In the late 1990s I wrote a novella that chronicled the life of a teen-age boy who was the product of a one night stand between an African-American soldier and a Czech mother during the liberation of Pilsen in 1945. His story was complex, as he was growing up in Czechoslovakia in the midst of hard-line Stalinist oppression.
I never published it and it’s still sitting in a drawer somewhere. To be honest, it’s probably not very good. But the story that inspired it is, and I wanted to share it with my friend Catalina, who herself has a great appreciation for history and all its quirks.
By Victoria Dougherty
In 1995 I had the good fortune to accompany a Czech film crew to a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the city of Pilsen, Czech Republic by us Americans.
It was a joyous event filled with music, great beer (it is the town of Pilsen, after all, where the name Pilsner comes from), hearty food (dumplings, anyone?), and scores of veterans from all the world over. Freedom was new to that part of the world, and it still felt like a dream. The way it must feel in the aftermath of winning the lottery.
About an hour into the merriment, parade watching, and copious beer drinking, I realized that if I didn’t find a bathroom, things might get ugly.
I ran into what I think was a welcome center and was immediately pointed in the direction of a clean, unisex toilet by a kindly woman manning a beer tap.
When I emerged, I figured I could use another beer, so I went over to the woman at the tap and started digging some coins out of my pocket.
“No, no,” she said, and handed me the beer free of charge. “Sit down.”
She offered me a platter studded with several rows of Topinky, which is basically the Czech version of bruschetta: slices of rye bread fried in lard, spread with a thick layer of lard (think cream cheese on a bagel), and topped with diced raw onions and a sprinkle of salt and paprika.
“You’re American, so you’re used to the truth,” she said between bites of Topinky. She pointed outside at the celebration. “But for us, you can see it’s still a luxury.”
And that’s when she told me her story.
It so happened that of the American troops that liberated Pilsen, at least one was an African-American regiment. In the wild revelry that lasted for days after the citizens of Pilsen were finally freed from the Nazis… well, let’s just say there were a lot of very grateful Czech women and a lot of handsome men in uniform around. Not to mention fountains of really great beer to fuel the fire. My new beer wench friend happened to be one of those grateful women, and about nine months after the partying died down, she gave birth to a beautiful, brown baby boy.
Now, what was then Czechoslovakia didn’t have the same kind of racial baggage that we had over here in the United States. People of color (unless you were a gypsy) really were just that, and garnered stares only because they were exotic. So, while an unwed mother was still a bit of a scandal back in the mid to late 1940s, the fact that the child was dark skinned was neither here nor there.
Except for one little problem.
Once the Soviets took over the country, they took over the country’s history as well and declared that it was in fact the Russians – not the Americans – who liberated Pilsen. Contradicting this new truth carried some pretty heavy consequences, which left my new friend in a pickle: fair-skinned babies could be explained away easily, but the dark ones gave new meaning to the ethnic term “Black Russian.”
“So, what happened?” I asked.
“At first I was scared they might take my son. You know, disappear him,” she said. “But it was funny. Instead, people started to pretend he looked like everyone else. I met my husband a couple of years after the war and people would go out of their way to tell me how much my dark son looked like my husband and our other children. Even people who knew. It was crazy. Without talking about it, everyone began to lie.”
She started to wonder if she had imagined making love to an African American soldier and pondered other reasons that could explain her son’s skin color. Maybe her child had inherited a recessive gene?
“At times,” she said. “I really thought I was going crazy. Even my husband started going along with it.”
One thing kept her sanity.
She was walking in the market with her son the first time it happened. He was little – maybe four or five – and right in front of her at a fruit stall, she spied a little boy just like hers: the same age, the same color. The other boy’s mother saw them, too.
“What did you do?” I asked her.
She told me that she and the other mother smiled at each other and went their separate ways. It was too dangerous for them to start talking. What they could say would only bring trouble.
And that wasn’t the only mother she encountered over the years. There were a good handful in Pilsen, and when they saw each other on the street, they always smiled the satisfied smile of someone who knows the truth. Not only was it proof positive that they weren’t crazy, but also a reminder that they were being ruled by lies and that there really was a better life out there. A life without fear, invented histories, and hopelessness. She told me she was very proud that the father of her child was American.
I guess it’s one of history’s little ironies that a dark skinned boy was a symbol of truth and hope in a totalitarian society, and one of oppression and bitterness left over from a Civil War and a slave trade in a free one. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her son’s father went home to a segregated society.
But I did have the heart to tell her what I know to be true: that as long as people are free to speak, things can change quickly. Lies are contradicted - subject to a constant stream of information, bad policies are over-turned, even hearts and minds evolve.
Victoria Dougherty Bio
Victoria Dougherty has for nearly twenty years distinguished herself as a master storyteller, writing fiction, poetry, drama, speeches, essays, and television news segments/video scripts.
In Prague, Ms. Dougherty co-founded the acclaimed Black Box Theater, translating, producing and acting to sold-out audiences in several Czech plays – from Vaclav Havel’s riveting “Protest” to the unintentionally hilarious communist propaganda play “Karhan’s Men.” Black Box Theater was profiled in feature articles in USA Today, International Herald Tribune, and numerous European publications.
Currently, Ms. Dougherty lives with her family in Charlottesville, VA, and her first novel, The Bone Church will be debuting summer 2013.