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The Long Plane Ride to Freedom

August 26, 2014
Soviet Invasion of Prague by Josef Koudelka, 1968

Soviet Invasion of Prague by Josef Koudelka, 1968

On August 21st, 1968, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in a highly successful attempt to halt democratic reforms that had been taking place in that country since January of that same year. The implementations of these reforms – things like freedom of speech, press and movement, and a proposed mixing of planned and market economies – were called “socialism with a human face” by then Czech President Alexander Dubček.

They were called The Prague Spring by the rest of the world.

And to the Soviets – still stinging from the Hungarian uprising a dozen years earlier – they were an intolerable challenge to their power.

Czechs were shocked and heartbroken to watch some 2000 tanks roll into their streets, along with 200,000 Soviet troops. My Czech mother and grandparents gaped in horror from their Chicago home – my mother had fled her native country the year before. While her two sisters, my Aunts Viki and Helen, had front row seats to that devastating event.

Days later, during a brief opening of the Czech borders, my aunts joined thousands upon thousands of their fellow countrymen and left the only home they’d ever known.

My Aunt Helen departed by automobile for Switzerland, where she and her family still reside.

And my Aunt Viki took her exit by plane. She had a one-way ticket to Chicago, where she was to join my mother. The two of them were and are very close. They’d gone through a lonely, persecuted childhood together, and had clung to each other after the death of my young brother from the flu. My aunt had loved him as if he were her own, and she and my mom still go hand in hand to Catholic mass on the anniversary of his death every year – my aunt flying back to the Midwest from her home in Florida for the occasion.

Lighting a candle in his honor at my mom’s church, the sisters whisper a prayer for his soul.

I can’t imagine how excited they must have been to see each other on that day in 1968. Especially since they’d come to fear they’d never lay eyes on one another again.

What I can imagine is my aunt’s fear. Not of leaving her homeland – honestly, she couldn’t wait to get out of there. Both the Czech government and her fellow citizens had treated her and her sisters atrociously after my grandparent’s defection, so she felt no lost love for the land of her birth. Not then anyway.

What scared my aunt was that she wouldn’t get to leave at all. That a man smoking foreign cigarettes and sporting dandruff on the shoulders of his polyester suit could intercept her at the airport and take her back to the prison cell she’d occupied after my mother’s defection. Czech officials had been sure my aunt “knew something” and interrogated her for days. My aunt distinctly remembers a dossier on my mother – about two feet tall – that began with the line, “Although she is only twelve years old, she thinks like an adult, which makes her even more dangerous.”

Twelve. Years. Old.

prague spring cartoon

When my aunt finally boarded her plane to Chicago, she had to pee really badly. But she was terrified that if she moved, got up – even to go to the toilet – that she would feel the grip of a hand at her elbow and hear a gravelly voice saying, “Just where do you think you’re going?”

So, she sat in her seat for some twenty hours – sweating, digging her knuckles into her seat cushion and refusing food, along with countless offers of wine, soda or juice. Weary of spies, she spoke to no one.

To this day, my mother wags a finger at my aunt and teases, “You know what was the first thing you said to me when you got off the airplane? Not “I love you, sister, I’m so happy to see you,” but “Get me to a toilet – now!”

woman on toilet

I raise a glass to all of those who left Czechoslovakia – uncertain, but full of hope, and to those who stayed – muddling through the mess of “normalization,” when all reforms were reversed and dissenters were punished. And to the final triumph of democracy twenty-one years later in the Velvet Revolution – Salute! Your streets have been renamed in honor of political prisoners, inventors and Kings – not pretenders in cheap suits dressed in “brief authority,” if I may quote Primo Levy.

May all tyrants take notice that they’ve hitched their wagon to the wrong star.

May all those who live in freedom take a moment to feel gratitude – true, unqualified gratitude – for having won one of life’s great lotteries.

Prague swans

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From → family

21 Comments
  1. You are so blessed that these women in your life tell stories. The stories of my Russian grandparents’ were locked in the vault of men’s memory by the time I was born and I know very little. I hope your
    Mother and your aunt keep diaries
    or letters. But then again, they have you. Nicely done.

  2. Thanks – we are all story tellers in my family 🙂 And I ask a lot of questions. You don’t realize how much you want to know until the information is no longer available to you.

  3. ‘May all those who live in freedom take a moment to feel gratitude – true, unqualified gratitude – for having won one of life’s great lotteries’. You say it all!

  4. Thanks. Fascinating and affecting history. Pleased to have found your blog and I’ll explore further. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (drop a nickel sometime).

  5. Arielle Hunter permalink

    Another well done piece Victoria. Thank you for reminding us, lest we forget, that freedom isn’t free.
    Arielle H.

  6. Victoria, yes, read this article and your other things-great writing! As I say, I look forward to your book,The Bone Church soon. I did mail out to you about Yury’s book on How Beatles’ Music Helped Bring Down Communism. If you don’t receive in a couple weeks, let me know. Be in touch, Alan

  7. Great post, Victoria. Quite humbling.

  8. Thanks, Col 🙂

  9. SexwAnnie permalink

    What an amazing family you have. And the fact that they have all these real life stories is just a true testament to life and the struggles that so many had. Coming to America must have been scary and exciting at the same time. Thanks for sharing..

  10. Victoria, I just discovered COLD and “The Long Plane Ride to Freedom” brought back memories of my own long plane ride to freedom 47 years ago. As it turns out today is the 47th anniversary of the Soviet invasion, what a coincidence. BTW Communist winds and Soviet bullets blew this Czech from Prague all the way to Alaska. I love your blog, you gained a faithful reader for sure. Of course The Bone Church has been ordered, I am familiar with Kostnice/Kutna Hora and am really looking forward to read your book. How about to publish your blog as a book? I am interested.
    Thanks for sharing your talent, best regards – a ceske ahoj- american z Vysocan.)))))

    • Ivan – ahoj! And Happy Anniversary! So happy to have you aboard here. I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska. Please keep reading and commenting – it’s a joy hearing from people who share my heritage and my family’s experience.

      Srdecne,
      V

  11. Victoria, your kind reply has been appreciated. For an encore I listened to your Ian Willoughby Radio Prague interview which I enjoyed tremendously. If you ever make it to the Southeast Alaska please look me up, I am not going anywhere. Alaska, the Last Frontier, must be experienced firsthand, words quite will not do. As they say “Alaska is the state of mind”…..
    To be honest with you at the beginning I, a city boy, truly hated everything about Alaska but over the years my hate turned into unconditional love. Now I am more comfortable to meet a bear on a trail than to be in the middle of Wenceslas square crowd. How is that for the metamorphosis?

    Nazdar, Ivan.

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