Mickey Mouse was forbidden. (Western propaganda.) Indiana Jones was okay. (Harrison Ford fought Nazis.) James Bond was nixed. (Sean Connery zapped Russians). “Some Like It Hot” somehow sizzled by the censors. A Beatles haircut could get a guy arrested.
I’ve been living in Iron Curtain territory. Yes, the drapes were torn down in 1989, but memories of life here in the Czech Republic under Communist rule remain, like hidden scars. But our new acquaintances seem eager to reveal.
As a Jew visiting Europe, I’ve focused on its Holocaust history. I’ve sought out the once vibrant, now vacant synagogues; the monuments testifying to the horrors of the Hitler regime; and the cemeteries offering stories of destroyed Jewish lives. This current trip added two concentration camps to our itinerary: Auschwitz-Birkenau and Terezin. I’ve stumbled upon reminders of Holocaust atrocities almost every step of the way.
But during these months in the Czech Republic, I’ve also collided with historical events beyond the Holocaust. Terms like “Warsaw Pact” “Prague Spring”, and “the Velvet Revolution” have been resurrected from remote outposts of my brain. I’d been too distracted by the Vietnam war to notice the squelched Czech uprising against Communism in 1968. I was focusing on marriage and career the year of playwright’s Václav Havel successful 1989 non-violent overthrow of the regime. It’s time I paid attention.
So, here, I’ve walked in the square that celebrated Havel’s victory and perused Prague’s Museum of Communism and its artifacts, videos, and reconstructed scenes documenting that nightmare period. I’ve realized that this country, as Czechoslovakia, was divvied up like a pie, with slices served to Hitler; then it became part of Stalin’s goody bag post-WWII. Communist authorities arrested more than 200,000 Czech nationals and executed almost 250 after mock trials. Thousands prisoners died in jail. About 170,000 people were driven into exile, with hundreds killed trying to flee.
But it’s the personal stories and not statistics that knock me down with the force of thecruelty. And it all started with Max.
* * *
“That’s a NATO base,” Max, Paul’s young colleague pointed out. We are en route to the Czech highlands for a day of hiking early in our semester sojourn in Hradec Kralove. I glimpsed only a blur of flags set back from the highway, splotches of color against a gray late summer sky.
“NATO keeps the Russians away,” he added, his hands gripped firmly on the steering wheel. Was he taunting us, his anti-Trump visitors? In spite of the distance from home, we couldn’t withdraw from our daily dose of CNN or whine about the Russian investigation.
“If the Russians ever come back, I’ve got to leave my country,” Max continued, in a tone more serious than playful. What? He and his wife were born in the Czech Republic; they have two kids. He’d really leave? What had those Communists done? Even before knowing the details behind his words, I wanted to package Max’s testimonial and ship it to the White House with an all caps note: “SEE THE RUSSIANS ARE VERY VERY BAD PEOPLE!” Additional validation for my Trump distress.
Max has been our self-assigned concierge, host, and tour guide; the guardian angel who shepherded us through Czech supermarkets, fitness centers, and the Kafkaesque immigration bureau. That day he was introducing us to the range of low mountains and meadows dividing Bohemia and Moravia; he promised castles, a 17th century Jewish cemetery, and a pub at trek’s end. But Max gave us much more; his personal story allowed us a peek behind the curtain.
We’d been hiking for about an hour and the conversation had turned to the current immigration crisis, when Max proclaimed. “I spent a whole summer in a refugee camp; no one should live like that,” he proclaimed. For a few seconds the only sound was the thud of our boots on the dusty soil, as Paul and I absorbed his words. I tried to give an orderly shape to my questions, but could only blurt, “Why? Where? When?”
Max’s family had escaped communist Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1983; he was ten and his brother eight. They crossed by foot into Austria, an independent country liberated in 1955, when all postwar occupation troops had withdrawn. To Czechs, the country offered freedom from Communist domination. Max’s family had made it, despite the fact that many were killed during such attempts. Yet the four returned to Czechoslovakia when his paternal grandmother became severely distraught by their absence. As punishment, his father lost his job and went to prison. Bad enough, but Max and his brother were placed in what the Soviets labeled schools for the mentally disabled. What?! I imagined minimum education and maximum discipline.
“It was only for four years,” he responded to our shocked expressions, as though we were the ones that had to be consoled. I mean, I knew the ending was happy: Max completed a doctorate in philosophy, and was on the faculty of the town’s university. But still….what had he endured?
I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s marked by Khrushchev, the Cuban missile crisis, and Sputnik. The Cold War. We’d have routine air raid drills at school, but I’d never really believed the bombs would come. Communism was thousands of miles away, and Uncle Sam would keep it that way. I was more frightened of tornado warnings. But for Max and his wife Margarite, now in their mid-40s, Communist oppression wasn’t something studied in a history book or half listened to on TV news. It painted their childhood and adolescence with a palate of fear. They endured the secret police; baseless arrests; censorship, prohibitions on travel, or even a stunted elementary education.
I’d come to realize that these Czechs around me – the deli guy who slices the cheeses we like; the wine store owner offering samples of Moravian whites; the nuclear engineer we met at the local jazz club who never thought he’d ever get west of the Brandenburg gate; our Terezin tour guide who still fears the KGB, – all were impacted by life under Soviet rule, the precursor of the Russia that’s infiltrated my country’s politics today.
* * *
It’s November 11, St. Martin’s Feast Day and Max and his family have invited us to celebrate the traditional meal. Dishes of roasted goose, sweet and sour cabbage, and two kinds of dumplings clutter the wooden planked restaurant table. Goblets are brimming with newly harvested red wine, the Czech’s Nouveau Beaujolais. I’m quizzing Max and his wife about life during Communist years, wanting to hear more of the story he’d begun weeks ago. But now, as we celebrated the Czech holiday, in between telling us about the tanks that would show up now and then, they could shake their heads at the insanity of it all.
“No Mickey Mouse…..!” Max repeated.
“So here’s a joke,” his 16-year-old daughter Adela, pushing strands of blonde-brown hair away from her oval eyes, announced at our St. Martin’s feast. She had grown up with these tales.
“Two men meet in a Soviet prison and one asks the other, ‘so how long are you here?’
‘And what are you in for?’
‘I don’t know. Nothing.’
‘Can’t be for nothing!’ the other inmate reacts. ‘Nothing gets you three years!’”
We all laugh. I mean, the Russians aren’t coming back. Right?