was an academic for over forty years, teaching mostly Hungarian at the University of London and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before retiring from teaching in 2014. He continues to do research and to translate.