Eastern Bloc Torture April 17, 2013
At a funeral in Cedar Rapids Iowa held for the last of my Czech speaking relatives, I asked my father why no one ever talked about that side of our family. He admitted that when he was growing up he’d been curious, but whenever he asked he was curtly told “those people are dead, it’s not our concern.”
In fact, those people were not all dead. Certain elder relatives were still very much alive and occupying the family farm in Pisecna, an eastern Bohemian village not far from the mountains bordering Poland. A little snooping around on my part turned up a family scandal—bigamy, bastard children, a suicide undoubtedly causally connected—that could very well have explained the code of silence enforced in Iowa. What struck me while wandering through the village of centuries-old farm homes stretched along a narrow river in an emerald green valley was that for the last couple of generations, this parallel life had been lived here behind the so-called Iron Curtain. What world lay between Pisecna and Cedar Rapids? Why had some family members stayed and some left? What happened to those who stayed? How had their lives proceeded? I wanted to know and I did some investigation.
One thing that happened was the expropriation of farm produce, and finally the property itself. Well-to-do landowners were shipped off to prison camps if they were deemed likely to prove a bad influence. If they had protekce (pull, connections), they were allowed to stay on their property (as was the case in my family) but forced to work for the state cooperative. If they resisted, they went to prison, were tortured until they signed bogus confessions. If they lived, they returned home a branded subversive to be mistrusted by neighbors who’d been neighbors for countless generations.
What exactly did that mean, tortured? Below is an excerpt from my novel that includes a mix of what I was told anecdotally and what I learned doing research:
Around the time of Prague Spring, with so many human rights watch groups snooping around, the prisoners had to be kept looking unharmed for show trial so guards switched to using “clean” exhaustion tortures. These could tend to take a lot of time, requiring guards to keep going at the prisoner around the clock, but they didn’t cause visible damage. The prisoner would be kept awake in a near-freezing cell under bright lights for two days. On the third day—by then most prisoners would cry in terror at the least sound, the least stimulation—the prisoner was forced to do deep-knee bends or pushups until they fainted outright. The interrogators would then have the guards wake up the prisoner with ice water and start again. After one or at most two rounds of this, most prisoners signed whatever was put in front of them. For the more incorrigible cases, or for the more famous prisoners, such as Milada’s father, who could not be allowed to get off so “easily,” an especially ingenious torture awaited, a stress torture that no one could withstand indefinitely, but that would make the prisoner foolish enough to complain in court sound like a whiner.
The “nose-to-wall” torture was certainly used on her father. The guards forced him to stand with his toes and the tip of his nose against the cold wall in the interrogation room. His hands were wrenched up behind his back and bound in such a way that his shoulders were nearly pulled out of their sockets. After an hour or so of enduring this, and especially after two days of being kept cold and awake, followed by maniacal exercising, you would scream for mercy. “Your eyes would feel like they were bulging out of their caves. You felt like heavy rocks were squeezing you from all sides.” Your ankles and feet in that hour would swell to double their normal size. Most prisoners were crying or praying out loud
well before the hour was up. But there was no visible damage, and that’s what the courts counted on. Apparently a few hard cases sometimes did hold out. If they didn’t give in and sign confessions and point the finger at others, the nose-to-wall procedure was repeated three times over a twenty-four hour period. During this time, the prisoner was given no water to drink. The pressure and the lack of fluid caused their kidneys to fail. These were the disposable prisoners. There was no dialysis in their future.
The Red Cross, during the ‘60s and ‘70s when this kind of torture was prevalent, had nothing but rumors to report to the United Nations. The United Nations did nothing. As a result, many prisoners died cruelly and needlessly (none of my family members suffered that fate). Most were not heroes dying for a cause. They were victims of chance. Wrong place, wrong time.
This led me to wonder. Is there a higher order of value here? If one holds out because one believes it is wrong to be complicit, yet the result is that one dies, is that sacrifice valuable?
What would I have done? I don’t know. My family member, an eighty-two year old farmer named Bedřich, didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about the produce he was forced to turn over to the co-op. He wanted to talk about how difficult it was to avoid starving to death.