Civil wars are extremely uncivilized, their political aftermath even filthier. To put a human face on The Planet’s recent Lincoln “Brigade”—Spanish Civil War (Bermack /Jarach) debate, the story of my aunt.
I first met Vlasta Vesela, when she returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945 as a hero of the anti-Nazi struggle. A member of the Communist Students’ organization, she got her M.D. just in time to volunteer with a medical group that went to Spain in 1937. A dozen doctors operated a 500-bed “field hospital,” housed in villas and monasteries, moving with the front to Guadalajara, Valencia, Barcelona. She was remembered as “getting old people to shelters during an air raid and then fearlessly saving children from a bombed-out children’s home.” In 1939 she escaped to France, joined the Resistance, and, after Vichy was occupied in 1942, got to Switzerland. Along the way she hooked up with my father’s cousin, i.e., became “family.”
Both were rewarded with reasonably high-up jobs during the first four post-war years. But in mid-1949, with the Party firmly in power, these “Spaniards” were among the first Communists to be imprisoned as “American spies.” With Tito defying the Soviets in Yugoslavia, Stalin felt threatened by veteran die-hard idealists, especially those “exposed to the West” and aware of how revolutions are won or lost.
Vlasta did not play her role in a planned show trial. “She rudely insults both her interrogators, comparing them to the Gestapo,” reads one report. A fellow prisoner remembers her as “refusing to testify against anyone else.” She was force-fed during a hunger strike, but became so weak she couldn’t stand and was given sleeping powder, one dose per night. These she saved up, and in June 1950, aged 38 years, she killed herself in prison, leaving behind two letters made with pin pricks on scraps of paper.
One of the interrogators was executed two years later for, among others “helping Vesela kill herself.” The second interrogator committed suicide. My uncle was released from prison in 1954 and received a good job in Prague. He must have signed some document and refused to talk about what happened. By then I was in college, aware that both he and Vlasta were essentially “apparatchiks” lacking the warmth, mutual trust and outspokenness of my other relatives. Not to even dare to say “this system sucks,” was just one more confirmation that this was a Country I did not wish to live in.
Conclusions: Vlasta was a gutsy lady, but by no means “an innocent victim.” Beware, when ideals turn into ideology. A “neutral majority” cannot stay uninvolved while extremes battle it out. With terrorists sooner or later getting hold of WMDs there are no more “innocents.” We will have to agree to let some injustices be grandfathered in, and make sure “the Center” holds, globally. Decide (by democratic vote) who is “family” and who not, and stay out of “other people’s” conflicts.