The Warsaw Pact invades Czechoslovakia, 1968
Then came 1968. Though my life was full and demanding, I’d
been following the events in Czechoslovakia. Exciting things
were happening there, a relaxing of some restrictions, a freer
press, just as Uncle Paul had described.
One evening, I was in my kitchen, preparing dinner. The
television was on in the living room and the evening news came on.
The word Prague – and I was on the floor, up close, staring
at the grainy black and white images on my small screen.
Crowds of people filled Wenceslas Square. The commentator
was speaking words I could barely take in. Down the wide
boulevard, between the throngs of people, rolled tank after
tank. The faces in the crowd were masks of disbelief, rage, defiance,
defeat. Another camera: a street lined with people, young,
old, women, men. A close-up of a young woman, tears streaming
down her face, both hands over her mouth. An old man
shaking his cane in helpless rage, as the tanks trundled over
the cobblestones. People stood bewildered. Others ran alongside,
screaming. And then I saw a young couple. They stepped
forward as a tank came to a stop in front of them. The young
woman was carrying a bouquet of flowers. She took one and
placed it into the barrel of a rifle a soldier held across his lap.
The soldier looked confused. The tank rolled on.
The Soviets and their allies had responded to Prague Spring
by invading the country. Tears of grief and rage ran down my
face, as Prague was stolen from me again.
Prague Police Office: Applying for a Residence Permit, 1972
Another shabby office. This time there were two men, both
in uniform, neither of whom I’d seen before. The older man
with very short, iron-grey hair and pale eyes contemplated me
blankly, while the younger man stood by the window flipping
through my sheaf of papers. He tossed them on the desk, where
they landed with a sharp slap. “This is not what we expected,”
sneered the older man. “It’s useless.”
“What? I filled in everything!”
“We are not stupid. We know who your parents are. We
have thick files on them. We know all about your father. A
raving capitalist. A Nazi collaborator. An enemy of the people
who deserted his country. He left illegally. If he tried to come
back, he could be arrested. A traitor. And that applies to you
too. Your leaving the country was against the law. I read no
apology here.” He slapped the pages in front of him and sat
back in his chair.
I could feel the blood leave my face. My father, who’d been
summoned to testify against the Nazis at the Nuremburg trials,
labelled a Nazi collaborator. I was speechless with outrage.
“So why should we let you into the country?” he drawled.
“How are we to know you’re any different than your father?”
I had to control myself. I used the only tool I had – being
pretty and young, and in men’s eyes, naive.
“I don’t know anything about that,” I said. “I’m not interested
in politics. I want to live here for a while to learn about it.
To get to know the country where I was born.”
They gazed at me, derisive, skeptical, as though I’d said
something hopelessly sentimental.
“I was four years old!” I cried.
My Prague, 1972
One night I was walking home alone to my room on
Nosticova after an evening at Rubín. I was happy. It was
a warm, soft night, late, with no one else on the street. As I
crossed Maltézské Náměstí, I started to sing “Summertime,” a
favourite of mine. Out of nowhere a car pulled up beside me
and a couple of policemen leapt out, demanding my papers.
Startled, I produced my Canadian passport. They were taken
aback. Half saluting, they backed away, climbed into their car
and drove off. What would they have done if I hadn’t had a
foreign passport? I wondered. Was it illegal to sing? What had
I done to draw their attention – express myself? Reveal some
joie de vivre?
Other absurdities occurred in this Kafkaesque environment.
One day at the Malostranská Kavárna, I was sipping
my coffee and reading a book at my favourite table overlooking
the square when the waiter handed me a folded scrap of paper.
Surprised, I opened it. There was a sentimental love poem
scrawled on it, seven or eight lines about how desirable I was.
I looked up at the waiter, who gestured at a dark-haired man,
maybe forty, sitting alone at a table at the other end of the café.
He smiled and waved at me, spread his hands as though to say,
“What do you think?” Shaking my head, I crumpled the paper
and went back to my reading. The man left soon after.
Sometime later, I was in the police station on Bartolomějská
sitting on one of those orange chairs, to request a return visa
for a trip outside the country. The entrance door to that long
hall opened, and to my surprise, I recognized my suitor from
the café. He was carrying a briefcase. Another applicant for
something, I thought. But no. Casting me a cursory glance, he
opened one of the doors and disappeared. I was chilled. Were
they keeping an eye on me?
For the first time, I was learning what it is to live with fear,
a nameless, all-pervasive fear that has no clear object. It was
like a permanent condition, invisible but ever-present, like
oxygen, but heavy and oppressive. It was so immanent that I
was unaware of it most of the time. I only realized it on the
occasions when I left the country. Each time, I experienced
an enormous relief as I crossed the border, suddenly breathing
more deeply, my body relaxing. When I returned, the fear
gradually settled over me again.
The Revolution, 1989
It was 1989 and Europe was ablaze with change and
hope. The revolution that many behind the Iron Curtain
despaired would never come finally happened. Lech Walensa
in Poland, Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and Václav
Havel in Czechoslovakia. I sat glued to the television day after
day as events unfolded. Havel, the dishevelled dissident playwright
who had spent years in prison, now led the movement
in Czechoslovakia. I watched news footage of the streets of
Prague jammed with students, and then thousands upon thousands
of people lining the streets, filling Wenceslas Square.
The crowds stayed despite violent confrontations. The future
hung in the balance. And then it was over. Václav Havel, with
whom I had sat drinking beer at U Tygra with Karel and Zlatá
Praha, who had spent years in jail as a dissident, led the movement
that finally toppled the communist regime and became
president of the newly liberated country.
There was wild rejoicing throughout the Czech community
in Canada. I was sad for my father, who hadn’t lived to see
this day. Forty years of terror and oppression were lifted and a
nation released. And a poet and playwright in charge. Glorious!
We lived in dread for the next two days. Then it was my
turn, and this time it was Karel waiting for me at U Medvídků.
I entered that too familiar building once again, and waited in
that long corridor, facing that row of closed doors, my feet
wearing down the tired linoleum in front of my chair. Kafka
came to mind yet again, the Czech writer of the absurd and
sinister. A door opened. I sat on the chair facing the desk. Two
uniformed men, one standing, one sitting at the desk, a file in
front of him. I couldn’t remember if I’d seen these men before.
“Pas,” barked the man at the desk. I handed over my passport.
He opened it to an empty page and smoothed it flat
against the desk with his fat fingers. He picked up a large
stamp, pressed it against an inkpad, and without a word or a
glance towards me, banged it on a page in my passport. He
picked up a pen and bending over my passport, scribbled a few
notes between the lines of the stamp. Then he pushed it back
across the desk toward me and sat back in his chair. I looked
from him to the man standing by the window. The man at the
desk leaned forward and crossed his arms on the desk.
“You are hereby charged with anti-State activities. This is a
very serious crime. You have until midnight tonight to get out
of the country. If you are here beyond midnight, you will be
arrested.” I froze and my mind whirled, unable to take in what
he was saying. He continued, “Your residence permit is void,
and what is in your passport now is the charge against you and
the requirement to be out of the country by midnight.” He sat
back. Again I stared at him, and from one to the other. And
then the enormity of what he was saying hit me like a rock.
“But why?” I said, realizing I urgently needed to find my
voice. “What do you think I have done?” He simply repeated
the charge and the imperative that I leave the country.
“But what are the charges?”
“I have already told you. You are charged with anti-
“On what grounds? What is the charge based on?”
“We are under no obligation to explain the charges to you.”
“But I need to know! I am innocent. The charges are
false, whatever they are! Tell me what they are and I will
He shook his head impatiently. “Be out of the country by
midnight or you will be arrested.”
My desperation made me indignant. “Surely the accused
have the right to know what they’re being charged with, so they
can defend themselves and explain! That must be protocol, if
not law, in every country in the world! I have the right to know!”
“Not at all,” he said acidly. “We are under no such requirement.”
“But tell me what you think I have done, please! I haven’t
done anything wrong, truly, and I don’t know why you think I
have!” The man at the desk simply shook his head. The other
stood leaning against the wall, his arms folded. I tried again
and again. They refused to tell me anything. They said nothing
to me of the things they had said to Karel two days before. I
was unable to answer any charges because they gave me none.
“I have been working. I pay my own way.” I told them of
my translation work, told them the editors at Artia were
happy with my contribution. “I swear I’m innocent of whatever
charges someone has brought against me!”
They were immovable. Until now they had looked bored;
now they looked impatient. “There is nothing you can do or
say. I’ve warned you several times already – if you’re here after
midnight, we will come and arrest you.” The realization that
I was powerless, that the situation was hopeless, gradually
dawned on me. I sat paralyzed. The man started to get up from
“I can’t leave before midnight!” I cried. “There’s only one
flight to Toronto daily and it’s before noon.” I looked at my
watch. “It’s almost noon now!”
“That’s your problem. We don’t care where you go. Take the
train, take a bus, anywhere beyond the border. Just as long as
you get out.”
Leaving Prague October 1974
We were silent on the way to the airport. We needed days,
no, years, to say everything we wished we could say to one
another, and we had said all that could be said for now. We sat
in the back. Karel held my ice-cold hand.
In the departure hall, I held on to Karel tight, tears coursing
down my face. He pulled me away. They were announcing my
flight. Boarding had begun. “You have to go,” he said.
“You have to!”
I tried. I took my suitcases and walked toward the exit to the
gates. I couldn’t do it. I dropped my suitcases and ran back to
him. He had to pry my fingers off his arms. He was crying too.
“Helenko, musíš. You have to. We’ll see each other again.
I forced my feet to walk towards the gate. I looked back once
to take him in one last time, then turned and walked through
the door. Like an automaton, I produced my passport, checked
my bags, hardly knowing what I was doing. Numbly I sat at
the gate, waiting, then following the other passengers blindly,
I walked onto the plane and let the stewardess point me to my
seat. I had three seats to myself at the very back of the plane,
and I wept all the way back to Canada.