FREEDOM AT LAST
That evening, Dad instructed me in the fine art of pretending that I had appendicitis. I had to learn how doctors probe for it, when I’m supposed to yelp with pain, where pain starts and where it later moves, and so forth. (In those days, doctors didn’t use x-rays for everything – they were quite adept at figuring out what was happening with inner organs by palpating the body.) The next morning, Dad and I would go to a Yugoslav hospital and try to convince someone that I was acutely ill and we had to go back to Czechoslovakia right away to operate. And the shortest way, of course, led through Austria. Exactly what the Yugoslav surgeons could do for us wasn’t clear, but we hoped that they would at least give us some kind of medical note that we would then take to a border crossing with Austria and try to impress the border guards with it.
So it was. In the morning, we packed up, had breakfast and steeled ourselves for this last attempt to gain freedom. I don’t recall whether I fully grasped, in a more or less adult way, the enormous weight of the responsibility that now devolved to me – probably not – but I was certainly nervous enough.
Dad drove us to the nearest hospital. He and I got out and walked into the surgical department. On the way in, I tried to act the part, squatting from time to time to hold my belly, but Dad was impatient, and my early grab for an Oscar merely earned me a pop on the back of the head. (NICS fanatics like my belovèd spouse would refer to it as a Gibbs slap.)
We finally reached the emergency room. Dad hefted me up onto an examining table and began to talk to two Yugoslav doctors – in German, I believe. He explained that, as a surgeon, he didn’t want to diagnose his own family, but he thought that I manifested the symptoms of appendicitis and asked his Yugoslav colleagues to look me over. They did so, and I acted for them as best I could. I don’t know if I conveyed the notion that I was acutely ill, but I am sure they quickly figured out that I was scared half to death. Maybe that helped: for me, severe pain and fear tended to go hand in hand. In the end, they told Dad that they thought I had acute peritonitis and they should operate right away. Dad took gentle exception to this, explaining that he wanted to have the operation done at home. If we drove day and night, he added, we would make it to the closest Czechoslovak hospital in time to operate.
The Yugoslav surgeons weren’t completely convinced, so Dad tossed in the trump card. He told them that we had no money to have the operation done in Yugoslavia anyway. One of the Yugoslavs surgeons replied that, generally, there are medical treatment agreements among “fraternal socialist countries,” under which Czechoslovak authorities would automatically reimburse any foreign hospital that treated a Czechoslovak national. He added that he wasn’t sure if there was such an agreement between Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. This made sense, given that relations between Yugoslavia and the Warsaw Pact were generally strained. He went to check, but returned with bad news – there was no such agreement, he reported sadly.
Dad was trying to do his best to look concerned, but this must have been such a relief to him that he probably came close to giving himself away. I think I mentioned before that he was as straight a shooter as anyone I’d ever met, and as such, a total disaster as an actor. But if the Yugoslav doctors noticed anything, they didn’t remark on it.
Dad then explained that he would prefer to drive home through Austria, which was the shortest route from Ljubljana to Prague, with far better roads than those in Hungary. The Yugoslav surgeons had no reason to disagree. Dad then proceeded to explain our key conundrum, namely the lack of passports or visa for Austria. He appealed to the Yugoslavs for some kind of note to help their border guards understand that this was a genuine medical emergency.
The Yugoslavs looked at each other. One of them got up and left the room. Dad later told us that he was sure the man had gone to call the police. But he returned with a hospital notepad, sat down and began to scribble a note in Slovene. Just to cover all eventualities, Dad dictated to him a similar note in German – for the Austrians. With this note in hand, we took our leave. I continued to act out my concept of acute pain, squatting and grabbing my belly from time to time. You’d think Dad would appreciate the consistency on my award-winning performance – I couldn’t simply walk away as if I felt fine, could I? But he did not, and I was rewarded by yet another Gibbs slap or two, not to mention a few acidic comments on my microscopic mental capacity.
Microscopic mental capacity or not, we got back to the car just fine. (Myself, I like to think it was because of my acting, not in spite of it, but I suspect the jury will forever be out on that.) We drove as far as Maribor, which is about twenty kilometers south of the E-59 border crossing, hard by Šentilj. We decided to remain in the Maribor area until late at night and only then try the border, on the assumption that we would be tired and would therefore look worried and harried, which might lend us more credibility. Moreover, an emergency might seem more serious – and a border guard’s heart might therefore be a bit softer – late at night.
We arrived at the border crossing late as planned: I’m sure it was after ten PM. Mom and I were in the back seat. I was half-lying on her lap with strict orders to keep my eyes closed. Presumably, I was unconscious, or feverish, or both. Dad and Ilona got out of the car and virtually assailed a border guard in Czech, German, Russian and whatever other bits and pieces of language those two could think of at the moment. (So I’m told, since I only heard bits of excited conversation.) Dad kept waving the paper from the hospital in front of him face. Apparently, the poor border guard stubbornly remained unimpressed by it. He was completely befuddled, and kept repeating the safe border guardsman’s refrain of “pasporti, pasporti.” Dad kept yelling at him “but we don’t have passports or visa!”
Fortunately, the poor man didn’t understand, or he would have sent us packing. So it was “pasporti, pasporti” ad nauseam until Ilona had a brilliant idea. She told Dad to show the man our internal passports. These naturally had no value at international borders, but they were about the same size and appearance as international passports. Dad offered them, the border guard took them, put a stamp into each and simply said “Go.”
Dad came racing back to the car, jumped behind the wheel yelling “Quick before he changes his mind!” and floored it. The Spartak rocketed out of the Yugoslav checkpoint and into no man’s land. As we approached the next checkpoint, Dad wanted to make sure of its identity. He stuck his head out of the window and yelled “Sind sie Österreicher?” (“Are you Austrians?”)
They said “Jawohl,” but that meant nothing. They would have said so if this was one of those notorious double Iron Curtain checkpoints that were designed to trap careless asylum seekers. I don’t know if Dad was thinking about that at all; but at any rate, we wanted to play it safe because we weren’t sure if the Austrians wouldn’t send us back. So we pulled the same trick on them, and they let us pass.
That had been our first encounter with professional, Western-style officialdom, and the contrast with our Communist rabble was amazing. The Austrian border guards were very courteous and title-conscious, with “Herr Doktor” here, “Herr Doktor” there and “Herr Doktor” everywhere, heels of their shoes practically clicking together each time they said it. Dad spoke to them in flawless German, which helped enormously. (He was a relentless grammar fiend in every language he knew, including medieval Provençal that he had dabbled with as part of his French studies in the gymnasium. Even in old age, he could still cite long passages from medieval troubadour poetry.)
The Austrians swallowed our story hook, line and sinker, assuming, perhaps, that such a distinguished and well-spoken Herr Doktor couldn’t possibly stoop to trickery. They promised that they would contact the Austrian-Czechoslovak border checkpoints to ensure that we were given no trouble there, and promised to contact the highway police to let them know that we would be driving fast but shouldn’t be bothered.
Dad thanked them, got back in the car, and we drove off in a daze, traveling on wonderful, smooth, wide, brightly lit Austrian roads toward Graz where we intended to camp for the night. They wouldn’t let me sit up and look around for quite some time, just in case we were being followed. This was tremendously exasperating: after all, she (my sister) was able to!
In the back seat, Mom was crying quietly, knowing that she would never see any of her family again.