A survivor's guide carved in the stone of history

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The Independent Online
FROM our gallery seat up on the north-west rim of Europe, we sometimes take the play too seriously. There are real tragedies, like the rape and murder of Bosnia. But there are other dramas which are less dreadful than they seem. The actors draw swords and begin to slash at one another, but Britain sits too far away to see the winks of complicity, the padding in their doublets.

Take Slovakia. Its separation from the Czech lands, which now seems unavoidable, is being treated here as a catastrophe. But it probably is not. A German proverb says that 'soup is cooked hotter than it is eaten'. In other words, people in Central Europe are experts at pretending to change while remaining much the same.

In the little Carpathian spa of Bardejov, in north Slovakia, there is the statue of a beautiful young woman. She is sitting on a chair and wearing a ball dress. She is the Empress Elizabeth, wife of Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria-Hungary, who used to visit the spa (Bartfeld, in German) to take the waters and gamble. In those days people thought her life a sad one; today we might not think so. 'Sisi', as she was called, went off her husband and court life and spent most of her days wandering about Europe from Corfu to Ireland with a few attendants. In 1898, an Italian fanatic stabbed her to death as she was boarding a steamer in Geneva.

A group of Hungarian admirers had the statue erected in Bardejov in 1903. Most fortunately, they did not cut her name on it. Perhaps they had an instinct of what was about to happen to Central Europe. Anyway the statue survived and the other day the Czech journalist Ota Filip went to Bardejov to find out how it could possibly have done so. This is what he heard.

The First World War came. A Russian army rode over the mountains and captured Bardejov, but politely left Elizabeth alone. Then came the fall of the Habsburgs and the creation of 'Czecho-Slovakia'. Habsburg monuments were everywhere smashed, but Bardejov people alleged that the statue was not really Sisi's. It represented Sarah, wife of Aron Rothenstein, a rich Jewish banker from Budapest who had erected it after the water cured her gallstones.

So far, so good. But in 1939 Slovakia broke away and became a puppet Fascist state. How could a Jewish statue be tolerated? A professor in Bratislava certified that it represented nobody in particular but 'the ideal of Aryan-Slovak womanhood'.

Next came the Red Army in 1944. The Soviet officers were surprised but pleased to find a statue of their Empress Catherine the Great in Bardejov, and a wreath was laid at her feet by a colonel in the political section named Leonid Brezhnev. (Pull the other one] This is over the top] But I can't prove he did not). The coming of Communism to Czechoslovakia in 1948 required something more subtle, however. The guardians of Bardejov revived Sarah Rothenstein, but added an inscription stating that 'she perished as a partisan during the 1944 Slovak National Rising against Fascism'.

But Communist Czechoslovakia was grimly thorough in its checking-up. Stalinist bureaucrats raised objections to such a grand monument to a single Jewess. Then the truth finally came out. Extinction faced Sisi, and perhaps the town Party committee as well. And yet, at the last moment, an ideologist was found who stated that the Empress Elizabeth had been a premature rebel against feudal and bourgeois oppression. Falling in love with the workers and peasants of Slovakia, she had fled into the mountains to enjoy their simple class camaraderie and escape the reactionary boredom of Vienna.

It worked. The statue still sits there, but according to Ota Filip, writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, passers-by are still uncertain who she is. Marie Curie? The Slovak poetess Zora Jesenska? And this is certainly not the end of the story, for the Central European melodrama has more acts to come. Acts in turn mean entr'actes: those frantic moments while the scene- shifters tear down and replace street names, monuments, library catalogues and initials on pillarboxes. Perhaps Sisi will indeed have to become Zora, to conciliate Slovak nationalists. Perhaps she will turn into Margareta Thatcherova, Hammer of the Reds.

When I told this tale to a Polish friend, he remembered that he had met the priest who gave Sisi the last rites when she was carried back dying to her Geneva hotel (the Beau Rivage). But then my friend went on: 'Of course, you realise that the statue is operating as a religious object? This sort of transference through different faiths is really quite common.'

I should have thought of it myself; he was right. He mentioned those pictures of the Madonna standing in blue robes on the horns of the moon, which are obviously refunctioned versions of Diana/Artemis as Huntress. Most Mother-Goddesses in Eurasia are related, and he had seen an altar in the fort at Chesters, on Hadrian's Wall, dedicated to 'all the Mother-Goddesses who may exist'. I have heard of a chapel in a remote Cypriot village which is dedicated to 'Saint Aphroditessa'. The Greek temples at Paestum, south of Naples, are built around an ancient shrine to Hera of Argos, at the outfall of the Sele river, and in the village churches along the coastal range above Paestum the Madonnas strongly resemble Argive Hera.

The story of the statue at Bardejov is a story of hope. Opportunism has a poor name in this country, where people prefer to think that they would go to the stake for their principles, but it is an underrated tactic. Sometimes the point is to save what you can. The game is to keep smiling and keep changing uniforms, but to remain the same inside. 'They' will probably think you are slightly contemptible. But you have the consolation of knowing that you are making 'them' totally ridiculous. Admittedly, you have to cope with self- disgust. A Czech I used to know amused himself one school afternoon when kept in for misbehaviour by picking at the portrait of the Communist leader, President Gottwald, on the wall. Underneath, he found President Benes, and then Hitler, and then President Masaryk. Suddenly it wasn't funny. He felt sick, and asked himself: Is this the sort of people we are?

It is true that the story of the statue is an anti-heroic 'Czech' kind of story. The Slovaks prefer to think of themselves as more romantic and confrontational. But then the Slovaks are far more like the Czechs than they will admit.

I once went to a Cold War seminar in which they came up with that soggy old metaphor about making countries into bridges between East and West. A German said that Germany could be a bridge uniting different world-views into a single transcendent reality. A Soviet speaker (I am not joking) said that bridges were good because they made it possible to see exactly who was crossing in both directions. The last speaker, however, said: 'I do not wish my country to become any sort of bridge, thank you. May I remind you that, when there is trouble, bridges are the first thing to be blown up?'

That man was a Slovak. His small country has preserved a surprising number of bridges and statues. And - whatever uniforms they put on - nothing is going to demolish the Slovak people either.