Marian Slingova-Fagan: Political activist who endured solitary confinement in communist Czechoslovakia

Marian Rose Šlingová-Fagan was a political activist who married a Czechoslovakian Communist and found herself caught up in that country's repressive system.

Marian Wilbraham was born to a well-to-do middle-class British family in New Zealand in 1913. Her father died when she was one and her mother returned with her to Britain to live in Oxford. She was educated at the independent Oxford High School and then Somerville College, Oxford University. She became attracted there to the then fashionable Communist movement. After two years of teaching, in 1937 she became secretary of the British Youth Peace Assembly and helped to organise anti-war demonstrations.

Through her wartime work with refugees she met a Jewish exile and fellow communist from Czechoslovakia, Ota Šling. Their marriage in 1941 cost her her British citizenship. She became "a friendly alien" and a citizen of the non-existent Czechoslovakia. Their son Jan was born in 1943, Karel in 1945. After the war they returned to the newly restored Czechoslovakia, where Ota became the most powerful person in the Brno region, the Party's regional secretary. Šlingová was enthusiastic about the Czechoslovakian people creating "a more just society" and worked on her Czech.

In October 1950 Ota was arrested, tortured until he confessed to the most absurd crimes of treason and espionage, and executed at the end of 1952.

His case formed part of the Stalin-inspired Slánský show trial aimed partly at purging the Czechoslovak Communist leadership of Jews. She was imprisoned a few hours after Ota. Seven-year-old Jan and five-year-old Karel went to an orphanage, where Jan was forced to listen to the live radio relay of his father's trial.

Šlingová was kept mostly in solitary confinement for over two years. She knew nothing about her children and learnt about Ota's execution from her only contact with the world, the interrogator. The prison authorities didn't send on her regular letters to her mother in Britain, who consequently knew about their plight only from the British press and pestering journalists.

She was reunited with her children on her release in 1953. The authorities had prepared a flat for them with no bathroom and a shared outside toilet in the north-eastern Bohemian mountains, and had designated a job for Šlingová as a factory hand. They were forced to change their surname to Vilbr, but the locals knew who they were and were very kind. Her pay would not cover the rent and food for three, so the grocer gave her credit. Local women taught her to cook cheap Czech food, and she would carry wood and pine cones for heating the stove from the forest in a piece of cloth fixed to her back. The local schoolteacher brought them rabbits to breed. The former factory owner's widow, who now worked as a factory hand alongside her former servants, gave them hand-me-down clothes. Even local communists tried to help when nobody was watching.

Šlingová resumed correspondence with her 74-year-old mother, who promptly turned up to stay with them for the next five years. She slept in the kitchen on the settee which she had specially sent on from Britain.

After the first revelation of the Stalinist crimes in the Soviet Union in 1956, the family was allowed to move to Prague and Šlingová to work as a foreign editor in publishing. But the boys were still barred from higher education. Jan, interested in history, no good with his hands and frightened of heights, was made to learn a trade and work on a ladder, testing balconies. Karel was trained to work in the mines, where the noise, against which he was not given sufficient protection, permanently damaged his hearing.

Ota Šling was legally vindicated in 1963. The financial compensation was minuscule and Šlingová received none for her own imprisonment. But the boys were allowed to study. Jan started to study law and Karel graduated in economics. The family re-assumed their original surname and spent every summer with their grandmother, who was back in Britain. Šlingová became a full-time translator. She is renowned for her translations of The Axe by Ludvik Vaculík, Pábitelé by Bohumil Hrabal, and economic publications by Ota Šik. She also published the story of her imprisonment, Truth Will Prevail.

After the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia she returned to Britain for good in 1970. The boys stay in Prague. Fairly soon, Jan was arrested for dissident activities, kept in the same prison in Ruzyne where his parents were in the Fifties and expelled to Britain in 1972. Both Šlingová and Jan were stripped of Czechoslovak citizenship for helping to make dissident publications available in the West in English.

Karel signed Charter 1977, a document fiercely critical of the Czech government, lost his job as an economist and for seven years became a manual worker. He was allowed to emigrate to Britain in January 1984 and the family has been here ever since. Šlingová married Hymie Fagan in the 1970s, joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and went to Greenham Common. Her last demonstration was against the war in Iraq in Hyde Park.

Marian Šlingová-Fagan, activist and translator: born New Zealand 5 March 1913; married twice (two sons); died London 22 June 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before