September-November 1968

The Prague Spring reforms were gradually reversed over the next months despite world-wide protests.  At the Olympics in Mexico that took place in October,Věra Čáslavská the gymnast silver-medalist  held a silent protest as she looked away when the Soviet anthem was played to honour the winner of the balance beam and the floor exercise. She had won seven gold medals The media applauded her courage. The Olympic games could not hold up the next step in the 'normalization' process.

The first step in the 'normalization' process was acknowledging the necessity of the Warsaw Pact troops stationing in the ČSSR. On October 18th, the permanent presence of seventy-five thousand troops on Czechoslovak soil was confirmed. This did not sit well with the population. Hungarian troops were despised by the Slovak population. The East Germans reminded the older population of the times when Heydrich and the Nazis occupied the country and shouted in German. Some Warsaw Pact tanks were daubed with Swastikas. Children threw stones at the soldiers. Students added graffiti on the walls. 'Red Brothers, go back to your reservations!'. I passed a bakery with a bricked-up window, there was a poster on the wall that said: 1938 (Swastika) 1968 (red star). Anonymous poetry was fly-posted. As a simple citizen, I was outraged that the brothers performed random checks on ordinary people. You could not even look at posters and graffiti without being questioned by patrolling police or tanks. Only a year before, I felt annoyed when the local police for snooping on me on Kampa Island and within a week, I was stopped a few times, twice by a Soviet and four times by a German. I felt it was out of order for them to treat my city as their playground. I refused to speak their language. I only make an effort with a foreign language when I want to talk to friends. I wanted to shout: “You bastards, I welcomed you in 1945, and I helped you with your damned Austerlitz documentary.” Instead, I gave them the evil eye as they checked my papers.

I had been self-righteous about my passive resistance. An event related to E111 knocked me down from my pedestal. I found a copy of the Soviet Pravda newspaper in my pigeon-hole. Someone had daubed a Swastika. First, I thought that this was just another student or member of staff who was frustrated about the troops. There was more to that. Inside the paper, two lines were underlined in red biro: “Professor Pavel Varady worked for two semesters as a consultant tutor at the Charles University of Prague. He condemned the current anti-Soviet feelings in the ČSSR by saying: it is totally absurd to compare the Warsaw Pact with the Nazis.' and declined further comments on the subject.”

I was devastated and physically sick. My heart was racing. First I felt guilt as if I had been one of those Vichy collaborators. Then I felt like a piece of unwanted luggage sent from pillar to post with no chance of peace of mind. A braver man than me would have stood up and clarified his position. I have never been brave. I left the university and went to see my doctor to get a sick line. For the next two weeks, I hardly went out, not even the lack of food could force me out. I ate potatoes and porridge and drank lots of herbal coffee. I was aware that I was getting physically weaker but I did not want to get better. I wanted to fade away into thin air or at least metamorphose into a cockroach. I procrastinated and came to the same dilemma: What was I supposed to do at the University? Justify the Professor's words? Deny my father? Neither the one nor the other was possible. I wished, Adolf had never bothered to trace me. If he hadn't changed my life, I would still be asking questions about him but I would be longing to fill the void. My indefinite sick-leave was approved in writing by Ing. Zpovednicá who sent me her best wishes. With hindsight, it is better that I did not try to clarify my position. There would have been a witch hunt against the protester, therefore, I am glad that I never had to testify against anybody. 

Now that censorship laws were reformed to pre-1968 levels and many Prague Spring supporters lost their jobs: Jiri Pelikan who worked for Radio Prague, Professor Goldstucker from the University of Prague, Věra Čáslavská, Pastor Luki Hromacka from the church, KSČ party members Pavel Kohout and Ludvik Hanzlik. They were not allowed to travel abroad.  The country was becoming a prison. 


The government presidium headed by Gustav Husak declared on the 8th of November that the Czechoslovak press was no longer allowed to make any negative comments about the Warsaw Pact intervention. The weekly magazines Politika and Reportèr were suspended. Gustav Husak was a former lawyer tortured under the Stalinist Gottwald government. Nevertheless, it often happens that the heroes of yesterday become the villains of today, and there were some protesters shouting 'Gustavpo' or 'Hnusak'(Evil). 

I did not want to wait for the conclusion of the Central Committee meeting. On November 15th, after hearing on Radio Free Europe, that the Austrian Chancellor Josef Klaus was granting visas and shelter to refugees, I went to the Austrian Embassy. It was a long walk to Victor-Hugo-Street in the fifth district. When I arrived there, the embassy staff said that they were closed for people of Czechoslovak nationality and the spokesman added that Chancellor Klaus's proposition contradicted the idea of Austrian neutrality. I suspected that Austria wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with the Warsaw Pact. After a long wait, the queue now heard the ambassador Rudolf Kirchschlager would grant a visa to anyone wishing to leave the ČSSR regardless of their nationality as long as the government allowed them to leave the country. Because I had a green passport, I was able to get a visa. It helped me that Adolf Schaden was born an Austrian citizen, and it also helped my cause that I had been to Austria before and that I spoke German. Then I bought a train-ticket to Vienna via Nová Bystřice. By that time, some fifty thousand Czechoslovak nationals were in Romania, Hungary or Yugoslavia, they had a grey passport.

What made me decide to emigrate was the thought that Adolf Schaden could come back here and draw me into his web of deceit, or entice me to endorse with his cause. I think about him and always conclude that he was right to do what he did, he believed in making the world better by joining the Comintern. However, in August 1968, the Soviet Union violated the free will of a country, took a whole government hostage and forced a reformer to reverse his reforms. The Communist Party may have had a fine history of resistance against fascism, by letting down Dubček, a leader who fought against Hitler and dismissing its most eloquent people from key posts, and blackmailing the president it lost its soul. I am not religious, but I believe in bearing responsibility for my decisions and I did not want to play any further role. I did not want to become a shill like Husak. I did not want to be a good law-abiding citizen in a bad country. Before the Prague Spring reforms, I could justify personal compromises because I did not know anything else; after tasting freedom, it was impossible to go back to the previous modus operandi.

Later that evening, I wrote several letters. One was my resignation addressed to Ing. Zpovednicá. Another was to the Housing Department and the third was to Aunt Franci. I could not leave without telling the Koblars that I would be fine. I could not bring myself to visit Kostelec because I might have changed my mind and stayed. In the letter to Franci, I nominally left all my possessions in the U Radnice flat to her and her husband. I also named Franci as my financial administrator because I knew that I could not exchange my money in my account at the State Bank into foreign currency at the Commercial Bank of Czechoslovakia. But I knew deep down that once I was gone, my assets would be seized. Financial insecurity is why many people are deterred from emigrating abroad. When I left U Radnice for good, I had roughly the same amount of luggage as I had when I first arrived there eighteen months before. I said goodbye to Franz Kafka's house, left a letter at the Porter's lodge at the university. I handed back my library books and visited the post-office to post my other letters. I bought a series of stamps which depicted Maxim Gorki, GK Chesterton, Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway. I also bought some postcards.  I had a last meal at the Corso, passed the Arco and then went into the train-station.

On Sunday, November 17th 1968, I bid farewell to my city. It was the anniversary of The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy. By the time the country was commemorating the 1939 student uprising against the Nazis, about hundred sixty-two thousand people had left since August 1968. Three thousand travelled to America and twelve thousands applied for political asylum, I would soon become one of these twelve thousands.