Old Times – City Column

City Column

Old Times

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His thin hands are resting in his lap, his fingers fidgeting with his cap. Out on the streets he’s the man, but here at headquarters, in the office of one of the police chiefs, the pistol in his holster might just as well be a cap gun or a water pistol. I am seated next to him on a bench and Leonora, our interpreter, is seated at right angle from me, next to the public relations officer. Across from me, perched high on her chair, is Madame Police Chief, a heavyset fifty-year old woman.

I asked the police officer if he could tell me something about the bronze statues next to the entrance; he was the one I was here to interview. The interpreter rattled away, the public relations officer wrote it all down, and Madame Police Chief watched.

‘No’ said the officer. End of story.

‘Is there a difference between now and the way the police were before 1991 when the country was still communist?’ I asked.

The officer didn’t really need the interpreter to understand my question, but he waited a long time before replying: ‘I don’t know, I didn’t work here then.’

And why were the pictures of police superintendents in the hall downstairs all taken after 1991?

‘The Slovakian police have only been in existence since 1991,’ the public relations officer said, speaking out of turn.

A solider with a machine gun, a woman in a uniform to the left and to the right of the door, three typical Soviet-workers, those are the images. Definitely pre-1991. In the 1960s Bratislavans were interrogated and abused in this same massive, gloomy building with its long dark corridors. Including Father Anton, now 85 years old and my local celebrity for Youropeans. He spent ten years in a prison camp because he was branded a dangerous priest (and later excommunicated from the Catholic Church for the same reasons: spot the difference between Rome and Moscow).

The priest welcomed me in his tiny flat (20 square metres) in a depressing suburb of Bratislava. He had baked cookies for me and he offered me a glass of his brother’s wine, which was served from a Coca Cola bottle. Speaking in a mixture of German and English he was touching and wise. After the interview he drove me through the pouring rain back to the city centre. He drove confidently for an 85-year old, without glasses.

The interview was finished. The officer went outside to play again, the interpreter went home, the public relations officer looked glum, and the boss presented me with a bag of gifts. An alcohol test, a pen, a notepad and a rain poncho. Nice gesture. Definitely a departure from the past.