I was born in 1924 in Náchod, a small town on the north-eastern border of Bohemia, the westernmost part of Czechoslovakia.
Náchod was a town of cotton mills. All the mills had exhaust pipes which channelled the debris from the machines into peculiar little towers on the factory roofs, where the dust was then puffed out into the air. The smog was so heavy that if, towards evening, you climbed the mountains surrounding the valley, the town lay in what looked like thick soup. But in those days nobody knew there was such a thing as smog. It was a constant puzzle for the local doctors why, in spite of the healthy mountain climate, so many people suffered from respiratory trouble.
I was one of them. After a brief career as right back in a soccer mini-league, I fell ill with pneumonia. This was before the days of antibiotics and one could easily die. I very much did not want to die and promised, therefore, to say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys daily, if I survived. As the days, made hazy by fever, dragged on, I kept raising the number until I ended up with a burden of about a hundred Our Fathers and Hail Marys per day. In the year that followed my recovery I tried to live up to my promise. For hours I knelt beside my bed, night after night, and in the morning I looked like a child suffering from a bad hangover. The intense religiosity exhausted me so much that in another year I had another bout of pneumonia. This time I was wiser. I vowed only that, if I recovered, I would – at the age of eighteen – enter a monastery. When that deadline was approaching, I postponed the day until I was twenty-one. A girl – well, two girls, in fact – were unwittingly involved in that decision. With my twenty-first birthday closing in on me, I shifted the date once again: to twenty-five. Eventually, it was the Communists who saved me for secular life. When they took over the country, one of their first acts of class justice was to close down all monasteries.
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