Lisle, Illinois ~ Susan Mikula was 6 years old when she escaped from the former Czechoslovakia in the middle of the night with her mother and sister. She remembers in vivid and at times emotional detail what she and her family and others endured at the height of communism during the post-World War II era in Eastern Europe.
With the recent release of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report affirming aggressive post-911 CIA interrogations that many critics liken to torture, Mikula, a professor of Eastern European History and acting dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Benedictine University, has been reliving her harrowing childhood experiences in the dual context of an expatriate and American citizen.
She finds it ironic today that the same agency which helped her family escape communism is accused of using some of the same harsh interrogation tactics as the totalitarian regime.
“The idea that you would torture people who you didn’t know were enemies or not – that you would torture (innocent) people in order to identify suspects – it makes me think of all we went through to get away from that,” Mikula said.
Mikula, named Zuzana in her native country, is the daughter of Edith Martonik and Jozef Mikula. Her father, who was an outspoken critic of communism, left Czechoslovakia for Austria when it was clear the communists were going to assume control. His hope was to fight communism from afar and foment a change that would allow his return.
However, the icy grip of communism was too strong and lasted far longer than the Mikulas imagined. Ferdis Hledik, the husband of Mikula’s aunt, Klara, was sent to prison for nine years for associating with her father. Klara was pregnant at the time, and tragically, Hledik never got to see his daughter who died from cancer while he was in prison.
Jozef Mikula, who had studied in England and spoke English, made contacts within the U.S. Army, which occupied an area of Austria in the mid-1940s following World War II. By 1947, the U.S. Army realized that cooperation with the Soviet Union was not going to work, so they adopted a policy of containment, Mikula said. This required monitoring Soviet activity. The group Jozef Mikula had made contact with was the predecessor to the CIA. Eventually, he began to work with these American anti-communist operatives and he was one of the founding members of an underground organization in Czechoslovakia called the “White Legion.”
The White Legion attempted to send messages and radio broadcasts into Czechoslovakia to counter communist propaganda. It also assisted in the escape of others who faced threats from the communists.
“My uncle was not a part of the White Legion,” Mikula said. “He was a medical doctor. But when he was taken to prison in 1949, it was simply because he knew my father.”
After her father fled to Austria, Mikula, her mother and 5-year-old sister, Katarina Alzbeta, went to live with her mother’s parents in Ruzomberok. Shortly thereafter, the Czechoslovakian police came for her mother in the summer of 1949.
The Czechoslovakian government was consolidating its power at the time and arresting anyone it thought could be a threat. Her mother was held for three days as the police tried to force her to name people who opposed the government.
“They took my mother to prison and they used sleep deprivation,” Mikula said. “She went 78 hours without sleep. At various times they would say, ‘I am going to take you back to your cell,’ where there were women who were beaten, and an open toilet, and as soon as she would lie down they would grab her and say ‘we are going back.’ They would lay razors across various parts of her body threatening to cut her, but usually never actually doing it. Then they would threaten to take away her daughters.
“They wanted her to identify this one person as being involved with my father (with anti-government activities). After three days, they showed her a piece of paper in which this person said they knew my mother and that it was all innocent, and that if she signed documents that she knew this person, he would be exonerated,” Mikula said.
“In her mental state, she believed them and signed the papers,” she added. “As she was standing there, she heard the door open and she turned around and they wheeled that man in. He was so badly beaten he couldn’t walk, and yet he looked at my mother and said, ‘I don’t know her.’ My mother fainted because she knew how they had tricked her. They then let her go, but it was clear they would pick her up again – that they were using her and that any contacts she had would be arrested.”
Once released, she communicated through the underground about what had happened, and her husband responded with a message that he would arrange to get her out of the country. Mikula’s mother made one thing clear – she would not be leaving without her girls.
On the night of their escape from Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia, Mikula’s mother told her daughters they were going to stay with their father’s parents in Sandorf. Every step of the way, she met someone who gave them a password to help verify they could be trusted. Not knowing exactly where they were headed, they walked all night and across heavily guarded borders between Austria and Czechoslovakia. When soldiers were heard patrolling nearby, they hurled themselves onto the cold ground, lying silent and motionless until they had passed by. If they had been captured, her mother, their guide and another woman would have been shot and she and her sister sent to orphanages, Mikula said.
Once they reached the banks of the Morava River, their guide inflated a raft so that they could cross over the border into Austria.
“He put my sister and me and the two suitcases we had brought in the small raft, and my mother, the man and other woman who had paid to be smuggled out with us had to take off their clothes and guide us across the river,” Mikula said. “It was the first of November. My mother turned us around and said, ‘Look at your country. This will be the last time you’ll see it.’ But of course, I have been back many times since (the fall of communism and Slovakia’s establishment of a democracy).”
Mikula’s mother learned later that the guide who had taken them across the border was killed during a subsequent trip trying to help others flee the communists.
Mikula treasures the opportunity she, her mother, and her sister Katarina Alzbeta, had to escape the harsh oppression of communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, and is forever grateful to the U.S. Army and CIA operatives who helped them along the way.
However, learning of the controversial interrogation techniques some U.S. government officials have employed since 9/11 has been a bitter pill for her to swallow.
“My mother’s story is an example of why torture doesn’t work,” Mikula said. “So maybe you torture a dozen people and one gives you good information. But how do you know which one tells you good information? And is this what we want to be? The kind of America we want to be?”
Mikula, like many native Slovakians, is Catholic and was drawn to Benedictine University because of its Catholic heritage and values-based education, which she uses as a platform for teaching new generations of students about Eastern European history.
Mikula earned a bachelor’s degree in History from the former University of Detroit and a Ph.D. in Russian and Eastern European History from Syracuse University. She joined the faculty at Benedictine in 1981, teaching Russian and Eastern European History. Along the way, she developed a women’s history course, became division chair of Arts and Humanities, a departmental chair, scholars director and most recently, acting dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
Mikula said the torture that her mother endured created inescapable emotions and memories.
“Both the tortured and the torturers will never be able to escape that,” she added. “Never. It’s not something you can put behind you. It’s there forever.”
On a recent visit to Bratislava, Mikula learned that the Nation’s Memory Institute (Ústav pamäti národa, i.e. the institute for historical information) possesses more than 250 documents that the Czechoslovakian secret police had amassed on her father and used against his associates, some of whom were arrested, tortured and killed.
Mikula wants to share her personal and family story because she believes that, like Benedictine, the United States was founded on a specific set of ideals that should not be lost in the pursuit of a purported “greater good.”
“People defend the use of ‘enhanced interrogation,’ which is exactly what my mother went through. Yet, if I told some of those same people what my mother went through, they would say ‘Oh, yes, that’s torture.’ It’s the same thing we are doing today, but they use the euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation.’
“I am sorry, but to say that we have to do this to save American lives, the ends don’t justify the means – ever,” she added. “It’s not like you use all the terrible means and somehow you get cleansed. If you follow a crooked path to the end, the end is going to be part of that crooked path. There is no rationalization for torture. This is not the America we went through all of this to come to.”
Mikula, who was able to live the American dream as a refugee, believes America has taken a step in the right direction by issuing the Senate report and condemning its findings. She applauds the release of the report, but chastises those who believe “enhanced interrogations” are justified.
“I tell this story because it just seems to me that we are delusional if we think that torturing people to save American lives doesn’t somehow harm us,” she said. “People talk about American exceptionalism. We are human beings. What is exceptional is the democracy that we have formed. To break laws and to do these horrible things in the name of American exceptionalism is a betrayal of American exceptionalism.
“Yet at the same time, what is exceptional about America is that the report that came out,” she said. “What other country will admit this? The glorious moment of America is that we released this report, not that we are defending it saying we saved ‘x’ number of lives by torturing others. We don’t know that and can’t prove that. Just as the internment of Japanese-Americans was the wrong thing to do, we eventually acknowledged it. And unfortunately, we are still trying to admit to the racism that pervades America, but we are taking small incremental steps toward acknowledging the horrors of the past.”
How will history view America now?
“As a historian, I hope for life after death,” Mikula said. “I am so curious as to what they will say 100 years from now. Most historians don’t really deal with current data because you need to step back for a bit. I am hoping history will say that we went through a period of short-sighted leadership that thought that the way to defend America was to do things that people convinced themselves would protect America, but which in my estimation were counterproductive. “I am hoping history will say that like every other country, America made mistakes, but that America is capable of admitting those mistakes.”
Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls more than 5,000 students in 59 undergraduate and 23 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the seventh consecutive year in 2017. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ben.edu.