3 – ON THE ROAD AT LAST
If you can imagine a car tiptoeing out of town, then that’s what ours did when we left Prague the next morning. We went like thieves, sneaking out before daylight so that as few people as possible would see us, especially “our” Comrade Lenk. I swear that if the car had been parked on a slope then, like the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music, we would have pushed it down the hill without starting the engine.
All this may sound a bit melodramatic, but our caution was well founded. First of all, fear has tremendous power. My parents later told us that they felt like everyone, everyone knew exactly what we were up to, and multitudes of people were just waiting for the right moment to blow the whistle. More important, there was the matter of Comrade Lenk. He definitely had the power to stop our trip, not to mention generous reserves of malice and boundless supply of socialist vigilance. Had he seen us loading up and leaving, he would have done so. Our fears were confirmed in 1968 when free communication was possible during the short-lived Prague Spring. Former neighbors and relatives had told us that, on learning that we had flown the coop, Lenk went on like a madman. He had raged that, had he not been in East Germany on Party business at the time that we would have never gotten permission to travel.
Well, at the time, we didn’t know that he was gone, hence all the precautions. But we were still not out of danger: there were still ways to get sent back home. Any time you were stopped by the uniformed police, you might have to explain yourself to any degree they desired, and if the police felt there was any kind of a problem, they would get hold of the secret police (STB), there would be a lengthy check, and you might be sent home without explanation or recourse. Then, possibly, some retrospective visits by the STB might materialize: why did you want to go at all? why through Yugoslavia? are you unhappy here? etc. Slip up in any way, and there might still be consequences.
But now were on the road at last, heading west out of Prague toward Brno, the country’s second-largest city and the capital of Moravia. We got lost in Brno for a while thanks to yours truly, the self-appointed navigator, but finally got on the right road toward Bratislava.
Bratislava, then the third largest city in the country and the capital of Slovakia, lies on both sides of the Danube, mere miles from the Hungarian border. We crossed the river, drove a while and finally reached the border crossing. Now, our parents were nervous to the point of wanting to smack any miscreant (meaning me). I didn’t see what the big deal was: we had traveled to Hungary several times before to visit friends and distant relatives, and had been searched each time without incident. Of course, I didn’t know about the incriminating documents.
A digression on border crossings. During the communist era, Czechoslovak border crossings consisted of at least two checkpoints. The first was Czechoslovak, manned by border guards. That was bad because border guard personnel were recruited from the most politically reliable strata of the population and could be relied upon to be merciless. Also, as everywhere else, there was also an STB presence.
A typical search was very thorough, but there were many gradations of severity. At the worst, you had to leave the car; the car would be searched, seat upholstery and floor carpeting would be pulled out, luggage would be opened and tossed, dogs would sniff things, the underside would be checked with mirrors, and then your persons would be patted down. Imagine the border patrol searching a known drug smuggler’s vehicle, and you’ve got the picture. There usually were long lines of cars at the border crossings, and the wait could be several hours.
The second crossing was that of the host country. Some of the rigmarole would be repeated there, but it was much less severe than the process at the Czechoslovak checkpoint.
On occasion, there would be more than one Czechoslovak checkpoint, to confuse the unwary who were crossing from Czechoslovakia directly into West Germany or Austria. The second Czechoslovak checkpoint would look exactly like a German or Austrian one, and the border guards would speak fluent German. If you were silly enough to ask for asylum there, you would of course be arrested. It was a very efficient way to root out the “counterrevolution” and “reactionary elements.”
As luck would have it, we got the medium-to-light treatment. We didn’t have to get out of the car, though one border guard told us smilingly, while searching, that he was taking note of all our major possessions so we couldn’t pull of any kind of black market transaction. On the other side, the Hungarians were courteous and, as always, impressed with Dad’s command of Hungarian (his native tongue – more on families later).
We drove on a while longer, then decided to stop for the night. There were many campgrounds, of course, of the kind that the U.S. Forest Service would today call “primitive.” But there was always a fee to pay, and we had to conserve every penny. We therefore camped on the side of the road, hard by a corn field. This was common enough practice: no righteous owner would come after you since there was no private ownership.
We put up the tent, tossed in the blankets and sleeping bags, Mom made a hurried dinner on the camp stove and we settled in for the night. And there, in the tent by the Hungarian corn field (in which we had liberated some delicious ears of corn), my parents finally told me that we were planning to escape and then emigrate to America, and what the likely consequences would be if we got caught. My sister sat there, smiling smugly (the biatch!). I didn’t understand why until I found out, years later, that they had told her the previous night.