“Mirek rewrote history just like the Communist Party, like all political parties, like all peoples, like mankind. They shout that they want to shape a better future, but it’s not true. The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.” The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
As if taking a cue from one of his characters a dark secret from the past threatens to crash on the opening chapter of Milan Kundera’s life. In October 2008, the Czech weekly Respekt published a story that claimed Kundera informed on one of his countrymen in 1950, leading to the man’s imprisonment for 14 years in a hard labour camp.
The basis of the assertion was an old police report that fell into the hands of Adam Hradilek, a historian researching the bleak days of Czechoslovakia’s Communist past. The police document reopened the story of Miroslav Dvoracek and that of his childhood friend Iva Militka. The report also brought the past of arguably the most brilliant literary surgeon of communism in Eastern Europe to the forefront. It is a widely reported and misreported story in which the jury is still out on the truth and doubt remains the only certainty.
The 1950 Police Report
The police report dated March 14, 1950 says: “Today at around 1600 hours a student, Milan Kundera, born 1.4.1929 in Brno, resident at the student hall of residence on George VI Avenue in Prague VII, presented himself at this department and reported that a student, Iva Militka, resident at that residence, had told a student by the name of Dlask, also of that residence, that she had met a certain acquaintance of hers, Miroslav Dvoracek, at Klarov in Prague the same day. The said Dvoracek apparently left one case in her care, saying he would come to fetch it in the afternoon… Dvoracek had apparently deserted from military service and since the spring of the previous year had possibly been in Germany, where he had gone illegally.”
The first thing is the veracity of the police report and from what has come out the document is being considered as genuine (though there is speculation about its contents). Jerome Depuis of the French magazine L’Express travelled to Prague and cited the historian Rudolf Vedova from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR), the same institute Hradilek works for: “We had the document analysed by the Czech Secret Forces archive. The paper, the names listed, the identity and the signature of the officer were all examined—and the document was found to be authentic.”
Around the same time Jiri Grusa, a Czech poet and in 2008 the president of the international writers association PEN, told a German radio station that he went to Prague to see the police document for himself. Grusa said that he now has no doubts that “the document is real. There’s no denying it. Only it is not Milan Kundera’s document, it is no denunciation, it’s a police annunciation. And if Kundera says, I didn’t do it, then I have to believe him.”
In 1948 a putsch in Czechoslovakia led to a communist takeover. This resulted in the armed forces being purged and veteran airmen who had flown with the RAF in the war (about 40 per cent of Czech Air Force) were demoted, kicked out or sent to labour camps due to their exposure to the West. Even students were not spared. Two boyhood friends, Miroslav Dvoracek and Miroslav Juppa, who had attended the same school in a small town in Eastern Bohemia were included on a list of expulsions in a memorandum from January 1949. When they were ordered a month later to join an infantry unit, Dvoracek and Juppa, aided by Juppa’s girlfriend Iva Militka and her relatives fled to West Germany.
A feature in Standpoint by Michael Weiss gives a lengthy account of Dvoracek’s time in Germany and his journey later on that can be corroborated with his story on the USTR website. An edited extract: They (Dvoracek and Juppa) arrived at the Leopold Barracks refugee camp in Munich, which then housed about 150,000 displaced persons. …Being pro-Western, they found themselves being trained as couriers by General Frantisek Moravec, the head of intelligence for the Czechoslovak Government in Exile. The newly-minted spies’ first assignment came shortly after Christmas 1949. They stole back through the Bohemian Forest, and Dvoracek was instructed to contact a chemical engineer named Václavík, who was going to report to the Americans on the status of his industry. Sensing that he was being followed, Dvoracek panicked and returned to Germany.
In March 1950 he again went on his mission, this time in camouflage and accompanied by a secret guide. After putting up in a safe house on a farm owned by the Tous family, Dvoracek travelled to Prague, again seeking Václavík. The person he found, however, was Militka, whom he hadn’t seen in over a year. She was by now enrolled at Charles University, living in the Kolonka residence hall, which doubled as a salon for budding socialist intellectuals. Though Militka wasn’t a party member herself, her current boyfriend, a student named Miroslav Dlask, was. The two had met at a student work camp where Dlask, the son of an Auschwitz survivor, impressed Militka with his prophesies of how social democracy would fuse seamlessly with communism and usher in a new age of humanism.
Someone who shared Dlask’s views, albeit with a greater degree of self-criticism, was an extraordinarily gifted film student named Milan Kundera, who was already known among the leftist intelligentsia in Prague as a café-haunting prodigy, ever questioning and heterodox in Marxism.
The story of Dvoracek on the USTR website has the “original police report” that can be downloaded and viewed. The write-up of the day of the arrest says: “He (Dvoracek) was going through Prague to and fro, thinking about his next step. On the tram across Mánes bridge he spotted Iva Militka. He got off, joined her and accompanied her to the student dormitory Kolonka.
In the early afternoon Dvoracek left Kolonka to look for Mr Václavík. He went to Stalinova Avenue in Vinohrady, where Václavík was supposed to live according to the instructions from Germany. Yet Dvoracek did not find him at the given address. He searched for his name on the nameplates of nearby houses, but without success. The end of the working day was approaching, so Dvoracek decided to wait in front of Chemapol in Panská Street and try to recognize Mr Václavík by the description he had from Germany. But he did not see anyone who fitted the description. He postponed his search to the next day and left to meet Iva Militka in Kolonka, where he was arrested around 7:30 p.m.”
The USTR page says: “The story of Miroslav Dvoracek was compiled from information gathered by security bodies at the time of the investigation.” The account talks about where all Dvoracek went, who he was looking for, who was with him on the tram and how he spotted Militka. There is no mention of Kundera in this detailed account otherwise full of names and what you can call minute details of Dvoracek’s activities on the day of the arrest.
Journalist and co-founder of the German internet magazine Perlentaucher, Anja Seeliger in a 2008 piece titled ‘It’s time Kundera talked’ wrote: “This is not just about Kundera, this is about Iva Militka and Miroslav Dvoracek. But no one seems interested in them.” Seeliger concludes her piece by saying: “Milan Kundera has every right to defend his name. But before he talks about the ‘assassination of an author’ and demands an apology from Respekt, he and the media should spare a thought for Iva Militka and Miroslav Dvoracek. They deserve the truth.”
Dvoracek and Militka
Of course it’s not just about Kundera. What is ironical is that Dvoracek is not interested in finding out about what happened in 1950 according to the Respekt story that says initially he was willing to co-operate but then he had second thoughts. “Two months after our first contact, Miroslav Dvoracek had a stroke and he is still recovering from its effects.” Two months is a lot of time to respond if one wants to. Though it is understandable that he chose not to as a man who spent 14 years in inhuman conditions probably just doesn’t want to mentally revisit that street again.
His wife probably had lesser reason to be so neutral to the new finding. Marketa Dvoracek-Novak said to France24 that she first heard about Kundera’s possible involvement about the denunciation in July. “I thought it was very strange. I never knew Mike (the name Dvoracek goes under now) had ever known or seen him (Kundera). We didn’t pay much attention to that,” she said. “Then we got the so-called evidence. I don’t know how reliable it is. I saw the document from the police. It remains to be proven (whether it is) real, but for Mike and for me it makes no difference.” A telling quote for the manner in which Marketa calls the police report as the so-called evidence. She saw the paper (and not an uploaded image that most journalists have seen) and she is the wife of the man who bore the brunt yet her reaction borders on disbelief.
Can the moral right of Kundera to remain silent be questioned with the argument that Militka and Dvoracek deserve the truth? Was Militka not deserving of the truth earlier? Was she not entitled to know why her then boyfriend and later husband Dlask let the fact of Dvoracek visiting her spill out? For 40 years Dlask kept quiet about what happened that day and only before dying did he tell Militka that he had told Kundera about Dvoracek’s visit that day. And mind you this isn’t a fact, because if we are going to call Kundera out by saying that his statement is a mere dementi then there is no reason to believe what Militka says as the gospel truth. With due respect, Militka has an axe to grind and this fact cannot be overlooked.
Militka’s interview to aktualne.cz makes for an interesting read. “Actually, it (the coming out of the police report) hasn’t helped me at all. I don’t give a damn about Kundera. I would like to know what reason my husband had to tell him. And I still don’t know.” Now because Dlask is dead does it fall on Kundera to explain why Dlask did what he did? Asked about what Milan Kundera’s name being involved meant to her, Militka said, “It gave me some relief, knowing that it wasn’t my husband who went to the police. Although he might have asked Kundera to do that. Or he might have just turned to Kundera for advice because he didn’t know what to do.”
All this for Dvoracek and Militka deserving the truth when both of them are least interested. The aktualne.cz interview is a classic case of arguing both sides: “I don’t like the whole fuss about it. It makes my sister uncomfortable. My best friend has told me she was offended. And it hasn’t helped me. On the contrary, the once forgotten past has resurfaced again. People will skim the story and think, this Militka must have had a finger in the pie. And I did—but why should people know if it’s not their business, at all?”
The Respekt story speculates on the possible motives behind the denunciation and I’ll examine them one at a time. On Kundera it says: “What motive did he have for denouncing someone unknown to him? At a time when the pages of the Communist Party’s daily Rudé Právo were crammed to overflowing with propagandist articles about settling scores with the class enemy, and death sentences were being passed, the informer could not fail to be aware what sort of fate awaited Dvoracek. On the very day he made his denunciation, for instance, an article had appeared in the main Communist newspaper about two young Czech employees of the US embassy, who had been sentenced to eighteen and fifteen years’ hard labour.”
And this on Militka: “Militka has never forgotten the scene she witnessed from the other room and it often comes back to her in dreams and nightmares. The unsuspecting friend arrived at Kolonka and was immediately taken away under police escort. She has never seen Miroslav Dvoracek since. ‘I still feel guilty about having talked about him. I was too naïve,’ Iva Militka says. “I went to Kostelec to see my parents and told them I had caused Miroslav’s arrest. My father then paid a visit to his parents and told them. The feeling I had to live with afterwards was dreadful.”
So we are to believe that Kundera was acutely aware of the consequences of reporting Dvoracek to the local police and Militka wasn’t despite the fact that they were around the same age. It is hard to believe that living in the socialist salon that Kolonka was Militka had no idea that Dvoracek was walking on thin ice, especially since he was thrown out of the air force and she and her family had helped him escape. The punishment for not reporting the presence of a suspicious person (say a deserter) at that time was five years in prison and putting him up in her room may have even let the authorities think of Militka as a co-conspirator.
Another motive from the Respekt story: “The answer to the question why Kundera did it is not as simple as it might appear. Kundera was indeed a convinced Communist and so it is possible he decided to destroy a human life for purely ideological reasons.” This statement is an insult to journalism and no wonder that Kundera has called the story as the assassination of an author.
After this wild assertion, the story instead of backing it up runs contrary to it. “He was a fairly critical Communist by the standards of the time, and far from happy with everything that was happening in society; he was definitely not one of those who were baying for blood. “He was a reserved sort of person and had no liking for stupid mass rallies,” the writer Milan Uhde says of his friend. “I tended to think of him as someone with courage who wasn’t afraid to express inconvenient opinions.” When asked whether he expressed hatred of the “class enemy”, his friends of those days answer in the negative—Kundera was more a positive builder of socialism than a hunter of opponents. “It was others like Skála and Pilař who went in for frenzied attacks on the ‘kulaks’ and justification of the trials,” Ivan Klíma explains. Does this in any way give credence to Respekt’s claim that ‘it is possible he decided to destroy a human life for purely ideological reasons.’
The literary historian, Zdenek Pesat, soon after Hradilek’s story broke out gave a written statement that Miroslav Dlask had personally confessed to him about informing on Dvoracek. Pesat was subsequently on a respirator and could not talk.
Anja Seeliger has rightly put his statement in context: “Of course someone could have gone to the police and fraudulently used Kundera’s name. Miroslav Dlask for example. Is this likely? Was it not necessary in those days to show identification papers when filing a police report? …And why would Dlask have pretended to be Kundera? If it was so easy to hide his real identity from the police, wouldn’t he rather have given an invented name? And Pesat’s statement, that Militka’s friend Dlask told him that he had informed the police about the unwanted visit, does not prove anything. What was the exact nature of this confession? Did Dlask tell Pesat that he had used Kundera’s name at the police station? Because otherwise Dlask’s alleged denunciation does not rule out Kundera’s. One could have gone to the police, the other to the secret police, independently of one another.” Seeliger says this is not as absurd as it sounds and quotes Grusa to explain that every failure to report suspicious behaviour came with a five-year sentence. I’ll come to it near the end of the piece.
Another possible motive Respekt says is to do with an incident that occurred just prior to the tragedy at Kolonka. It was to be the inspiration for the author’s first novel The Joke. In 1949, Kundera had been sent a letter by his friend Jaroslav Dewetter criticising a highly-placed Communist official. Kundera answered in similar vein. However, both letters were intercepted and read by the secret police, and the young party members found themselves in trouble. They both underwent disciplinary proceedings, as also did their common friend Jan Trefulka, who stood up for Dewetter. The eventual sanctions were unequal: Trefulka and Dewetter were expelled from the Party and the university, while Milan Kundera was simply expelled from the Party. He was allowed to remain at the film academy, where he pursued a fairly successful academic career in the fifties and sixties. Was the denunciation intended to atone for his offence against the Party? The archives provide no answer.
Why would Kundera want to atone for something he did not see as an offence? Even 18 years later when The Joke came out it was pretty clear where he stood as regards the expulsion if that incident is presumably considered as his inspiration. Kundera was ahead of his time even during his early days with the Party as can be read in a detailed work on him by Jan Culik, a freelance journalist and a professor in Czech Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Weiss in his story says that of all the motives Hradilek has put forth the most convincing is the fact that Kundera had got into trouble in 1949 and would have been cautious in 1950.
The Respekt story has also used a cheap trick of the trade; which is to dig into the misfortune and the wounds of a man to build a case against another. “After examination on arrival he was given the number A0–3016, brown prison clothes of coarse cotton, underwear, a towel, two mess tins, a spoon, a blanket, working boots, rubber boots and a forage cap. Underwear and the towel were changed twice a month. The overgarments were worn until they fell apart. During the first years at the camp, the inmates received only one set of clothes. The prisoners had nothing to change into after returning dirty and often wet from work in the uranium mines. He left the camp at the end of 1963 after almost fourteen years’ incarceration. The counters of bookshops were then displaying a new collection of short stories that were then being hotly discussed by the entire Czech cultural scene: Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera. At the time when prisoner No. A0–3016 was labouring in the uranium mines in his ragged prison garb, the person who had denounced him was forging a respectable career for himself.”
There is no doubt that Dvoracek went through hell but to play on that and equate it with the fact that Kundera was having a charmed life at Dvoracek’s expense is an inaccurate and insensitive portrayal of the situation. Wouldn’t it be rather fair to see it from a different angle? At the time when prisoner No. A0–3016 was labouring in the uranium mines in his ragged prison garb, his ‘naïve’ little friend at Kolonka at a ‘difficult moment in her life’ decided to marry the very same person who at that time was the only one that could have sent Dvoracek to the uranium mines. The name of Kundera came out in the public only in October 2008 and if Militka is to be believed she learnt about it in the 1990s. So for 40 years the dirty secret lived quietly under one family roof.
Things are not as simple as you think
A line sticks out like a sore thumb in the Respekt story. Although there are many more unfounded paragraphs, I turn my attention to this line because it is harmlessly hidden and makes a nest for itself without any context. “Iva Militka, who had married Dlask at a difficult moment of her life, never managed to rid herself of a sense of guilt, and her husband never furnished her with an explanation.”
A story that does not flinch even once when it denudes and humiliates Dvoracek by going into the details of his tough prison life takes the exact opposite approach to innocently justify Militka’s marriage to Dlask. Since the personal and the political cannot be divorced it’s important to note that Hradilek is related to Militka. What might have been those difficult times for Militka? I am unable to speculate.
It’s easier to rebuild what happened after Dvoracek left his case at Kolonka and went to search for Václavík. Militka had lunch with Dlask in the afternoon of 14th March 1950 and told him not to visit her in the evening as her friend Dvoracek would be staying with her (Dlask knew about Juppa and that both friends had fled to Germany). Was jealousy the overriding emotion of Dlask? The jealousy that can spring when someone else is spending the night at your girlfriend’s room and can rob the perspective of a young man.
On Dlask, Respekt says: Indeed, up to their deaths Militka’s parents always suspected him. She herself was unable to imagine that her future husband might have been capable of such a thing. Whenever she asked him directly what had really happened, he would refuse to answer.
Reality does not fit any model. Any novel worth its name is the same as it unmasks the world as an ambiguity. ‘Every novel says to the reader: Things are not as simple as you think. The novel asks the reader to have as his only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty.’ Life is a series of non-linear events and there is no way of knowing what all took place in the few hours after Militka finished her lunch with Dlask and Dvoracek got arrested at Kolonka. And the truth (whatever that is) is hopelessly entwined and difficult to retrieve with just a police report as the guiding light. As journalist Janet Malcolm, in a different context, said: “Truth is not only a harsh mistress but also a messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd one. The truth does not make a good story; that’s why we have art.”
Roberto Calasso, a close friend of Kundera’s who is the director of his Italian publisher, Adelphi, said that the claims stemmed from “a strong acrimony that his country has for him.” Bernard Henri-Lévy, in Le Point, talked about the schadenfreude felt by the “pack of dwarves” attempting to fell a giant of letters.
As this is the concluding section I’ll discuss what we know about our main ensemble and some contradictory statements before ending the piece as a puzzle. This is how the Respekt story begins: “Milan Kundera has always carefully covered his tracks. He has given no interviews for the past quarter of a century. He visits his native country only incognito and stays in hotels under assumed names. He has sworn his Czech friends to silence, so not even they are willing to speak to journalists about who Milan Kundera is and was.”
On what basis is the author’s desire for privacy equated with criminal culpability as the line about covering his tracks suggests? How does the writer know that Kundera travels and stays in hotels under assumed names—is it an assumption or a fact? There is a larger point though. This is a story about friendship and betrayal and since they dominate everything we could take a few lines to discuss them.
It makes me wonder why the friends of Kundera are not ready to say anything about him. He is as famous as one can be yet his friends respect his wishes and have no desire to bring him down. Does he pay them handsomely to keep their mouths shut? Does he take them to secret holidays in the Alps or in other exotic locations? The only reason that makes sense as to why they do not say anything adverse about Kundera in an otherwise ugly and gossip-fuelled world is that the relationship works both ways. His friends value him because he values them in return. And it is rare that a person with so much success does not have embittered friends. In the movie 3 Idiots Aamir Khan’s two friends illustrate this point nicely when they say that today we’ve understood that you feel bad when a friend fails but you feel even worse when he comes first. It is a neat line delivered in jest but it undersells the fact that human beings find it easier to deal with the downfall of a friend than with his meteoric rise.
In an interview published in The New York Times in 1985, Kundera discussed his belief in privacy. “We live in an age when private life is being destroyed,” he said. “The police destroy it in Communist countries, journalists threaten it in democratic countries, and little by little the people themselves lose their taste for private life and their sense of it.” He added, “Without secrecy, nothing is possible—not love, not friendship.”
And Iva Militka. Failure of second-order thinking: Militka tells Dlask a secret and somehow expects him to keep it, when she just gave him evidence that she can’t keep it herself. She was ‘naïve’ and her trust was betrayed by her boyfriend Dlask which resulted in Dvoracek going to prison. Then she could not imagine that Dlask could have done it so she married him. Then she can’t get him to say a word about what happened that day for 40 years. It’s too rich to believe.
What about Dlask? Did he go back to spend the night at Kolonka on March 14th 1950, as that would indicate that he knew that the visitor would have been taken care of. What made him uncomfortable all these years? Could he have orchestrated the whole thing? Who risks being called an informer and hides the truth to protect someone far away in France while being held guilty everyday in the eyes of his wife and his in-laws?
Dvoracek has earned his wisdom the hard way. And that perhaps is the reason why he has no desire to know who betrayed him because he understands that for a third person to have reported him his friend Militka had to sing first. Maybe the reason Dlask never spoke about it was the fact that he owed something to Kundera on that day.
The Czech Secret Police (StB) was a plainclothes force established in 1945 and it was used by the communists as an instrument of power and repression. The StB spied on political opponents and forged false criminal evidence against them. If we consider Pesat’s statement and the logic supplied by Seeliger then the local police as well as the secret police would have been aware of the denunciation (though it’s possible they didn’t compare notes). The StB in 1949 had led to the ousting of Kundera from the Party when his letters were intercepted. In light of this consider the next statement given to the New York Times. Martin Simecka, the editor in chief of Respekt, said that if the Czech authorities had known about the document in the 1970s, they might have used it against Kundera.
The Respekt story says: “And luckily for Milan Kundera, the earlier denunciation (the 1950 one) probably escaped the attention of the secret police, who had him in their sights at the beginning of the “normalisation” period as one of the key reformists. The StB did everything in their power to break his nerve, but they never tried to blackmail him on the basis of those events of twenty years earlier.”
Now if Kundera had made the denunciation in 1950 to atone for his 1949 ‘offence against the Party’ as suggested by Respekt then his purpose would have been fulfilled only if the StB, that had led to his expulsion, got to know about ‘this act of loyalty’. In which case, the StB and the Czech authorities would not have missed the document when they were doing everything in their power to break his nerve. This opens the way for a completely-different possibility: The StB missed the document in 1970 because it didn’t even exist at that time. There is another curious statement that points towards this possibility.
The German writer Rolf Schneider, in die Welt, said that based on his personal experience traveling in the country and being shadowed, the Czech secret police “proceeded as sloppily as the East German state security” and thus their findings were unreliable. Seeliger and Weiss have pounced on this statement by observing that the writer has overlooked the fact that the file in question belonged not to the archive of the secret police but to that of the local constabulary. What is more intriguing is that both writers have cited historian Rudolf Vedova of USTR who said that they had the document analysed by the Czech Secret Forces archive. Why would a local police file be analysed with the Secret Forces archive? Were local police files also at some stage handed over to the Secret Forces? If that is true then it is quite an anomaly that the document remained unnoticed with the secret police given that they were actively after Milan Kundera.
The path was extremely easy for Kundera as he could have used the justification that was already there on offer. Even Militka spelled it out by saying that Dlask must have asked him to do so. And although you cannot betray an unknown man you can certainly save a friend and his girlfriend. Kundera though has not done anything out of character and has remained silent and aloof like always. Could it be because he does not want to betray a dead friend? In this contradictory and entangled tale one thing is quite certain: Milan Kundera is the only one who knows how to keep a secret.