Writing your own script
an adult person will abandon safety for freedom, a child will give up freedom for safety
I’ve had emails from friends in the Czech Republic, chiding me about being too harsh on the old homeland, as if trying to paint a portrait that will find favor with my American readers. In other words, I was accused of confirming Americans’ somewhat naïve notion about life in a Communist country, of painting a monochrome portrait in which a cruel apparatchik class lords it over an impoverished, perennially oppressed nation, who is barely able to manage its daily life.
Perhaps my friends have a point. For the most part, atmosphere under Communism was bleak in keeping with the Americans view. But we live multifaceted lives. People always found ways to make life more bearable. The Czechoslovak film industry thrived in the 1960’s and was equal or superior to the French New Wave. Visual arts were always important to the Czech and Slovak nations: fabulous galleries prospered even during Communist rule - once the steel vice of Stalinist indoctrination loosened. Music is as Czech as beer. In fact, there is a saying in Czech: “Co Cech, to muzikant” (“Each Czech a musician”). The music of Smetana, Dvorak, Martinu, Fibich, Janacek and Mahler (Mahler was indeed a Czech native, born in Kaliště, south east of Prague) was played regularly in Prague’s ornate music venues, including the fabulous National Theater, a gem of a building on the banks of the river Vltava (Moldau) The cultural flowering began in earnest once the Stalin “cult of personality” was abolished. It was a painfully slow process that had begun at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February, 1956, with Nikita Khrushchev denouncing the practice of ascribing to Stalin “supernatural characteristics akin to those of a god”. Nevertheless, a giant statue of the dictator, weighing close to 2000 pounds - the largest statue in all of Europe - gazed down on the city of Prague from its massive Letna hill plinth until late 1962!! Prague was loath to say good-bye to Uncle Joe. It was not an easy mental adjustment to suddenly revile a man who had been the center of breathless adulation for decades. The sculptor, Otakar Svec was so mortified at what he had created that he killed himself a few days before the official unveiling in 1955 (only about eight months before Khrushchev’s famous speech).
Censorship and tight control of all media paradoxically strengthened friendships. Once you got to know someone intimately, a strong bond could develop, based on discretion and trust. You could trust no one outside of these personal circles, which made the friendship that much stronger. Many people lived decent lives, many people were fond of saying “Na politiku seru” (“I don’t give a shit about politics”) There was (and is) a general consensus among in the nation, said only half in jest, that as long as the beer flows, Czechs are not given to revolts, revolutions or uprisings. And certainly when I was in my teens, there were plenty of wonderful aspects of living in Prague: the enchanted winding streets, narrow alleys full of mystery, the centuries old breweries, churches, palaces, cathedrals, the unique atmosphere of co-mingled laughter and tragedy, the smell of cellars that had seen bacchanalia, blood and decadence, the expansive parklands with its chestnut trees and elms and white birches, the smell of lilac in May, the magic of huge snowflakes covering the cobblestones. I speak of all these things in my memoir which - with God’s help - should be complete by next summer. I do not wish for my friends to think that this self-satisfied, self-absorbed new American, made stupid by too many Big Macs, talks dirt about his homeland.
Nevertheless, one cannot but focus on the salient point of all life under Communism, no matter how fine the externals: the constant oppression and the constant desire to escape it. Let me illustrate by telling you the stories of two people I know.
My good friend M. had left Czechoslovakia following the Soviet invasion in 1968. He lived in Israel for about a year, then did something insane, a harebrained scheme probably born of too much white wine on too many late nights. He booked a flight to Vienna, then took the train back, crossing the Czechoslovak border sometime in late 1969. He was alone in his train compartment, he thought he was perhaps the only Czechoslovak citizen on the train. NO ONE willingly returned to a country occupied by Warsaw Pact armies, where all semblance of free life had been crushed by Soviet tanks. My friend was interrogated but eventually released. The secret police concluded he was too stupid to be a spy…even they knew only a crazy person would brazenly return in the middle of a clampdown. M. had a big apartment in a tony part of town, since his mother had also left for Israel but had no intention of returning. He was lucky: by January 1970, all abandoned apartments would be confiscated by the Party. My friend resumed his chemistry studies and completed his PhD in 1974. That’s when the second part of his convoluted history began. Despite having excelled in his studies, attaining a doctoral degree, any decent career as out of the question. Why? Well, his mother lived in Israel, the bastion of “the enemies of the people, counter-revolutionary, Zionist aggressors”. Under Communism, children always pay for the “sins” of their parents. My friend was offered lousy paying jobs in small border towns in north east Bohemia. He knew full well that as long as the regime held, his career would be hopelessly stymied and if he protested, he would not be allowed to work as a chemical engineer at all. The only openings available would have been menial, demeaning, low paying job the Party would permit him to take. And so, once again, he made preparations for departure. Leaving in 1968 was relatively easy. In the early 70’s, all borders were shut tight. And so my friend bribed a cop and obtained a visa for Yugoslavia, a “fraternal” socialist country. He got off the train in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and proceeded to walk across high mountain ridges into Austria with a rucksack on his back and his PhD diploma in his pocket. He knew this was a mortally dangerous undertaking. Yugoslav border guards were under strict orders to shoot live rounds at all fugitives. Once M. was within two kilometers of the border, he ran and never looked back. Whether bullets whizzed by his ears and he didn’t notice, or whether the guards were on a coffee break…he never knew. He made it into Austria, took a train to Munich, Germany and applied for political asylum which was granted. He then proceeded to have a stellar engineering career in Germany until the Czechoslovak “Velvet Revolution” in the fall of 1989. He returned to Prague once again. This time there were no interrogations. He devoted himself to starting a family and is now a very rich man, having worked as a real estate broker for the last 30 years or so. He never got to see his mother again, nor the girlfriend he so passionately loved in Israel in his early 20’s. His homesickness had overcome his rational judgement. And later, his rational judgement was overcome by his desire to be free.
The second case is that of K.T. whom I met in Toronto in 1985. K.T. his wife and two small daughters lived in a city in northern Bohemia and like so mnay other young people, they simply did not see a future under Communism. K.T. managed to get a visa for Cuba. Cuba was the only “fraternal” nation in the tropics, a highly desirable destination. Unfortunately for the normally vigilant Party decision makers, the Soviet Tupolev planes were not able to traverse the 10 hour Prague - Havana route without refueling. If you consult a map, you’ll see there’s no “fraternal” nation half-way between Prague and Havana and so the Czech Airline planes landed at Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. Passengers were allowed to disembark - a tactical error that was later corrected - and were corralled into a waiting room at Gander Airport. Temperatures in Gander during winter time are well bellow 10F, with frequent snow squalls, arctic gales and sudden snowstorms. Standing on the tarmac was out of the question and so all the Czech families, clad in heavy coats and scarves were herded into Gander airport’s small arrivals hall. and huddled in the middle of the room. Once in the hall, the travelers were closely observed by a couple of STB (Czech secret police) agents who accompanied every flight. Yet somehow, K.T. managed to get away - perhaps a restroom trip, who knows? Fortune favors the brave! He stealthily approach an RCMP officer guarding the entrance. K.T. spoke no English but was trained to say “Czech family. Political asylum” The officer nodded and motioned for K.T. to return to his seat. It was not the first time he had heard those words from the lips of Czech, Hungarian and Polish travelers. K.T. rejoined his family and they waited. Their stress levels must have been unimaginable. At any moment, the STB spooks could have opened the outside door and the family would trudge back to the Tupolev through the arctic air, their chance of freedom evaporated. But like with M., luck was with K.T. that night. A side door opened and in walked three RCMP officers in full regalia: red serge, yellow stripes on the side of their black dress uniform trousers, hats displaying the Royal Canadian Mounted Police logo. At the time, no one under 6 feet tall could serve at RCMP at outposts such as Gander. The trio must have created quite an impression! “Stand up, sir. Ma’am! You’ll come with us!” The STB spooks ran to the scene. “What are you doink? Deese are Czechoslovak citizens. You cannot drak dem away” “Step aside, sir. You are on Canadian territory. You’re not in a position to dictate to me what I may or may not do. This is not Moscow, sir” That must have stung. Naturally, the STB were helpless. All they could do was pray that the rest of the crowd wouldn’t follow the young family out of the hall, which they did not. K.T. applied for political asylum right there in the tiny Canada Immigration office of Gander airport. And as the Tupolev lifted off the runway and left the frozen snowbanks behind on its way to the beaches of Cuba, K.T. and family were given temporary entry papers, fifty dollars and a meal and told to present themselves in front of an Immigration and Refugee Board judge within one month - in any Canadian province of their choosing. How they made it from Gander to Toronto, a distance of 1500 miles, on $50 I don’t recall. But make it they did. An Immigration judge granted them full asylum as refugees from an oppressive regime and they all became Canadian citizens a few years later. K.T. - incidentally, also an engineer - built an amazing career and he and his family prospered in the freedom and incredible abundance of Canada until March 2020. Of course, they are still in Canada but alas, no longer in freedom, as we all know.
The desire for autonomy, for the ability to make one’s own decisions however one pleases, for personal space, personal liberty…that desire trumps everything else…but not in all people. We are witnessing the phenomenon right in front of our eyes. 70% of Australians and about the same number of Canadians have accepted the yoke of medical tyranny with equanimity, if not with outright joy. In the United States, the percentage is lower but still very high. Safety is easy. Freedom is hard. You can give the keys to your soul to the government and it will provide safety - even though the safety is illusory. No one will provide freedom. For freedom you must trek across mountains, fly across oceans and risk everything. It’s a very high bar and I do not fault anyone for whom that bar is out of reach. But I do tip my hat to, and reserve my full admiration for the ones who DO reach for the stars to cross over that bar and live their life, the one and only and sacred life, according to their own script, in freedom!