Eva Maria Chapman

Short Story

Looking for Ludvig

This is a story about me looking for my real father.

Snow dredged the statues of Charles Bridge when I was born in January 1947. Prague, enjoying a brief respite between Nazism and Communism, was gripped by the coldest winter for a hundred years. Father Pasek branded me with the sign of the cross, in the freezing chapel of St.Apollinaire Maternity Hospital. As icicles multiplied on the eaves, he dropped an extra blob of holy water on my brow to counteract the fact I was spurus illegitimus incertris patris (a fancy way of saying ‘bastard of an unknown father’).

Nearly three years later, my mother Olga, a former Ukrainian slave of the Reich, armed with desperate courage, false papers and few possessions, led me through a dark forest towards Austria. Constantly diving into the undergrowth, to dodge blinding searchlights flashed by border guards on motorbikes, we narrowly escaped the Stalinist jackboots that now stalked Czechoslovakia. However Olga could never escape. Tentacles of terror had invaded the tissues of her brain too many times, and eventually I lost her to the cruel world of schizophrenia. Before she disappeared however, she would mumble a name- Ludvig Krikava, and cry hopelessly.

In 1988 I set out to find this mysterious Ludvig. But it proved as difficult to get back into the country of my birth, as it had been to get out.

“No exit papers, no wisa.”

The bland face stared impassively through the thick plate glass window, fat fingers shoving my passport back at me, barking,

“Next!”

I was at the head of a long queue at the Czechoslovakian Embassy in London. Even though glasnost was spreading throughout the Soviet Union and its satellites, Czechoslovakia was still well and truly under the Communist yoke, and officialdom regarded anyone who had baled out to the West, with suspicion. When I first reached the window with my visa forms, I was asked when I left. I knew I couldn’t divulge this information precisely, as it was long after the borders had been closed. I pleaded ignorance.

“Was that before April 1948?”

“I think so…. but I was a baby.”

“So where are your exit papers?”

“I don’t know.”

I shouted my answers through the plate glass window. The entire queue could hear the exchange.

“If you left legitimately you must have exit papers.”

“I don’t have any.”

“Why did your parents leave?”

“I never knew my father. As far as I know he’s still in Prague.”

“Why did your mother leave?”

“I think she wanted to get away from my father.”

“So when did you leave?”

“I- I don’t know – I was a baby.”

“Where is your mother now- you could ask her?”

“She is dead.”

“Did you ask her before she died?”

“She had schizophrenia for a long time and died in a mental hospital.”

I felt intimidated by this KGB style interrogation and squirmed uncomfortably as the people in the queue were being treated to an intimate slice of my family saga.

“It is our policy to refuse entry to those who left illegally after April 1948. Next!”

The queue was now stretching to the outside and I was hoarse from shouting. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I could see my mother’s tragic face. She had long suffered this kind of intimidation and had buckled beneath its onslaught. I decided then and there I would not leave until I had the visa. I refused to be crushed as she had been.

“No, I insist. I am confident we left before April 1948. I want this visa so I can return to find my father and my birth certificate.”

“You don’t have a birth certificate?”

“No, I’ve never had a birth certificate and this is one of the reasons I want to go to Prague.”

“Impossible without exit papers. Next. ”

I failed to move. The official scowled. The queue lengthened. Stalemate. I refused to budge even though it seemed hopeless. But then I had a brainwave.

“This is ridiculous. I don’t even have the paper that proves I was born in Prague in the first place, and you want an exit paper for something that happened forty years ago?”

This bamboozled the official sufficiently for her to seek help. I looked around at the queue who seemed riveted by my life story.

“You stick to your guns,” murmured the man behind me.

The official returned with her superior. Thick square Kremlin head.

“We demand exit papers? If you do not have them, we must assume you left illegally.”

“But we are all assuming that I was in the country in the first place. I have ‘Prague’ written on my passport but that’s only on my mother’s say so. How can you expect an exit paper when you have no proof that I was in the country in the first place?”

Both officials were now completely flummoxed. They spoke heatedly to each other in Russian, glancing at me and at the queue. Whether it was my indisputable logic, the manic gleam in my eye (after all, my mother was insane), or that they just wanted to get rid of me, I will never know. The capitulation was dramatic. After much shaking of heads and vigorous stamping, my passport was shoved back. As I walked out, brandishing my visa, the queue broke into spontaneous applause.

But this was all a piece of cake (or kolác even!) compared to trying to find my birth certificate.

Communist Prague was grim; grey, faded and sad. Officialdom was hostile; unfriendly, unhelpful and obstructive. After several days of hunting down the right department, I finally stood before a uniformed woman who uncannily resembled a Nazi commandant. Ceslav, my Czech friend and translator, received the brunt end of her rudeness. When I stated my name and date of birth, the response was,

“Impossible!”

“Why?”

“There were forty districts in Prague then. Which district was she born in?”

“She doesn’t know.”

“Well I am not going to waste my time looking through forty different districts, each with a multitude of entries. She should know which district!”

This was shouted at Ceslav who then translated in a much kinder tone.

“Ask her to look in District One.” Ceslav relayed my request.

She shot me a murderous look and after much huffing and puffing, thumped laboriously over to a wall of files, from which she extricated the large dusty tome for District 1, 1947. I held my breath. She scanned through the entries for January. With a note of triumph in her voice, she announced there was nothing under Prosikova, for the date of my birth. She shut the book with a flourish and took it back to the wall. Ceslav looked at me as if to say, ‘you’re out of luck’.

“Tell her to have one more go. Try District 2.” Ceslav reluctantly passed this on. The official glowered at me thunderously and issued a torrent of words which clearly meant, ‘Not on your nelly!’ I took some money from my purse and shoved it at her. I was prepared to resort to bribery and from the greedy glint in her eye, she was prepared to be bribed. Out came the 1947 tome for District 2. I crossed my fingers and held my breath. Dusty pages were turned. And there it was; the entry for my birth. Even the official seemed excited to have found it. I leaned over and saw my mother’s name, written in ink; ‘Olga Prosikova, rabotnika’. Just the sight of those words hit me profoundly. Huge sobs welled up uncontrollably from deep within me. Ceslav rushed to comfort me and I continued to sob. After so many years of not having a formal identity, not having roots, I now had some tangible proof that this was where my mother once lived, and where I was born. The tears were a mixture of joy- ‘I exist. Hoorah!’- and great sadness for the lost young woman Olga, a refugee, without a home, with a false identity, in a strange city- a humble worker.

The official, moved by my tears, changed her whole attitude to the task and set about to perform it with great zeal. The birth certificate would be sent to me but she wrote down all the details on a piece of paper. She was positively beaming and we left, thanking her profusely for her trouble.

I pounced on my birth details like a hungry wolf. They were proof that I had a recorded starting point. Any sign of the mysterious Ludvig? No; by ‘father’ was the word ‘unknown’. However there was an unexpected clue; by ‘godmother’ was the name Maria Krikavova. This was intriguing. Was she related to Ludvig? Olga had told me my grandmother hated her, looked down on her peasant origins; pronounced her totally unsuitable for her son; wanted Olga to skedaddle but leave her grandchild behind. Was becoming godmother the first proprietary step? Did Olga escape from Czechoslovakia to keep me from her clutches? Ceslav rang all the Maria Krikavovas in the phone book. Nothing. He then rang the only Ludvig Krikava. I waited, in suspense. A hostile woman snapped he was unavailable, and not to ring back under any circumstances.

I visited St.Apollinaire Hospital, a gothic style building with a charming statue of a pregnant woman in the foyer. In the chapel I imagined the young Olga, alone and bereft with a tiny baby, all wrapped up against the cold.

Even though fifty years of occupation had left Prague a bedraggled fairy princess, I loved the city and felt kinship with the purple and red cobblestones. In St.Vitus Cathedral I gasped at the stained glass windows and knew I had seen them before. I had indulged my lifelong love of stained glass by feasting on many a cathedral window throughout Europe. Here in St.Vitus, I found what I had unconsciously been searching for. Something deep within my soul was nourished by the symphony of glorious blues, reds, greens and golds that shone down. I was satisfied at last. But the people in the cathedral were sad. They were singing a hauntingly beautiful hymn, calling on King Wenceslas, an old hero of Prague, to set his people free.

All Czechs I spoke to during my visit, felt that they would be under the yoke of Communism forever.

“But what about Gorbachev and glasnost?” I asked.

“No way will we ever be free. Glasnost is just a fine dusting of pretty powder over an invincible monster. Look where 1968 got us? No-where. We are doomed!”

Leaving Prague on the night train, I had a vivid dream. Czech children were singing joyfully, ‘we are free, we are free’. When I awoke I knew without doubt, this would come true. I wrote to Ceslav telling him to keep up his spirits as it would not be long before Prague was liberated. The Velvet Revolution happened within a year.

I returned three years later. Prague was a resplendent vibrant princess again. Joy hummed in the cobblestones, on the bridges, around the mediaeval arches. The Czech spirit had bounced back. An exuberant creativity permeated the art that festooned Charles Bridge. And everywhere abounded a humour, uniquely Czech; wry, intelligent, whimsical. Even the statues were smiling, having awakened from a long slumber.

The father window of my life remained conspicuously blank. I approached the Red Cross. They sent a letter to Ludvig, saying the daughter of Olga Prosikova was looking for him. Expectantly I waited. When news came, I was profoundly disappointed. Ludvig did not wish to reply. Was the past too painful? Was the woman who Ceslav telephoned, a wife ignorant of a husband’s guilty secrets? Was it just best to leave the past buried? I am left to wonder. I will always wonder. But hope obstinately lingers in my heart.

So Ludvig if you are still alive, I would love to look up at the father window and see colours perhaps, or shapes. But most of all, I would love to see- you.

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