The Heart of Europe, Vol. 12, No 2/2005
To the question “What have you gotin here?” I sometimes answer half-jokingly,“The memory of the nation.”
Jiří Gruntorád(born 1952), founder and headlibrarian of Libri prohibiti
Since the end of the Cold War, many countries in the former Communist bloc have been accepted into NATO as well as the European Union. These countries have much in common, in particular experience with “really existing socialism” and Soviet rule. Their populations reacted in varying ways, from armed resistance in the 1950s to attempts at liberalization in the sixties to the creation of parallel structures in the 1980s. The former at Czechoslovakia had a special place among the Soviet satellites. After the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks in August 1968, the so-called “normalization” was imposed. In wide-ranging purges, some 500,000 members of the Communist Party were expelled; many of them were also fired from their jobs. More than 400 writers and journalists were denied the chance to publish anything; their books were taken off the shelves, and they themselves could only find work as stokers or janitors. The Writers’ Union, chaired at the time by Jaroslav Seifert, was dissolved, and the nation was subjected to cultural genocide. Dozens of cultural magazines were closed down, many artists were not allowed to exhibit, musicians were prevented from performing in public. Academic and religious activity was also suppressed: the present Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, made his living washing shop windows. The present Auxiliary Bishop of Prague, Václav Malý, worked as a stoker before being fired from even that job.
Prohibited authors had only one avenue to get their work out – the samizdat, or underground press. In an era of modern printing techniques, their works had to be typed by hand: 10-12 carbon copies were produced at a time. These were given to friends, who passed them on to other readers. Under these conditions, underground “publishers” still managed to put out hundreds of titles of the highestquality Czech literature as well as many works in translation. One of the samizdat series alone, Petlice, organized by author Ludvík Vaculík, accounted for over 400 original Czech fiction titles. Underground periodicals sprang up on a wide range of themes. Novels, poetry, memoirs, even children’s stories – hundreds of pages, all copied letter by letter by these modern-day scribes. It often took months. Samizdat publishers ran the risk of imprisonment, as did all who re-copied and distributed their works. Mere intent was sufficient, and did not even have to be proven.
In 1980 a young woman of thirty, the mother of three children, was sentenced to a year in prison for copying samizdat books. Three years earlier, in 1977, a fifty-five year old journalist had been sentenced to three years for smuggling out to the West the memoirs of a former Czechoslovak politician and for writing a book of interviews with banned authors. After serving his sentence he was expelled from his homeland. His sixty-four-year-old “accomplice” got two-and-a-half years. One writer from Ostrava spent four-and-a-half years in jail for copying books, both his own and others’. He died in 1988 shortly after his release from prison at the age of 55. One editor of a samizdat cultural magazine was jailed twice for publishing it, and was only freed by the Velvet Revolution.
Memory of the nation
Despite police raids and searches, the banned books, magazines and recordings failed to disappear. Many went through dozens of hands; they are stained, torn, wrinkled, half-disintegrating. Others are in mint condition, hidden away in secret places. Among them are memoirs and collections of poems by Jaroslav Seifert, the only Czech to win the Nobel Prize for literature. There are the books of Bohumil Hrabal, who has been translated into many world languages; there are 27 volumes of philosophy, the works of Jan Patočka, who died after police interrogation. All the dramas by Václav Havel are here. Samizdat issues of George Orwell’s 1984 exist in several different translations and over twenty copied variations. There are two “editions” of The Lord of the Rings by J.R. R. Tolkien, each over 900 pages long; and much, much more.
The Libri prohibiti library was opened in October 1990 and is overseen by a non-profit association numbering at present 180 members. They include the writers Jiří Gruša, Václav Havel, Ivan Klíma and Ludvík Váculík, the former Rector of Charles University, Radim Palouš, and his son, the current Czech Ambassador to the United States, Martin Palouš. The association is chaired by Václav Havel’s brother Ivan M. Havel, who himself ran a samizdat operation from 1975 to 1989. The collection is maintained by Jiří Gruntorád, who was imprisoned for four years by the Communist regime for distributing samizdat literature.
The main body of the collection consists of Czechoslovak samizdat. These were texts written from “internal exile” in Czechoslovakia across a broad range of genres. Besides literature there is also philosophy, history, theology, political science and much more. Altogether there are over 11,000 of these “publications”. Some of them are highly valuable in an artistic sense as well, with original graphic art or photographs. There are more than 300 titles of samizdat journals and magazines, including many complete yearly sets of issues. Part of the collection consists of documentation of human rights violations in the former Czechoslovakia and the rest of the Soviet bloc. A separate section holds feuilletons, petitions, letters and the like. Another consists of unpublished texts and manuscripts, samizdat posters, fliers, photographs and clippings. There is a collection of newspapers, magazines, fliers and other printed materials documenting the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 1968. There is a fund of books and magazines on the Czech Legions in World War I, and the Czech resistance abroad in the West during the Second World War. There is also a collection of foreign underground literature, such as the Polish “bibuly”.
In 1993 an audiovisual section was opened, and today there are hundreds of recordings of “non-conformist” music on cassette tape and vinyl (published abroad), sound recordings of underground lectures and seminars, radio roadcasts, documentaries and amateur film productions on videocassette. The library is open Monday-Thursday from 13:00 to 17:00. The collections are available to the public free of charge, and the library provides standard services including explanation of background and context, copying and consultation. There are about 1,000 visitors to the library each year, and over 30,000 copies are made. The multi-language website gets 3,000 visits a year. The services of the library are utilized by various institutions at home and abroad (for example the Museum of Czech Literature and the British Library in London), researchers, publishers and editors, journalists and others. Both Czech and foreign students come here to gather material for their theses. The library lends items to various exhibits here and abroad, and has helped to produce a number of publications.
Because the Libri prohibiti library possesses rare materials unavailable elsewhere in the Czech Republic or the world (and for the most part indexed electronically), it has become irreplaceable. At a single location it is possible to research various aspects of the domestic and foreign resistance, resistance to Communism, alternative culture, and relations between the homeland and exile. Libri prohibiti has long been the institution with the most extensive and best-organized collection of publications by the domestic opposition as well as Czechoslovak exile after the Second World
War, in this country or anywhere in Europe. People who were fortunate enough to never experience “really existing socialism” first-hand can go back in time to the oppressive atmosphere of police raids and court sentences, and begin to understand the reality of a regime that in many ways went far beyond Franz Kafka’s The Castle. This is Libri prohibiti’s main contribution to Europe – a democratic Europe that has learned from its mistakes in allowing the growth of Fascism and Nazism, but is too tolerant of the ideology of Communism. Here in this country other Europeans can learn from our mistakes, which led to a form of totalitarianism in some ways worse than that of the Nazis. Our dearly-bought experience
should not be discarded.
It is a minor miracle that for fifteen years now there has been, in the centre of Prague, an institution that provides access to sources on our foreign and domestic resistance as well as services that cannot be provided by state-sponsored and operated institutions. I hope I am not alone in wanting this little miracle to last.
The Heart of Europe, Vol. 12, No 2/2005