Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

A Slow Season for Marienbad This Year…

Janos Gereben
June 30, 1969

Fellowship Year

PERMANENCE—Statues from the facade of Marienbad’s solid buildings look down on a new, different world whose nostalgia calls for the “reality” of yesteryears.

(Photos by Janos Gereben)

MARIENSKE-LAZNE, Czechoslovakia—“Last Year in Marienbad” was filmed somewhere else, but its name came from here, this resort town of hot springs where Goethe once lived, where Franz Joseph held court, where Marie Curie studied radioactivity.

And it is here—in the town the high society of the Austro-Hungarian Empire knew as Marienbad -that the French film’s message comes home: You should have been here last year.

It is the feeling of missing out on something, being short-changed, by visiting at the wrong time.

CONTRAST—Young Czechs on 500-year-old Charles Bridge, exhibiting paintings and singing such “revolutionary” songs as tunes from “West Side Story.” The most daring work of art exhibited on the bridge was the Daliesque one by Milan Prahec (opposite page), a student who declined to talk about politics, saying that he is “not interested.”

The present is strange, incongruous, “Marienbad” said, but life, real life, was here only last year, and now it has passed by, it is gone.

The massive, resort-town baroque, the formal gardens, the angels, saints, and heroes of stone and iron—all recalling that wonderfully though falsely peaceful turn of the century—are still here, but Marienbad is just not the same.

The difference is in the people, of course, the way they look, the look in their eyes, and surely just a year ago, just last year—before the Russian blitzkreig of August—they looked better.

You should have been in Marienbad last year.

There must have been some life then in the eyes of people strolling down the main street between the once-elegant shops and the steaming geysers of mineral springs.

Last year … perhaps. But certainly not now. Time has passed by and 1969 has not been a good year for Marienske-Lazne or, indeed, for Czechoslovakia.

PROTEST—Chalked sign on a railroad bridge near Karlovy Vary and near summer maneuvers of the Czech army.

Central Europe, easily given to sweeping labels, has long branded Czechs—especially the people of Bohemia between Prague and the German border—as “smart”.

Being smart, they know when they are licked. They’ve been licked, they know it, and they look it.

(It’s not exactly a new experience for them either. When was the last time Bohemian armies marched to victory? And driving through a field near Karlovy Vary—Karlsbad, that one was once called—where the Czech army held maneuvers with its World War I trucks, half of each convoy scattered along the road trying to repair ancient motors, one begins to understand why the “smart” Czech army just stood by last August.)

“Dubcek tried to do things too fast and the Russians wouldn’t stand for it,” a student said in Prague yesterday by way of summing up the history of the past year.

“Tried and failed”—Dubcek and us—“tried and didn’t make it.” Period. End story. Let’s get back to the joyless but necessary business of living.

They are not happy about it, to be sure, and one can often hear Brezhnev (but not Husak, strangely) being cursed in quiet conversations.

But beyond that, and an occasional “Dubcek-Svoboda” sign, and a few handbills passed around, there is nothing.

It’s over and done with: Czechoslovakia tried to loosen the noose of communism in 1968 and failed. This is 1969 and what happened last year was a long time ago.

There may be some work stoppages and rumors, but 1968 was last year and the Czechs—if not people in the West—understand it.

Young people in Marienske-Lazne are thronging to the “Phantom Vs. the Scotland Yard” and exhibit “avant garde art”—of 30 years ago—on Charles Bridge in Prague on quiet Sunday afternoons.

People walk about in wrinkled suits, with unwashed hair, fill less than half of the Sparta Stadium for an incredibly bad soccer game against Dukla, and sit in silence even when a goal is kicked, even when there is unnecessary and atrocious violence on the field.

They grumble about increasing food and transportation costs, the unavailability of consumer goods, lack of coal, overcrowded and primitive housing.

Among the many levels of reality, few are more contrasting than the appearance of Czechoslovakia today in the Western press and in the eyes of a visitor temporarily without the benefit of being informed about the breathlessly important events taking place here in the higher echelons of the party and government.

(Western newspapers are not available anywhere in the country although other signs of 1968 are still abundant: American Express and Diners Club advertised everywhere, PanAm’s posters to “Visit America,” Heinz products, California oranges—“packed in Lebanon”—and even a few “striptease sex shows” indicate the extent of “Westernization” of last year.)

ARE WE IN BERLIN? — That was the question asked by Soviet troops last August when they invaded Prague. They machine-gunned the National Museum, shown here, because they thought that it was a radio station.

PRAGUE SCENES—Communist papers only, some films from the West, a Sunday walk in the gardens of Hradcany Castle.

But the symbol of Czechoslovakia as it appears to today’s visitor is not the struggle between liberals and Stalinists; rather, it is the shrugged shoulder, the outstretched palm—gestures of “what can you do” and “where is the tip, preferably in hard currency.”

Nowhere in the darkest streets of postwar Europe has there been such an open and overwhelming black market for money than in the cities of Czechoslovakia today.

A brief walk in the 16th Century splendor of Hradcany Castle produces two or three dozen demands: “Can I change money for you?” and the question pursues one inside the hotel in a chorus of elevator boys and cleaning women.

Travel abroad is still allowed for most people, but they may take only $5 worth of Western currency with them—and Czech money is useless. Therefore, the official—and unrealistic—rate of 16 kronas to the dollar is doubled on the black market so that would-be travelers to the West may purchase hard currency for three times the official rate—everybody gains and nobody loses, right?

The dog-eat-dog philosophy and profiteering are also part of the heritage of being “smart.”

Soviet troops are nowhere to be seen—discreetly withdrawn from the cities—but that makes little difference. The impotence of Dubcek and the betrayal of Husak are accepted with the characteristic shrug of the shoulder.

People do know about the central committee speech of Frantisek Kriegel in defense of the defeated movement for democratization, but they shrug that off, too, by observing that Kriegel “has always been a Communist and, you know, he is Jewish.”

If there is something that may shake up the defeated people of Czechoslovakia it is the constant, nagging uncertainty of where they stand, what will happen next.

The mixture of the liberalization of 1968 and the repression of 1969 — both incomplete and uncertain in their realization—has created an atmosphere difficult to live with.

Neurosis is not necessarily a strong impetus for revolt; “revolutions”—an ambiguous catch-all for something more than just violent conflict—are more likely to occur in Czechoslovakia’s neighbors, the two Germanys.

There will be a revolution of affluence, an outbreak of violence among the aimless youth of West Germany, followed by a Rightwing reaction. And there will be a revolution of desperation in East Germany.

Czechoslovakia stands midway between the incredible drabness and squalor of East Germany and the equally incredible prosperity of West Germany.

Although it is often said that rock-bottom conditions don’t favor revolutions, which are said to need “higher expectations,” the 15th and 16th Century peasant revolutions of Central Europe indicate another possible course—one in which people simply can’t take it any more.

East Germany, in its almost hopeless economic depression and political repression next door to the opulence of West Germany, may be more prone for an explosion than Czechoslovakia with its “higher plateau and expectations” and its defeated piecemeal reform movement.

Meanwhile Czech papers here are still greeting the “great success” of the Moscow summit, and the Western press, somewhere, far away from here, keeps writing about the “Czech struggle” to preserve whatever is salvageable from 1968.

And people automatically skip the frontpages, turn to the back of their papers for the sports section, and have no way to find out about their “struggle” from Western papers unless they travel abroad with their triple-costing dollars.

So they just scratch about, try to buy or sell dollars, spit at the mention of Brezhnev’s name, drink the mineral waters of Marienbad and Karlsbad on week-long, state-sponsored vacations, drink barrels of Pilsners on quiet, sleepy weekends, trudge back to never-to-be-completed building projects on Monday, live in overcrowded, 100-year-old homes which have no hot water, maneuver their World War I trucks, and stare at Western license plates. Sometimes, they even wave, in a friendly way.

Perhaps they wish it were still last year.

But they know that it isn’t.

Received in New York on June 30, 1969

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Alicia Patterson Fund.