Jan Beneš

* 1936  †︎ 2007

  • “It was very soon after February 1948, although I can’t specify it with any greater precision, we went shopping for books at our – you could say so – ‘family book store’ that was on Vítězné náměstí Square. It was called ‘Kraus and Sons’ and my dad wanted to buy me a book for the good marks I had gotten at school. I remember exactly which one he bought me because it was that Battle Cruiser Artemis by Forester and the second one was a book by Karel Čapek called Marsyas. Let’s say that this was in March. Now what happened was that a little van stopped right in front of that book store, a guy and two youngsters jumped out of it and they ran inside the store and started to throw books out the windows. They were throwing out that Čapek as well but fortunately my father had already put it into his pocket. My dad walked up to that guy and shouted at him: ‘What do you think you’re doing here’? It was Pavel Reimann from the Central Committee of the Party, a devout ideologue. And later I learned from Mr. Ornest that those two young lads were Milan Jungmann and Ivan Klíma. Today, they’re not speaking about it. So they were plundering that bourgeois book store, my father was helpless and Mrs. Kraus, who had returned from Auschwitz, was standing there shaking. The shop clerk, who was her son, came and said: ‘Sir, you’re talking to my mom’! He replied: ‘I don’t give a damn’. That was a kind of behavior I hadn’t seen before in my life and therefore it really struck me. Then they shut down our grammar school and that’s when we knew that the Communists were after us. They also disbanded the Scouts and made it illegal. They founded the so-called ‘Pioneers’ instead but I didn’t join it and that’s when the trouble started for me.”

  • “Once, the Young World magazine wanted me to write a report for them. I wasn’t being secretive about the fact that I had been in prison. So I would write the report right from the prison. I said: ‘Yes, Camp Vojna, here’. We had a deal. All of a sudden: ‘It wasn’t Vojna, but Zámrsk – for juvenile delinquents’. I said: ‘that wasn’t part of the deal’. This resulted from the fact that when I wrote the book ‘Second Breath’, it was debated at the ideological department of the party because it had to be approved. So Pilař was there, Květa Drábková – the editor – was there as well, Homola too, Kostroun and there was as well Colonel Kloubec, which rhymes with pitomec (dummy) and blbec (idiot), right? It all started with Kloubec saying he had read all my cadre materials. I told him that it was laudable as that was the reason why he was keeping them. A strange incident occurred at that moment. In the novel, there was always a motto and one of the mottos was: “The Russian has a crooked brain, Turgenev (?)’. He accused me of humiliating the Soviet Union. I said: ‘what Soviet Union, this has been taken from Maxim Gorky’. I was just guessing. ‘From the Story about unusual things, page 152’. He had his assistant bring the book from the library and indeed – it was there. On the very same page I gave them. But eventually, my book wasn’t published either. Kloubec would not have it published. He said they would not recommend it. It was published abroad – in English and German, later in Italian, but never in Czech.”

  • J. B.: “In the beginning, for the first three weeks, I didn’t talk to them at all. I didn’t testify. In the meantime, Havel screwed it up because doctor Mikulda was going there (?). There’s a book about this, it’s called Indolence, you should read it. (an interview of Václav Havel with Jiří Němec about Beneš as the Prague correspondent of the Testimony was wiretapped by the secret police as well as Němec’s comments about the poor conspiracy of meetings between Beneš and Tigrid. Pavel Tigrid supposedly sent money to Beneš’s account together with the name of the sender. However, this was allegedly just the mistake of his secretary. On the other hand, according to the mentioned criticism of Němec, Jan Beneš wasn’t paying much attention to the rules of conspiracy either – note by the editor). So understandably I testified and later, they put some cops in my cell that turned it into spreading Nazism. They claimed that I promoted Nazism by chanting Nazi songs in the prison cell. They added a few other weird accusations, for instance that I intentionally harmed the Socialist state by ripping up the cap that went with the prison uniform. They tried in various ways. And that’s when the year 1968 came and I became the last political prisoner. My investigation then continued, but I wasn’t handcuffed and tied to the wall anymore. However, on November 7, 1966, I got beaten up by the warders. I have no clue whether they had an order from above, can’t really judge on that. This was really just a sort of punishment. Because we were not allowed to have any writing tools on the cells but I stole a pen from one of the investigators while I was signing those protocols and took that pen to my cell. Of course, there was a cop in the cell, his name was Mr. Morkes. So they found out about it and in the evening, there was a celebration in the prison – the warders were having a party. We could hear them sing. Suddenly, there was some tumult in the corridor, the door to the cell opened, Tonda Blecha – the brother of the wife of Matuška – was thrown inside followed by a dozen or so drunk warders and we were all beaten up recklessly. Afterwards I tried to file a complaint but I was told that they had just tried to prevent a prison break and that we got beaten in the ensuing chaos by mistake. And the case was solved.”

  • “I was a scout when I was a kid. We would go to summer camps and on trips. When UNRRA came, we got canned food – it was great. We went to the Sázava River for a holiday. I got into trouble because of my religion. Father Opasek was complaining about this later in his book, because, of course, originally, we would go to the church on Sundays, but when the trips started, we would simply skip the church and go on a trip instead. So our religion suffered greatly because of the trips. Another issue that was troublesome was the fact that there was so much weaponry and dangerous military material lying around in the forests and that many youngsters paid with their lives for not being careful and playing with it. Two of my best friends died in this way. After this happened, I promised my parents to be a good boy. We used to go to the Lysolaje forest for walks and games and there was a former German military stockpile where the Germans stored bombs for the Luftwaffe. We were so stupid! We would dismantle the bombs and take out the explosives. I would then crush it to fine powder with a cobblestone, stuff it inside a rubber hosepipe and when you set it on fire on one end, it would jump around like a frog. Once, my dad came home and caught me doing this so he tried to talk me out of doing this. Another day, we went to Juliska, which used to be a brick factory and today there’s the St. Alexei church standing there. I found a strange thing there and somebody told me not to touch it and to bring it to the police so no other boy would find it and get harmed. So I loaded it on my scooter and went to the Ministry of National Defense where my dad was working. I came to the reception with that bomb on my scooter and told the receptionist that I’m there to see my dad, gave him his name and rank. The evacuated half of the building because it was an anti-tank mine with a sort of a timer. Nobody knew what it would do. So, I’m not exactly sure if I helped my dad in his career advancement. You see, I wanted to be a good boy and it turned out in my disfavor.”

  • J. B.: “Well, I can tell you this, it was pretty tough there. They would put me in ‘correction’ where I had an especially tough daily regime, extra work to do and things like that. This was till January 1968. In January, this changed and I could do virtually anything I wanted except that I was locked up so I didn’t go to work. I was recognized as ill.” Interviewer: “And what was the correction all about? That was in the Bory prison in Pilsen, right?” J. B.: “The correction in Pilsen was the same as all the others in the country. You got to eat only once every three days. But I have to say that I was lucky because one of the prison warders brought my book and wanted me to sign it. He then sort of became my fan and gave me more food than the other prisoners who were in correction. The same was true for the correction in the Ruzyně prison. There, it was a certain warder Rykl who would regularly bring me a bowl of goulash when he was alone on duty on the Sundays. He also offered me the chance to collaborate. Well, don’t you think that if I joined them I wouldn’t have ended up as… Similarly, the two wardens who would accompany me to the court. One of them – his name was Emil – he was a fervent communist. The other one, he must have served as a warder before February 1948, was much more sympathetic to me. You could see that he was on my side.”

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    Praha?, 31.01.2005

    duration: 01:38:01
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
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It was rather tough in prison till January 1968, but afterwards I could do pretty much whatever I wanted to

Jan Beneš as a young man
Jan Beneš as a young man
photo: www.krajane.net

Jan Beneš was born on March 26, 1936, in Prague, the son of an architect and a former Czechoslovak legionary. During the war, his father was involved in the resistance against the Nazis. Jan Beneš witnessed the end of the war and the Communists’ rise to power in Prague. He studied at a grammar school and then at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague and after the Communist takeover in February 1948, the family was kicked out of their flat and his father lost his job at the Ministry of Defense. During his compulsory service in the military, he was imprisoned for the first time for arming himself without permission. He published for the first time in 1963. In the years 1966-1968, he found himself behind bars for the second time for collaborating with Tigrid’s Testimony. In 1969, he emigrated to France and then to the USA. In the early days, he made a living as a manual worker and studied English. In the years 1973-1974, he was employed as a scientific assistant at the Institute of International Relations of Harvard University. Since 1974, he worked at the military language school in Monterey. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1989 (in 1992 permanently) and took an irreconcilable stance towards the totalitarian regime and its legacy. He committed suicide on June 1, 2007.