THE BLOG

Tales of the Fantastic

We met in 1990 at the oldest active Jewish synagogue in Europe, the Old-New Synagogue in Prague. Daniel Kumermann gave me a brief tour of the 13th-century structure, along with the adjacent cemetery. The synagogue is one of the few remaining structures of the old Jewish quarter, a place rich in tales of the fantastic, from the golem of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to the stories of Franz Kafka, who was born and raised in the area.

Kumermann fit right into this tradition of fantastic stories. He had been a teenager when he learned that his father was Jewish, and later he himself converted to Orthodox Judaism. He had written his master's thesis on American comic books. As a signatory of Charter 77, he'd been forced to work as a window-washer, the same occupation as the protagonist in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He collected gum wrappers. He was about to be the subject of a New Yorker profile.

I wasn't sure whether to believe all of this. It sounded like a tale designed to fool a gullible young American. Kumermann was working as a journalist in 1990, and perhaps he was enjoying the opportunity to turn the tables.

But it all turned out to be true, even the New Yorker profile, which appeared that November. The long article, titled "The Window Washer," was by Janet Malcolm, whose Jewish family had fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 when she was very young. She spent considerably more time with Kumermann than I had and captured well his "air of quiet certitude that is not without a trace of truculence." The article delved into his personal history, the challenge of embarking on a new journalism career at the relatively advanced age of 39, and his overwhelming desire to visit Israel.

Twenty-three years later, I met up with Kumermann again, this time in Prague's Castle District at a restaurant near the foreign ministry where he works. In the intervening years, he had achieved his dreams. He'd risen through the ranks of journalism, specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. And he had made it to Israel. In fact, he had served for several years as the Czech ambassador to the country. He still collected gum wrappers, and his collection had grown. I'd even sent him some examples from Japan when I lived there.

The story of the window washer who became an ambassador sounds like another fantastic tale, but it certainly wasn't unique for that time and place. Other Charter 77 signatories experienced similar reversals of fortune. In 1989, Vaclav Havel and gone from prison to presidency. Jiri Dienstbier had gone from stoker to foreign minister. Jirina Siklova worked as a cleaning woman at a hospital before reassuming an academic position and establishing the first gender studies program in the region.

These Cinderella stories captured the West's fancy. But the storytelling went both ways, and some fairy tales about the West proved difficult to abandon. "We idealized the West," Kumermann told me over coffee last February. "Then we saw that this basic concept of democracy was idealized. It doesn't solve everything. It just puts in a different government every four years (or earlier if there are earlier elections). The people who are elected are very often corrupt and do it for their own interests and don't care about democracy. It still doesn't take the responsibility away from civic society. That you don't solve everything by installing a democratic system -- that was a great lesson."

It was not just democracy that had been idealized. I asked him whether the economic reforms of the early 1990s could have gone any better. "We probably could have done much better," he confessed. "They say that at least a whole year's state budget was lost during privatization alone. There were other ways to do that. Instead we gave to the world economy 'tunnels.' You remember tunnels. There were also 'juice' and 'sandwich' -- these were different ways of stealing money from the state. On the other hand if you look around, it is not that great either: For instance Hungary now has a strong semi-fascist party there. From this point of view, we're not so bad off."

We talked about the fall of Communism, how his unfamiliarity with a fax machine nearly wrecked the Velvet Revolution, his criticisms of Vaclav Klaus, and why the world should listen to Donald Rumsfeld and prepare for unknown unknowns.

The Interview

Becoming a dissident: was that a specific decision, or was it a more gradual process?

Actually, that's a question I ask myself. I don't think it was a kind of decision. I think it was a precondition. It was just a small step on a trajectory that was already set.

I had it easy. I grew up with the idea that the regime was evil. I looked at the Charter 77 signers, a few of whom I knew and considered friends, and I felt that I belonged to that circle. I discussed it at home with my wife. She agreed. But she wouldn't sign because of the children. If they imprisoned every signer, then someone should stay at home with the children. This was the same problem faced by other couples. But I figured that sooner or later I was going to have trouble.

It also gave me a certain freedom. The fact that we can speak English together is partly a result of it. I majored in English. But when I came out of school, I couldn't speak English. I could read Beowulf, but I couldn't speak the living language. Some of my classmates have been teaching it for 40 years now, but still they don't really speak it because they were not exposed to the living language. Once I settled the accounts with the regime, I was basically able to meet with whomever I wanted. I started to meet with a lot of foreigners. A lot of Americans came and stayed with us. Once somebody stayed with us, they would send their friends. We both spoke English quite actively at home.

You worked with Jan Kavan's London operation, the East European Reporter and Palach Press.

I was pulled into it in spring 1982. There was a crisis because the police had broken into the smuggling network and severed one of the major supply lines. They caught this minivan with 200-300 kilos of material. Sometime that fall, in September, Anna Sabatova, the wife of Petr Uhl, called me and said she needed to talk to me. I visited her the next day, and we went down to the cellar. While I was helping her bring coal up to the ground floor, she told me that they were going to renew the network on a smaller scale and asked me if I wanted to participate. I would just be doing the technical side of it. The basis of a conspiracy is: those who do it don't know anything about it, and those who know about it don't do it. I agreed to participate.

Eventually in November the first messenger came. Quite early on it was clear that this system didn't work. The messenger would come on Friday and leave on Sunday night. But this was the weekend, and people don't usually stay in Prague over the weekend. If I got the material on Friday night and had to deliver it to people and get it back - there just wasn't enough time and it didn't work. So, against all the rules of conspiracy, I ended up doing it and knowing all the code names of everyone in the network.

Later, a friend of mine was interrogating the secret police. After November 1989, the official way of dealing with the secret police was to interview them and find them unable to work there. He interviewed the guy who was responsible for me. And this guy said that he knew that I'd been involved in something like this. Probably I was quite lucky. They might have found out sooner or later, and I would have ended up in prison for a few years.

You did that from 1982...

Until 1989 when Jan Kavan came back here in November 1989. Shortly before that, in November 1989, Petr Uhl got this fax machine and I was supposed to send a document to Jan. I put it into the machine and pushed the button and it went through. Then Jan called on the phone and said, "I didn't get it." I tried again. Time was running out. He needed to get it translated and out to the international media. I was getting desperate. Eventually, after 10 times, I asked him, "How do you put this thing in the machine?" And they told me, "Face down." That's how the whole thing almost ended -- on that detail of putting a document in a fax machine correctly.

You wrote for samizdat publications. So in many ways it was a natural progression for you to become a journalist.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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