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Woman and her identity in the prison subculture in the 1950s Introduction

Klára Pinerová

 

Over the last 20 years, there have been many books written about the political processes, methods of interrogation or about prisons and labor camps in communist Czechoslovakia. There are dozens of books written by former political prisoners who were jailed even though they were innocent. They survived with a free mind and bear no ill will. Among these innocent convicted, there were unfortunately women as well. In this paper, I would like to introduce the idea of the identity of a woman in prison and their adaptability to their surroundings in a totalitarian institution such as a prison. My research is based on interviews with former political female prisoners, made in the last three years.

 

All of these women were arrested at the beginning of the 1950s and were sentenced to 10-18 years. Their life stories share many similarities. At the beginning of their punishment, they were imprisoned in small prisons and working camps with about 20-60 other female prisoners, but all of them spent their last years of imprisonment in the women prison in Pardubice. Almost all of them were released in the year 1959 or 1960 after the presidential amnesty of May 1959 which meant a pardon for the majority of political prisoners. Just one woman was released 3 years later, in 1963. All of the interviewed women were sentenced because of their political opinions. They were involved in resistance activities against communism in different ways - in organizing the resistance of army officers, in foreign resistance, helping people to emigrate or spreading leaflets.[1]

 

Female identity in prison

According to the prison statistic from January 1, 1951, there were less than 12 percent of female prisoners.[2] When we look at the number of published memoirs, however, we find that most of them were written by men. There are just about five books written by women.[3] The reason is definitely not a need to displace painful memories: I have made about ten interviews with former political female prisoners and all of them were willing to remember, they didn't feel any particular difficulties or bitterness. They remembered the friendships and the atmosphere which developed there. The reason why they do not write about their memories could be illustrated with words written in the book by Božena Kuklová-Jíšová:

 

"We women are very often criticized for not writing about ourselves, about our fate. Perhaps it is because there were some moments which were very humiliating for us; or because in comparison to the many different brave acts of men, our acts seem so narrow-minded. But the main reason is that we have difficulties presenting ourselves to the world."[4]

 

At the beginning, it is very important to stress that family is very important for women, while work is important for men. The loss of employment is very significant for men; but the loss of family and family relationships is very fundamental for women.[5] Some women were in difficult family circumstances and sometimes this was the reason why they became informers. In any case, imprisonment had a destabilizing impact on their family. The prisons of the 1950s took from female prisoners not only their freedom or privacy, it attacked their very womanhood and their identity as women as well. Men, on the other hand, did not lose their sexual identity in prison.

 

This is clearly reflected in the memoirs and interviews with women and men imprisoned in the era of communism. The gender difference is apparent in a different attitude to life and its everyday aspects. Women tell us or describe not only their life story, their dreams and wishes, humiliation and cruel interrogation, but very often, they also share stories about their friends in the interviews; they describe their destinies with full understanding and empathy. They value friendship and human relationships. Men write and speak very well about everyday life in labor camps, about the work, and about humiliation and hard interrogation as well. It seems that they didn't know the situation and family relations of their co-prisoners as well as women did.

 

The attributes of womanhood are an important part of the life of women; they helped keep and preserve their dignity in the prison surroundings. On the other hand, we can observe that this woman identity was very often attacked by guards. It certainly cannot be said that it was a systematic activity; I suppose that it was just a natural reaction of the guards who wanted to make the life of female prisoners more difficult. Not only did the women in prison loose contact with their family, children, husbands and relatives, it was also very difficult for them to adapt to the new surroundings and things such as food, accommodation and life standard.

 

"After that the regime of tin spoons and tin dishes started and lasted for many years. It was a big punishment for me, even bigger than correction, because we were given neither a knife to cut our food, nor a fork." (Hana Truncová)[6]

 

One of the big changes was for example prison clothing. A woman had to dress in prison clothes after her conviction, she had to hand over all of her possessions; it was not allowed to keep even a ring, a necklace or earrings. When the woman lost all the attributes of her womanhood, she lost her identity.

 

"What did you wear?"

"In Želiezovce we had skirts and white man shirts with no collars. When it was very hot in there we pulled them out and we had a bit of air circulation around our bodies, but we weren't allowed to wear bras. In Pardubice I got trousers, a coat, and a shirt and it was all made of itchy cloth. We all had the same brown or grey-brown. We also had square black grey scarves. Our underwear was provided by the prison as well. They changed it for us every week but I used to hand wash it to have it clean. I put it over the frame of my bed and sometimes the other inmates got angry because of that (highlighted by author)." (Květoslava Moravečková)[7]

 

From this answer, we can reach three very important conclusions about woman identity in prison which are significant in all of the interviews. Firstly, we often hear of "white man shirts with no collars" or "we received male clothing" or "a male shirt with a big neck without any buttons, then male underpants" in the interviews and in the memoirs of former female political prisoners. Women had to dress in prison clothes after their conviction. The sentences about male clothing indicate the women's desire to keep their identity.

 

Also, clothing is more important for women than for men and the sentence "We all had the same brown or grey-brown" shows that he women noticed that all of them look the same and that there was no opportunity to express their own identity. The same, however, is also true for male prisoners. What is different is the fact that women did try to look nicer in prison. They bought perfumes for prison money in the canteen; they tried to iron their clothes in the poor prison conditions, they curled their hair etc.

 

Very important for the identity of women was the maintenance of hygiene, especially for political prisoners. Keeping clean was a distinctive sign distinguishing them from criminal prisoners. They kept their clothes as clean as they could; they washed them every day, even though there was only cold water. This significant point is apparent not only in the answers of Květoslava Moravečková, but in other interviews as well. The importance of cleanliness is especially important during periods and there was, naturally, a very short supply of toiletries in prison. There was a big urgency to get hold of sanitary towels every month. If the women did not manage to obtain them, they tore a sheet to pieces, for which they could, of course, be punished. The absence of sanitary towels was the impulse for a hunger-strike in 1954. The situation changed a little bit after this hunger-strike, but the women were given only 4 sanitary towels for one month!

 

Relations among co-prisoners

The stay in prison was very difficult for women. They did not only lose contact with their family, but they had to meet an entirely new group of people - criminal prisoners who were sometimes hostile to them. In the interviews women talked about their co-prisoners in different ways. Hana Truncová told about her coexistence with criminal prisoners:

 

"I lived together with a murderer who adapted herself in all ways. When any of us had visitors and brought something back to the cell she would divide it into parts and put one part on each mattress. The murderer did the same. She was jealous of her husband and killed him, but the whole family used to visit her. She always got sweets and shared them with us. I couldn't eat it because she touched it with her hands, with hands that killed a man. I pretended that I had eaten it and liked it." (Hana Truncová).[8]

 

Vlasta Jakubová, on the other hand, had a different experience:

 

"Usually we didn't share the same cell with them. We had good relationships. Especially murderers told us "Don't you want to take my bread? I will stay here longer, but you will go home soon." (Vlasta Jakubová)[9]

 

The situation in the Pardubice prison for women, where the interviewed women spent several years, was rather specific. At the beginning of the 1950s, the prison was mostly used for political female prisoners with sentences of ten years or more; around the year 1955 this rule changed and politically imprisoned women had to share the same prison with murderers, prostitutes, and thieves. There was a special department called "The Castle" where politically active women were located. Among those were for example Růţena Vacková, a professor of the Charles University, Dagmar Skálová, or Vlasta Charvátová. In total, there were sixty-four women in this department. There was another department called "The Vatican" for nuns, and a department called "The Underworld", where prostitutes, women with venereal diseases, women with mental problems and habitual offenders were imprisoned. Political female prisoners were in the majority until the presidential amnesty of 1960 and the rest of the prisoners adapted. After the amnesty, the moral views of the criminal prisoners dominated. This had important consequences. Life became much harder, violence among prisoners rose, there were fights every day, some women were even raped and the first homosexual couples appeared in prison. The circumstances in the prison after the big amnesty of May 1960 are not the topic of this paper, because only one of the interviewed women was released after this year.

 

Hunger-strike in the Pardubice prison in 1955

There have been several strikes in the Pardubice prison; I would like to go through the details of one of them, the hunger strike of September 1955. The estimated number of prisoners who participated varies. Some estimates say there were about 520 women, other are more conservative with 105 women participating in the hunger strike.

 

"The idea of a hunger strike first went around as a whispered rumor. At that time there was a new guard in Pardubice. No one told us her name so we immediately gave her the nickname of Elsa Koch, who was originally a guard of a concentration camp during WWII." (Hana Truncová)[10]

 

The majority of women I interviewed said the hunger strike started as a protest against the bullying from guards and especially the one they called Elsa Koch. There are often other reasons mentioned such as bad food and bad living conditions. Some people say that the exact reason for the hunger strike was the putting of a political prisoner named Dagmar Tůmová into solitary confinement.[11] The hunger strike lasted for a week and some women starved even longer, for example Julie Hrušková:

 

"Afterwards all women stopped starving, but I decided to continue. There were three of us in one cell and it had lasted for seven days and the guards made the decision that they would start feeding us. The first was Boţka Tomášková who found out that the strike was over and she quit. Then there was Vendula Švecová who tried to fight, but finally they fed her anyways. I was the last one. They were trying to hold me, but I told them, "Look, it's below my dignity to fight here with you. You have an order to feed me, so go ahead." So they put a tube in me and gave me broth, but when they were taking the pipe out afterwards I vomited the food on the guard named Ruzyňák who was always very meticulous about his appearance. They took me back to my cell; in total we were on hunger strike for fourteen days and we were knocking morse codes. Vendula was already writing me that she didn't feel well. They told us that the next day we would be taken to Pardubice to be fed through the nose and not the mouth. I was anxious for this, because I thought I would tell the doctors everything that was going on. Vendula kept writing me that she didn't feel fine so I told her to start eating that I was fine and I would go to the hospital alone. However, she collapsed in the evening and without me she refused to start eating, so I had to stop starving." (Julie Hrušková)[12]

 

Women who were found to be the main initiators of the protest were transported to a secret police department in Pardubice on December 15, 1955. There they were punished with ten days of solitary confinement. Other women who joined the hunger strike could not write letters, receive parcels, or have visitors.

 

Conclusion

The adaptability of women to the prison environment is different from that of men. According to social and penology studies, the most important factor for women, other than the loss of freedom, is the loss of the contact with their families. For a woman, imprisonment signifies an attack on her womanhood and her female identity, and this has consequences on her psyche as well. She is more stressed by the loss of her identity and by the change in food, accommodation and clothing. In the 1950s, the attacks on the female identity of prisoners were more concentrated; from archive materials, however, it is very hard to prove whether this was planned by the prison management or not.

 

 

 

Bibliography

BOUŠKA, Tomáš; PINEROVÁ, Klára. Czechoslovak Political Prisoners: Life Stories of 5 Male and 5 Female Victims of Stalinism. Praha, 2009.

BOUŠKA, Tomáš; PINEROVÁ, Klára; LOUČ, Michal. Českoslovenští političtí vězni: životní příběhy. Praha, 2009.

BURSÍK, Tomáš. Ztratily jsme mnoho času... ale ne sebe!: Životy politických vězeňkyň v československých věznicích padesátých a šedesátých letech 20. století. Praha: Úřad dokumentace a vyšetřování zločinů komunismu PČR, 2006.

HAVLÍČKOVÁ, Helena. Dědictví: kapitoly z dějin komunistické perzekuce v Československu 1948-1989. Olomouc: Votobia, 2002.

HUNGR, Pavel. Ţeny ve vězeňské komunitě. In Ženská delikvence jako sociální jev: sborník příspěvků z konference pořádané katedrou právní teorie Právnické fakulty MU v Brně dne 4. 11. 2004.

KUKLOVÁ - JÍŠOVÁ, Boţena. Krásná němá paní. Praha: Nakladatelství Arsci, 2002.

NEDBÁLKOVÁ, Kateřina. Má vězení střední rod? aneb Maskulinita a feminita ve vězeňských subkulturách. In Sociologický časopis, č. 4, 2004.

PALKOSKOVÁ - WIESENBERGEROVÁ, Albína. Nebyl to jen sen. Praha: LUXPRESS, 1991.

PALKOSKOVÁ, Albína. Tři životy: osudy žen staropražského rodu. Praha: nakladatelství B. Just, 1998.

ŠIMKOVÁ, Dagmar. Byly jsme tam taky. Praha: Orbis, 1991.

VACKOVÁ, Růţena. Vězeňské přednášky. Praha: Archiv Univerzity Karlovy, 1999.

WEST, Tessa. Ţeny, gramotnost a trest odnětí svobody. In České vězeňství, č. 4, 1994.

ZÁBRANOVÁ, Jiřina. Ohlédnutí. Praha: TORST, 1994.

 

 


[1] Interviews with 5 of the women are published in BOUŠKA, Tomáš; PINEROVÁ, Klára. Czechoslovak Political Prisoners: Life Stories of 5 Male and 5 Female Victims of Stalinism. Praha, 2009. All six interviews are published in BOUŠKA, Tomáš; PINEROVÁ, Klára; LOUČ, Michal. Českoslovenští političtí vězni: životní příběhy. Praha, 2009. The interviews are available on-line on the website www.politicalprisoners.eu / www.politictivezni.cz.

[2] National Archives in Prague, SSNV fund - unsorted, materiály různé 1951 - 1952.

[3] KUKLOVÁ - JÍŠOVÁ, Boţena. Krásná němá paní. Praha: Nakladatelství Arsci, 2002, PALKOSKOVÁ - WIESENBERGEROVÁ, Albína. Nebyl to jen sen. Praha: LUXPRESS, 1991, ŠIMKOVÁ, Dagmar. Byly jsme tam taky. Praha: Orbis, 1991, PALKOSKOVÁ, Albína. Tři životy: osudy žen staropražského rodu. Praha: nakladatelství B. Just, 1998, ZÁBRANOVÁ, Jiřina. Ohlédnutí. Praha: TORST, 1994. In the Czech historiography, there is only one book concerning women in Czechoslovak prisons, written by BURSÍK, Tomáš. Ztratily jsme mnoho času... ale ne sebe!: Životy politických vězeňkyň v československých věznicích padesátých a šedesátých letech 20. století. Praha: Úřad dokumentace a vyšetřování zločinů komunismu PČR, 2006; and one psychological study written by BUŠKOVÁ, Kristýna. Ţeny v komunistických lágrech: psychologické dopady politického věznění a způsoby jejich zvládání, in BOUŠKA, Tomáš; PINEROVÁ, Klára; LOUČ, Michal. Českoslovenští političtí vězni: životní příběhy. Praha, 2009.

[4] KUKLOVÁ - JÍŠOVÁ, Boţena, p. 6.

[5] NEDBÁLKOVÁ, Kateřina. Má vězení střední rod? aneb Maskulinita a feminita ve vězeňských subkulturách. In Sociologický časopis, No. 4, 2004.

[6] BOUŠKA, Tomáš; PINEROVÁ, Klára, p. 88.

[7] Ibid., p. 66.

[8] BOUŠKA, Tomáš; PINEROVÁ, Klára, p. 91.

[9] BOUŠKA, Tomáš; PINEROVÁ, Klára; LOUČ, Michal, p. 155.

[10] BOUŠKA, Tomáš; PINEROVÁ, Klára, p. 92.

[11] BURSÍK, Tomáš. Ztratily jsme mnoho času... ale ne sebe!: Životy politických vězeňkyň v československých věznicích padesátých a šedesátých letech 20. století. Praha: Úřad dokumentace a vyšetřování zločinů komunismu PČR, 2006, p. 42.

[12] BOUŠKA, Tomáš; PINEROVÁ, Klára, p. 50.

 

Last update: 10/12/2012 15:17:16

 
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