It occurred to me while we were sitting at our five star dinner with four other couples at the retreat in the Czeck Republic that most of them were either teenagers or young adults during the time of the Velvet Revolution in 1989 so I started asking questions of everyone within earshot on both sides of where I was sitting and I got the most amazing stories!
The beautiful woman wearing gorgeous designer clothes sitting next to me said that she was a teenager in 1989 and up until that point she hadn’t thought much about life under communism but that was all she had ever known. She knew that her parents had to join the communist party when the Russians took over. Her mom was a teacher and her dad was a butcher and without being members of the party, her mom would be unable to work and her dad’s business would be confiscated. Under communism, there was some kind of work for everyone (especially since those who refused to join the party had to give up their jobs). If you were a member of the party and weren’t working, you went to jail. In addition, without being in the party your children were not allowed to go to school. The party had a strangle hold on everyone and knew everyone’s business! “Everyone knew that they were doing the wrong thing when they joined the party,” the guy on the other side of me said “but there was just no alternative unless you wanted to be an outcast, be shunned by society and/or go to jail or worse.
This woman’s dad had a huge farm on the border between Czechoslovakia and West Germany went through their fields. She says that she clearly remembers seeing a double barbed wire fence stretched across their property, searchlights at night and dogs and men with guns guarding the border 24/7! Because that is the way it had been ever since she was a child, she didn’t really think much of it!
The things she remembers most during those years of communism was having time! There was no place to go, nothing that she was allowed to do. Food was in short supply fruits and vegetables were only eaten in season. Nothing was imported or exported. Toilet paper was a luxury since there was only one toilet paper factory in the whole country. Every evening was so long! Only boring state-controlled stuff on old black and white TVs, only authorized newspapers full of propaganda, only specified books and definitely no hanging out with friends for teenagers. Just time with family, which she resented at the time but which she actually looks back on with fond memories now.
The guy on the other side of me was the speaker for the next morning. He held four degrees including a PHD and was truly fascinating. He said that he was a University Student at the time and was extremely angry at the government. He was plotting how to escape but knew that his life would be in danger. He said that when the poet and philosopher Vaclav Havel got up in the square with 200,000 protesters behind him, it was just one of those moments in history that was meant to be! He said that it could have been mass violence but no one in the party dared to “pull the trigger”. The smart guys who first took over after the war were very bright and also truly evil. After that many years, the guys who were left were pretty much “yes men” with no fire in the belly to start another revolution. The party just pretty much gave up and the people were overjoyed with the prospect of their new lives.
He said that his whole life changed on that night. Suddenly he could study what he wanted, go where he wanted and be who he felt destined to be. It was a very powerful conversation of the joy that freedom brings!
Another man told about being about 12 when his family was overjoyed to get passports to travel….just in the Soviet block….after waiting five years. They were planning to visit Yugoslavia for a family vacation when the Gestapo forced their way into their home and demanded that they turn over their passports. “You’re not going anywhere,” they shouted! Some nosey neighbor had seem them preparing to leave and had told the Gestapo that they thought they planned to leave the soviet block. It took another 3 years to get their passports back. His teenage son later told us that the reason that the Czechs are guarded in their conversations and relationships even today is that those who were affected the constant fear that others would “turn them in” for the smallest infraction of the rules still harbor those fears. It’s a hangover from that culture.
One man told me about families he knew who, after many years of waiting finally got passports to visit their extended family in Cuba with a promise that they would return at the end of the specified time. He said that the actual plan was that these people figured out that the plane would have to stop in Montreal, Canada to refuel before they could continue on to Cuba. They had been told my the underground that when they deplaned in Montreal they would find a little door in the holding room that was unobtrusively marked with the word “Asylum”. Once they passed through that door, as many others had done, they would be free. But it also meant that they would be unable, as far as they knew, to ever go back to their homeland or see their families again.
This family,however, couldn’t resist the temptation to continue on to Cuba to “get warm’ and vacation a few days and see extended family members before entering their new life (which sounds like a good idea to me). The plan was to exit on their way back through Montreal. Sadly, they changed the flight path on the returning plane which took them to a refueling point in Europe instead of Montreal. Because they were destitute, having sold all their possessions for their ticket, they had to return to their home behind the iron curtain and rely on the charity of friends and family to help them survive.
I’m sure that I could have gotten stories similar to those from almost everyone there. What a life we, who haven’t experienced war up close and personal, take for granted! Our world view is so different from theirs because of what they have experienced in having someone else not only control their lives but also fear for their lives.
I always say that we learn much more than we teach on these trips and in this case it is an avalanche of new understanding.
How lucky are we?