A Sister, an Architect, and an 80 Year Old Building

A Sister, an Architect, and an 80 Year Old Building

vlastaswimsuit1crI keep thinking about Charles‘ sister Vlasta Marie Nováčková Jakubová (1925-2017). Sadly, she died this year at the age of ninety-two. Vlasta was three years older than Charles and started her work in the Czech anti-Nazi resistance at age fourteen during World War II. She worked for her uncle Josef Robotka’s Rada Tri (R-3) guerilla organization. She became a courier on bicycle and on foot. Little more than a girl, Vlasta wasn’t suspected of performing undercover activities and so she succeeded in carrying messages between agents, penetrating communication blocks and accomplishing other tasks that had proved impossible for male agents.

Following the war, Vlasta rejoined the resistance when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia. Under her uncle’s direction, she gathered and delivered military, industrial and economic information to agents within the country as well as to resources outside the Czech borders. She was trained to work with ciphers, so she was able to draft her messages in code, using invisible ink; for direct communication, she was also trained to use signals and sign language. Vlasta feigned a relationship with a man in the Netherlands to get the letters delivered to the resistance working from there.

On July 7, 1949, Uncle Josef was kidnapped, interrogated and imprisoned for his resistance activities. A month later on August 6, 1949, Vlasta was arrested at a factory in Brno, where she worked as a secretary. She was seized by the StB, a plainclothes secret (political) police force controlled by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia from 1945-1990. They served as an intelligence and counter-intelligence agency, dealing with activity that could be considered anti-state. The StB forced confessions by means of torture, including the use of drugsblackmail and kidnapping

alfapassage1The StB had been monitoring Vlasta for a long time and often waited for her to leave or return to her apartment in Alfa Passage in Brno. She didn’t get scared and started playing with them. The building had multiple elevators and flights of stairs that the agents didn’t know about so when Vlasta saw the agents she would go in the opposite direction and enter or leave her apartment – another way of outwitting the agents. On August 6, 1949, the StB decided to keep watch on her at work, an easier place to apprehend her.

After her arrest the StB took Vlasta to her apartment at Alfa Passage. There they searched for subversive materials, confiscating her typewriter, chemical matches, chalk, papers, travel card, air mail envelopes and her passport. They also seized, according to records, a “workbook of Karel Nováček No. 280511723.” Hoping her fiance would it, Vlasta secretly wrote a message on her bathroom mirror with lipstick, “I’ve been arrested.” Then the authorities took her to jail on Orli Street in Brno, where she was interrogated, tortured and placed in solitary confinement.

The mirror message failed. Vlasta’s fiance didn’t see it or it was wiped off by StB agents. Six weeks passed before anyone realized her situation; friends thought Vlasta was traveling out-of-town.

alfapassage2crThis year the modernist building  Alfa Passage celebrated its 80th anniversary. A Brno newspaper wrote a series of short articles about people and events connected with the structure. Among the people were Vlasta and Bohuslav Fuchs, the principal architect of the building.

The multi-purpose complex of the Alfa Passage was built on the site previously occupied by Baroque aristocratic houses. The property was purchased in 1930 from the owners by Brno architect/builder Frantisek Hrdina, who had the aging buildings demolished. He approached architect Bohuslav Fuchs with a request to design a grand apartment block with a retail arcade and a cinema. Fuchs’ design involved a turret in the corner, opaxite cladding and horizontal segmentation of the structure using ribbon windows.

But Hrdina had Fuchs’ design re-worked. It was said the builder was enchanted by the idea of having the first American-style skyscraper in Brno and decided to raise the corner tower up to 14 floors. However, strict regulations and stability issues forced creation of a more moderate nine floor structure. The construction of the building progressed in several stages up to 1937. The first film screening took place earlier at the Alfa Cinema in the basement in 1932. The structure became both a popular shopping center and center of entertainment soon after its completion.

The Alfa Passage complex consists of a single-level commercial hall with a gallery sheltered by a glass roof; the gallery is, at the upper levels, connected to the residential wings with three yards. The commercial areas have large display windows and the arcade contains eight entrances to approximately 180 apartments of many different sizes equipped with central heating and accessible by elevators.

Originally, Alfa Cinema in the basement seated 800 viewers and housed the Metro-Hall dancing bar. A spacious café which, according to Fuch’s design, should have included a pool room, chess room and club room, was situated on the mezzanine level of the commercial arcade. Today the former Alfa Cinema, open until 2003, houses the HaDivadlo theatre, and the original café is used for commercial spaces.

The Brno newspaper marking Alfa Passage’s 80th birthday interviewed Vlasta about her life in the building. She remarked, ”To live in Alfa Passage was something!” Vlasta sent greetings to all residents of the building and extended the hope that they would never have to experience what she did.

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