©EVan Nichols, 2014

©Evan Nichols, 2014

Pravda a láska musí zvítězit nad lží a nenávistí.   Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred.

Václav Havel

 

Carefully peeling the thin white and red aluminum foil, I orchestrate the movement of my fingers, glimpsing the chocolate flesh. I take in the satisfyingly plump shape and then continue to unwrap the egg, shavings of chocolate getting stuck under my nails, releasing sweet, foreign aroma. I’m thinking I can’t have the aluminum foil rip—I have to preserve it. In a while, the whole chocolate egg is revealed. I notice a seam and shake it, hearing dull rattling noises from the cavity of the egg. Contemplating whether or not to break the egg, I pause. My curiosity wins and in a moment a small yellow capsule appears nestled in one of the two halves with white chocolate coating on the inside. I gently break a piece of the chocolate eggshell, tasting the soft, smooth texture for the first time. Through the translucent plastic, I see small objects stored inside. Opening the capsule and pulling out tiny plastic pieces, I begin to put together a small toy, a red bicycle. It’s 1984. I’m eight years old, in Prague, the place of my birth. Not fully understanding how the egg got to me and why I cannot have it more often, I will remember this rare blissful experience and as a remembrance of it store the physical remains of the Kinder Egg—the aluminum foil, the capsule and the toy bicycle.

As a child, I couldn’t go to a grocery store or simply ask my parents to buy this surprise chocolate candy, a candy that not only did not exist in the place where I lived but also came from a country my parents and I were severely restricted from knowing anything about. Coming from capitalist West Germany, a kind of Eden, the Kinder Egg came to represent a window to the West to those who grew up in the shadow of the communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia.

Among other children born and raised in Czechoslovakia, I experienced deprivation on countless levels. The Kinder egg, symbolizing a promise of luxury goods, choices and freedom that as a child I didn’t experience, is one example. Receiving this special treat during communism, I was both flooded with glee and painfully aware that this was one of those rare moments of material pleasure. When I grew older, I found out that in order to get this candy, my parents used Bony, money diplomats or members of the communist party had access to and the common folk like my parents illegally purchased from vekslák, a dealer in the underground Bony market economy. When I found out that my parents might be going to Tuzex, a chain of a few stores in Prague that carried goods from the west—Juicy Fruit gum, Persil laundry detergent, JVC stereos, I begged them to go: “Prosím, prosím můžu jít s Váma do Tuzexu? Můžu?”

While on the one hand the scarcity of goods made our lives somewhat simpler and less distracting as we would find one brand of bread, soap, butter or toilet paper in the grocery store, on a larger level and especially when we were becoming teenagers or young adults, we associated this deprivation with numbing of the spirit. The longer we were kept in this deprived state, the more submissive, ignorant, apathetic we became. Options on the basic need level such as housing or food were literarily eliminated since pretty much everyone lived in panelák, gray tenement apartment buildings that had nearly identical floor plans, furnishings and appliances no matter its location. Options in terms of fashion were again simplified for us—you ether went with whatever the state textile factories churned out and wore a unisex T-shirt everyone one else was wearing or you turned to crafts. I remember proudly walking down Řetězová ulice, my favorite street in Prague, in red hand-dyed pants, hand knitted sweater and a male derby hat that I inherited from my grandfather.

These limitations on the material were also, of course, reflected on the spiritual and intellectual level as well. Any attempt to pursue alternative ideas was punished. Once in middle school, I wanted to stimulate a class discussion by asking questions, and as a result of my initiative, I had to spend the rest of the class meeting standing in public humiliation in a corner, facing a blank wall. From this early formative experience, I learned that asking questions was a big mistake as it marked me an independent thinker.

But the stakes were even higher when you were older. While interviewing for a secretarial job in the early 1970’s, my mother was asked what she thought of Jan Palach, a Charles University student who committed suicide by setting himself on fire in Wenceslas Square as a form of political protest on January 16th 1969 in an attempt to wake the general public from lethargy following the Soviet invasion on August 21st 1968 that brought end to a brief period of political freedom known as The Prague Spring. “Co si myslíte o Janu Palachovi?” Knowing that answering this question the wrong way would not only cost my mother the job but even more and while at the same time not wanting to sell her soul, she answered: “Já se o politiku nezajímám.” “I’m not interested in politics.” Creative, critical or individual thinking was discouraged and punished as a measure to keep us in a kind of protected state, one that was presented as an ideal, a paradise. This so-called paradise was part of the communist propaganda machinery always in the shadow of the constantly present wings of the Soviet Union that sheltered us and kept us ignorant. This perhaps explains why my mother had a newspaper article about Jan Palach, a memento of her hero, hidden under wall-to-wall carpeting until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

We were punished not only when we stood out as independent or creative thinkers but also when we associated ourselves with any individuals who challenged the communist system. If we discussed, read or alluded to works of philosophers, artists or dissidents who questioned or opposed the totalitarian regime, we were considered a threat to the stability of the system, a threat that had to be silenced or even eliminated. Many Czechoslovakian writers would create their work, knowing that it wouldn’t be published. Instead they wrote publishable work do šuplíku, literally for the drawer. At great risks to themselves, they would secretly circulate copies of each other’s writings. When caught or simply suspected, independent thinkers like Václav Havel, playwright, essayist, philosopher and later democratically elected President of the Czechoslovakia, was imprisoned numerous times.   Writers like Josef Škvorecký or Milan Kundera to name just a few, were banned. Many of our great artists were either directly or indirectly forced to voluntarily exile themselves to West Germany, Austria, France, Canada, U.S.

This banning trend not only showed up in literature but also in music. Anything associated with the west was suspect and restricted. Western rock bands like the Rolling Stones, Beetles, and the Velvet Underground were forbidden. Among the Czech bands that were suppressed and persecuted for their non-conformist stance were the underground group DG 307, an ironic name reflecting an abbreviation for a mental disorder, and the rock avant-garde group The Plastic People of the Universe—Plastici.

It’s been twenty-five years now since the Velvet Revolution, when Czech citizens threw off, without blood, the shackles of Soviet power and began to feel a national consciousness and transitioned to an independent democratic capitalist system. Much of that progression or metamorphosis—eighteen years of it, in fact—occurred while I found a home in the United States, a country of inexhaustible consumer choice.

That Kinder egg, a symbol of the west, keeps accruing meanings I can’t seem to keep up with. How will my son Finn, born four and a quarter years ago as he likes to say, read this egg? As an American, he might see the chocolate egg and the surprise toy inside it as one more choice among choices, leaving trails of torn thin white and red aluminum foil on the couch after ravaging the egg, still wanting more. Máš další, mami? Perhaps he’ll associate the Kinder egg with his Czech grandmother who sends them from Prague or brings them with her whenever she visits. Perhaps he’ll remember his mother’s story and understand her hunger led her here.

 

©Ema Fischer-Mikolavich, 2014

Ema Fischer-Mikolavich earned her MA. with a concentration in composition from San Francisco State University. She also holds a BA. in Comparative Literature (with a focus on English and Czech) from University of California, Berkeley. She has taught at UC Berkeley and SF State and has been an English instructor at Diablo Valley College since 2008. She was BAWPtized in 2014.

 

2 Responses to “The Kinder Egg: Forbidden Knowledge by Ema Fischer-Mikolavich”


  1. I’m Joe Smigelski, who also teaches at Diablo Valley College, and coincidentally I have chosen the play “Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard to use next semester in a literature class. Stoppard, in his introduction to the play, which is in part about independent thinkers in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring era, mentions the importance of such rock and roll bands as The Plastic People of the Universe. My wife and I saw a production of the play in San Francisco a few years ago.


  2. I was fortunate that as a Czech language consultant I could work with ACT in San Francisco and assist the actors in the pronunciation of the Czech words in Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n Roll. Ema

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