Part 2 – SOME NECESSARY BACKGROUND
This particular opportunity for travel had come about rather precipitously. As I mentioned, I did know that we might be going somewhere abroad if we got permission, but it would likely be one of the “fraternal socialist countries” and not the mystical, magical “West.” While Ilona and I were at camp, my parents had been hustling about Prague breathlessly, trying to get things organized. To go on a foreign trip, several things were required. First you had to go to the visiting country’s embassy (in our case, Bulgaria) to ask for permission. The next stop was the Čedok government travel agency to set things up.
Čedok, of course, was practically owned and operated by the secret police, and every application set an invisible process in motion. Was Dr. Kubat a good socialist? What did certain people think of him? Did he have an unfavorable “cadre assessment” (political evaluation file)? Was he an escape risk? Should we let him go at all? A person’s “guardian angel” – a Party member or a stoolie who was monitoring that person – would be consulted. In our case, it was Comrade Josef Lenk, an apparatchik of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, who lived two floors above us. (More of that ominous figure and his equally ominous wife later.) Finally, you went back to the foreign embassy to see if they gave you permission, thence to Čedok to get travel permission documentation (you generally weren’t allowed to hold your own passports because that made you a flight risk), your itinerary, and any foreign currency. Money was usually issued in “travel cheques” that could only be redeemed in the country of origin and were useless elsewhere.
In our case, the travel permission was just a piece of paper stuck inside out internal passports. These, by the way, were passport-sized documents, with a red cloth cover featuring a red star, photos riveted in, and all the particulars about a person including Party membership and in the case of Jews, a note to that effect. You got one of these at the age of sixteen and had to keep it with you at all times. A mother of all national IDs, you might call it. If you lost it, trouble might ensue: as an example, they might decide that you had given it to an enemy spy.
Everyone was considered a possible flight risk. The regime therefore sought to micromanage every aspect of your trip to make any escape attempt as difficult as possible. I have already mentioned the passports and the travel cheques. The itinerary played its part, too. It authorized us to travel to Bulgaria but allowed only two days each for transits through Hungary and Yugoslavia – ditto on the way back. If you were caught in a transit country when you should have already been elsewhere, you could be arrested and deported.
Thus much for the official part of my parents’ exhausting hustling about Prague for weeks. Another reason was very mundane, namely tires. Yes, tires. Tires for the Spartak or any other car were virtually unobtainable – unless you were in the Party or unless you “knew someone.” This also applied to most other parts and to most services. “Knowing someone,” which often meant lubricating someone’s palm to get something hard to obtain, was practically as common as shopping in stores, and far more productive. (Of course, like most things, it could also land you in jail – black marketeering, capitalist and bourgeois tendencies, anti-socialist behavior, etc.)
Theoretically you could ask your relatives to swap tires with you for such an arduous trip. We had several relatives with cars, but in this case, this option was a non-starter. Because of the very strong family ties on my mother’s side (there was no one left of Dad’s family), my parents decided to leave very quietly, to avoid the possibility of importunate (and ever so slightly dictatorial) relatives talking my mother out of any eventual escape attempt. Not that anyone knew that we were going to try to escape, but everyone knew that my father yearned for freedom, and we worried, with some justice, that one of the relatives might blab something somewhere, at which point someone might exercise “proper socialist vigilance” and report that, perhaps, letting the heterodox Kubats travel abroad was not a good idea. Whereupon we could kiss the trip good-bye.
With great difficulty, my parents were able to obtain a couple of poor-quality retreads. We therefore drove on two fairly old tires and two of these “new” tires, whose tread was separating from the tire walls straight from the factory. This was to give us serious trouble throughout our trip, especially on the horrible Yugoslav roads.
With these tires, with a tent and three sleeping bags, clothing, other necessities and large quantities of food from home, we were at last ready to roll. However, unbeknownst to us kids, other things had been stashed in the car. These included my father’s transcript from medical school, his diploma, our birth certificates, other documents that could be used to establish our identities and bona fides, some extra Czechoslovak money and a hundred-dollar international money order that Uncle Menyi had sent us from New York some time before. If any of these sure indicators of intent to flee were discovered during a routine check or the comprehensive search on the border, our trip would be canceled and we would be sent home to face legal complications: loss of jobs, us kids being kicked out of school and quite possibly jail time for Mom and Dad, followed by endless monitoring and harassment.