Some time ago, I had promised some friends to tell the story of our escape from Communist Czechoslovakia. I agreed, partly because it’s still a story worth telling, but also because nowadays it seems important to me that people understand what it is like to live under a real socialist regime.
Part 1 – THE DAY BEFORE OUR DEPARTURE
The first day of our escape was like any other July day. My sister Ilona and I were at summer camp with about twenty kids. The camp was not of the odious Red Pioneer kind. It had been organized as a special “canoeing” camp by two of the PE instructors at our elementary school where I had just completed eighth grade.
Some of the kids were from my school, the 37th ZDŠ. Others were older. For example, Ilona, being sixteen, had just completed tenth grade at the gymnasium, but she and several other graduates of the 37th had been invited along because they were athletic, the teachers knew them well and, I imagine, trusted them to help manage us younger ones.
The first of many explanatory digressions. The ZDŠ (základní devítiletá škola) was an elementary nine-year school, which at the time was considered sufficient basic education. Most elementary school students went on to trade schools but a select minority – some who were truly exceptional scholars but also many who were devoted to the Party or at least with Party members in their family – went on to the gymnasium, a highly competitive school consisting of grades 10-12.
It came as a surprise to both Ilona and me when, on a late afternoon, we beheld a familiar green Spartak (a small Czech-made car) bumping along a country road toward our riverside campsite. It was Dad coming to pick us up and bring us back to Prague early. We knew vaguely that we might be traveling, but there were no real plans that we knew of. Ilona, being much more of a social creature than I, was upset by this development to the point of tears. I, not being quite so social, didn’t object because I found camp boring. It was the same old story – I was one of the smallest, one of the youngest, one of the weakest and least athletic and, moreover, had my very successful sister on hand as a constant reminder of my failings.
When all the daughterly tears had been shed and all the demands for explanation had foundered before the cliffs of parental silence, we loaded up our things, got in the car and drove away. By the time we got to our apartment in Prague, it was late evening. We found the place in disorder: Mom was packing, and camping paraphernalia was stacked everywhere. We were then given to understand that we were on our way to Bulgaria to spend a few weeks on the shores of the Black Sea. Moreover, we were going to travel to Bulgaria through Hungary and Yugoslavia instead of the more common route through Hungary and Romania. This was important to my parents’ plans, or rather hopes.
Why was Yugoslavia so important? It was also socialist, but it had common borders with Italy, Austria, Turkey and Greece. Also, its borders were rumored to be “somewhat” more open than those of the orthodox Iron Curtain countries.
Digression on rumors. Rumors spread like wildfire in the informational desert behind the Iron Curtain. Some were so implausible that no one would believe them, but with so many others, you couldn’t tell. The most plausible ones were often the most dangerous: rumors were often spread by the secret police in the hope of flushing out dissidents or other “antisocial, reactionary elements.” Too, often, it worked.
As luck would have it, the Yugoslavia route was available at that particular moment – a rare occurrence. Most of the time, the southern Slavs and their leader, Josip Broz Tito, were considered irredeemable traitors to the socialist cause because of their membership in the nonaligned movement, refusal to march in lockstep with the USSR and because of their more cordial relationship with the West. At such times, travel to Yugoslavia was as limited as travel to the mythical “West.” At this time, Yugoslavia was apparently viewed as a fraternal socialist power and an eternal ally of the USSR – and therefore of all of us in the Warsaw Pact. These flip-flops occurred regularly, presumably subject to Soviet politico-ideological requirements, but it was never completely clear why they happened when they did. (By the way, I’m not making up these ridiculous expressions: phrases like “irredeemable traitors to the cause of socialism and communism” or “American-capitalist-German-revanchist-Zionist cabals” were daily fare in the communist media.)
Behind the Iron Curtain in those days, the term “camping paraphernalia” had a very broad meaning. It meant not just tent, sleeping bags, blankets, camp stove, lantern and such. It also meant large quantities of food – bags of potatoes, hard salami and canned goods getting underfoot in the car, and so forth – because there was little money to spend on dining out. It meant a tool kit, engine oil, and as many spare parts for the car as possible, since there was little money to spend on repairs. (Even if we had the money, there was no guarantee that service would be available; and even if service was available, there was no guarantee that parts would be.) A vacation, even a camping vacation, must be as cost-neutral as possible: what little money there was, was apportioned for transportation, any camping fees, food and the occasional goody or tourist attraction.
Digression on the economy and the pay scales. You may be wondering why a physician would have to worry about money so much. Simple. It’s called socialism. Czechoslovakia had no private enterprise: all private businesses down to the hot dog carts had been nationalized, and everyone worked for the state. My father, as a senior surgeon, worked 60-80 hour weeks in the Bulovka teaching hospital in Prague, usually operating for 6-8 hours a day, six days a week. For this, Dad received the same pay as a truck driver. He was fond of pointing out that, in comparison to a surgeon like Dad, the truck driver had a 40-hour week but usually spent at least half of it soaking up suds in a roadside pub. Further, for my father, there were no prospects for promotion. He was a Jew, he was not a Party member, his class origin was wrong, he was known to be lukewarm toward socialism and worst of all, his only surviving brother was in that capitalist hell, America.
To return to the story… On that first day, we were up late into the night. Ilona and I soon ended up in bed while our parents continued to bustle about, finishing up. I assume they, too, finally ended up in the sack, but it had been a tiring day and I quickly fell asleep.