This month more than most, I feel like I have so much to say that I don’t really know where to begin. It doesn’t help that next door they are remodelling an apartment and, outside my window, there is a crew drilling up the sidewalk and another roofing the house across the street. The noise and its echoing are overwhelming on Prague’s narrow streets.
Perhaps the best place to start is with a similarly loud occurrence. On June 27th, Prague commemorated the 70th anniversary of the execution of Milada Horáková using the city-wide intercom system. Minute-long excerpts from her trial and execution were broadcast throughout the day. Horáková, the only woman to be executed during the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, was a long-time proponent of democracy and women’s rights. In the field of women’s rights, she focused on the status of women and children, spending considerable effort on women in the workplace and reconciling their work with family responsibilities. She was also an outspoken critic of the Nazi Regime, having spent time as a political prisoner in Terezin. When the war ended, she joined parliament, but resigned right after the communist take-over. After continuing to speak out against the Communists, she was arrested in September of 1949 and charged with attempting to overthrown the government. She along with 12 others were interrogated and tried. Four of them, including Horáková were sentenced to death. She was publicly hanged on the 27th of June 1950. Eighteen long years later, she was posthumously exonerated, and in 2000, the Czech Republic unveiled a commemorative tombstone for her in the National Cemetery at Vyšehrad Castle. In 2017, a film was made about her life and legacy.
The noise from the excerpts of her trial and execution were broadcast louder than I’ve ever heard the system used. Normally, the intercoms interrupt the day once a month to play a prerecorded message and a warning siren, much like the emergency broadcast system in the United States. In small towns, I have heard similar systems announce community happenings. They even broadcast a selection of instrumental music early on in the COVID-19 lockdown.
One of the deafening excerpts was interrupted by a sound that took me by surprise: the crying of my partner. The noisy words triggered in her memories of her grandfather and his depression. LIke my partner, he too was Jewish. He and his brother survived the Holocaust by hiding in Vienna. Shortly after Horáková’s trial and execution, subsequent show trials took place in Czechoslovakia, most of which tried and executed predominately Jews. The most famous was the Slánský trial. It seems Russia had put pressure on Czechoslovakia to root out its so-called “Zionist conspirators.” This state-sanctioned anti-Semitism of the communist regime reminded my partner’s grandfather of the Nazis, and sunk him into a depression that haunted him for the rest of his life. He never felt safe and, most of the time, actually wasn’t.
As the noise on the streets builds to a crescendo yet again, it is echoed by the noise in my head. Then, suddenly the street goes quiet, and sitting open on my computer screen is an article from June 30th. In it, Czech president Miloš Zeman says that the Black Lives Matter slogan is racist because all lives matter. The realisation hit me like a truck. Of course, the authoritarian power of communism that could execute Horáková and escalate anti-Semitism is part of the patriarchal system that causes the death of Black people in the United States.
Now the drill outside starts up with a vengeance, and I’m fighting the urge to scream at it all. No one is disputing that all lives matter! What the Black Lives Matter campaign is saying is that racism impacts the lives of Black people in many ways, one of which is being murdered by the police. This movement started in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon Martin’s death. It’s goal is “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.” Of course, it only makes sense that people cannot flourish when their lives are constantly under threat.
As a Jew, I support this movement. How can I not? Jews are gunned down at synagogues and grocery stores, targeted by white supremacists, and have seen Nazi symbolism used on presidential campaign posters, and, even pepperonis in the shape of swastikas on pizzas. The anti-Semitism we experience is directly connected to the racism Blacks experience.
Yet, it is not the same experience. I do not understand what it is like to “drive while Black.” Jews are not jailed at considerably higher rates for lesser crimes. I could go on, but I’d rather not as I do not understand many Black experiences. I would rather leave space for them to speak. At the same time, I know that Jews have anti-racism work of our own to do, especially in predominately Ashkenazi communities.
As I sit down to sum this up, the monthly test of the emergency system starts, and I am struck by the irony of it all. The noise of the street, the noise in my head, anti-Semitism, and racism. As I’ve said before and will repeat here: patriarchy connects everything.
This blog started out influenced by the noise produced while memorializing Milada Horáková, the Czech feminist and advocate for democracy and is ending with a noise that is meant to protect us from harm. Let’s take all this noise as a warning. We know what is wrong with our system. We have to work together to fix it.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.