Rarely does a Foreign Service officer come across a genuine Cold War mystery. But one damp, cold day in December 2004, my colleagues and I stumbled across a decades-old secret, hidden within the embassy itself.
Once we got into the swing of things, the fun of discovery began. My personal favorites were the biographic files, with pages of newspaper clippings and memos of secret meetings with dissidents. These were a treasure trove of memorabilia for the hard-core Cold Warrior, with dozens of files on long-dead Communist leaders, each of which seemed to come with an obligatory 5X7 black-and-white photo of a jowly, serious, middle-aged functionary with thick, dark eyeglasses. We salvaged the photos and later had an excellent game of To Tell the Truth with our FSN employees, who took great relish in identifying the photos of our communist-era gallery, pointing out those who ended as crooks, died in prison or were airbrushed out of history.
Our files provided a fascinating worm's-eye view of the amazing transformation of the former Warsaw Pact countries. Imagine, if you will, a file on one of the Czech Republic's citizens, Vaclav Havel, that began Vaclav Havel, an unemployed playwright. . . and ended with President of the Czech Republic (a country that did not exist prior to 1993).
We finally came to the bottom drawer of our last safe, and to our surprise, it revealed a stack of decades-old legal documents written in Czech. There was no letter or memo in the files explaining what they were or how they ended up in our safe. Puzzled, we launched our own investigation.
A historian of the Czech National Archives later confirmed that we were in possession some 283 original court case files from the 1940s and 1950s from the Olomouc region in the eastern part of the Czech Republic. The files were marked with a red P for political and dealt with cases of political persecution relating to illegal border crossings, opposition to collectivization of land, and punishments for those who made derogatory statements against the communist regime or listened to Voice of America. The Czech archivists were stunned and thrilled by the discovery of our documents. In 1971 the Justice Ministry had ordered the destruction of all political case files from the 1940s and 1950s, so it appears that our small cache is one of the few to have escaped the purge. We can only assume that some brave Czech took the considerable risk of bringing files to the embassy for safekeeping. We are proud to say the we fulfilled our task, although we kept them so safely that their very existence had passed out of our collective memory.
In June 2005, following approval by the department and amid much press fanfare, Ambassador William Cabaniss hand-delievered our formerly hidden treasure to the eager staff at the Czech National Archives. Not only do they provide a fascinating insight into a period of lost history, but some have relevance even today for families seeking restitution for communist-era abuses.
Still, how these documents got to the embassy remains a mystery. No Czechs have come forward since the press announcement to claim the credit for saving the files from destruction; perhaps they are long since dead or emigrated. Our hope is that one of our embassy predecessors will remember this incident and can describe the day a mysterious donor arrived on our doorstep. Only then can we close the book on the Mystery of the Hidden Files.
Published by permission of the Foreign Service Journal, where the article appeared in the January 2006 issue.