"Fields of Light" - a writer searches for his father's past

01-05-2005

I was recently sent a letter by Joseph Hurka, an American writer and university lecturer. He enclosed a book he had written with the intriguing title "Fields of Light". In his letter Mr Hurka wrote, "The book follows a 1993 journey that I took to the Czech Republic to follow in the footsteps of my father, who fought in the Underground against the Stalinist government." I was absorbed and began to read. As Joseph Hurka tells his father's story there are moments of high drama:

... the door flew open suddenly and the air exploded with the white fire of a sub-machine gun. Pista's body, cut in half at the waist, slumped to the floor. The StB had not yet seen Josef and he took a few quiet steps down the stairs before flinging himself over the elevator shaft and onto the landing below. He sprawled, got up, and there were loud voices above. He took the stairs downward, three at a time. As he reached the foyer, where the door was ajar, he briefly looked outside. Plain-clothed police were patrolling the front of the house. He ducked back into the dark hallway and found a door to the basement.

This is one of the most dramatic episodes in the book. It is March 1950, and Joseph Hurka describes the moment when his father and another member of a secret underground group are ambushed by the Stalinist secret police.

Parts of the book read like a classic Cold War thriller, but this is not just an adventure story. "Fields of Light" offers a fascinating and very personal journey not only into the bleak history of Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, but also into a family's history, as the author searches for missing parts in his own past.

From his home in New Hampshire, Joseph Hurka told me about his impulses in writing the book.

"I think there had always been in me a mystery about my father. Most boys have some idea of what their father's lives were like in the formative years. In my case my father would tell me about Christmas in Czechoslovakia in his early years, but he really didn't talk much about his life after teenage-hood. I wanted to know more about it. And then there was also a great sadness in my father. He was generally a very positive man, but when I would try to approach subjects about what did he do - my mother told me that he'd worked against the communists - he pretty much rebuffed my efforts and I could see a lot of sadness taking over in him."

This very personal way in which Joseph Hurka approaches the subject of a very dark episode in Czech history, is one of the book's great strengths - interweaving the public and the private, the past and the present. In the opening chapter, he begins his account of his trip to the Czech Republic in 1993, not long after the fall of communism.

A stewardess announced that we were now over the Czech Republic and I looked down at that area that ancient history had known simply as Bohemia. All I could see was green and the contours of some hills. This was a land that I'd heard many stories about. Here my father and Mira had seen childhood. Here the Nazis had taken control after the capitulation of the British and French to Hitler at the Munich Conference of 1938, and my father had been put to work in one of their coal mines. Later, in 1949, when Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule, he had been imprisoned on a false charge of espionage. After surviving five Communist prisons, he'd come out of jail determined to fight the Communist government, and had joined the underground.

During his visit, Joseph meets relatives, in particular his aunt Mira; he visits the places associated with his father's life, and pieces together the parts of his family's history that he has never been told or been able to understand.

I wanted to see the country. Perhaps I needed to: somewhere, in that land that drifted below me, a mystery was waiting for me that had to do with a heaviness and sorrow and pride I had felt all my life, and that I was reminded of each time my father was disappointed by another human being, by a lack of honesty or an outright deception, each time he slipped into the strange depressions he was capable of and I tried to cheer him up with my spirit, to convince him that not all humanity was bad.

Joseph's visit to Prague begins with his aunt Mira, who was 71 in 1993, the year of his trip. We sense the closeness that develops between them, despite the difference of age and language, and it is mainly through Mira, that Joseph gradually fills in the gaps in his father's early life.

Josef Hurka had his first taste of danger as a teenager in the small West Bohemian town of Radnice during the German occupation. The resistance had asked him to smuggle explosives out of the mine where he had been sent as a forced labourer.

After the war he became an officer in the Czechoslovak Armed Forces, but in February 1949, not long after the communist take-over, he had been arrested on trumped up charges of leaking intelligence. During eight months in jail, he was repeatedly beaten but always insisted he was innocent, and was finally released in August of 1949. Almost immediately he joined an underground, anti-communist group. His experience had convinced him that the new regime was destroying his country. He worked mainly in smuggling prominent non-communist statesmen out of Czechoslovakia. The book describes vividly how - at the height of the show-trials - he helped the economist and politician Josef Macek and his wife Bela to escape across the border.

He stayed still in the snow, holding his breath. He looked up to the rocky gap where Pista had disappeared. A shadow was coming. It grew and Josef raised one of his pistols. But the shadow materialized as Pista motioning that everything was fine, and Josef lowered the gun and his shoulders and breathed deeply.

A few months later, Josef Hurka had an even closer brush with death, in the dramatic ambush that we heard recounted at the beginning of the programme. He escaped, but not long afterwards, he was once again shot at and this time wounded by secret police agents. He was smuggled across the border to West Germany. For several years after that, before settling in the United States, he remained in Germany, working as a spy for the Americans. I asked Joseph Hurka how his father had felt about spying on his own homeland.

"The question is very interesting because I think it must have been very difficult for him to be spying - and he was sending in spies from Germany. He was the head of a cell of various spies, sending them into Czechoslovakia. But I think he was also at that point so angry that his country had been taken over, that this probably was the only way to go. I once heard a man talking about the Battle of Britain. It was a British man saying - 'I really wasn't fighting for my government, I was fighting for my Mum.' I would say that's what my father was doing to. He was fighting for his family and his countrymen. He viewed those who had turned against his country primarily as misguided traitors."

At the time when Joseph Hurka wrote the book, his father was still alive, and after initial scepticism, he gradually became more enthusiastic about his son's quest, eventually recounting many of his memories to him. But Josef never wanted to return to his old country, as Joseph recalls at a key point in the book, when he is visiting the family's old home town of Radnice.

"Look," he said emphatically, "all of us, everyone involved during that time - the Communists, me, everyone involved in the fight - all of us must die for the country to be what it once was." The phrase stunned me at first, and then its meaning slowly took root in me: my father felt he was part of something the country needed to be rid of. He had come to this on principle, and the only reason he would shake from it and return would be to briefly see his mother and father. Riding across Bohemia on this day in 1993 I think I somehow already understood this in my bones. The Czech Republic certainly was not the same country my father and Mira had lived in as children."

Josef Hurka died earlier this year at the age of 79, having never returned to see the Czech Republic. It was on his own visit to the little town of Radnice that Joseph had the inspiration for the title of his book, "Fields of Light", drawing from the Czech legend of the silent ghost soldiers who will one day rise up in the country's moment of greatest need.

"The first version I heard was from my Aunt Mira, who talked about the fact that these ghost soldiers of Saint Wenceslas were living in the fields and they would rise when their nation was in danger. And when I saw, as I went to visit my relatives in Radnice, I saw some of these beautiful "repka" [oilseed rape] fields that are this bright yellow colour - it looks like you've switched the light on inside the field. I could just imagine these ghosts rising from the place. That dovetailed with the idea that my father was one of those quiet soldiers, and that's really where that passage comes from. I realized that this was what the whole thing was about, that the communists had erased my father from history, as they did so many people, and this was my opportunity to write him back into the history of his country."

Father.
Your country is free now, and you were there to fight for it when other men would have run. So when you've finished reading my words, close your eyes and think of this:
That high on a hill called Kalvarie, overlooking your childhood town of Radnice, the fields of light are stirring.
They are waiting for you to walk among them again.

Joseph Hurka's book "Fields of Light" is published by Pushcart Press in Wainscott, New York.

 

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.

01-05-2005