DARUVAR AND ISTRIA
The people in Daruvar we went to visit were acquaintances of the Žemlička family, good friends of ours who lived in the small town of Čelákovice near Prague. We got to know them thanks to Dad’s surgical skills. (Dad had quickly built up a reputation as one of the best surgeons in the country – the most frequent comment was some variant on “Dr. Kubat, he’s got golden hands!”) We visited the Žemličkas several times, staying at their house on the edge of town. They also periodically came to Prague to visit with us.
I remember very little about the Daruvar family except the name – Kubíček. Again, this is a great injustice in my view, because they received us courteously and really helped us out in spite of the fact that we had appeared at their doorstep unannounced and unexpected. I also remember that the paterfamilias, Mr. Josef Kubíček, was a professor at the Czech gymnasium in Daruvar. The Kubíčeks fed us an enormous dinner and put us up for the night, no objections entertained. An equally enormous breakfast awaited us the next morning.
When Dad explained our financial woes, our newly found friends understood immediately. Apparently, the Yugoslav government was as miserly as the Czechoslovak government with dispensing foreign currency – even the non-convertible kind – to its citizens who wanted to travel. First, the Kubíčeks called around Daruvar to see if anyone would be interested in buying some things we were willing to part with, and to find out if anyone had a spare tire they could sell us. I remember that we sold Dad’s Philips electric shaver and the hubcaps off the Spartak, which yielded a few extra dinars. We also managed to acquire a sad old tire with a gash in the tread, but the seller reassured us that it would do in an emergency if we took a piece of old tube, stuck a cord through it and pulled it tight against the gash from the inside of the tire, thereby reinforcing the weak spot and preventing the inflated tire tube from coming through. (It later turned out that this did do in an emergency, but not for very long.)
The Kubíčeks knew that the sale of our possessions didn’t yield much. They therefore proposed a deal. They offered us a considerable amount of Yugoslav money in exchange for Czech money that we would give them when they visited Czechoslovakia in the future. After protesting weakly, our parents accepted. After all, there was a chance that we wouldn’t succeed in escaping and would have to return home. We would then be in a position to compensate them. And if we did succeed, we could do something much better: repay them in real money, i.e. western currency. Of course, it was also possible that we would not only fail but also get caught and repatriated. This would be an irreversible disaster and these good people would get no recompense, but we were certain that they would ultimately get the news from the Žemličkas and – we hoped – not hold it against us.
But no one liked to think about that last option.
I wonder if the Kubíčeks had any idea what we were after. Perhaps they did, but then we were in such a paranoid frame of mind at the time that we were sure that everyone in Yugoslavia as well as back home knew. And if they did, they must have wished us well in the privacy of their souls. Certainly, they didn’t report their suspicions to anyone. And so, armed with a fair wad of dinars in our hands, we got on the road again, destination Istria.
The Istrian Peninsula, at the northernmost point of the Adriatic Sea, is said to be named after the Histri, an Illyrian tribe that had once inhabited it. It was for centuries part of the Roman Empire. Goths, Byzantines, and others raided it after the Western Empire fell, until its incorporation into the Venetian Republic and the Holy Roman Empire. It became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a century, of Italy from 1918 through 1947 and finally Yugoslavia. Today, it is part of independent Slovenia.
Our target there was the Italian border where a sliver of Italian territory wraps around the northernmost tip of the Gulf of Trieste. We thought that we might try to cross the border there.
In this, we were acting on the basis of a rumor – a false and deadly one, as we nearly found out the hard way. According to this particular myth, Yugoslav border with the Free World were not just more loosely guarded than the rest of the Iron Curtain. They were also not mined. If so, they should be easy enough to cross. But Dad wanted to try some other ways first.
We camped somewhere in the vicinity of Koper and Isola, which are the major towns on the peninsula, and went off to survey the area. The peninsula was and is a major tourist attraction, it was July and it was packed with people from many countries. Perhaps, we reasoned, there would also be some Italians – other perhaps citizens of some other free country – whose sympathies we could then arouse.
Our first attempt to cross the border was also the simplest. Americans will remember the good old days when you could simply drive up to the Canadian border, wave your driver’s license, and then range through Canada at will. A similar situation also existed on the borders of the NATO nations of Western Europe. That was the approach we selected, even though it was unknown within socialist Eastern Europe, not to mention on the Iron Curtain crossings. Perhaps we could sweet-talk the Yugoslavs into letting us through their checkpoint, and then we would be free.
On that day still, or perhaps the next day, we drove up to the Yugoslav-Italian border. Dad nonchalantly told the Yugoslav border guards that he had a colleague in Trieste whom he wanted to visit, and that we would be back in two or three days. He waved a letter from this Italian doctor at the border guards. The letter was genuine, by the way, and it was an invitation. But then, of course, there was the minor matter of passports and visa, which we didn’t have.
The Yugoslavs were genuinely amused. One of them told us something like: “Čehi nepustim!” and then made us turn around and leave, which of course we did to avoid any further exposure, since by then we were in the country de facto illegally.
What the phrase means is: “We’re not letting any Czechs through.” We thought about it for a while, finally deciding that they had had so much trouble with Czechs pulling just such a trick that they now had orders to send all Czechs packing unless they had valid passports and proper visa.
The next attempt, the same or the following day, involved a visit to the Italian Consulate in Koper. I have very little memory of it, although it may have been a two-story white stucco building surrounded by greenery. We parked and Dad disappeared inside, leaving the rest of us in the car, waiting tensely.
As before, in Zagreb, he didn’t have any luck. He said that he had marched into the consulate, brushed past the surprised secretary and barged into the consul’s office, barking at him: “English? Deutsch? Français?” The consul was apparently so taken aback by this impertinence that he simply chose French. Dad explained that he would like to take his family to visit Italy (again brandishing the letter from the Italian doctor), and he hoped that the consul could arrange something. Apparently, the consul agreed to issue visas to us, but stressed that it will take at least three weeks to process them. As at the Austrian consulate in Zagreb, Dad thanked him and excused himself.
Lest it be thought that our sojourn in Yugoslavia was one endless, frantic search for ways out, this was no so. We actually did a few vacation-type things. While in Istria, we did go swimming a few times in the Adriatic; this does count as official fun even though it led directly to another escape attempt.
Specifically, we noticed that there was a number of Italians on the beaches, some with power boats. I imagine they were from Trieste or some of the localities like Lazaretto or Villaggio Castelletto that lay directly across the border. We therefore tasked my sister with striking up an acquaintance with one of those with a boat, with a view to getting him to ferry us across. Ilona did make contact with one of the young Italians, but he started asking about passports, and she therefore left him as quickly as possible without arousing suspicion.
The Adriatic beaches were wonderful and, being almost fourteen at the time, I loved the proverbial scenery. My reward for standing and gawking unashamedly was such a nasty sunburn that each of my shoulders looked like a single contiguous blister. It was very painful, but I bore it more or less manfully because I didn’t want to give up any opportunity for eyeball liberty. (I’m quite certain there is no moral in the story at all – it just happened to develop that way.)
In the evening of what we hoped would be our next-to-last day in Istria, we were back in the campground, preparing dinner and planning the next step. That was going to be a brazen attempt to slip across the border.