Agneša Kalinová: A Strong Voice for a Free World

Obituary by Michal Hvorecký
Translated from German, this article appeared in Die Welt on 19th September 2014.

Unbowed by two dictatorships: Slovak dissident Agneša Kalinová has died. Following the crushing of the Prague Spring, she emigrated to Munich and lent her voice to Radio Free Europe.

Laco [Ján], Ági and Julia Sherwood, Bratislava 1978, shortly before emigrating to Germany
Laco [Ján], Ági and Julia Sherwood, Bratislava 1978, shortly before emigrating to Germany
“You should be afraid, Comrade Kalinová, you should learn to be scared!” This was a sentence that Agneša, known as Agi, heard many times in the spring of 1968. She was one of the most important critical journalists of the Prague Spring in the sixties. She wrote influential articles, translated books from the West and discussed the future of what was called “socialism with a human face”.

As a Jew during the Second World War, she was not permitted to go to the cinema, but by now she was travelling to film festivals all over the world. “I wanted to be able to finally live without fear, to be free and to be allowed to speak openly. I knew that I would never forget and never want to forget everything I had gone through. But I had also decided that I could not allow two violent dictatorships to destroy my life, that I wanted to live in the present and the future, and not in the past. There is so much to laugh about in the world! Still, I was always looking back to the many dead around me.” This was Agneša Kalinová’s response to the question of how one could keep on living and working after experiencing two totalitarian regimes.

She was sitting in the garden in Bratislava’s old town, a light smile on her wrinkle-lined face of a century. She had read from the book that was to be her last publication. It would also be the last reading that I would attend with her. This Thursday, the painful news of her death affected me and many other Czechs and Slovaks deeply. She died in Munich aged 90. Regrettably, in Germany she remained little known, like most of Slovakia’s culture.

Agneša Kalinová, born in 1924 in Košice, grew up in a Jewish family in Prešov. At the time, four thousand Jews lived in this small town in eastern Slovakia. In the north of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, languages, religions and nationalities had mixed for centuries. The rise of Nazism destroyed the family’s multilingual, middle-class world. The ideological basis for the implementation of anti-Jewish measures was the assertion that the Jews were the enemy of the new, independent Slovak state. Alongside the Nuremburg Laws, Slovak regulations were amongst the strictest anti-Jewish edicts in Europe. Even letters had to be marked with the Star of David, a measure that was never implemented in the Third Reich.

The talented Agi had to leave secondary school. The deportations of the fascist Tiso regime began in 1942. Agneša pretended to have sciatica and managed just barely to escape the exterminations in Auschwitz, where the majority of her family were murdered. She survived the Holocaust hidden in a catholic convent in Budapest, which was in fact a corrective facility for young girls. At 17, she met the author and satirist Ján Kalina, whom she married shortly after the end of the war. Kalina was also one of the pioneers of modern Slovak cinema, and his wife would become one of its first professional critics.

The suppression of the Prague Spring was followed by an employment ban in 1970. In 1972, she was imprisoned with her husband and denounced as a “cosmopolitan”, spy and traitor to her country. After three months in prison, she went to work for a computer import firm. Yet she and her husband had made their names internationally as fearless critics of the political system. They went into exile in Munich in 1978. Agneša Kalinová worked at the Czechoslovak desk of Radio Free Europe. For thousands still living in Czechoslovakia, her strong voice became a symbol of hope in the difficult period of so-called “normalisation” – which was above all, in reality, a repression and witch-hunt of any member of the opposition.

For two decades, her news reports were for many listeners the only uncensored source of information about their own country. Ján Kalina’s bestseller, “One Thousand and One Jokes”, later to be blacklisted, became a cult object and was treated by many as a holy relic. Her last, autobiographical book, “My Seven Lives”, was Slovakia’s surprise hit of 2013. The late work was lauded as an important contribution to the memoir genre as well as a reappraisal of the two dictatorships. In the book, Kalinová criticised the absence of public debate about Slovakia’s past and the downplaying of its role in the murder of over 60,000 Jews during the war.

“My father and my nanny told me as a little girl that I wasn’t allowed to cry, especially not in public. That was supposed to be the ultimate sign of self-control. But luckily, nobody told me I wasn’t allowed to laugh,” wrote this wise and courageous woman with the unforgettable laugh.

Michal Hvorecký, born 1976, is a writer and head of the Goethe-Institut library in Bratislava.

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