A Visit To Russian Occupied Czechoslovakia
In 1968 my stepmother was a student adviser at a local technical college. A language teacher brought her two Czechoslovak teenagers who were studying at the college. Their issue was that Czechoslovakia had just been invaded, and they did not know what to do.
They had come to England as au pairs. They lived with English families, minded the children and did light housework. In return they were given some pocket money and some time off. They attended the college for two hours a week to improve their English. They were still in their au pair year, and by contract had to complete a full twelve months. What should they do then?
It is very hard for a girl of 18 or 19 to decide to stay in the West, knowing she might never see her parents again. It was also hard for someone currently living in freedom to choose to go back behind the Iron Curtain. These girls were less emotionally mature than most 18 year old girls. The two girls were from the same town, and the families knew each other. After nearly a year in England the two girls were now close.
After a great deal of discussion, counselling, and agonising, each girl made her own decision. One decided to stay in the West and one decided to go home. The girl who had stayed in the West received many telephone calls from her mother begging her to come home. However she had also had a message from her mother telling her that she should disregard any letters or telephone conversations asking her to come home because they did not represent her mother’s true wishes.
The girl who went back in 1968 sent short letters to say she was well. But were they true? Could the letters be part of the campaign to persuade the other girl to come home?
In 1971 I was just finishing my first year at University. I was entitled to cheap student travel. I wrote to the girl to say I was thinking to visit her in Czechoslovakia and was that all right for her? She wrote back to say I was very welcome and I could stay in her family’s flat. As the details hardened she sent me a photo of her brother Emil, who would come to Prague to meet me at the airport. I sent my photo to help Emil recognise me.
I travelled by Hungarian Airlines because their flight was cheap. At the airport I looked for Emil, but he was not there. After hanging around for half an hour I decided there must be some mistake in the arrangements. His family apartment had no telephone – not uncommon in those days. So I made my way to the railway station and caught a train to his town. My fleeting impression of Prague was that it was a pretty town, but they had gone overboard on ornate purple granite buildings. The railway station was reminiscent of St Pancras railway station in London.
It was a long journey, arriving about eight in the morning. I had a place in a sleeper compartment.
Apart from losing my railway ticket – which I eventually found in the very bottom of my holdall - the journey was uneventful.
The apartment block was near the railway station. I learned later that every household living in the apartment block had someone who worked or had worked for the railway. I went to the right apartment. A middle aged lady opened the door. She recognised me from the photo I had sent. She was surprised to see me. She looked round in the corridor behind me. "Where is Emil?"
The grand plan had been for Emil to take a couple of days showing me Prague. Then he would bring me home. Whoops!
I was welcomed. The girl was happy to be at home with her parents. Her interview on her return home had been less than an hour. They wanted to know who from Czechoslovakia she knew to be in England, and had any attempt been made to recruit her as a spy for the British? She told them about the other girl, whom of course they knew about. Otherwise she knew nothing. Welcome home!
The family was happy. The father was on invalidity benefit from the railway. The apartments did not have a lift but otherwise the apartment was fine. Emil was a student but like me he was on holiday. Emil turned up a couple of days later. I had not told him which flight I would be on, and it had not occurred to him that I would be on an Air Hungary flight. So he went for a coffee and had missed me.
Emil took me on the train into the mountains. Any railway station might have workmen come for track maintenance, so most of the railway stations had simple clean accommodation for a dozen men, with cooking facilities. As Emil’s family worked for the railway we could stay in this accommodation for free. He took me into the mountains to the High Tatras, from which we could see Poland. Emil had free rail travel and my travel was pretty cheap.
We travelled home on the third anniversary of the Russian invasion. Russian troops, which previously I had barely seen, were very much in evidence that day. A lot of Czechoslovaks were drunk. The train ticket collector was so drunk he could barely stand. I had more sense than to talk to Emil about what I was seeing while we were out in public.
When we got back to the apartment the father turned to me.
"Soldiers have shot thirteen people!"
"In Prague? In Prague?"
"In Ireland. In Ireland."
This was the Bloody Sunday massacre in Belfast. Just for a few minutes I lost my grip on which of us was living in a repressive police state occupied by a foreign power.
There had been no trouble in Prague. A demonstration had been dispersed without bloodshed.
Apart from that day I barely saw a Russian soldier. I met an English teacher who had never been to England. She really worked hard on me to improve her spoken English - both my accent and my use of language were important to her. One time she found that I was wrapping some glasses I had bought to give to my parents. She was concerned whether I would get into trouble for using Communist newspapers to pack the glass. I explained that we had newspapers of many political views on sale in England. Even Communist and Trotskyist newspapers.
"Who was Trotsky?"
I had to explain to her who Trotsky had been, how he had fallen out with Stalin, and what the difference was between a Communist and a Trotskyist. I was quite shocked that an intelligent woman like her had never heard of Trotsky.
I met the other girl’s parents. By now she was engaged to be married to an English man. I was happy to say that he was a good young man. I would be entirely happy about him if he were marrying my sister, and they could be happy about him marrying their daughter. They were glad of the reassurance. They explained that they could not send any presents to their daughter. They asked me to smuggle some silver to her. I would have liked to consult with my parents about breaking the law like this, but that was not practical. All international telephone calls were monitored. So I took a deep breath and I agreed to smuggle it. I delivered the silver safely. And all my glasses got to England safely too.
There were a few silly moments. At one point in the Tatras I whistled "Lara’s Theme" from the film "Dr Zhivago". Then I stopped because the film was banned. So who would recognise it? Then I realised that if anything happened Emil would be the one in really serious trouble. So I stopped.
The cafes and restaurants were all graded from A to D, but where I went they were all "C". The food was good to eat and the quantities adequate. It was the first time I had seen the set daily menu where you could see exactly what the meal would cost you before you entered the restaurant. A number of European countries still operate this system and it is most helpful.
This is the only time I visited an occupied country. It was an interesting experience, but not one I would recommend.
Also By Charles James
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