Dr. Kelly Hignett is Senior Lecturer in History at Leeds Beckett University, UK. Kelly’s current research focuses on exploring communist-era repression in Czechoslovakia. She is currently completing a co-authored book titled Women’s Experiences of Repression in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, to be published by Routledge in 2017. Kelly also writes a blog The View East and she tweets as @kellyhignett and @thevieweast.
In the years after World War Two, the communist consolidation of control across Eastern Europe was accompanied by mass repression. Following the communist coup of February 1948 in Czechoslovakia, as many as 100,000 people were prosecuted for ‘political crimes’, most of whom were sentenced to lengthy periods in penal institutions and forced labour camps. The vast majority of Czechoslovak citizens who were interned for political crimes between 1948-1954 were men; only between 5,000 – 9,000 (5-10%) were women (See McDermott, 2010, p.114). These women, who came from a range of locations, social backgrounds and ages, were held in numerous prisons and forced labour camps across Czechoslovakia, often alongside women sentenced for criminal offences, and retribučni (individuals who had been convicted as Nazi collaborators under the post-war retribution decrees). While some of these women were actively engaged in anti-communist resistance groups, others were targeted simply because of who they were, coming from a suspect ‘bourgeois’ background. However, the new regime perceived them all as ‘dangerous women’ who posed a potential threat to communist stability. On this basis, they were incarcerated and subjected to forced labour in a range of areas including agriculture, textiles and industrial production. During their internment, these women endured poor living conditions, hygiene and medical care and often suffered violence, abuse and humiliation from the penal authorities.
One of these ‘dangerous women’ was Dagmar Šimková, who later produced a detailed autobiographical account of her experiences in prison, Byly jsme tam taky [“We were there too”]. First published by Orbis in 1991, a revised edition translated by Monika Elšíková was recently published in 2010.
In Byly jsme tam taky, Šimková explains how her family were targeted after the communist coup of 1948 due to their ‘bourgeois origins’, because her father had been a banker. Their house was confiscated by the Communists and both Dagmar and her older sister Marta were prevented from completing their University studies. Marta fled Czechoslovakia in 1950, but Dagmar became involved in underground resistance activities, printing and distributing anti-communist leaflets and posters mocking the new Czechoslovakian leader, Klement Gottwald. In October 1952, following a failed attempt to help two male friends escape to the West to avoid compulsory military service, she was arrested, aged just 23. As the arresting officer led Dagmar Šimková to his car he told her to ‘take a good look around, you reactionary bitch!’ and taunted her that this could be the last time she saw her home or her mother for a very long time (Šimkova, 2010, p.9). She was subsequently sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
During her incarceration, Šimková passed through various prisons and labour camps in Czechoslovakia, where she was persistently reminded by the prison guards that because she had been sentenced for political offences she was considered ‘more dangerous’ than the hardened criminals she was interred with, because although some of her fellow prisoners were murderers who had killed ‘one person, possibly even two or three’, Šimková and her fellow political prisoners had ‘wanted to exterminate an entire nation’ with their anti-communist activities (Šimková, 2010, p.47).
Šimková documented the cruelty and harsh reality of life for women in communist-era prisons and labour camps in striking detail, describing how they were subjected to strategic desexualisation and gendered humiliation by the prison authorities: ‘According to them, we are swines, bitches, smelly discharge, whores, and beasts … A woman had to be shamed for her femininity, she had to be deprived of her gender’ (Šimkova, 2010, p.53). For example, she described how during one lengthy interrogation, she was repeatedly forbidden to use the toilet, and her eventual inability to control her bladder was characterised as a female failure: ‘I was turning red, the tears were running down my cheeks, I asked them [two male guards] over and over if I could go to the bathroom. After another hour my body gave up. I soiled the carpet. The agent screamed “throw her out – that wet bitch!”’ (Šimkova, 2010, p.33).
However, throughout her long internment, Dagmar Šimková retained her fighting spirit. Her prison records include official observations about her ‘brazen behaviour’ and her refusal to conceal her ‘negative attitude’ towards the Communist Party (Šimkova, 2010, p.9) In 1955 she even successfully escaped from Želiezovce, a notoriously harsh agricultural labour camp in Slovakia, describing how she ‘ran and fell in a field, to roll in scented flowers … it was an intoxicating feeling of freedom’. Unfortunately, her freedom was short-lived. She was found two days later, asleep in a haystack at a nearby farm and was returned to camp, where an additional three years was added to her existing prison term as a punishment (Formankova and Zaloudek, 2010).
Šimková also described the strong bonds of mutual solidarity, gentility and friendship that developed amongst women political prisoners; another source of strength that enabled many women to cope with their incarceration and resist the dehumanisation of the prison experience. In Byly jsme tam taky she even suggested that ‘Most of us survived with a healthy mind, and it was determined by the fact that we are women. Not that women had easy conditions in prison … but women developed different survival instincts compared to men’. Some women deliberately adopted what Šimkova called Hedvábí-šustění – “Silk-rustling”, which she described as follows: ‘We oppose them [the prison authorities] with mutual tenderness, kindness, attention and courtesy. We called ourselves by diminutives … We are noblewomen. We are ladies. We watch our every move, intonation and expression carefully. It is constant self-control, which gives us a sense of respect and helps us to keep our dignity’ (Šimkova, 2010, p.53). Other women prisoners also described Hedvábí-šustění as engaging in mutual care and gentle tenderness, often through participation in the ritual cleansing and purification of their bodies and hair in weekly ‘beautification sessions’, which helped them to bond with one another as well as restoring their sense of dignity (Rehak, 2013, p53).
During the final years of her internment, Šimková was held in Pardubice Prison near Prague, in the women’s department ‘Hrad’ (Castle), which was specially created to house 64 women who were perceived by the authorities as being the ‘most dangerous’ political prisoners, in order to segregate them from the main prison population. Here, Šimková participated in several organised hunger strikes to demand better prison conditions, access to sanitary products and improved food rations. She was also an active participant in the secret ‘prison university’ founded by her fellow prisoner Růžena Vacková, a former university professor who gave underground lectures on fine art, literature and languages to the women of the ‘Castle’ department. Šimková remembered how ‘We devoured every word. We tried to remember, and understand, like the best students at universities’. Some of the women even managed to compile some lecture notes into a small book which was secretly hidden, before being smuggled out of Pardubice in 1965 (Šimková, 2010; Bursík, 2006).
After a total of fourteen years’ incarceration, Dagmar Šimková was finally released in April 1966, aged 37. Two years later, during the temporary liberalisation of the Prague Spring of 1968 she played a key role in establishing K 231, the first organisation to represent former political prisoners in Czechoslovakia. However, following the Soviet-led invasion to halt the Czechoslovak reforms in August 1968, Šimková fled Czechoslovakia, eventually moving to start a new life in Australia, where she completed two University degrees, worked as an artist, prison therapist and even trained as a movie stuntwoman! She also worked with Amnesty International, continuing to campaign for better prison conditions until her death in 1995 (see Formankova and Zaloudek, 2010).
Today, women’s experiences of political repression in communist Czechoslovakia remain under-researched and under-represented in the historiography. Women who endured communist-era repression have often been reluctant to disclose the details of the traumatic and humiliating experiences they endured during their incarceration. Dagmar Šimková’s story is important, as she acts as a voice for both herself and the thousands of other ‘dangerous women’ who were simultaneously both victims and survivors of communist repression. In recent years, Byly jsme tam taky has been serialised on Czech Radio, dramatised by theatre groups, and is currently included on the Czech Ministry of Education’s list of recommended school texts.
References and suggested further reading:
A number of accounts by women who were imprisoned for political reasons in communist Czecholovakia are available online, at Politicalprisoners.eu http://www.politictivezni.cz/ and Paměť Národa http://www.pametnaroda.cz/?locale=cs_CZ
Tomaš Bursík (2006) Ztratily jsme mnoho času … Ale ne sebe! Prague: Urad Dokumentace a vysetrovani zlocinu komunismu.
Pavlina Formankova and David Zaloudek (2010) The Screeching Seagulls Are Flying Around Me – An exhibition about the life of Dagmar Šimková, produced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Czech Republic – http://www.mzv.cz/file/730310/exhibition_dagmar_simkova.pdf
Božena Kuklová-Jíšová (2007) Krásná němá paní. Prague: Nakladatelstvi ARSCI.
Kevin McDermott (2010) ‘Stalinist Terror in Czechoslovakia’, in K. McDermott and M. Stibbe. Eds. Stalinist Terror in Eastern Europe: Elite Purges and Mass Repression. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Ivo Pejčoch (2014) Ženy v třetím odboji. Cheb: Svet Kridel.
Jana Rehak (2013) Czech Political Prisoners: Recovering Face. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Dagmar Šimková (2010) Byly jsme tam taky. Prague: Patrick and Michael Murphey.
For more on Dagmar Šimková’s life, see http://totalita.cz/vysvetlivky/o_simkovad.php
Photographs of Dagmar Šimková taken at the time of her arrest and contained in her prison file at the Czech National Archives. Reproduced with kind permission of the Czech National Archives.