Note: Following is an excerpt from the chapter: “Living in socialism” from my upcoming book- the “Greenwich Meridian Memoir” set for Oct. 16 release on Amazon.
The book is available for preorder in Kindle format at:
Continued: Living in socialism
Among interesting events at workplaces were birthday celebrations. Ludek described a typical birthday celebration at the ZPS factory as follows; the celebrant typically brought in a bottle of plum brandy and poured everyone from each department a shot. After work, the celebration continued at the local pubs. There was a lot of birthday celebrations throughout the years. Milestone celebrations like turning 50, meant you got a fancy watch from the company and a huge party at a local pub.
During national holidays, the workers would steal anything and take it through the gates without being checked because there were so many of them leaving at once for the parades. So, the parades were known as the “March of Thieves.” The parades actually started inside the factory. On the matter of overtime, one individual was selected to punch for all those, who waited somewhere outside the factory behind the gates.
The major employers in Zlin were Svit and ZPS; their huge factory complex spanned several blocks in town. The shoe factory Svit was built during the Thomas Bata era in the 1920s. It employed 10,000 workers. ZPS was the mechanical engineering factory, employing also 10,000. Women worked mainly in Svit, while men worked in ZPS.
Our hometown Zlin grew thanks to the T & A Bata firm, when Tomas Bata was known as the “king of shoes” (aka the creator) of the global shoe emporium with export of shoes to the U.S. as well. The growth and success of the Bata firm were attributed to a large army contract with the Austro-Hungarian Empire to make shoes for 5,200 soldiers.
The core of city Zlin boasts the fine architecture of functionalism; the former Bata headquarters building “Twenty-one”, a high-rise reaching 254 feet and the 11- story Hotel Moscow. During socialism, the shoe empire became the factory Svit, where people worked for generations. In socialism, the economy was planned accordingly into one-year plans, five-year plans and ten-year plans. All the companies had to strive to fulfill the plans to the highest percentage for bonuses at the end of the year. The bulletin boards at the different workplaces boasted the percentages of fulfilled plans.
The average salary for women working in the Svit factory was 1,200 crowns; for men working in ZPS it was 2,500 to 3,000. Since, the work or the economy didn’t fluctuate, most jobs were for the entire lifetime until retirement.
“You couldn’t quit,” said Ludek.
According to Ludek, even if you wanted to quit, you couldn’t because you had to give a six-months’ notice, and the other employer wouldn’t wait for you that long. On top of that you had to sign a work contract.
Of course, there was no such thing as calling in sick; you had to have a doctor’s script that you are sick. Not showing up for work was called American time off or “A.” If you did it for three days in a row, the police would come looking for you.
If you were sick and stayed at home, you had to be in bed, because regular controls at home were conducted if you’re not cheating.
“They even touched the bed and the sheets if they were still warm,” Ludek said.
You got paid when you were sick, and the health care was free for all. There was a universal one crown fee per prescription of any drug. People often ask, if there was a shortage of drugs and doctors.
Of course, there was a shortage of everything due to the planned economy. You got used to most of the shortages, but some were just plain embarrassing like not enough toilet paper, hygiene products or laundry detergent.
On the other hand, there were fashionable dresses in nice boutiques, pretty shoes and fancy parties with crystal glasses and porcelain plates. The paradox of not having basic needs fulfilled sharply contrasted with the opulence of the fashion, including home fashions inside homes and apartments. People took good care of their homes and took pride in their furniture. Women spent days polishing the furniture, and usually you couldn’t touch anything when visiting a friend. You were designated a safe spot to sit, where you didn’t jeopardize the cleanliness and the order of things.
Most products were made in Czechoslovakia or they were imported from the countries of the RVHP–the association of mutual economic assistance such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, Romania and U.S.S.R.
You spent a lot of time waiting around for anything and everything, quite often it was in lines for desirable items like bananas or meat.
The grocery stores were small with only a limited amount of shopping baskets, so you waited for the shopping basket, then you waited inside the store at the dairy counter for cheese, and at the meat counter for meat, you waited in a line for the cash register and you waited for the bus to get home with your groceries. There you waited for the elevator to get to your apartment.
The waiting game was due to everything being small and crowded. Overall, the country is small with only 15.6 million population and territory of 127,875 square feet kilometers in the heart of Europe. So, it has traditionally been the target of other countries in their quest for more land.
At the time, there were only savings banks in the country except for the Commerce Bank in Prague that handled international currency. People got paid money not checks. Most of them kept the money at home and spent it for basic needs.
Nothing was really cheap; you pretty much spent your entire paycheck on life’s necessities. And that definitely discounted gas and telephone bills, because only a few people had cars or telephones. However, most people were not in debt, and mortgages didn’t exist. Something as bizarre as a non-returnable loan for newlyweds existed.
It wasn’t uncommon for several generations to live in one house. But the main housing was in apartments, that were affordable, but you had to wait for them for years. There were cheaper state-owned apartments and apartments owned by the cooperatives. Condos did not exist. This set-up was due to the socialist ownership of everything from apartments to land, factories and businesses that happened through the major nationalizations in 1945 and 1948. Houses were individually owned and usually built by owners. Most houses were in villages, and these included very old buildings like my Grandfather Joseph’s beloved “Ranch” at 111 Krnovska in Vizovice. The old buildings known as “chalupas” required extensive repair challenged by the shortage of contractors and materials.
However, the main source of the communist pride were the apartment mega complexes such as the “Southern Slopes” housing 20,000 people, which was one- fourth of the population of Zlin. These were dubbed as the “building successes of socialism.” The country is sprinkled with these and their inhabitants are happy to live in them. Most of them have been turned into condos.
Atheism vs Religion
A friend asked me to write about religion in socialist Czechoslovakia. Under the Marxism Leninism philosophy, the official religion was atheism–not believing in God or any deity. The church properties were confiscated along with everything else and belonged to the state as of 1945. But people went to churches, some secretly, others openly.
There were only two denominations that my husband Ludek and I could recall: Catholic and Evangelic. Each town had one church only, and the Catholic church usually prevailed depending on the region. The churches were old dating back to feudalism and the reigning aristocracy. It took 150 years to build the new Saint Mary’s Church in Stipa due to a pause in construction because of the 1620 war. The construction started under Albrecht of Valdstejn in 1615 and ended in 1765 thanks to the money from the Rottal countess.
The clear and present danger of going to church mainly impacted teachers and career-oriented people who were trying to get ahead of the game. It impacted both my father and my aunt.
Although we come from a large Catholic family, Aunt Martha, who was a teacher in Stipa, could not go to church. Many years later, I found out that she was a member of the Old Catholic Church, a chapter located inside a chapel at the cemetery across the street from the Konecny house and that she had sponsored a priest in his education. The chapel is also a tomb of the count Seilern family, a major influence in the Stipa region with the Chateau Lesna.
One of the major wars, the Thirty Years’ War, in Czech history was over religion. What I consider the sad part of modern history is that after the downfall of socialism in Czechoslovakia, the majority of people never returned back to the church.
However, a big tradition centered around the parishes stayed intact–that is the feast of the saints. In our case, it was the Feast of Saint Mary in Stipa on September 8 th. These feasts or pilgrimages were much like homecomings or festivals in the U.S. The entire families gathered for the feasts for an opulent celebration of the saints. In many cases, animals were butchered and ladies baked the famous pastry-kolache or strudels. A dance took place at the local hall on the night before the feast. This often turned into a brawl, as people got drunk on plum brandy. Carnival rides always came into town with booths and paper roses. I loved these paper colorful crepe roses on wires; I wish I had kept at least one. Other booths sold gingerbread hearts of all sizes and for all hearts.
In traditional pilgrimage places like Hostyn, the booths were set up all the time and opened for the season with hundreds of religious and non-religious items: rosaries, prayer books, medallions and miniature statues. Pilgrims streamed to Hostyn, both on foot and on buses.
That brings me to celebrations of holidays in general. In villages like Stipa, many people raised animals for meat: rabbits, pigs, geese, turkeys, chickens and ducks. That was the primary source of meat for the holidays. Most meat was roasted, served with creamy sauces or sauerkraut and dumplings. Pork and chicken were often fried into wiener schnitzel. Salads or vegetables were not as common as in the U.S. due to their year-round shortage. Soups were always a part of a holiday meal, mostly beef or chicken. In some households, people made their own noodles.
As a rule, women baked for the weekends all sorts of pastries, some for breakfast. But there was also an abundance of pastries on the market; at the bakeries, coffee shops, patisseries and in grocery stores. The patisseries served as cafes with people hanging around in them sipping coffee or wine, while enjoying a “rakvicka.” This dessert has always fascinated me; the pastry is in the form of a small coffin filled with delicious cream and ornately decorated on the top with whirls and swirls of more cream.
Among the most famous baked goods, were “rohliky” or bread rolls in the shape of a crescent, some even came with poppy seeds. And bread was always good, whether baked round with hard crust or in loaves in small or large bakeries.
Other homemade products included sausages and smoked meat. The butchering of the family pig usually took place in winter and before the holidays, so there was plenty of meat on the table. Socialism with its chronic lack of basic goods, drove the need for self-sufficiency specifically in the villages and craftsmanship as well. People were forced to be more creative in many different ways.
Many households in villages and towns were self-sufficient with everything homemade or home grown. National artist Joseph Lada illustrated the traditional festivities: The Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6, the butchering of the family pig in the yard with onlookers, Christmas by the tall tiled stoves, autumn campfires with fire-roasted potatoes and summer fun by the ponds with the willows.
The Czech Republic enjoys four distinct seasons: mild winters, early springs, hot summers and moderate autumns. The seasons are conducive to year-round vacationing and recreation. In the socialist era, people traveled freely between the two parts of the country, Czech and Slovak republics. Slovakia is the home to the Tatra Mountains. Travel to other socialist countries was also accommodated.
Recreation was encouraged and subsidized through the membership in the Revolutionary Union Movement (ROH) at the workplaces. Some companies had their own recreation centers in the mountains like Jelenovska. We visited this center in the mid-1980s. Much fancier centers belonged to the leaders of the Communist Party.
The ultimate goal of socialism aimed at the health and well-being of the population and the country. However, that was contradicted by the inability to act freely in many aspects such as travel to the Western countries and overall limitations of freedom of speech and press.
The press of the socialist era represented the opinions and views of tolerated organizations. The number one daily newspaper was “The Red Truth,” the official paper of the Communist Party gloated with the party philosophy and the party news. Then, there was a version for the younger generation called, “The Young Front,” which was a little bit less biased. After that, came “The People News” and “The Agricultural News.” All of them were heavily censored for content and inuendo. Journalists had to go to political schools, which were hard to get into.
The older generation like my grandpa read “The People News” only on Sunday afternoons. At the Gymnasium Zlin, we had to recite the news in the “Citizens’ Education” class. The news was usually about the president sending a congratulatory letter to another leader of a socialist country or about the regular Communist Party conventions.
The TV wasn’t much better, if not worse. There was one TV station–The Czechoslovak TV run by the government. The books and magazines were less censored. I sent a lot of novels to mom Ella.
I will be participating in October Virtual Book Fest with a reading on Oct. 5 and an interview on Oct. 23.
Zoom Reading:October 5, 2020 @ 7pm – 7:30pm
Zoom Interview:October 23, 2020 @ 7pm – 8pm
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