THE ESCAPE, PART 5


THROUGH HUNGARY INTO YUGOSLAVIA

In the morning, we had breakfast, packed up and got on the road again.  Our route took us past the famed Lake Balaton, a storied vacation spot where we had spent some summers before, visiting Dad’s pre-war friends.  We stopped for a few hours to swim, then pushed on through toward town of Nagykanisza and then the Hungarian-Yugoslav border.

If I remember correctly, the crossing there was nothing like we had experienced at the Czechoslovak-Hungarian border.  The Hungarians hardly searched us at all, and the Yugoslavs grinned at us and welcomed us to their country.

A digression on Slavic fractiousness.  The Southern Slavs, particularly the Serbs, have a long-standing friendship with the Czechs.  I’m not sure why.  Some say it’s because the Yugoslav dictator, Tito, had spent some time in pre-war Czechoslovak jails, and he remembered the good treatment with fondness.  Others say that it dates back to World War One, when thousands of disaffected Czech troops deserted from the Austro-Hungarian army and joined the other side, most notably in Russia where, for a time, the legendary Czechoslovak Legion held the balance of power in the Russian Revolution.  Perhaps old-fashioned pan-Slavism was also an element in the Yugoslavs’ fondness for the Czechs; this despite the fact that Slavs don’t exactly have a reputation for sticking with their fellow Slavs – they’re more apt to stick it to them whenever they get a chance.  The Russian czar’s decision to enter World War One to stand by his Serbian co-religionists and Slav brothers was a major – and fateful – exception to the rule.

The moment we crossed the border, we went from the reasonable asphalt roads in Hungary to narrow, potholed dirt tracks with deep ruts that might well have been left over there from Roman times.  It didn’t take long for us to start thinking about the tires again, not to mention the eight years of hard driving on Eastern European roads that the Spartak already had under its (fan) belt.

We drove on for some time through what today is Croatia, heading toward the capital, Zagreb.  I didn’t know what our specific plans were, but it didn’t matter for the moment.  I was enjoying being in Yugoslavia, and I kept myself busy with rubbernecking and trying to translate the Croatian road signs into Czech.  It was simple, yet not really: simple because both the languages are Slavic and most of the word roots at least are the same, hard because the same word might mean something different, or slightly different, in Croatian and in Czech.  In general, though, we were able to work out the meaning of what we read, usually with the help of context: “pazi na vlak” at the rudimentary railroad crossings was the same as the Czech “pozor na vlak,” i.e. “watch out for the train.”

Then we blew a tire: one of the old ones, I think.  We took it off and found a lovely gash in the tread.  Fortunately, in those days, tubeless tires were a mere fantasy for us: something you’d read about in magazines that dealt with western cars.  That meant that, once we got the tube fixed, we could go on, albeit gingerly.  We put on the spare tire and drove on, leaving the tube repair for that night’s homework.  By evening, we managed to get close to Zagreb.  We found a campground, unwillingly paid the campground fee and settled in. (In Yugoslavia, it was actually illegal to camp outside designated campgrounds, and the fines were more than we could afford.  Moreover, in another day, we would be in the country more or less illegally – transit permission only! – and we didn’t need any unnecessary exposure to the authorities.

Before we settled down to sleep, we discussed the next day.  First we were told that, instead of pushing on to Bulgaria, we would spend all three weeks of our vacation in Yugoslavia, looking for ways to escape.  Then we got into the plan for the next day – Dad would go to the Austrian consulate in Zagreb and explore travel into Austria.  (Again, his marvelous knowledge of languages would prove a door-opener.)  Dad would explain to the Austrian consul that we merely wished to visit for a few days, and what could the good consul do to help us across the border without passports?

A digression on contacts with the West.  There was a major element of risk involved in this seemingly straightforward plan.  All western diplomatic facilities were routinely monitored by the secret police.  If a car with Czechoslovak license plates stopped by the Austrian consulate, a man got out and went inside and later came out, it would surely be noted and reported.  And even if not, western diplomatic staffs were heavily penetrated by Communist secret services, and timely word about our visit would likely go out from the inside.  Any Eastern European citizen’s contact with a westerner, not to mention a visit to a western diplomatic facility anywhere, was cause for deep suspicion: arrest and deportation, not to mention serious trouble back home, could follow.

So it was.  In the morning, we drove into Zagreb, found the Austrian consulate, and Dad went in.  The rest of us sat in the car, waiting.  Understandably, we were tense until we saw Dad come out again about an hour later, sans handcuffs.  He came to the car, started it up, and began to drive.  He then told us the story.

The consul, it turned out, could do nothing for us.  Austria, at the time, was crammed full of East European refugees; moreover, the Austrians never refused asylum to any asylum seekers from the East.  All Communist countries – not to mention the Austrians themselves – were therefore hypersensitive about any appearance of Austrian official assistance to anyone who was trying to flee.  Needless to say, the consul didn’t believe Dad’s story (I wonder how many different variations on the same theme he had heard in his career), but he apparently did say, in a kind of you-didn’t-hear-me-say-a-thing manner, that it might be worth our while to go to the Yugoslav-Austrian border and “talk to people.”  Perhaps, the message was, we might find someone to guide us across.

Dad really didn’t believe it: he thought, with good reason, that the consul might be setting him up.  Still, he expressed his gratitude and excused himself.  In any case, he had some other things he wanted to try out first.

Once out of Zagreb, we realized that the few dinars that were to tide us over during our transit through Yugoslavia would soon run out.  We had few options at this point.  Czechoslovak koruny and Hungarian forints, which we had aplenty, were not accepted in Yugoslavia (communist currencies weren’t convertible), and the Bulgarian leva we had were in travelers’ cheques that could only be cashed in Bulgaria.  We then decided to be impudent and to call on people whom we had never met in our lives.  They were friends of friends who knew of us by name, but under ordinary circumstances, we would have never dared do what we nevertheless did do.

I mentioned that a large number of Czechs had deserted form the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War One.  Some of them never went home even after an independent Czechoslovakia came to be on October 28th, 1918.  Those who had deserted on the Serbian front remained in the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia), joining the already sizeable Czech émigré community there.  This community centered on the Croatian town of Daruvar, about 140 kilometers east of Zagreb; and it was to Daruvar that we now drove, in the hope of begging or borrowing emergency funds from fellow Czechs.

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About Michael J. Kubat

I'm a grumpy Czech-born clinical social worker who is vitally interested in the survival in the United States as a viable democracy and a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
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