The Long Plane Ride to Freedom
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.
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!”
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.