Pavel woke up, with a thunderous headache. I shouldn’t have gotten drunk, he thought. The previous night had seen a raucous party at a beer hall near Charles University, with students having graduated, and while Pavel hadn’t been keen on attending, he hadn’t had much of a choice. Of course, he bitterly regretted it now. I’d rather wake up a cockroach than with the mother of all hangovers, he thought wryly.
Something nagged at him, something about last night’s revelry, something someone said to him. What was it? He couldn’t put his finger on it just yet. He checked the time, figured he should get moving to his appointment with the History department board, and got up to wash up and leave.
It came back to him, while he was shaving. Igor Meciar. While he sat nursing his second glass of Pilsner the evening before, Igor had approached him. Pavel knew him; Igor Meciar was quite well-known in the History department for clashing with professors on historical matters, while he was a student. Pavel wondered what he was doing now.
“Might I join you, kamarad?” Igor had slid into the booth opposite Pavel.
“Well, you already have. How are you?”
Igor’s eyes glinted. “I’m quite well, doing what I must. And you, you’ve just finished your degree, haven’t you?”
“Yes. I didn’t think I’d get there, but I suppose I did.”
“So what’s next?”
“I’m attending a hearing tomorrow at the department, to be a junior lecturer. I’d like to teach, actually.” Pavel took a furtive sip of his beer, wondering what this was about.
“A fine profession! I’m sure you’ll do well, educating our youth about the historical inevitability of Communism!” exclaimed Igor.
“Well, yes,” conceded Pavel, knowing he was on dangerous ground. “But I’ll also be focusing on the last couple of centuries, on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, leading up to the First War.”
“And you will of course, tell your students how the bourgeoisie led us into the war!”
“Of course. But enough about me. What about you, Igor? What do you do these days?”
Igor rose with his empty glass. “Well, duty beckons, and leave, I must. But to answer your question, I work for State Security.”
Pavel felt his legs go weak. He hoped Igor couldn’t see him nervously swallow.
Perhaps Igor did, for he seemed to relish it. “Don’t worry. We’re here to protect what we’ve built so painstakingly! I’d like you to know that I’m there, if you ever need help. Do call.” After placing a piece of paper with his number on the table, he walked away.
If I ever need help, I’d go to anyone but you, thought Pavel, while he washed off the shaving lather. So he’s going to keep a close eye on me. Well, good thing I’m up to nothing illegal.
He walked briskly towards the university, thinking about the day ahead. He was pretty hungry, but he was also pretty nervous. Teaching history was the one thing he wanted above all else, and if he wasn’t successful today, he didn’t know what he’d do next. Perhaps a radio show host? Or maybe teach in a school? He didn’t exactly relish those alternatives.
He had about an hour before the board convened, and he figured some coffee wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all — if only to help dim the blasted headache. He was making his way to the university cafe when he bumped into Anna, who was rushing out of a lecture room with an arm full of papers.
“Oh, Pavel! I heard you’re going to join as a lecturer too!” she exclaimed.
“I would like to, but it’s up to the board. I’m meeting them in an hour,” answered Pavel, trying not to stare at her.
“Oh, don’t worry. Professor Liszko is quite happy with you, and I don’t see why you won’t join the department! It’ll be nice to have you around,” she reassured him.
“Well, it would be nice to be around you more,” admitted Pavel.
She laughed. “You do know how to flatter a woman! But I must be on my way, or I’ll miss my next lecture, and students aren’t too forgiving these days.”
“Yes. See you around, then!” he waved at her, as she rushed away. Imagine, the two of us, lecturers. And only a couple of years ago, we were both students wondering how to get by in an unfamiliar environment. How times change.
Shaking his head, he entered the cafe, and found a seat next to a window. Keeping his leather satchel — a gift from his mother — on the seat, he bought himself coffee and a pretzel. No harm in eating a little, I suppose it’s a good idea after last night, he thought.
He ate his pretzel slowly, thinking about some of the classes he’d like to teach. He was fascinated by the inter-war period, especially by the rise of new nations in Central and Eastern Europe — his included. What interested him was the collapse of political order in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, and that was one class he felt he could do. But it was up to the board. He remembered an incident last year when a Hungarian professor from Budapest was assigned to teach classes on British imperialism, even though his chosen field of expertise was Dutch mercantilism. They’re dinosaurs, thought Pavel as he finished his pretzel and sipped his coffee. They don’t really care about the beauty in history, just how it can be perverted to the cause of the Communists. And I have to work under them!
“So, Pavel, we’re most satisfied with your dissertation!” Professor Liszo’s voice boomed across the room.
Pavel smiled, relieved at knowing he had a real chance now. “Thank you, Professor. After all, it was the department’s constant support that helped me see it through.” Interestingly, it’s just Liszko, Ladislav and this other man I don’t know. Where’s the rest of the department, he wondered.
“Oh, no, no such thing, that’s what we’re here for, ” Professor Liszko beamed. “Now, before we move on, there is someone here who’d like to talk to you about your dissertation. Please allow me to introduce Colonel-Doktor Klaus Rosenharte, who’s come to Prague all the way from Dresden.”
“A pleasure, Herr Colonel-Doktor,” Pavel and Klaus rose and shook hands. “How might I be of assistance?”
Klaus sat back, extracted a cigarette from a silver case and began to toy with it. “I understand your dissertation was on SS atrocities in Bohemia and Moravia during the war, nicht?”
“Yes, it was. I intended to focus on Heydrich’s role as Reichsprotector for Bohemia and Moravia, and how the SS and the Sicherheitsdienst crushed Czech resistance throughout the Protectorate.” What’s this about, he wondered. And how on earth is someone a colonel and a doctor, he’s obviously not into medicine. Who is he?
“Very well. Did you have access to SS archives during your research?” Klaus finally lit up, and blew out a column of smoke. “No, kamarad. Most of these archives were burnt by the SS during their retreat in 1945, and from what I know, the surviving bits went to the Americans.”
“That’s not entirely true.” Klaus smiled. “Let me tell you what I do. I work as a senior researcher with the Government of the German Democratic Republic. My job is to help the Ministry of State Security hunt down Nazi war criminals, as well as liaise with our allies, and help them when they need information. My work requires me to have unfettered access to SS archives, and a sizeable chunk, we have. But the rest…”
“The rest, comrade?”
“The rest is still with the Americans. Now, would you like to turn that dissertation into a book, perhaps, with a fair bit of real research on the SS archives?”
“I would be honoured, and delighted! But I feel I should teach at the university here,” Pavel answered quite reluctantly.
Klaus looked at Liszko and cleared his throat. “Well, here’s what we propose. Junior lectureship at the department, with 5–6 classes a week. Now, every month, you’d take 3–4 days towards the end, and go to East Berlin, for conducting your research, ” said Liszko.
“What’s more, we’d like to pay you a basic stipend for your work on such a project,” added Klaus, stubbing his cigarette out. “It won’t be a lot, but consider it a token of appreciation for your time and knowledge.”
Pavel couldn’t believe his years. A lecturer and a researcher! That was more than what he’d ever expected, and of course, a little extra money didn’t hurt.
“So what do you say, Pavel,” prodded Liszko, quite gently.
“I’d be honored, Professor, Colonel. When do I start?”
Klaus stood up, smoothening his field-gray tunic. “I’ll need to go back to Berlin and make arrangements. I’ll be in touch. I am glad we’re working together. Professor,” Klaus nodded at Liszko and left the room.
Liszko turned and thumped Pavel on his back. “Good job, my boy! I can’t wait to see you teaching!”
“What is this about, Professor? Who was this man?”
Liszko’s face immediately turned grave. “It’s best not to ask too many questions, Pavel, boy. Don’t worry about it. It’s a great opportunity, and Klaus isn’t a bad man — even if he’s Stasi.”
Pavel reeled back. “Really?! But how do you know — he said he works for the government!”
“He’s not wrong,” Liszo smiled sardonically. “After all, the Stasi is the sword and shield of the Party in the GDR. How do I know he’s Stasi? There’s a certain arrogance to them, something you don’t see in most people in our country. The arrogance that comes from knowing you can do anything to anyone, without being questioned about it.” Liszko started walking towards the door. “Be careful you don’t cross them. Now, how about some Pilsner?”