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Iron Curtains ?

Care, Desire and Emotional Conflict*
Maria Vlček
p. 59-81


This paper explores the emotional and multi-sensorial dimensions of care within a transnational family separated by the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. It will argue that processes of supportive and compassionate engagement amongst transnational kin are not only shaped by long-distance communication, financial support and practical help within specific political and economic contexts, but also by personal desires and interpersonal conflict. The dialectics of proximity and distance are explored through a focus on uses of communication technology, emotional interaction during visits, long-distance engagement through distinct sensorial experiences, and imaginary interaction through the dynamics of internalised presence. The auto/biographical analysis is mainly based on letters, faxes, diaries, interviews and personal memories.

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  • *  Academic working for a European university. The author’s name and the names of all others mentione (...)

Biography – the optic that fuses individual and event into both a worldview and a narrative genre – lies at the methodological core of much ethnography and history (Comaroff/Comaroff, 1992:25; also quoted by Brettell, 1997:223).

I. Introduction

  • 1  The American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees reported that by November 1948, more that 15.000 Czech (...)
  • 2  Dutch universities promised to give grants to between seventy to one hundred Czechoslovak students (...)

1It must have been 1990 or 1991 when I asked my father, Jarda Vlček, whether he wanted to tell me his life story. I was not only interested in the family history for personal reasons, but knew that his story would shed light on the effect of large scale political processes on transnational family relationships, a theme that fascinated me as an anthropologist. My father’s past was relevant because as a young man he had escaped from his native Czechoslovakia, not long after the Communist Party had taken power in 19481. He received refugee status in the Netherlands where he was given a university grant to study Civil Engineering2. The unfolding Cold War complicated his attempts to stay in touch with his mother back home.

2Unfortunately, my father refused to be interviewed. This did not really surprise me, as he had never been eager to talk about his emotionally complex past. He once told my mother: « I have closed my personal Iron Curtain ». I had to give up on the idea and concentrated on other research. After my father’s death in 1994, however, I approached my Dutch mother, Annie Vlček Spanjaard, who was in her early seventies, and taped several hours of conversations with her. She did not only tell me about her childhood in a small town in the Netherlands and her experiences during the Second World War, but also explained how she had met my dad and what her role had been as daughter-in-law in the context of the enfolding Cold War. The main part of this article is based on these interviews, and also draws on my mother’s many diaries. Other sources used are interviews with Czech relatives and my own memories of transnational family life.

3The analysis confirms the view that transnational care exchanges « are mediated by a dialectic encompassing the capacity of individual members and their culturally informed sense of obligation to provide care, as well as the particularistic kin relationships and negotiated family commitments that people with specific family networks share » (Baldassar et al., 2006:204). Zooming in on the psycho-social dimensions of care, this article examines in more depth the impact of personal desires and interpersonal conflicts on transnational care arrangements, and explores the significance of direct and indirect forms of emotional interaction on long-distance kin relationships.

II. Auto/Biography and Ethnography

  • 3  There are several studies in which female ethnographers have written about the lives of, and/or th (...)

4Like Brettell (1997:229), I consider the writings about my mother’s life as « both biography and autobiography, not only because it weaves my words with those of my mother but also because the lives of a mother and daughter are inextricably intertwined »3. The decision to subject my family history to ethnographic inquiry was not taken lightly, as I knew I had to beware of the common pitfalls of autoethnographic writing. Chang (2008:49) listed, for example, the risk of self-indulgent introspection, the danger of over-reliance on personal memories, and the problem of confidentiality as relatives of known authors can generally be traced without much difficulty.

  • 4  The inclusion of autobiographical details in academic writing can create useful insights into soci (...)

5The latter issue was the easiest one to tackle, as I decided to use a pseudonym to protect my relatives’ privacy, and change the names of all those I referred to. My view on the first problem is that pointless navel staring can be avoided through the historical and cultural contextualisation of the autobiographical details, the use of theoretically sound concepts in the analysis, and by taking a comparative perspective in which research outcomes are contrasted with the findings of other scholars4. I have attempted, where possible, to verify parts of my mother’s and my own memories, checking details of family history with relatives and reading scholarly works on communist Czechoslovakia. I have also embedded the auto/biography in the historical reality of the Cold War, and have drawn on interdisciplinary debates about transnationalism, emotions and care. My main source of comparison will be findings from research by Baldassar (2007, 2008) and Baldassar et al. (2006) on care giving within migrant families, partially based in Australia.

6The issues of the reliability of memory and the effect of personal involvement on knowledge production have been topics of much discussion since the 1980s. Debating the analytical implications of “anthropology at home”, numerous scholars have, for example, commented on the pros and cons of insider knowledge and familiarity with social networks prior to fieldwork (Fahim, 1982; Kim, 1990). Evidently, the line between “the personal” and “the professional” is always blurred, but is particularly vague when ethnographers study their own communities (Narayan, 1993; Brettell, 1997; Motzafi-Haller, 1997). Personal emotional involvement with the “researched” does, however not necessarily obstruct ethnographic analysis; by contrast, it is often essential to productive fieldwork (Davis/Spencer, 2010; Spencer/Davis, 2010).

  • 5  Brettell C., 1997; Cahill S., 1988; Hirsch M., 1981; Wagner-Martin L., 1994; Gornick V., 1987; Fri (...)

7Autoethnography has become an established social science method that has led to the publication of numerous key texts (Chang, 2008; Ellis 2009; Reed-Danahay, 1997). Various ethnographers have written about the lives of their mothers or fathers5, and some, such as Carolyn Ellis, have focussed on the dynamics of intergenerational care. The latter has published highly personal essays about her ageing mother (Ellis, 1996, 2001), and has stimulated her readers to compare her situation with their own (Ellis, 2009:170). Although the analysis that follows here is not as emphatically autobiographical as Ellis’ work, I similarly hope that my more personal story will create a deeper, self reflective understanding of the social and psychological complexities of care.

III. Desire and the Negotiation of Care

8When my father, aged twenty-one, left his homeland, he had no idea that it would take twenty-five years before he would set foot on Czech soil again. In the interim, he mainly experienced his homeland by proxy, feeling connected with it « through objects and people whose physical presence embodie[d] the spirit of the longed for absent person or place » (Baldassar, 2008:252). He managed to stay in touch with his mother, and both negotiated a relationship of mutual care. As will become clear, my mother played a key role in this relationship, keeping contact with the Czech side of the family through frequent visits to Czechoslovakia and active engagement with the in-laws.

  • 6  Various authors have explored the moral dimensions of transnational family life, and some have dem (...)

9To find out why my mother was willing to take up such an active role, it is crucial to reveal some of her personal interests and desires. As Zlatko Skrbiš noted, « transnational family relations take a lot of hard work, involve much emotional labour, and represent a specific social reality that deserves attention » (2008:242; Svašek, 2008). Internalised cultural expectations concerning her role as daughter-in-law (showing a willingness to engage and care), no doubt influenced my mother’s attitude. In addition, the social reality my mother was faced with was a situation in which her husband could not risk going back to his home country, while she could apply for a tourist visa and cross over to the East. Obviously, this situation put some extra moral pressure on her.6

  • 7  With regard to the latter, it must of course be acknowledged that life narratives are never stable (...)

10To get a better understanding of my mother’s motivations to frequently travel to Czechoslovakia, the image she sketched of herself in her diaries and the interviews is revealing7. As Mary Chamberlain and Selma Leydesdorff (2004:230) have noted, « the plots and themes we select and through which we choose to recount our lives have effectively prefigured the way we see ourselves ». One of the recurrent themes in my mother’s reflections was her longing for travel and adventure. In one of the interviews in which she recalled her childhood, she explained how she would sit on the doorstep of the family home, hoping to be taken away by a passing « Gypsy caravan ». In fact I remember her telling me this story numerous times as I was growing up. In the interview in 1996, the image functioned as a key narrative to signal that she was different to “normal” Dutch people, a perspective that had also shaped my (and my siblings’) self perception, being the offspring of a mixed marriage. My mother used the notion of “difference” to explain why she had married a foreigner and why she had been eager to travel to the communist East bloc at a time when “nobody went”. Her experience of the “out-of-the-ordinary”, she argued, had made her life particularly interesting.

11The Gypsy story also emphasised that she sometimes felt stifled by he humdrum of everyday life. In February 1948, ten days before she met my father, she wrote in her diary:

Life is boring and lonely at the moment. During the whole month of January nothing special happened and I only met “middle-of-the-road’ people”. Yuck, how stiff and uninteresting The Hague is. At the moment I feel I can’t stand it for another minute. Later today, bible studies. You attend – you listen to Referent Klein, it doesn’t interest you at all, [you] look at the conventional faces, [you] are bored and return home. You walk up the eternally similar stairs and climb into bed. And then you dream of people and things that don’t exist. The next morning you wake up, more or less. Sometimes you expect a lot and live with excitement but only little is necessary to deflate you like a balloon. God, what is life like? (diary entry, 1 February 1949).

12Ten days later she was introduced by a friend to Jarda, a Czech refugee student who invited her to a ball. Her date turned out to be interesting and charming, telling her fascinating stories about his home country, and convincing her to dance with him on the dinner able. The diary reported:

  • 8  T. stands for “Tsjech”, meaning “Czech”.
  • 9  In the wartime and post-war diaries, she occasionally uses English expressions (not always grammat (...)

T.8 is stormy and I let myself be carried away. I wonder if it’s good or bad. In any case: “Time will learn it me”9 (diary entry, 19 February 1949).

13Over the next months, they met about once a week. Although the diaries show that she was not always sure about the developing relationship, they also make clear that she was attracted as it gave her what Conradson and Latham (2007:232) have called « affective possibilities », enabling « a certain degree of experimentation and exploration » and the possibility to « work upon » the self « in modest but nonetheless significant ways ». Her stories emphasised that, connecting herself to a foreigner had allowed her to escape a more predictable “Dutch” trajectory.

14The couple began to develop a relationship of mutual care, not only for each other but also in terms of their larger family networks. As Hockey (1993) noted, developing interdependencies is a common feature of family dynamics. So when my maternal granddad died in August 1949, my father showed up unannounced at the family home, offering moral support to his girlfriend and her relatives. This, my mother noted, was highly relevant, as his gesture counterbalanced the objections later made by some of my mother’s kin against her planned engagement to a penniless refugee. More importantly in the context of this Special Issue, his demonstration of care fed his future wife’s desire to show commitment to her family-in-law. Care giving practices, in other words, are partly based on expectations arising from interpersonal histories of mutual support (Finch/Mason, 1993).

IV. Overcoming Distance in the Enfolding Cold War

15It is important to note that in the late 1940s, it was quite extraordinary for a Dutch woman to have a relationship with someone from Czechoslovakia. As my mother explained:

You should realise that only a few years earlier, it was already strange if a girl [from my small town] had a boyfriend from [a village] on the other side of the river. And Czechoslovakia was so incredibly far away.

  • 10  A small number of people did, however, still managed to cross the border illegally (Lukes I., 2001 (...)

16To the average Dutch person, Czechoslovakia was distant in many ways: culturally, politically, economically and geographically. In political terms, the distance increased drastically when the Cold War reached freezing point and the Iron Curtain became a more permanent military reality10. In Stalinist Czechoslovakia, communication with the West was strongly censored, which made it hard for refugees and their families to keep up care relationships. This makes the care dynamics explored in this article strikingly different to today’s interactions within Dutch-Czech transnational families with both countries being European Union member states (see also Ackers, this Special Issue).

A. Longing and Belonging: Evoking Memories of the Homeland

17Not long after his arrival in the Netherlands, my mother recalled, my father began feeling homesick. Unable to return to his home country, as he was officially a political enemy of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (CSSR), he looked for ways of selective affective connectedness through engagement with “internalised presences”, embodied memories and imaginations of past selves, others, and other phenomena that have made an emotional impact (Casey, 1987). Baldassar (2008:250) has noted that imagining distant people and places can strongly feed feelings of longing and missing, feelings that can motivate long-distance care. To my father, who had played in a Jazz band in his Czech hometown, music was an important mnemonic trigger. I still remember how he would sometimes sing Moravian folksongs, an experience that highlighted our family’s “difference”. During one of the interviews, my mother told me that on Christmas Eve 1949, while staying over in her parental home, he had locked himself into a room and had turned on the Czechoslovak broadcasting station to listen to Czech Christmas music. Hearing the familiar songs made him recall past Christmases, an important family celebration back home. No doubt he imagined his mother, cooking the traditional Christmas carp and having to “celebrate” without her son. On a lighter note, he also used narrative performance to express nostalgia and nationalist pride, a common practice amongst migrants (Burrell, 2006; Fortier, 2000; Skrbiš, 1999). In conversations with my mum in the late 1940s and 1950s, he fondly described the Czechoslovak landscape (« forests and mountains » and « pink and green houses ») and told her about typically Czech activities, such as « eating sausages around the campfire » and « backing Christmas cookies ».

B. Guilt and Care: Getting in Touch

18After his escape, my father made a conscious effort to contact his family. He was concerned about his mother’s well-being, and wanted to communicate to her that, even though he had left, he had not forgotten about her. She had not known about his plans to leave (he had only informed her brother), and he knew that the news must have come as a terrible shock. Not long before he had left, he had bought a small dog for his mother in anticipation of her sadness, but he needed to do more. To some extent, he felt guilty about his unannounced departure, a feeling that flagged up his personal responsibility and partially motivated him to get in touch (see Baldassar, this Special Issue).

19Finch (1989) and Finch and Mason (1993) defined care giving as a process in which family obligations are negotiated, and identified different forms of care, including personal, hands-on care, practical advice and support, emotional and moral support, financial support and accommodation. Research by Baldassar (2008) and Baldassar et al. (2007) has demonstrated that in transnational families, the same forms of care are practiced, either long-distance or during visits. Transnational care giving processes, they found, are mediated not only by the capacity to exchange care, but also by cultural notions of obligation and negotiated commitments within families. This article further develops the “physical/mental ability” dimension of their model, arguing that, when examining inner, self reflective dialogues and voiced, interpersonal negotiations about care arrangements, personal desires and interpersonal conflicts need to be taken into account as well.

  • 11  One of my Czech relatives noted that in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, relatives of exiles were watched (...)

20Obviously, my father was initially limited in the types of care he was able to provide. He began showing emotional support through letters to his mother. Afraid of censorship, he posted them under a pseudonym to an address of a trusted friend. In 1953, he even printed a false surname on the birth announcement of his first child. His mother reciprocated, returning messages by post, but was equally cautious11. My mother explained: « She sent letters under another name to another Dutch person. After a while letters began to arrive but they were addressed to “Černý” ».

21Though their capacity of mutual care giving was restricted because of the political situation, my father and grandmother were able to acknowledge each other’s continuing existence, reviving existing memories and creating an inner sense of shared affective space. In addition, the enlarged East-West family network became active as my mother and grandmother began writing to each other in German. Once communication by post was established (my grandmother did not have a telephone and it was hard to get a home connection in CSSR), care relations could be further developed, even without seeing each other in real time and space.

V. Objects, Affective Agency and Care

22Letters do not only express feelings through text; as material objects that move through time and space, they objectify relationships. Alfred Gell (1998) introduced the concept of “object agency” to highlight that people often try to actively evoke responses and trigger actions in others through material things. Applying this idea to the dynamics of care, it explains how letters and gifts can be used to maintain long-distance affective ties. Moving through postal networks, telegrams, letters and parcels allow senders to project themselves as active carers (Fitzgerald, 2008). They also motivate receivers to feel cared for and loved, and to take on a caring role sending post in return. But how did the political situation influence the exchange?

A. From the Communist East to the Capitalist West

23Especially during the first decade after the Communist take-over, it was near to impossible for the Czechoslovakia-based relatives to visit their kin in the West (Suda, 1969). As a result, my grandmother was unable to attend important family events: the wedding of her son and the birth of her three grandchildren. Sending letters and parcels was the only way in which she could demonstrate her love and support.

  • 12  In 1961, she wrote to my mother: «My dear Anuška 3 x mamma ! I thank you for the three grandchildr (...)

24When I asked my mother about postal exchanges with her mother-in-law, she recalled receiving a telegram from my grandmother on her wedding day in 1953. In Gell’s terms, the piece of paper distributed my grandmother’s agency, indicating to my parents that she was with them in heart and spirit. A year later when her first grandchild, my brother, was born, she showed emotional engagement by sending gifts, such as self-knitted baby clothes. As my mother explained, the fact that she had taken the effort to make these garments increased their potential as signifiers of care. In 1959 and 1961 she got an additional two granddaughters, but was again unable to “be there”. She again compensated her absence through gifts and letters in which she regretted not being able to visit12.

25Czechs who sent parcels to the West, « had to take them unwrapped to the post office », my mother noted, so that the officials could check their content. My grandmother took a considerable risk when she hid a golden ring in a porcelain statuette that she sent to the Netherlands. The figurine « was hollow and she had somehow filled it with plaster of Paris ». The chance that her subversive act would have been discovered turned the ring into a potent agent of affection. In the political context of the early 1950s, Czechoslovak society was continuously purged of suspected anti-Communists, and any attempt to avoid censorship was risky (Morley, 1986:90; Pelikan, 1981:108; Wolchik, 1991:24). My father must have appreciated receiving the ring, although I can imagine that he also scolded his mother for her risky behaviour as « sending gold was strictly forbidden ».

26Certain gifts my grandmother sent were especially evocative as they related to Christmas. In Czechoslovakia (as well as in the Netherlands), this was normally an occasion for three generations to get together. My grandmother was, however, emphatically present by proxy. I strongly remember that every year a large brown carton box arrived, tied together with a rope. The Christmas parcels were physical signs of having an absent but caring grandmother, all the more important because she was the only grandparent we still had. We would watch in anticipation as my parents opened the parcel, knowing that it always contained kilos of traditional home-backed Christmas cookies that tasted delicious. « They always arrived as crumbs », my mother recalled, « but we wouldn’t write that to her of course ». I still recall eating the crumbs from cups with small silver spoons, which increased the uniqueness of the gift. The Christmas parcels also contained little bags with mushrooms that my grandmother had picked and dried herself, and plastic bottles filled with home made Slivovitz. I remember my dad smelling the mushrooms and tasting the drink with a broad smile on his face; the multi-sensorial experience transported him straight back to his home country.

B. From the Capitalist West to the Communist East

27My parents also sent letters and presents to my grandmother. In a study of the sending behaviour of Polish exiles, Kathy Burrell (2008:75) noted that « [l]ove had to be packaged up and posted rather than enacted on a daily basis [...] Wrapped up in the parcels was often a strong feeling of guilt for leaving parents behind in particular ».

28I never heard my father mention guilt in connection with his flight, which does, of course, not mean that he was not faced with it. To the outside world, he presented the political situation as major justification for his departure from Czechoslovakia. According to my mother, he balanced out feelings of remorse about his absence with feelings of resentment, the cause of which will be explained later in this article. Despite his resentment, however, he did take responsibility for long-distance care, staying in touch and sending financial remittances.

29His postal messages were much appreciated. In January 2009, I spoke with the former wife of one of my father’s cousins, who recalled how much my grandmother had looked forward to news, daily checking her post box on the ground floor of the apartment block, walking down four floors even when she was feeling unwell. The gifts he sent were also welcome. As various authors have noted, in the Eastern bloc, western goods were highly desirable as they were mostly of a superior quality (Burrell, 2008:74, referring to Veenis, 1999:96 and Blum, 2006:132). A Czech relative remembered a colourful shawl that was immediately recognisable as a “western” item. My grandmother, she said, wore it with visible pride. Other goods were attractive because they did not exist in Czechoslovakia. My grandmother was delighted when she received a jigsaw puzzle that had increased affective agency as it depicted a fountain in Rotterdam, the view from my father’s office. She stuck it on carton board, framed it, and displayed it in her lounge.

30The above demonstrates that having kin in the West was not only emotionally difficult, but also offered advantages in terms of access to consumption goods. Care relations were clearly enacted through such exchanges.

VI. My Grandmother’s Visit: Interpersonal Conflict and Emotional Ambiguities

  • 13  To get a visa, my grandmother was helped by some of the more influential relatives who were party (...)

31During the first half of the 1960s, the political situation in Czechoslovakia relaxed somewhat, and visa regulations became less strict. Keen on meeting her son and his family, my grandmother successfully applied for a visa13, and my parents paid for the trip. She arrived in the Netherlands in 1963, when she had reached the age of seventy. She had last seen her son when she was fifty-five. My father, who had been almost twenty-two at the time of his escape, was now thirty-seven. My mother was thirty-nine, and the children were nine, four and two years old. The visit allowed for a unique form of intimacy, irreplaceable by long-distance communication.

32On the day of his mother’s arrival, my father picked her up at Schiphol airport. Seeing each other for the first time after fifteen years of absence must have been extremely moving. My father’s relationship with his mother was, however, complex. My mother recalled that he had enjoyed seeing her again, but had also found the experience unsettling. Baldassar (2001) has pointed out that meeting up with distant kin after long periods of absence can be emotionally difficult. Ramirez et al. (2007) demonstrated that cultural differences and economic inequalities can also create tensions. In addition, relatives may feel frustrated when care-related expectations and obligations are not met.

  • 14  As a child, he had made several attempts to contact him. Still a toddler, he was once found walkin (...)
  • 15  Personally, I stopped wanting so much to believe in the “romantic story” many years ago, partially (...)

33In my father’s case, the main cause for disconcertedness evolved from unresolved past issues. His family had encountered various difficulties during his childhood. His older sister and brother had faced tragic deaths, and his parents had been divorced, a relatively uncommon and shameful status at the time. Growing up without a father had been hard14. In his late teens, my father began to doubt whether his mother’s former husband was his real dad, and confronted his mother. She insisted that he was his biological father, explaining to my father that he had been conceived during a short period of reconciliation. At the time of his flight in 1948, the issue had remained unresolved, and my mother assumed that the insecurities surrounding his descent had partly motivated him to leave the country and to some extent had countered feelings of guilt. One of the explanations for my grandmother’s silence was that his biological father had been of Roma origin. My father had a slightly darker skin, and having had a sexual encounter with a “Gypsy” would have been something many Czechs would have wanted to deny. To my mother, the suggestion was not at all off-putting as it resonated with her childhood dream of travelling with a Gypsy caravan. When we were children, my siblings and I found the explanation quite appealing as it fed romantic notions of interesting difference.15The above is directly relevant to discussions about care for kin. Caring does not only include practical support and financial help, but also concerns psychological wellbeing. To my father, clarity about biological parenthood had become an important indicator of “true concern”. « If she really cares about me, why can’t she be frank? » was his argument, and he saw her visit to the Netherlands as an opportunity for her to tell him the truth. After collecting his mother from Schiphol, he took her to a restaurant and confronted her with his question, as my mother mentioned when I asked her about the moment she met her mother-in-law for the first time:

I still see her arriving in [town], Oma with orange hair – it had been dyed and that was very strange here – and that she was dressed in strange clothes, and that she walked to us like this [holds her arms wide open]. [A Dutch neighbour] who lived next door said ‘I had the idea: “here comes an actress!” ’, and that Pappa later said, ‘Yes, she’s very good at acting’. Because he had asked her immediately, ‘who was my father?’ in that restaurant. And the reaction was the same: ‘you know that already, Vlček was your dad’.

34My father was angry and disappointed, but these feelings did not radically change my parents’ welcoming attitude. They introduced her to family and friends, and encouraged her to get close to her grandchildren. Being able to see, hear, smell and hold the latter added an important multi-sensorial dimension to a deepening emotional relationship. At the end of her two months visit, my father suggested to his mother that she should stay with us in the Netherlands. My grandmother, who was physically fit and independent and had an active social life back home, preferred going back to Czechoslovakia.

VII. My mother’s Visit: Desire and Joy as Motivator of Care

  • 16  As my mother recalled: «The idea [was first mentioned] when Oma said, ‘Anuška can come for a visit (...)
  • 17  My grandmother had probably anticipated some resistance, and had brought some tourist brochures, t (...)

35Before her departure, my grandmother tried to convince my mother that she should come over to Czechoslovakia with my brother16. To my mother, a trip to Czechoslovakia sounded adventurous and appealing. My father was, however, torn between fear for his wife’s wellbeing and understanding of his mother’s wish to for her to come over17. When telling her friends and Dutch relatives that she was planning to go to Czechoslovakia, nobody supported the idea. My mother explained:

The club of Czechoslovak exile friends, they all said ‘would you really do that?’ And my relatives and the neighbours, the military neighbours [who worked for the Dutch Army], it was clear [that they didn’t like the idea]. [My neighbour] said [half-jokingly], ‘I’ll send you parcels with oranges when you’re in jail’. The idea was that it was simply too risky. Not for normal Dutch people, but for a Dutch woman who was married to someone who had escaped.

36My father had mixed feelings as well and contacted the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for guidance. According to my mother, they had replied that there was always a risk something might go wrong, but that it was very small. Her feeling that the trip was potentially dangerous was fed when she collected her visa at the Czechoslovak Embassy in The Hague in 1966. She recalled how she had entered the building while my father had waited in the car. As the Embassy was official Czechoslovak territory, they were afraid he would be prosecuted if he would go in. She explained she was tensed: « I imagined, because of all the stories I had heard, that they would interrogate me, but that didn’t happen ». She clearly had to manage her emotions, trying to stay outwardly cool while she was, in fact, nervous. She was, however, motivated by the prospect of an adventurous trip and the desire to develop a face-to-face relationship with her husband’s relatives.

  • 18  My brother, ten years at the time, was very curious about his “daddy’s homeland”. My mother recall (...)

37My mother flew to Prague in June 1966 with my then ten year old brother18. The fact that her husband could not accompany them saddened her, but she most of all experienced a mixture of excitement and anxiety. She was nervous about the reaction of the customs officers to her husband’s surname in her passport but to her relief, they just stamped it and let her pass through. Entering the arrival hall, she recognized her mother-in-law and saw an additional group of relatives she had only heard stories about, who all gave her a warm welcome. Communicating was not a problem as all spoke reasonably good German. They drove to one of the more luxurious restaurants, where some of the differences between Dutch and Czech culture became apparent. My mother mentioned in particular the considerable amounts of alcohol that people consumed.

38“Drinking with Czech relatives” was another key narrative through which my mother emphasised the extra-ordinariness of her Czechoslovak adventures. She told me with a smile that in the restaurant, she had not been served coffee, as would have been the case at that time of the day in the Netherlands, but « immediately wine! So I hadn’t been in Czechoslovakia for half an hour and already I looked at Prague in a haze ».

39Sharing food and drinks was an important way of experiencing joyful family sociality and affection; her diary mentions time and again how much she was expected to eat and drink. Accepting this with a smile, even though she was not always ready for more, was of course part of evolving care dynamics. During one of the interviews I mentioned her claim of having been almost continuously drunk during that first visit. She laughed and replied:

Yes, that’s true. If I woke up in the morning and said ‘I don’t feel that well’ or ‘I’m tired’, I would be given a shot. Oma said ‘Yes, Anuška, that’s good, it’s medicine’. I also remember that she said [in German]:‘Trinken Anuška, trinken!’ (Drink, Anuška, drink!). Food and drink was in abundance there.

40My mother and brother stayed for one month, and travelled with my grandmother throughout Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia to visit relatives. All made a big effort to give them a warm welcome, as reflected in many of the diary entries. This was not only to demonstrate their appreciation of my mother and brother, but also signalled to my absent father that they had accepted his wife and son, and welcomed the prospect of a continuing relationship.

A. Mediating Care: During the Trip

  • 19  On 16 June, one of his female cousins (herself a Party member) wrote, for example: «Dear Jarda, Yo (...)

41My father’s absence during family visits was a painful reminder of the fact that he was unable to be physically present. Various relatives and friends wrote messages to him on empty pages in my mother’s diary, thus using it to extend their own agency19. My mother was a metaphorical bridge between Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands. The ability to see, hear and touch the Czech relatives was vital, and so was the opportunity to create memories and stories that could be shared with my father after her return. The Czech relatives, in turn, updated their mental image of my father through my mother’s stories about his life in the Netherlands. In her role as carer by proxy, she also embodied her absent husband as she handed over gifts as an enactment of his affection. Prior to her departure, my parents had packed « two suitcases with presents » for this purpose, « loads of tights, ballpoints, Jenever of course, coffee, tea, those kinds of things », all items that were scarce or unavailable in Czechoslovakia.

42As noted earlier, horror stories about communism had made my mother somewhat anxious about her trip eastwards. When I asked about her first impressions of life in Czechoslovakia, she said, however, that she had felt…

Surprised! Amazed that things were allowed. That people walked normally in the street, and were laughing […]. My first impression was simply ‘how is this possible, that you can walk around freely’. That was because of the ideas in the West, that people were so oppressed here and that people would walk around with such an expression [shows a sad face]. Well that was simply not the case.

  • 20  She said «I had imagined [waiters being] rough guys, saying ‘here comrade, here’s your plate of fo (...)

43Her overly positive assessment was of course influenced by her expectations arising from the grim Western image of communism. Compared to this image, things did not seem that bad. Prague was run down, she said, but not as much as she had expected, and people were extremely nice. She felt that, apart from the empty shops and the messiness of the more common pubs, public life had been comparable to the West20.

  • 21  She said: «I was nervous when I was introduced to Jaroslav, the father of Zdenka, because he was t (...)

44Her positive impressions were significant as they made her want to come back to the country, and increased her willingness to function as carer in proxy on a longer term basis. She was, however, also confronted with the darker, politically oppressive side of Czechoslovak society. On one occasion, a party member who had told her after a few drinks about his doubts concerning official party policy, had begged her the next day not to report him. The experience did not discourage her from returning to Czechoslovakia, she said, but had rather made the trip more interesting. She also met some of my father’s relatives who were convinced Party members, and admitted feeling tensed when meeting them. Ideological differences did, however, not stand in the way of developing warm family connections21.

B. Mediating Care: After the Trip

  • 22  On 22 July she wrote on her way back home in the airplane: «Last night drinking and dancing with O (...)
  • 23  «Oma was completely happy that I had adapted so easily, and I had no problems. She had been to Hol (...)
  • 24  «In the plane back I sat slightly bewildered, probably also tipsy from the last drinks, but slight (...)

45By the time my mother returned to the Netherlands, she knew she wanted to revisit Czechoslovakia, writing in her diary that « Czechoslovakia with everything and everybody is beautiful and very, very sweet! »22. In one of the interviews she emphasised that the warm welcome and her own willingness to adapt had been crucial to the success23. As mediator between her husband and family-in-law, she now had the task to translate her adventure into a story that could help him to gain an increased sense of belonging to his family back home. Yet overwhelmed as she was, she found it hard to do so24. As my father was unable to travel to his home country, my mother’s enthusiastic stories were painful to listen to as they made him homesick:

All these enthusiastic stories were of course about the cultural differences, like ‘God how nice, people always sing’, and ‘nice food’, and ‘beautiful mountains’ and ‘Prague is a beautiful city’, and ‘Slovakia, great to drive through’, [such stories] dominated. And all the other things that I had of course noticed, that people did not have certain things… that was buried under my enthusiasm about the country, the culture.

46The stories about his relatives, their homes, and their behaviour transformed “Czechoslovakia” from a distant memory into a reality he could not truly share. As he had tried to “close his personal Iron Curtain”, this was emotionally difficult. The stories did not only increase his longing for his homeland, but also stirred up the unhappy memories of his youth, putting the spotlight on internalised presences he had tried to silence:

Pappa left of course because of political reasons but his family situation, and that he had distanced himself from it, and that I came back overloaded with things [stories, messages and gifts that confronted him with memories] was hard.

[His reaction] was double. He was happy I loved Czechoslovakia, that I loved Prague, that I liked driving through small villages in Czechoslovakia, and drinking Slivovitz and [eating] Czech food, I found everything [thumbs up]. He liked that but on the other hand, his youth of not feeling happy because of the family situation, bothered him.

47Despite his emotional ambiguity, my father supported my mother in wanting to return to Czechoslovakia, having decided that it was important that his mother would interact more frequently with his wife and children. He clearly balanced feelings of anger with his sense of obligation, being his mother’s only surviving son. In addition, he did not want to deny his children access to their only grandparent, and it would have been hard to discourage my enthusiastic mother to make another trip. Over the next eight years, she visited the country at least once a year with one of more of the children. I personally recall visits to Czechoslovakia from the age of five onwards when she took me along on her second visit in 1967. The warm face-to-face interactions with my Czech relatives have had a strong impact on my self-perception as member of a transnational family.

VIII. Return Visits to the Homeland: New Affective Opportunities

  • 25  They could officially buy off their Czechoslovak citizenship, a long bureaucratic process.

48In the course of the 1970s, the Czechoslovak government sporadically allowed exiles who had left in 1948 to visit their former homeland25. It remained, however, difficult to obtain a visa, and my father never knew in advance how long it would take. His first visit was in 1973. Lambkin (2008) has argued that, especially when migrants have experienced their departure from their homeland as rupture, they may experience their return visit as a cathartic restoration of a broken relationship. This was only partially true for my father. He made the trip together with my mother and his children. I remember him very hard trying not to cry when we crossed the border, and recall how he cursed the Communist government when we drove over broken roads through badly kept towns and villages.

A. Disappointment: Continuing Silence as “Carelessness”

  • 26  We spent the remainder of the holidays with my grandmother and various relatives. Returning back t (...)

49His return did not only allow him to visit relatives and familiar places, but offered a chance of finding out more about Vlček, the man my grandmother said was his father. During a second visit, he managed to find his mother’s ex-husband with whom he had had no contact since he had left in 1948. On 19 July 1974, my mother reported in her diary: « Jarda is going to look for his dad. He returns at nine – he has found his father! ». She later told me that the man respected my grandmother’s secrecy, and did not want to disclose anything, neither claiming nor denying being my dad’s biological father. When my father confronted his mother again, she still held on to her story. One can only speculate about her reasons. What she embarrassed? Did she want to protect him? My mother’s diary entries show that this created occasional tensions between them during the rest of the visit, and that my father regarded his mother’s silence as a sign of lack of care26.

50In 1975, my grandmother was faced with heart problems. As she was ageing and becoming physically weaker, the pressure to provide hands-on care was increasing, a common challenge in transnational families (Baldassar et. al., 2006). Diary entries describing visits in 1975 and 1976 make clear that my mother was concerned, and that holidays were arranged to suit my grandmother’s needs, even though the situation was not always ideal. As his mother got older, my father felt increasingly anxious that he might never find out who his biological dad was. In December 1977, when my parents spent five days in Prague to celebrate my grandmother’s 85th birthday, my mother wrote that while she « had had a lot of fun » at the family party, my father « had become very drunk and had started crying ». She added with spite:

I couldn’t do anything about it. I wonder whether Oma will open up before her death. That boy has the right to know who his dad is. But I fear the worst; she will keep her mouth shut.

B. Ageing, Care Responsibilities and Psycho-Social Forces

51In 1978, my grandmother’s health suddenly deteriorated after suffering a stroke. After much delay, as my father had trouble getting a visa, my parents traveled to Czechoslovakia to look after her for a few weeks. Not long after their departure back home to the Netherlands, she died. The whole family traveled to Czechoslovakia to attend the cremation. I remember being sad, but my strongest memory is of going through my grandmother’s papers, trying to find something that would reveal the name of my biological grandfather. We hoped my grandmother had left a message as a sign of “postmortem care”, but found nothing. A neighbor told us that the week before her death, she had burnt many papers in her stove, and we suspected that she had destroyed the evidence.

52My father refused to be defeated. In one of the interviews my mother told me that in a later visit (I don’t know the year as it is not mentioned in any of the diaries), she drove with my father to his place of birth in Slovakia to the local archives where he asked for information about his background. It was only then that his doubts about his origin were confirmed. As my mother recalled:

They searched the archives for him, and that’s when he saw on his birth papers the words “father unknown”. Initially [the father] was registered as “Vlček”, but two years later there had been a court case because “Vlček” had probably protested that ‘the child is not mine’, and subsequently there was an [official] statement that [his ex-wife’s son] was not a Vlček. ‘Well’, Pappa said, ‘there it is, black on white. I am a bastard.’

53The question remained who his real dad was, and he kept raising the issue with some of his closer relatives. Then, just after Christmas 1982, my mother’s diary reported:

[We drove] to [my father’s uncle] Milan in [Czech town] – this is the day of truth – finally Jarda knows who his dad is – we are all false Vlček’s.

54As far as I know, my grandmother’s brother’s version of the story was that my grandmother had had an affair with one of her Czech tenants after she had separated from, but had not yet officially divorced, her husband. When the child was born, she had converted to Catholicism to obtain a Catholic birth certificate under her husband’s name. « It turned out not to be a Gypsy king », one of my Dutch aunts told me over the phone in 2009, illustrating how the romantic story of unknown descent had appeared in many versions.

55Although his life long assumption that Vlček wasn’t his biological father had been confirmed, my father could of course still not be one hundred percent sure about what had actually happened. Did his uncle tell, or even know, the truth? What had his mother not been straight with him? Until his death in 1994, her refusal remained a source of anger, frustration and disappointment.

IX. Conclusion

56One of the central arguments in this article was that, if we want to increase our understanding of transnational family relationships and care, we need to explore the psycho-social dimensions of inner and interpersonal negotiations of care arrangements. The case study presented here clearly demonstrated the impact of personal likes and dislikes and emotional conflicts on the generation and experience of care. Kin may not only engage in care relations in reaction to family obligations and as part of intergenerational exchange arrangements, but also because they enjoy the social conditions of care and like the possibilities for self-development within care relations. At the same time, inner conflicts, emotional ambiguities and interpersonal tensions may push relatives to give or withhold love and support at specific moments in time, or to weigh up mixed feelings of love, obligation and guilt.

57Transnational care is given in particular economic and political contexts that influence the conditions of care giving. The analysis showed that the political climate of the Cold War set limits to the type, frequency, content and direction of care-related communication. Until 1973, direct interaction between my father and his mother was highly sporadic, and their long-distance communication consisted mainly of postal exchanges. In terms of sensorial experiences, indirect interaction was realised through sight (letters, photographs, gifts), taste and smell (edible/drinkable gifts), touch (letters, gifts), and sound (occasional phone calls, music). Although important as physical experiences of mutual care, these long-distance engagements could not fully replace the experience of supportive co-presence.

58My mother decided to step in for a number of reasons. First of all, she felt morally obliged to help intensify the connection between her husband and his family through her own physicality, frequently travelling to Czechoslovakia. Secondly, she was driven by her desire for adventure and, after her first visit, by positive memories of time on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Her decision to travel to Czechoslovakia was, however, not altogether straightforward. Initially, she had to overcome anxieties generated by one-sided Cold War propaganda that portrayed the Communist Bloc as a dire and dangerous place, and once in Czechoslovakia, she had to deal with cultural and linguistic differences.

59Emotional ambiguities coloured the relationship between my father and grandmother, which brings home that intrapersonal tensions must be taken into account when analysing care dynamics. He interpreted her silence about the past as a sign that she chose to ignore his psychological wellbeing. His anger about what he saw as lack of emotional support compensated feelings of guilt about his limited opportunities to provide face to face hands-on care.

60His mother was, however, also a kind and compassionate woman, who was extremely hospitable and put great effort into showing her affection to her son, his wife and their children. As far as I know, she did not (openly) blame her son for having abandoned her. Maybe partly as a result, my father took his caring responsibility as her only surviving child, supporting her in many different ways – not only through his own efforts, but also indirectly through his wife and children.

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*  Academic working for a European university. The author’s name and the names of all others mentioned in this article have been anonymised.

1  The American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees reported that by November 1948, more that 15.000 Czechoslovak citizens had «fled their homes in terror, leaving everything behind them – their homes, their material goods, their life’s work, often even their dearest ones» (Jeřábek V., 2005, p.75). Nobody knows the exact number of people who fled but it is estimated that between 1948 and 1968, there were around 60.000 refugees (Jeřábek V., 2005, p.12). See also Hoffmann for more information about the establishment and management of the refugee camps in the American zone (Hoffmann R. J., 1996).

2  Dutch universities promised to give grants to between seventy to one hundred Czechoslovak students to complete their university degrees (Jeřábek V., 2005, p.12). My father left the refugee camp (in Austria in the American zone) for the Netherlands when he heard this news on the radio.

3  There are several studies in which female ethnographers have written about the lives of, and/or their relationships with, their mothers, using their own personal histories to make specific theoretical points (Brettell C. B., 1997; Cahill S., 1988; Hirsch M., 1981; Wagner-Martin L., 1994; Gornick V., 1987; Friday N., 1977; Steedman C., 1987).

4  The inclusion of autobiographical details in academic writing can create useful insights into social and political processes (Moore H. L., 1994; Okely J., Callaway H., 1992; Abu-Lughod L., 1993; Behar R., 1990; Cole S., 1992).

5  Brettell C., 1997; Cahill S., 1988; Hirsch M., 1981; Wagner-Martin L., 1994; Gornick V., 1987; Friday N., 1977; Quinney R., 2010; Steedman C., 1987.

6  Various authors have explored the moral dimensions of transnational family life, and some have demonstrated that in the more extreme cases, kin may be forced to live up to particular expectations through fear of ostracism (Ryan L., 2008; Velayutham S., Wise A., 2005).

7  With regard to the latter, it must of course be acknowledged that life narratives are never stable, as «the individual is engaged in a continuous revision of the self, involving a revision of memory, which in turn alters what is remembered» (Chamberlain M., Leydesdorff S., 2004, p.232).

8  T. stands for “Tsjech”, meaning “Czech”.

9  In the wartime and post-war diaries, she occasionally uses English expressions (not always grammatically correct), which can be explained by the popularity of the British and the Americans during and after the Second World War. She also had a romantic spell with a British soldier directly after the liberation.

10  A small number of people did, however, still managed to cross the border illegally (Lukes I., 2001, pp.66-71).

11  One of my Czech relatives noted that in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, relatives of exiles were watched closely as their escaped kin were regarded traitors and enemies of the state.

12  In 1961, she wrote to my mother: «My dear Anuška 3 x mamma ! I thank you for the three grandchildren. [I] have much joy from all the children. I only wish, why can I not be with you. I congratulate you [and wish you] luck with your children. How do you like these two [garments], write me please which one you can use, and I will send that type to you. Be healthy my dear Anuška ! Kisses and greetings, your mamma». The above shows how she longed to be able to see and touch her three grandchildren, and how hard it must have been to not only miss her son, but also his wife and children whom she had never met. Calling my mother “Anuška”, a Czech term of endearment for the Dutch “Annie”, and signing the letter with “mamma”, clearly expressed her affective bond.

13  To get a visa, my grandmother was helped by some of the more influential relatives who were party members.

14  As a child, he had made several attempts to contact him. Still a toddler, he was once found walking around in his pyjamas in the streets of Brno, searching for «his daddy», and in his teens, he was stopped following the railway track in the direction of Prague. I never heard these stories directly from my father, as he refused to talk about these issues.

15  Personally, I stopped wanting so much to believe in the “romantic story” many years ago, partially because of an aversion to exotism.

16  As my mother recalled: «The idea [was first mentioned] when Oma said, ‘Anuška can come for a visit’. Oma really wanted that. I remember that Pappa said, ‘maybe Annie doesn’t want to go !’».

17  My grandmother had probably anticipated some resistance, and had brought some tourist brochures, trying to convince my mother that she had nothing to worry about. My mother explained that, as a result of my grandmother’s effort, she began to understand that popular Western stories about oppression and poverty in the Communist East were at least somewhat exaggerated.

18  My brother, ten years at the time, was very curious about his “daddy’s homeland”. My mother recalled: «We flew with ČSA (Czechoslovak Airlines) […]. The plane was a turboprop, with small propellers. I think there were only Czechs on board, who had visited the West and returned, Communists as well as people who had visited family […]. The other people noticed of course that we were Dutch. When we were flying above Prague, the aeroplane made a big circle, and Tomášek said: ‘I see Pappa’s country !’ – I almost start crying [remembering it] [she gets tears in her eyes] – and they understood that, and the Czechs were really enthusiastic and took Tomášek from one window to the other, pointing out ‘that is that, that is that’, they were really emotional».

19  On 16 June, one of his female cousins (herself a Party member) wrote, for example: «Dear Jarda, You have a very beautiful wife and son. Pity that you couldn’t introduce them and your daughters, that would have been fantastic. We all love Anuška and Tomášek a lot, and hope that they like their stay in Czechoslovakia […]. So long as you cannot come yourself, send them again back soon. We will make sure that we won’t bring your family in trouble. I am somewhat moved writing this. I will have to say goodbye to your treasures and that’s why I can’t think straight, can’t express everything I feel in these few lines. We love you, your family and the whole of Holland ! Many greetings, a slap on the back and a kiss from all of us».

20  She said «I had imagined [waiters being] rough guys, saying ‘here comrade, here’s your plate of food’ [acts as if she throws a plate on the table]». Some of the restaurants she was taken to were, as her mother-in-law had promised, luxurious, with «waiters wearing a jacquet and a serviette over their arm. The service was excellent and people […] were really dressed up».

21  She said: «I was nervous when I was introduced to Jaroslav, the father of Zdenka, because he was the communist of the family. He was a convinced communist […]. I imagined he would look at me fiercely, ‘what are you doing here, wife of an escaped Czech !’». She was, however, welcomed by him, and consciously avoiding the topic of my father’s escape to the West, they developed a family relationship without tensions. Interestingly, the aunt’s husband was also a Party member, and my mother recalled meeting him for the first time during that first visit in 1966. She commented that she had «liked him immediately», and said that with him she had openly discussed politics. «Once, I think during my first visit, I ate alone with him in their house, and we were chatting. I did not feel ‘I can’t say this’. […]. I said something about freedom, ‘people here aren’t allowed many things, what’s on television is censored, and in books...’, and then he said, ‘well, it is good we do that because the majority is so stupid or undeveloped, they can’t make a choice, so it’s good if we [Party members] censor things’. ‘And Anuška’, he said, ‘the world will end in chaos, but in democratic countries chaos will happen sooner than here, because democracy leads sooner to chaos than [a system where] people have to keep to rules set from above, because the masses are simply stupid’». When I asked her how she had responded, she said, «He said it calmly. And there is of course some truth in it, that’s what I thought at the time. I liked him and he liked me». Again, where others might have concluded that there was no point in returning to relatives who regarded my father as someone who had chosen the “wrong” political system, my mother was positively challenged by the confrontation.

22  On 22 July she wrote on her way back home in the airplane: «Last night drinking and dancing with Oma, Vĕra, Milan, to bed at 3.00 and still not sober the next morning. 11.00 o’clock, lunch at Vĕra and Milan’s, to the airport, Franta with cigarettes and book for Jarda. Oma is brave and cries just a little (the airplane is tumbling terribly). [We] kiss, look, and fini ! When will I return and what will happen then ? Jarda and girls still in another world […] Czechoslovakia with everything and everybody is beautiful and very, very sweet».

23  «Oma was completely happy that I had adapted so easily, and I had no problems. She had been to Holland so she knew it was different there. That bars were so messy and that guys were boozing and that things were plain did not strike me as ‘God, such poverty’, but rather ‘it’s another culture’. I enjoyed it, the completely different world I had entered, because that’s what it was».

24  «In the plane back I sat slightly bewildered, probably also tipsy from the last drinks, but slightly bewildered. And that’s how Pappa saw me coming out of the plane. He had dropped me off in a Škoda, he had not had it for long but it had broken down due to a production fault. He waited for me in a Volvo and I didn’t even notice it. Pappa stood there, [proud of his new car], like ‘look what I’ve got here’, but I didn’t notice it. And Pappa did not… well, on the one hand he liked that I had gotten on well with the family, but that I was so enthusiastic about Czechoslovakia… that hurt him, I think».

25  They could officially buy off their Czechoslovak citizenship, a long bureaucratic process.

26  We spent the remainder of the holidays with my grandmother and various relatives. Returning back to the Netherlands, my father was understandably disappointed and out of balance. Even though the issue had not been resolved, he did, however, visit his mother frequently in next years, at least whenever he could get a visa, and continued to provide both long-distance and hands-on care.

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Maria Vlček, « Iron Curtains ? », Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 41-1 | 2010, 59-81.

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Maria Vlček, « Iron Curtains ? », Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 41-1 | 2010, mis en ligne le 07 décembre 2010, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/rsa.187

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