We don’t have any idea who invented the official form. Everyone has heard of Galileo, Edison, or Einstein, but the name of the man who devised the form with its questions and headings still remains a mystery. It’s unfair, really, when you think of the crucial role such documents play in one’s life.
The form has simplified things a lot since its first appearance in the not-so-distant past. If it had existed in earlier times, Galileo wouldn’t have had to appear before the Inquisition. It would have been enough to send him a form headed:
Your views, on the earth’s rotation:
a) The Earth rotates around the Sun
Cross out what does not apply.
True, Galileo appealed the tribunal’s decision, but if he were alive today he could do it in writing, and even have three weeks to send it!
Happily, since those dark days civilization has gone on evolving. For years now, much effort has been made in official forms to make the questions as precise as possible, so that the details of our lives do not go by unrecorded.
These days, no civil servant will believe you were born unless you have a document to prove it. There are certain officials who are ready to concede that we are alive: not because they can see us with their own eyes, but because they have yet to receive our death certificate.
My first form is dated Twentieth of March, Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Three, and I treasure it as a rare souvenir. You see, it’s my conviction that there are few people who could boast of receiving their first tax return at the age of four, as I can. And what’s more, it’s in two languages. In German it is called Einbekenntnis fur das Jahr 1943, while in Czech it is described as a Tax Return for Jews of Non-Jewish Religion for the year 1943. The form is several pages long and has many headings because it was to apply to the property I owned at the time. The headings are divided into a number of categories: company name, land, bonds, houses, cash, bank deposits, etc.
The instructions state that even a minor is regarded as head of a family and is obliged to file a tax return.
In the eyes of the Reich officials, in the absence of my father, I was already head of the family at the age of four. Thus I also became head of the firm in which my mother was still an employee. The form was delivered to me regularly and I can even boast of having received my first reminder at that time. Confirmation that it was rightfully sent to me is provided by the instruction in paragraph 6 of the decree of the Reichsinspektor Bohmen and Mahren, item bB, sub-item cc, which reads as follows: “Any person of mixed race issue from a marriage with a Jew contracted after 15.9.19 35 shall also be regarded as a Jew.”
That paragraph fascinates me. Had my parents got married by midnight on 14 September of that year, the authorities of the day would never have taken me seriously. I have to admire the man who dreamed up that paragraph.
His must have been a hard and demanding job: choosing out of an unlimited number of years, months, and days the one day and hour that determined which of my playmates in the sandbox at that time was the company director and which was just a private child with no corporate status. By now I realize that the person who made this determination was a bureaucratic genius, although that didn’t occur to me at the time.
I had enough worries with my teddy bear, and the production of sandcastles had me working overtime. Happily all correspondence with the authorities was conducted by my private secretary, whom I had previously employed as my wet nurse. She proved herself fully competent in her new post. She would patiently write on each form: moved away, no longer at this address, or cross out the name and address and send the form back. No one asked for the license number of my pram.
Many years later, Mother confided to me that she was ready, if the worst came to the worst, to hide me in the forest and get hold of a false death certificate for me. I imagine myself dying officially.
An official death is quick and virtually painless, since the strokes of typewriter keys don’t much hurt.
I can envision the death notice (“After a brief but serious illness, our son, company director and businessman, has died at the age of four years”) being received by a civil servant who peruses it and then removes my pristine record cards-barely four years old and undefiled by comments-from the active file, bearing them off to a special room where those to whom the authorities have ceased sending green envelopes rest in peace at last.
The experiences I’ve been recalling had a profound effect on my mother.
She realized that receiving an official form like this was not just a question of taxes but a life-and-death matter, and she never again trusted officialdom. She learned to translate officialese into human speech and to read between the lines. Henceforth she never took any official question lightly. She realized that the authorities never asked questions casually and that the purpose of forms was to learn more about people than they thought they had said. Thus Mother’s struggle with officialdom never ceased. There would simply be brief moments of provisional truce when she would recover her strength before sallying forth into battle once more.
Whenever I recall her, she is sitting there with some official document in her hand.
Or she is sitting at her old Underwood typewriter and saying out loud the sentence she is about to enter in the form: “I was born ist March or she is writing out my curriculum vitae for the nth time …
Whenever I came home from school with a form to be filled in, I had to give it to my mother. I once inadvertently filled out a form by myself. Mother asked to see it on the pretext that I had got her birthday wrong. After a quick perusal she reprimanded me for describing my grandfather as a farmer.
“Don’t you know that on forms you have to say small peasant?”
I said I couldn’t see much difference between the words.
“But they can!” my mother said, and she proceeded to explain that one had to use the particular words that the regime had introduced and expected. She said that otherwise it could happen that the people who received the form might put Granddad down as a kulak, if they weren’t exceptionally careful. She subsequently left spaces between the letters of the word small for the sake of emphasis, and when she felt that wasn’t enough, she inserted the word very in front of it.
I expect that if things had got worse, Mother would have put him down as landless peasant, just to be on the safe side.
Not even Father was allowed to fill in forms on his own, but always had to submit them to Mother. Nevertheless, he had no understanding of her way of going about it, and regularly told her off for not writing the truth. Mother would always sigh and declare that it had been possible to tell the truth only before the war and for a little while after it.
Once Father complained about Mother writing that he was of working-class origin and said that that description was a fraud.
Mother recalled that he had once worked in a factory, but Father said that had nothing to do with his origin and he didn’t like the idea of stating false information, to make sure that he didn’t end up on the factory floor again.
Mother said that it would be best if Father had nothing to do with the forms and reminded him that he and the post office lost most of them. Then she suggested he should go for a walk and stop interrupting her since she had to finish rewriting his CV.
Father said he thought that was a dangerous thing to do.
Mother pointed out that he had always been incredibly naive and asked him to realize once and for all that he had five children.
Father told her he was fully aware of the fact and for that very reason had no intention of lying on official forms, because he didn’t want to jeopardize the family’s existence.
Mother gave a nervous laugh and said that every regime had its own official forms and it was precisely on account of the children that you couldn’t write the whole truth, otherwise they themselves might end up sweeping the roads.
Father had no objections to their becoming road sweepers: for one thing, it would make it easier to fill in their forms.
Mother said she had no intention of letting her children become road sweepers. Father then wanted to know how Mother was able to square these distortions of the record with her religious faith and he asked whether she wouldn’t have to go to confession after filling in the form.
“You just worry about your own Party screening!” Mother said crossly, brandishing the sharp point of her pencil at him.
And as punishment she refused to lend him a copy of his certificate of former residence.
I think that the part of the form that my mother regarded as the most dangerous of all was the one headed: Relatives abroad. For years she patiently drew a line through the box. And since she did so at a time when we had two uncles in the USA, one in South America, and one in Canada, it was a rather bold thing to do.
“Abroad means the West,” she would explain.
To judge from the way she filled in the forms, it looked as if not only did we have no relatives in the West, but we also had none in the North, East, or South either.
“Just remember that you have no relatives in the West,” she would keep on reminding us. And sometimes she would check to see if we’d learned our lesson.
Once she gave Michael a test question about our relatives, just as he was coming in from school. She asked him where his uncle lived. Startled by the question, Michael asked her which one she meant.
“The one who escaped to the West,” she said in tones worthy of the Wolf addressing Little Red Riding-Hood.
My brother replied that he knew nothing about any uncle, and Mother held him up as an example to the rest of us, particularly my father, who she was sure would fail such a test.
“You can never be certain when someone might ask you something like that!” she reminded us, and she impressed on us not to lose our heads at that moment. I think Michael must have taken it to heart because he once happened to be at home when two men in trenchcoats came to the door and put that very question to him. They asked about Uncle Jaroslav.
Michael kept his head and told them he’d never heard of an uncle by that name.
Mother praised him and gave him some fruit-flavored chewing gum as a reward. It came from the parcel that the uncle had just sent from America.
Sometimes I can see my mother holding one of my little sisters and then having to put her down, to look for some letter of appeal.
Most often, in my mind’s eye, I can see my mother rummaging crossly through files, folders, and envelopes, unable to find what she is looking for. As she does so she is often telling my father off for making such a mess of the records. Then she will come across a form which she didn’t happen to be looking for but which she immediately starts to read, as she is curious to see how she filled it in years before. When she has finished it, she puts it to one side and then suddenly rejoices over finding a school report she has been searching for fruitlessly. She peruses it and then goes to find Father’s school report for the sake of comparison. Then she phones him to find out whether he really did get seven Cs for German in 1927.
Most of the scenes in these “family movies” projected onto my half-closed eyelids are set in the evening when my mother is attending to the forms-when she can “concentrate,” as she puts it.
Often I see her tired and sleepy, surrounded by empty cups of coffee, rustling official forms, CVs, and applications. The rustling wakes my father, who is sleeping off-screen in the next room, and he crossly tells her to come to bed, as if it’ll soon be time to get up. Mother simply sighs or shrugs her shoulders.
At the end of the film in my head, Mother suddenly turns to the camera and waves at me a photocopy of my father’s arrest warrant from 1940.
My mother hangs onto the originals of documents as if they were rare paintings. She maintains that they could easily get lost and refuses to hand them over to any of us.
When my brother, who is a professor in America now, needed his secondary-school graduation certificate, she sent him a copy of a copy. Even I didn’t get hold of my birth certificate until I was thirty. Mother wrote to me that she couldn’t let the original out of her hands because she got to know the German authorities very well during the war, when an official had sent her some gentleman’s hunting license instead of her Heiratsurkunde. So all I managed to obtain was a photograph of a legally certified photocopy. Mother actually waited at the photographer’s so that she could take the document back from him straight away, lest he put it somewhere by mistake and give her back a copy of animal slides instead.
She takes the same care of all legal judgments having to do with the family. She has special folders for the originals and copies of judicial or police rulings since 19 39. In the folders each of us has a section of our own, demarcated by different-colored cards; Father’s section also comprises all dog-license fines and the outcome of various disputes with State Police monitors and agents.
Apart from her mistrust of officialdom, Mother is also convinced that the remaining documents go missing on account of the post office or my father. For that reason she would never let my father handle them, even if he gave her a receipt. But using the post office is unavoidable, and a real headache for her. So she sends everything registered and makes a copy of everything before she sends it. Sometimes she even puts a postcard in an envelope before she mails it, because she suspects that post office officials collect postcards instead of them. Whenever my mother sends a letter, she marks it as the original, and then sends my brother and sister copies so that they’re also in on the correspondence. Sometimes she sends me the original plus the copies for me to send on.
She always expects me to confirm receipt of all her letters.
Her letters are often full of news about other letters and are reminiscent of a round robin. I once received the following letter, for instance:
Dear Ivan, Eliska and Michael,
(original to Ivan, copies to Eliska and Michael)
Thank you, Ivan, for the letter of 14/3/82 (received 17/3/82 at 11.30 A.M.) and the postcard (the Eiffel Tower in spring) of 16/3/82 (received 20/3/82 in the afternoon).
Thank you, Michael, for your nice letter of 21/3/82 (received 26/3/82 at 10 A. M .) that took only five days to get here, unlike the previous one, sent on 17/1/82 that arrived on 27/i and therefore took ten days to get here! Thanks also for the postcard (Central Park, New York) that arrived the same day as the letter, i.e., 21/3. Unfortunately I can’t tell how long it took, as there’s no date on it, Michael! Thank you, Eliska, for the letter you sent on +/4 (that got here on 12/4). But you forget to say whether you received the certificate, that I had legally certified twice. I sent it to you on 25/3 and registered it because I know the mail often goes missing where you are. I have the receipt and a photocopy of the receipt. So please confirm that you received it or else I’d have to follow it up here and you’d have to do the same at your end. I also enclose a photocopy of Ivan’s last letter as I forgot to make a copy for you.
On io/4 I sent to Ivan in Paris 21 black-and-white photos of little David (7 are for Eliska, 7 for Michael).
These include 3 photos with the father, 2 with the mother (on one of them you can see the new couch!), I with both parents (Jan is wearing the jumper from Eliska, which by the way arrived with the poncho with the antelopes on 22/9/81 ), i with me in the park. I look dreadfull in the photo, because I was up to all hours the previous night writing another appeal for Katerina.
I have to close now because I’d like to mail this from the main post office. So I’ll leave the news about us till next time.
End. 3 x 7 photos
2 x photocopies of letter
1 x photocopy of registration receipt
1 x photocopy of certified certificate
It would be hard to find a copy of such a mother, I think.
-translated by Gerald Turner
Copyright New England Review Winter 2002
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