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The Walls Behind the Curtain

East European Prison Literature, 1945–1990

Harold B. Segel

Publication Year: 2012

Because of their visibility in society and ability to shape public opinion, prominent literary figures were among the first targets of Communist repression, torture, and incarceration. Authors such as Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn famously documented the experience of internment in Soviet gulags. Little, however, has been published in the English language on the work of writers imprisoned by other countries of the Soviet bloc. For the first time, The Walls Behind the Curtain presents a collection of works from East European novelists, poets, playwrights, and essayists who wrote during or after their captivity under communism. Harold B. Segel paints a backdrop of the political culture and prison and labor camp systems of each country, detailing the onerous conditions that writers faced. Segel then offers biographical information on each writer and presents excerpts of their writing. Notable literary figures included are Václav Havel, Eva Kantůrková, Milan Šimečka, Adam Michnik, Milovan Djilas, Paul Goma, Tibor Déry, and Visar Zhiti, as well as many other writers.This anthology recovers many of the most important yet overlooked literary voices from the era of Communist occupation. Although translated from numerous languages, and across varied cultures, there is a distinct commonality in the experiences documented by these works. The Walls Behind the Curtain serves as a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit and a quest for individual liberty for which many writers forfeited their lives.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Front Cover

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About the Artist, Maks Velo

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pp. ix-xii

The illustrations in this book are the work of the celebrated Albanian artist Maks Velo. Much of Velo’s career has been defined by the years he was forced to spend in the notorious forced labor camp at Spaç. He had already begun an impressive career as an artist and architect when his work...

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pp. 1-14

Burrel, Spaç, Qafë-Bari, Ruzyně, Pankrác, Mírov, Leopoldov, Valdice, Jáchymov, Bytíz u Přibrami, Białołęka, Aiud, Gherla, Jilava, Piteşti, Recsk, Lovech, Belene, Idrizovo, Goli otok. These are names that mean little or nothing to many. But to East Europeans from Central Europe to the farthest...

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pp. 15-17

Albania became an independent state in 1912, in the wake of the First Balkan War, after centuries of Ottoman Turkish domination.1 Before being engulfed by World War II, the country made slow progress into the modern world. Throughout almost the entire interwar period it was ruled by a single...

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Jusuf Vrioni (1916–2001)

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pp. 18-23

Best known as the esteemed translator of Ismail Kadaré into French, Jusuf Vrioni, one imagines, might have been spared the wretchedness of prison that befell so many other prominent (and not so prominent) Albanian literary figures. Unfortunately, his personal relationship...

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Arshi Pipa (1920–2002)

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pp. 24-29

Pipa was a scholar of Albanian and Italian literatures, a poet (mostly in the Gheg dialect, of which he was a staunch defender), an implacable foe of communism, and an intense antagonist of Albania’s major contemporary writer of fiction, Ismail Kadaré. Accused of “counterrevolutionary” activities...

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Kasëm Trebeshina (b. 1926)

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pp. 30-36

A highly esteemed poet, prose writer, and dramatist, Trebeshina had to wait until after the collapse of the Albanian Communist regime before being able to bring to light most of his literary works, which until the 1990s existed only in manuscript. Thirty years separate the publication of his first book...

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Maks Velo (b. 1935 )

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pp. 37-49

Born in Paris into an Albanian family, Velo was taken by his parents to live in Albania, in the city of Korça, while still a child. After attending local schools, he went on to study construction at the Tirana Polytechnic in 1957. Although he became an accomplished architect...

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Fatos T. Lubonja (b. 1951)

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pp. 50-63

One of the most respected figures in contemporary Albanian journalism and political life, Fatos Lubonja is the son of Todi Lubonja (1923–2005), the general director of Albanian Radio and Television, who was purged in 1971. That same year, Fatos was taken into custody and sentenced...

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Visar Zhiti (b. 1952)

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pp. 64-69

One of the leading poets of contemporary Albania, Zhiti was about to launch his career with a first book of poetry in 1973 when he fell victim to the purge of artists and intellectuals that followed the Fourth Plenary Session of the Albanian Communist Party. In April 1980, after several months...

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Besnik Mustafaj (b. 1958)

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pp. 70-76

Poet, novelist, essayist, and diplomat, Mustafa was born in Bajram Curri and majored in French at the University of Tirana. After working for a while as a teacher, he joined the faculty of the university in 1982 and also was affiliated...

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pp. 77-80

Long a part of the Ottoman Turkish empire, like Albania, Bulgaria—with Russian support—wrenched free of Ottoman control in 1908.1 World War I was just a few years away. When it erupted, the Bulgarians threw their lot in with the Central Powers—Austria-Hungary and Germany—rather than...

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Venko Markovski (1915–1988)

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pp. 81-88

The author of the only book about the notorious Adriatic prison camp island Goli otok—Marshal Tito’s Devil’s Island—to appear in English, Markovski was a native Bulgarian who was born in Skopje, the present capital of Macedonia. He received his secondary education in Skopje but later studied at a university in Sofia, Bulgaria. Markovski truly had two homelands...

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pp. 89-92

Unlike most of Eastern Europe between World Wars I and II, Czechoslovakia was by and large a political and economic success story. It had its problems, to be sure, but they seemed minor compared to those of its neighbors. As a new state born of World War I and the disintegration...

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Jiří Hejda (1895–1985)

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pp. 93-96

Hejda was one of the thirteen members of an alleged antistate terrorist group led by Dr. Milada Horáková (1901–1950), a well-known political activist tried and convicted in 1950. In the most notorious Communist-era show trial preceding the Rudolf Slánský case of 1952...

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Jan Zahradníček (1905–1960)

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pp. 97-109

Zahradníček was one of the foremost Czech poets of Catholic mysticism. Between 1930 and 1947, he had published some ten books of poetry, including the important collection La Saletta (1947), which was inspired by the account of the story of two French children who claimed that on 19 September...

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Jiří Mucha (1915–1991)

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pp. 110-117

The son of the famous painter Alfons Mucha (1860–1939), Jiří Mucha had been associated with the Czechoslovak government in exile during World War II. He was taken into custody not long after the Communist coup of 1948 on charges of being a spy for the West. He was sentenced to six years...

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Lenka Reinerová (1916–2008)

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pp. 118-124

Reinerová was a remnant of the once vibrant German-speaking Jewish community of Prague and the last female writer of that city to write in German. Arrested in conjunction with the Rudolf Slánský affair, she was placed in investigative detention for fifteen months, after which...

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Karel Pecka (1928–1997)

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pp. 125-141

Often referred to as the Czech Solzhenitsyn, Pecka was arrested as early as 1949 for contributing to an illegal newspaper. He was sentenced to eleven years imprisonment, serving time first in the Jáchymov mining camp and then, in 1956, in Bytíz u Přibrami. Pecka’s literary career began...

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Eva Kantůrková (b. 1930)

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pp. 142-150

A respected Czech novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, Kantůrková was born in Prague, the daughter of a Communist journalist and writer. In 1956, she received a degree in philosophy and history from Charles University and began a writing career with the newspaper...

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Milan Šimečka (1930–1990)

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pp. 151-157

The father of the well-known Slovak novelist Martin Šimečka (b. 1957), Milan Šimečka was a highly respected and influential Slovak writer and dissident. Although born in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia...

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Rudolf Dobiáš (b. 1934)

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pp. 158-166

A prominent Slovak writer and journalist, well known for his works for children, Dobiáš was arrested while still a secondary school student at the age of eighteen and charged with antistate activity. He was sentenced to hard labor in the uranium mines in Jáchymov...

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Poets from Dobiáš’s Básnici za mrežami: Antológia poézie napísanej vo väzení

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p. 167-167

In his work Dom opustenosti (House of Desolation, 1991), the poet and translator Janko Silan (1914–1984), a Catholic priest, publishes a letter to a literary journal. I permit myself to quote an excerpt from it as marginally related to the theme of this anthology. He writes, inter alia...

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Vojtech Belák (1928–2008)

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pp. 168-170

Trained in medicine and medicinal chemistry at the universities of Bratislava and Košice, Belák’s career was cut short when he was taken into custody on a charge of conducting preelectoral agitation against candidates of the National Front coalition of parties that headed...

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Pavol Brodnaňský (1930–2004)

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pp. 171-172

A student of natural sciences at the Comenius University in Bratislava, he was arrested in 1952 and sentenced along with others to twenty-two years in prison. He spent eight of these years toiling in the Jáchymov uranium...

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Vojtech Jenčík (1920–1976)

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pp. 173-176

A student at the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Theological Faculty in Bratislava, he was consecrated as a priest in 1945 in the famous Concathedral of St. Martin in Bratislava. The following seven years he served in the Košice diocese...

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Alexander Rodan (pseudonym of Ján Pospišel, 1919–1990)

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p. 177-177

An editor by profession, he was arrested for trying to escape Slovakia and was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment. He served eleven years, mostly in forced labor in the Jáchymov mines but also in Valdice. While in prison he composed two cycles of poems that he transcribed...

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Štefan Sandtner (1916–2006)

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pp. 178-179

Sandtner studied theology at the Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained as a priest in 1943. He was one of a group of friends who in the spring of 1951 attempted—unsuccessfully—to flee to the West across the Czechoslovak border. While recuperating in a hospital in Bratislava...

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Marián Skala (pseudonym of Ján Krajňák, n.d.)

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pp. 180-181

While a student at the Philosophical Faculty of the Comenius University in Bratislava, he was expelled after four semesters, and in June 1952 he was arrested and sentenced to five and a half years in the Jáchymov uranium mines. He was freed in 1956 and soon found employment...

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Ladislav Záborský (b. 1921)

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pp. 182-184

A much-admired Catholic painter of religious themes, Záborský’s arguably most famous canvas, that of Christ as a Worker, was first shown at an exhibition in Košice in March and April 1949. Before long, it became widely known throughout Slovakia. Záborský’s success...

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Václav Havel (1936–2011)

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pp. 185-200

The celebrated playwright, known the world over as a champion of human rights, a political activist, and subsequently as the president first of the Czechoslovak state and then of the new Czech Republic...

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pp. 201-204

Like Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the Communist Party had a relationship going back to the period shortly after World War I. Founded by Béla Kun (1886– 1938 or 1939) in 1918, in fact, two years before its Czechoslovak counterpart, the Hungarian Communist Party became the...

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Tibor Déry (1894–1977)

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pp. 205-208

Déry is known in the Anglophone world primarily as the author of the immensely popular novel Niki: Egy kutja története (Niki: The Story of a Dog, 1956)— which is still in print in English—about a couple’s love for a stray dog set in the context of the bleak Stalinist period of the Mátyás Rákosi regime. One of the most respected names in modern Hungarian...

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György Faludy (1910–2006)

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pp. 209-223

Of Hungarian Jewish origin, like Tibor Déry, Faludy became an immensely popular writer largely on the basis of two works: racy verse renderings of the fifteenth-century French balladeer François Villon (published in 1934 under the title...

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Árpád Göncz (b. 1922)

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pp. 224-228

President of the Hungarian Republic from 2 May 1990 to 4 August 2000, Göncz was a well-known writer and a hugely productive translator of English and American literature. For his part in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and subsequent activities, he was sentenced to life imprisonment...

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Ádám Bodor (b. 1936)

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pp. 229-236

A Transylvanian Hungarian writer who lived in Romania until 1982—except for the period in 1944–1945 when his family moved from Cluj to Budapest—Bodor is the author of such eerie yet compelling novels...

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pp. 237-242

Poland regained its independence in 1918 after 123 years of partition by Russia, Austria, and Prussia. But the euphoria of national rebirth was marred by political and economic instability that dominated Polish life between the two world wars.1 As elsewhere in Eastern Europe...

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Marek Nowakowski (b. 1935)

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pp. 243-246

A Warsaw native and a graduate of the law program of Warsaw University, Nowakowski has long been admired for laconic short stories collectively representing a kind of chronicle of everyday Polish life under communism, with marginal social elements being a main focus...

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Adam Michnik (b. 1946)

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pp. 247-249

Michnik is an internationally esteemed journalist, essayist, and historian who played a major role in the Solidarity movement and was for many years editor of the highly influential newspaper...

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pp. 250-266

The defeat of Austria-Hungary in World War I resulted in a considerable enlargement of the Romanian state due to territorial acquisition.1 However, satisfaction with the realization of the dream of incorporating all Romanian speakers within the confines of a single state was mitigated...

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Nichifor Crainic (1889–1972)

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pp. 267-269

Crainic was a poet, philosopher, theologian, and professor of theology at the Bucharest Theological Seminary and the Chişinău (Moldavia) Faculty of Philosophy. He was a leading pro-Fascist in the 1930s, an avowed admirer of Mussolini and Hitler who became known for his nationalistic...

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Radu Gyr (pseudonym of Radu Demetrescu; 1905–1975)

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pp. 270-273

A native of Câmpulung Muscel, the first capital of Wallachia about 150 kilometers north of Bucharest, Gyr became an active member of the Legion of St. Michael the Archangel at an early age. He rose to the rank of commander and head of the legionary movement in Oltenia...

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Nicolae (Nicu) Steinhardt (1912–1989)

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pp. 274-286

One of the most fascinating men of letters in twentieth-century Romania, Steinhardt, of Jewish origin and a distant relative of Freud and Einstein, began his career in the 1930s as a literary critic and as a writer (in French) on Jewish and Catholic issues...

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Ion Caraion (pseudonym of Stelian Diaconescu; 1923–1985)

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pp. 287-290

Caraion has a formidable reputation as a poet in Romania. He was born into extreme poverty in a small village in the Buzău district but left it in order to further his education in Bucharest. He eventually received a degree from the faculty of literature and philosophy...

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Marcel Petrişor (b. 1930)

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pp. 291-310

A native of Transylvania, deeply rooted in its traditions, Petrişor devoted much of his energy as a writer to a loving reconstruction of the Transylvania village life he knew from firsthand experience. In this respect he joins the ranks of so many other Romanian writers of the nineteenth...

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Paul Goma (b. 1935)

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pp. 311-320

The leading literary dissident of Communist Romania, and a prolific writer, Goma was arrested on several occasions. From April 1957 to March 1958 he was incarcerated in Jilava, then transferred to Gherla from which he was freed on 21 November 1958. He was then placed under...

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pp. 321-325

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which replaced the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in October 1929, further exemplifies the extreme instability characteristic of most of Eastern Europe between World War I and World War II. The goal of a number of South Slav intellectuals...

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Milovan Djilas (1911–1995)

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pp. 326-333

One of the legendary figures of modern Yugoslav history, the Montenegran Djilas’s Communist Party affiliation in the early 1930s while a student at the University of Belgrade brought him firsthand familiarity with prison at an early age. He served three years in jail in the time...

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Igor Torkar (pseudonym of Boris Fakin; 1913–2004)

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pp. 334-343

The bitter irony of Torkar’s life was determined by his experiences during World War II. A chemical engineer by training, he had entered the national liberation movement not long after the outbreak of war. His main goal was to join Tito’s Partisans...

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Vitomil Zupan (1914–1987)

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pp. 344-357

An important Slovenian poet, playwright, novelist, and screenwriter, Zupan led a life of adventure and wandering. He saw action, mostly against the Italians, during World War II as a member of the Slovenian Liberation Front. Captured by the Italians in 1942, he was imprisoned...

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Eligio (Ligio) Zanini (1927–1993)

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pp. 358-365

A native of Rovigno d’Istria (Rovinj, Croatia, after 1947), Zanini was a poet who wrote primarily in the Italian dialect of Rovigno. He trained to be a teacher at the Istituto Magistrale di Pola (Pula) and while still a young man fought with Italian Partisans during World War II...

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Branko Hofman (1929–1991)

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pp. 366-370

A highly regarded Slovenian writer, Hofman is best known for his novel Noč do jutra (Night Till Morning, 1981), in which a possible murder and the experiences of an inmate on the Goli otok prison camp are interwoven. Although Hoffman himself seems never to have been imprisoned...

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Borislav Pekić (1930–1992)

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pp. 371-383

One of the most important Serbian writers of the twentieth century, Pekić was born into a prominent Montenegran family. He graduated high school in Belgrade in 1945, but before being able to continue his education he was accused in 1948 of fomenting a student...

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Dragoslav Mihailović (b. 1930)

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pp. 384-391

As a Soviet sympathizer at the time of Tito’s break with the Soviet Union in 1948, Mihailović, a Serb, was packed off to penal servitude on Goli otok in 1950. Until 1956, it may be recalled, the island was used for the imprisonment of political prisoners, above all Stalinists and Communist...

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Vlado Gotovac (1930–2000)

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pp. 392-404

A prominent dissident in Communist Yugoslavia as well as a champion of democracy during the authoritarian regime of the first Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman (1922–1999), Gotovac began...

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pp. 405-406

The East European gulag, like that of the Soviet Union, now belongs to the history of the twentieth century, a ghastly century of wars, revolutions, mass murder, and programmatic human degradation. As we read through the vast and varied literature of the prisons...

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pp. 407-410

I wish to express my gratitude to the following individuals for allowing me to translate texts by them or to reprint excerpts from translations by them and to publishers for their permission to include material from their publications: Fatos Lubonja for permission to translate...


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pp. 411-424


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pp. 425-436

Back Cover

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p. 437-437

E-ISBN-13: 9780822978022
E-ISBN-10: 0822978024
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822962021
Print-ISBN-10: 0822962020

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 50 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2012