Today I will be celebrating my sweet husband’s birthday. Over our years together we quite often had a big beer tasting and billiard party to celebrate his birthday. He never wanted people to bring gifts so he claimed the party was to remember the day the Russian’s invaded Czechoslovakia.
It is not lost on me that Michal was just turning 17 years old when the Russian’s invaded on his birthday. He and his cousins were at their summer cottage outside of Prague when they got the unbelievable news the following morning from the radio that they had been invaded. This was completely unexpected but they knew it was true when the heard they planes above. They tried to return to Prague by walking but it was too far. His parents came to get them a week later so he could go to school which is when he first saw the Russian tanks.
Michal told me that they climbed up on many of the tanks and asked the Russian soldiers why they were there. Many of the Russians responded that they were just following orders. Just yesterday Michal shared with me a story I hadn’t heard before about his experience and his silent protest. He had decided on the first day of school he would never speak Russian in his Russian class. When the teacher would ask if him to translate a sentence to Russian he would just re-read it in Czech. The teacher knew he was a good student and seemed sympathetic to why he wouldn’t speak Russian. They had come to an unspoken understanding that she would never ask him to speak all year. This could have been a problem in passing the foreign language course in his exams, so he quickly learned enough English to be tested on in the final.
My host country, now Czech Republic, has been acknowledging many anniversaries this year since the country was first formed in 1918 after being part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. Between the Nazi’s, Communists, and Russians this country is relatively new to having democratic freedoms.
This past weekend while visiting Michal’s old schoolmates I took the opportunity to ask them questions about their own experiences on that day. Michal’s best friend, Petr Machar had just returned from Paris on August 20, 1968 (also age 17 at the time). Petr’s parents and sister were in Yugoslavia that week on holiday. Petr had gone with a friend to swim in a pool in Podolí, a neighborhood in Prague. While in the pool they noticed a Russian aircrafts flying overhead. So that afternoon he and the friend went to see the Russian tanks in their neighborhood on Vinohradská street. This is a beautiful area in Prague where many of my expat friends currently live.
Petr’s parents phoned him during that week he was alone and gave him the decision to come and meet them and stay out of the country forever. Petr insisted on staying in Czechoslovakia. Definitely a more extreme version of the movie “Home Alone”. Petr told us that back then he would never visit the Soviet Union. Or as Petr is quoted as saying “that fucking land”.
Of course if he had left he would never have been with his wife of 50 years and my dear friend, Jitka. She had mentioned to me before that she had gone to London to be a nanny when she was only 16. But I didn’t really put the rest of the story together until now that this was the time of the invasion. So when Jitka was scheduled to come home the day after the invasion, all flights had been cancelled. Jitka was not able to return to Czechoslovakia until 10 days later.
And where was I on August 21, 1968? Most likely in the arms of my family members as a one year old on a ranch in Montana where we were quite secluded from the rest of the United States let alone the world. Even now its hard to imagine the reality of their personal experiences.
I walk around this beautiful city of Prague in 2018 and can never imagine the Russian tanks everywhere on the old cobble stone streets. The people of Czechoslovakia had only just begun to enjoy a new freedom during Prague Spring. A short 6 month period of time in which they could read what they wanted and travel anywhere without fear of prosecution. They would wait another 21 years until they were really free.
Recently I had seen a photo of some American’s that wore t-shirts that said “I would rather be Russian than a Democrat”. One of the many cringe-worthy and anger provoking things coming across my news feeds these days. My husband’s private peaceful protest that helped him deal with the unfairness of the invasion reminds me of the NFL players of taking a knee. Michal was not protesting his teacher, his fellow students, education or learning a language. He was protesting silently the fact that his freedoms had been taken away. He was protesting a language of a people that had invaded his country. If only all American’s were lucky enough to travel or live abroad and be exposed to actual facts and learn by talking directly with people they may learn a lot!
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Great post. Thanks to Michal and his friends for sharing those memories, and to you for documenting them here.
When Karl went to concerts at the Rudolfinum, he often ended up chatting during the intermission with the women who were ushering the event. There was one in particular (upstairs, toward the back, west side of the building) that he especially enjoyed. During one conversation she noted the different languages that she could speak (or at least make herself understood). Czech, obviously, but also German, Polish, some French, a little English.
“Oh, and of course, Russian, not that I use it,” she kind of spat out dismissively. She went on to say that she hadn’t spoken Russian since the invasion herself, despite the fact that she often encounters Russian speakers at the concert hall.
“I just play dumb, insist that I have no idea what they’re saying. But they look at me, assess my age,” — she’s probably in her 60s — “and they know I’m lying,” she said with a smile.
Happy birthday, Michal! Miss you, Polly!
“spat out dismissively”…haha. Very true responses for sure. Although Michal likes to surprise them with Russian when he hears something bad. Keeps them on their toes.
Really miss you over here too!
What a fascinating — but also harrowing — life story! It’s a pity the men in those “I’d rather be Russian” t-shirts probably won’t read it. They think they’re being funny but obviously don’t understand the historical weight of making such a statement. I’m very glad you are recording and preserving these stories for others who *are* willing to read and learn and remember, though. Beautifully told.
In the day of ‘fake news’ and people doubting everything they read or hear about, I think its important to keep this true witness accounts circulating. Thanks for reading 🙂
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Great read. Puts life experiences into perspective. Do you mind if I share with my aunt? She climbed on tanks also when Marcos declare dictatorship in the Philippines.
We miss you and Michal, love the AZ Storys
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Miss you all too. I need to see my other great niece! Yes, please share with your Aunt.
Good writing, interesting, and I love reading your blogs
Great reading Michael story. So important to many of us, yes the situation changed life for so many of us.
So glad you read it too. I always love sharing this important stuff to as many people as I can. Its too easily forgotten.
Wonderful melding of the personal and political. Love the photos! Thanks for sharing this, Polly. XOXOXO Bonnie