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May Day Memories of a Czech Communist Imprisoned by Nazis during WWII

Journalist and communist Julius Fucik wrote an account of his time imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo on cigarette papers and pencils smuggled into the Prague prison where he was held and ultimately executed for resisting Nazi occupation. The following is an excerpt of his recollections of May Day, International Workers Day, and the comrades who kept the hope of workers revolution and liberation alive from within the prison

Left Voice

May 1, 2023
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The following is a selection from Notes from the Gallows, the account of a Czech communist, Julius Fucik, of the year and a half he spent imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo before being executed in 1943. This is his recollection of May Day, International Workers Day, in 1943, as he was imprisoned in Prague for being part of the resistance to Nazi occupation.

Fucik was a journalist and the editor of several communist publications before taking up the task of running the underground operations of the outlawed Communist Party during Nazi occupation. He wrote what became Notes from the Gallows on cigarette papers and pencils smuggled into his cell by sympathetic prison wardens, at least one of whom was a comrade in disguise, who took a position in the prison to continue communications and operations between cadres and leaders who were imprisoned by the Nazis. A network of comrades smuggled his notes out of prison and eventually they were delivered to his wife, Augustina, who was also a member of the Communist Party and imprisoned and tortured. They took these immense risks because they knew his pen was an invaluable contribution to the history and strength of the communist movement in the darkest, most dangerous of times.

Fucik describes not only his torture by the Nazis, but also daily life in the prison among the incarcerated communists and resistors. He talks about the small and large acts of solidarity and strength among the prisoners — whether it was a fellow prisoner taking care of his wounds or a raised fist and an encouraging word from a comrade who he saw being escorted out of the prison for a final interrogation. These acts fed the flame of their hope for the workers revolution that could end the violence of the war for good and liberate humanity from even the worst expressions of this wretched system.

He wrote this account of May Day a year after Fucik had been imprisoned and just several months before he would be executed; he describes how the communists imprisoned in Prague celebrated this day knowing that they would probably not see the end of the war, imprisoned for fighting against the Nazis by organizing workers and spreading communist ideas. Even with the contradictions of his commitment to the Communist Party after Stalinization, Fucik’s words sing with his conviction for the fight for a workers government. Even though he knew that he would soon be executed, even as he knew that his friends and loved ones and comrades were being tortured and killed, he wrote about joy and the future they were fighting for where all people can thrive — in a word, communism; it’s this spirit that we can see reflected in the movements of all oppressed and exploited people against this system from the beginning of our movement through to today.

***

MAY INTERLUDE, 1943 

This is the first of May 1943, an intermission in which I have a chance to write. What luck! — to be a Communist editor again for a moment, and write a story on the May parade of the battle-strength of the new world. 

Don’t expect to hear about waving flags, nothing of that kind. Nor can I tell you about any exciting action, which people so like to hear. It was much simpler than that today, no explosive waves of thousands of marchers who poured through the streets of Prague on May 1st in other years. No exquisite sea of millions, which I have seen flood the Red Square in Moscow. You don’t see millions, or even hundreds here, only a handful of comrades. And yet you feel that this is not less important, for here is a review of a new force as it passes through the fiercest fire and turns not to ashes, but to steel. A review in the battle trenches, in trenches where we wear field gray. 

This test takes place in such minor events that I doubt if you, who have not lived through the furnace of battle, can understand it as you read. Perhaps you will understand. Believe me, strength is being born here. 

The morning greeting from our neighboring cell taps out two measures from Beethoven. It is more emphatic today, more festive, and the wall speaks in higher tones. 

We dress in the best that we have. The same in all the cells. 

We have a gala breakfast. The trusties parade before the open cell doors with black coffee, bread and water. Comrade Skorepa hands out three buns instead of two as his May Day greeting. The greeting of a careful soul, who finds some simple act to express his feelings. Our fingers touch under the buns and exchange a pressure ever so slight. One dares not speak — they even watch the expression of our eyes. But the dumb can talk quite clearly with their fingers. 

Below our window the women prisoners run out for their setting-up exercises. I climb up on the table to look down through the bars. Perhaps they will look up. They see me, and raise clenched fists in greeting. And again. It is lively down in the court — really cheerful compared to other days. The guard does not see — or perhaps doesn’t wish to see. Even that is a part of the May Day parade. 

Then comes our period, and I am to lead the exercises. It is the first of May, boys, let’s begin with something new, whether the guard is looking or not. First exercise is swinging the sledge-hammer — one, two, one, two. Second comes cutting grain. The hammer and sickle — the men begin to understand. A smile goes down the ranks and they bend to the exercises with a vigor. This is our May Day demonstration, boys, this pantomime is our May Day oath that we shall stand firm, even we who march toward death. 

Back to the cells. Nine o’clock. The clock tower in the Kremlin is striking ten and the parade starts across the Red Square. Come along, Dad, they are singing the International. The International sounds around the world; let it ring out in our cell, too. We sing it, and one revolutionary song follows another. We don’t want to be lonely — nor are we alone. We belong to those who dare sing freely out in the world. They are in battle, just as we…

Comrades in the prisons 

Behind those frigid walls,

You’re with us, you’re with us 

Though you can’t march in our ranks. 

Yes, we’re with you. 

In cell 267 we thought that a fitting close to our May Day celebration, 1943. But it was not the end. The trusty from the women’s corridor is strolling out in the courtyard whistling the March of the Red Army. Then she whistles Pturtizankfi and other Soviet songs, adding her courage to that in the men’s cells. And the man in the uniform of the Czech police, who brought me paper and pencil and stands guard outside my door so no one can surprise me while I write. And the other Czech guard who started me at this writing and carries the sheets away to be hidden until the right time for them to appear in print. He could pay with his very head for this piece of paper, and risks his life to build a paper bridge between today behind the bars and tomorrow in liberty. They are all fighting the one battle, fighting courageously, wherever they are placed, with whatever weapons come to hand. They are so simple about it, so unostentatious and utterly without pathos that you would never realize this is a battle to the death, in which it is still nip and tuck whether they win or lose their lives. 

Ten times, twenty times you have seen the soldiers of the revolution parade on May Day, and it was grand. But only in battle can you see the real strength of this army, and realize that it is invincible. Death is simpler than you thought, and heroism has no halo round its head. But the battle is crueler than you supposed, and it takes immeasurable strength to hold out and win through to victory. You see this army move, but don’t always realize what strength it has. Its blows are so simple and logical. 

Today you realize it. 

At the May Day parade of 1943. 

May First, 1943, interrupted for a moment the flow of this tale. That is as it should be. On festive days one thinks differently, and the joy I feel today may distort my memory of it.

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