History in Color

Nearly 100 years after her birth, Agneša Kalinová’s story serves as a bridge to an entirely transformed Central Europe. The book is divided into seven sections, each corresponding with the journalist’s so-called ‘lives’ and her memories bring color to what might otherwise appear as black and white images. In a conversation guided by Juráňová, and translated for English speakers by the Sherwoods, Agneša’s personal account of events helps tell the story of twentieth century Central Europe – states Benjamin Cunningham in a review of My Seven Lives.

Plenty of books pretend history is some kind of Hollywood film. There are good guys, bad guys — and, yes, they are usually guys — action sequences and sudden plot twists. You have heard the stories. Winston Churchill does battle with Adolf Hitler as the rest of the world watches. An intransigent Nikita Khrushchev bangs his shoe on a desk at the United Nations. A few years later, Ronald Reagan gives a speech and the Berlin Wall magically crumbles.   

Caricatures of famous figures shape our views of historical events, but they don’t do much to explain what it was like to live through them. We can learn something about the Velvet Revolution from the likes of Václav Havel, but what ever happened to that greengrocer he once eloquently wrote about in “The Power of the Powerless”?

The not quite world famous, but far from average, Slovak journalist and critic Agneša Kalinová falls somewhere in the middle. Though she may not be among the most consequential people in the history of Czechoslovakia, if the book-length interview “My Seven Lives” is any indication, she could be among the more interesting. Newly translated into English by Julia and Peter Sherwood, the text unfolds as a conversation between the publisher Jana Juráňová and the journalist Agneša Kalinová. Adding to the intrigue is that Julia Sherwood, or Julka as she is called throughout the text, is Agneša’s daughter. 

The language is smooth enough to make it feel like the entire talk had actually occurred in English. The book is divided into seven sections, each corresponding with Agneša’s so-called ‘lives’: early childhood in the First Czechoslovak Republic, World War II and the Holocaust, the postwar Stalinist consolidation of power, the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion, Normalization, a 12 year period in exile and, finally, the rebirth of a democratic Czechoslovakia and the formation of an independent Slovak Republic.

Born in 1924, to a Jewish family in Prešov, Agneša’s story is doubly unusual for English language readers. Not only does it recount life in Slovakia during a period where Czech narratives predominate, but Kalinová’s early roots in especially overlooked Eastern Slovakia. In Agneša’s telling, pre-war Prešov was populated by cultured bookstores, movie theaters and frequent visits from touring orchestras and theater companies. Germans, Hungarians, Slovaks, as well as orthodox and reformed Jews, mingled with one another. “This colorful mix of people coexisted in the city in peace and, at least, apparent harmony,” she recalled.

As war approached, Agneša was forced to flee her hometown and shelter in a Budapest convent, where she managed to survive the Holocaust before returning to Slovakia. Contrary to the prevailing narrative, anti-semitism did not necessarily retreat with the Nazis, and in one illustrative anecdote Agneša recalls beginning work at the weekly newspaper Kultúrny život when the the infamous Slánský trial of 1952 began. 

As Soviet security advisors asserted more direct control over the Czechoslovak StB in the wake of the war, political purges accelerated.

So-called Titoists, Trotskyites, and bourgeois nationalists were the first to go. As of the spring 1951, the Soviets directed Prague to root out supposed Zionists—a code word for Jews.

Even Rudolf Slánský, the Communist Party’s second-in-command, was not immune.

“Everyone knew Slánský was an atheist and that neither he nor his father had ever claimed to be Jewish, so all that talk of his ‘Jewish origin’ was obviously an explicit reference to his non-Aryan racial origin,” Agneša recalled. “They might just as well have applied the tried-and-tested Nazi model of the Nuremberg laws, and said that he was of Jewish race, since all four of his grandparents had been Jewish.”  

A spate of similar arrests followed, and the resulting trials were broadcast on the radio between November 20 and 27, 1952. Eleven of the fourteen accused in the Slánský trial were Jewish. The indictment alone took three hours to read, with the defendants accused of being “Trotskyists-Titoists-Zionists, bourgeois nationalists and enemies of the Czech people,” alleged to be working “in the service of American imperialists and under the leadership of Western intelligence services.”

All fourteen were convicted. Three received life sentences. The rest were executed. In a surreal twist, the Communists argued that the Slánský episode showed their love for Jewish people. “Normally bankers, industrialists, and former kulaks don’t get into our party,” Czechoslovak President Klement Gottwald said. “But if they were of Jewish origin and Zionist orientation, little attention among us was paid to their class origins. This state of affairs arose from our repulsion of anti-Semitism and our respect for the suffering of the Jews.”

Spring in Bratislava

Given the earlier years of anti-semitic insanity, Agneša does seem as if she were particularly  shocked by the Slánský trial itself, but soon enough she learned the role that cultural critics like herself might be expected to play in this new system. “[W]riters, people in the arts and politics, scholars, and academics competed with each other in spewing out declarations that condemned the ‘dangerous and perfidious traitors’ Slánský, [Vladimír] Clementis, and others, and distanced themselves from them in righteous indignation,” she remembered. “We in Kultúrny život also had to publish these — as we called them —‘responses.’”    

These were difficult days, and Agneša recalled muddling through. Coping, even surviving, was effort enough. “Never before and never after did we throw such splendid parties as in the years following the Slánský trial,” she said. “We would fix some nice food, listen to music, and dance. We played records on the gramophone — new pop songs, older jazz tracks. There was nowhere to go out in those days, but we were young and wanted to have a good time. So we had these parties through the most horrible times.”

By then, Agneša was married to another Slovak public intellectual, the writer Ján Ladislav Kalina (or Laco as she calls him throughout the book), and they had a daughter (the aforementioned Julka). Although it would take a number of years, it would gradually — and temporarily — get better in Czechoslovakia.

Through it all, Agneša continued to write, with a renewed focus on film. As she traveled to attend film festivals, she met journalists from abroad — developing a cosmopolitan sensibility that might have otherwise been difficult in Bratislava.

The changing leadership at Kultúrny život worked to “carve out a little more freedom of expression” and this paralleled liberalizing trends elsewhere in Czechoslovak society. In 1963, Kalinová interviewed Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Her work as a film critic took her to San Sebastian, Bologna, Milan, Venice and Greece. “Even today people sometimes still tell me that I was privileged because I was able to travel, but I really resented the fact that the ability to travel and poke my nose outside our backyard should be seen as an act of generosity,” Agneša told Jana Juráňová. “I was permanently furious at the regime for making it difficult for me to travel.”

Agneša was preparing to go to the Venice Film Festival when the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a half-million troops (Russians, Poles, East Germans, Hungarians, and Bulgarians, with Romania refusing to take part) started entering Czechoslovakia at 1:00 a.m. on August 21, the Czechoslovak government made a radio announcement. The invasion “took place without the knowledge of the government,” but they urged people to “remain calm” and not to “resist the advancing armies, because the defense of the state borders is now impossible.”

Agneša watched the invasion from Bratislava. “Down the embankment, just a stone’s throw from our block, there were tanks rolling past,” she recalled. The next day, Agneša walked the streets. “A tank stood on the corner by the Pravda publishing house, a soldier sat at the steering wheel unperturbed, looking at the people who shouted at him alternately in Russian and Slovak, asking what he wanted, what they came for.”

Within days, Laco and Agneša fled to Austria in what became a dry run for a more permanent emigration. But Laco believed that Czechs and Slovaks might yet resist the occupiers — so he decided to go back.

Agneša considered staying in Austria with Julka, but ultimately returned to join her husband. “[D]eep down I’ve never stopped thinking that emigration would have been the right decision, that we should have gone through with it and left everything behind, despite the deep bonds that tied me to life in Slovakia, in Bratislava,” she said.

Enough is Enough

In the period of Normalizácia that followed, Laco lost his job. Somebody broke into their apartment and the couple later found a listening device under their floorboards. When a neighbor tuned their radio, in hopes of listening to an Austrian radio broadcast, they inadvertently picked up a live feed of Agneša and Laco talking. “Deep holes had been dug in the concrete and in the hollow lay this Bakelite device about the size of a man’s palm, and four long cables,” Kalinová recalled. Rather than destroy the device, Agneša and Laco decided to keep it in place so as to avoid alerting the authorities. Thereafter they would speak with caution in their own home. And yet, that was not enough. 

In February 1972, Laco and Agneša were arrested anyway. As international journalism organizations took up their cause, Kalinová was released in time for Easter, but Laco was left to linger in prison for a full year — damaging his health and, perhaps, contributing to his premature death a few years later. Laco’s biggest transgression seems to have been publishing a book, “One Thousand and One Jokes.” Never known for their sense of humor, the average apparatchik no doubt took offense to jokes like:

One man runs into a friend of his and says, ‘I have known you for 10 years and I have been wondering about the same mystery for the full 10 years.’

‘What’s the mystery?’ The second man asks. 

‘Who wears your shirts when they’re clean?’

Still reluctant to leave their home country, the family muddled along for several more years. But when Julka was blocked from attending university, they decided it was finally time to go. “So one day I just said: I want to get the hell out of this place, I can’t stand it here any longer,” Agneša recalled. “I find it oppressive, all these slogans and propaganda everywhere, it’s everywhere on the radio and television, I just can’t take it anymore physically. It’s beneath my dignity to stay here and be treated like this.”

The family made their way to Munich. Agneša got a job working at Radio Free Europe. Laco signed a contract with a German publisher, for a second, more politically charged, edition of his joke book.

He began writing comedy sketches for Bavarian radio, but soon fell ill. “It wasn’t until much later that we learned that loss of taste was a typical symptom of liver disease,” Agneša recalled. “But his problem was even worse.” Laco had a tumor in his large intestine, and in 1981, he died. 

Julka studied in Germany while Agneša’s role at Radio Free Europe grew — her “distinctive voice, instantly recognizable” as interviewer Juráňová puts it. The last of Agneša’s seven lives began in 1990 and ran to 2014, when she died just shy of 90 years old. Following the Velvet Revolution “every meeting” felt like  “a joyful reunion,” Agneša said. 

Nearly 100 years after her birth, Agneša Kalinová’s story serves as a bridge to an entirely transformed Central Europe. Born in the First Republic, Agneša met current Slovak MEP Michal Šimečka, when he was just a toddler. Her memories bring color to what might otherwise appear black and white images. As detailed as any primary documents, personal as any memoir, this book is far more than the sum of its parts. In a conversation guided by Juráňová, and translated for English speakers by the Sherwoods, Agneša’s personal account of events helps tell the story of twentieth century Central Europe. Stalin makes a cameo, but does not get any more attention than he deserves. 

After the Velvet Revolution, Agneša made her first trip back to Bratislava in January 1990. Traveling from Munich via Vienna by car, she drove the final stretch on her own. After dropping a colleague off in the Austrian capital, she was left alone with her thoughts. “I was so worked up I couldn’t contain myself in the car,” Agneša recalled. “I was glad that I haven’t driven alone because having a passenger forced me to pretend that I was cool about it.”

Still tense, Agneša arrived to her hotel, presented her passport to check-in, and the receptionist said: “Welcome, Mrs. Kalinová, how is Julka?”


My Seven Lives: Jana Juráňová in Conversation with Agneša Kalinová

Translated by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood

Purdue University Press

406 pp

Benjamin Cunningham

is a Barcelona based writer. His book “The Liar: How A Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man” is forthcoming in August 2022 from PublicAffairs.

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