June 3, 2013 by genelup
(Author’s note: In 1968 I dropped out of society and bummed & thumbed Europe & Morocco for almost a year. I was in Czechoslovakia when the Russians took over that country. This is an edited version from my diary and book)
At night, I had to re-enter East Berlin to take a train to Czechoslovakia. I had some East Germany coins on me and before walking through East Berlin customs I dropped them into the sewer on a West Berlin street. I boarded the midnight train, which would arrive in Prague at 8:30 a.m.
While on the train, I met a Czech student, Vladimir. He is 26-years-old, short and stocky and he spoke four languages, including very good English. He was coming back from a vacation in Scandinavia. Travel was much easier for Czechoslovakians since the liberal reforms in his country began eight months ago.
“There is something wrong going on in Czechoslovakia,” he said. “I cut my vacation short to come back to Prague…Russia tells me one thing, and the United States another, it is hard to know which one to believe.”
At the train station in Prague, Vladimir took me through the baggage checkpoint, and then down to CEDOK, the Czech tourist bureau. At CEDOK, we met John, an American college student from Pennsylvania. He and I decided to share a room together in a private home. Cost was $2 split two ways.
That evening, we met Vladimir and several of his friends in a pub and we began drinking the good Czech ale. John and I questioned them about life under communist rule, and the new freedoms they were experiencing under the country’s new leader Alexander Dubcek. Needless to say, the Czechs were very happy with their new found freedoms.
The Czech students, who graduated last June but who now face being drafted in the army, said progress has been stopped under communism. Blue-collar workers are getting more money than professionals. A girl in a factory gets 1,500 kcs and an engineer only 1,000 over the same period of time. The working class is better off than the so-called middle class. Interesting! So why try to get ahead?
Older people remember how good Czech was under a democracy before World War II. One student at the table said Czech people would rather live under a capitalistic system than under a communistic one. They all traveled quite extensively throughout Europe, much more freely than I thought. But, they needed visas to travel in the West, but not in East Europe that is under communistic rule. It is just the opposite for me. I don’t need a visa to travel in West Europe, but I do need one to go into East Europe.
A student pointed to the emblem on a soldier’s cap. It is the Czechoslovakia symbol of a lion with two tails. One tail was for the Czechs, and the other tail for the Slovaks.
“But there is a star above it now,” he said. “It not use to be there.”
The students believe Russia was growing impatient with Czechoslovakia for stepping outside the strict communistic system. They believed Dubcek will have to give concessions to Russia to keep the Soviets at bay.
The Czech students were surprised when John and I told them how dominant American girls are, which we had to agree was the men’s own fault.
For the next four days, John and I had a great time in this happy city. Life and Time magazines and International Herald Tribune, an English-speaking newspaper, are sold at newsstands, thanks to the Dubcek regime. Vladimir said previously only parts of these Western publications were smuggled in.
A large Czechoslovakia flag and a United States flag are sitting side-by side in the Pan Am airline window in downtown Prague. President Johnson gives a message to the Czech people “extending a most cordial welcome and sincere wish for a pleasurable and memorable visit (to the U.S.)”
Vladimir walked us to a construction site. “It will be an intercontinental American hotel,” he said. “Over there on the left there used to be the Stalin statue, but it was taken down couple of years ago.”
I thought: Stalin taken down and an American hotel going up. Seems the Czechs may throw off the communistic cloak after all.
We walked by a crowd of people on the main street. “Groups of people can discuss current topics freely,” Vladimir said. “At one time we couldn’t do that. The police would come and break it up. Now, they just walk around without bothering us.
I made arrangements to rent a car for three weeks. I plan to travel throughout Czechoslovakia and look up my mother’s relatives who include my aunts and uncles and cousins, whom I’ve never met or even communicated with. But, I never got that chance. Russia moved in with her troops two days before I was to pick up my car. John, fortunately, left for West Berlin the day before. He was probably on the last train to leave Prague before the Russian invasion.
The morning of the massive infiltration the woman of the house awaken me and told me “Rusky” had invaded Prague. I looked out the bedroom window and watched soldiers marching by.
I left to go to the American Embassy, although the woman pleaded me not to go. Like an idiot, I deliberately left my camera behind. I’ll always regret that. Since the buses and trolleys weren’t running, I had to walk two miles to town. Already long lines had gathered in front of food stores – there was a rush on. At one gas station I counted 74 cars lined up; the owners pushing the cars the last few yards to save the gas they already had. People walked with their small transistor radios glued to their ears, listening to the news from “Radio Free Prague.”
I approached Russian troops who were guarding a railroad bridge. They were wearing old olive-drab uniforms including the traditional high boots, and they were carrying automatic weapons. Each of them wore the red star with hammer and sickle emblem on their uniforms.
A large group of Czech young people circled the Russians and were talking to them, asking why they had come to Prague. The soldiers said all they were told was they came to Czechoslovakia to free the people from tyranny. There isn’t tyranny, the Czechs argued, pleading that they should go home. But to no avail.
As I walked on to the American Embassy, I passed many, many Soviet tanks and troops guarding and blocking bridges and streets to vehicular traffic. Pedestrians still could walk just about anywhere. And they were taking pictures. I wished I had brought my camera.
At the American Embassy, officials told all Americans to hold tight. I walked through Prague the rest of the day. Tanks and troops were everywhere. I saw the remains of a large bus crushed like a tin can when a Soviet tank ran into and over it broadside. The students had parked it there in an attempt to stop Russian tanks’ access to that particular street. I saw Czech students chase a lone tank and smash its gas barrel on the side and set it aflame. The Russians in the tank swiveled the huge gun around and using small arms fired overhead. Thousands of people on the main street fled to the sidewalks in a split second. The street was suddenly empty.
Tanks rumbled down the streets. One tank went down a narrow side street and squashed all the cars against the buildings. One woman was terrified when two Russian jeeps turned the corner and she pushed me into a butcher’s shop as she scrambled in. Tourists were everywhere and snapped pictures unmolested.
A car stopped near a group of people and the occupants threw out bundled newspapers. The people scrambled to get a copy. It was an underground newspaper with stories about the invasion. One of the first things the Russians did when they arrived in Prague was to storm the newspaper, radio and television offices to take complete control of the media. But just a few clandestine newspapers and broadcasts got their messages out the first couple days. But, eventually, they were shut down, too. I learned quickly that if a country wants to take over another country the first thing it must do is take control of the conquered country’s media. The Russians took over the media before they even stormed Dubcek’s residence, I was told.
I got a copy of the underground newspaper, and will save it as a souvenir. Someday, I’ll have to get someone to translate what it says.
I walked to Wenceslas Square, which really is a sloping huge boulevard. At the top of the hill is The National Museum, pockmarked with bullet holes encrusted earlier in the day by Soviet troops. I looked down the hill and saw Russian tanks.
I jotted a note on a postcard to my parents: “Dear Mom & Dad, I’m fine – nothing to worry about. Soviets came in this morning but things are quiet. I’ll leave when I can. I’ve been to Am. Embassy. They are watching things. I hope this gets through – trains are stopped and all stores closed. I’ll call or cable first chance I get. Love, Gene.” I know they are praying for my safety. Maybe I should pray too.
In the evening, thousands of students marched down the main street carrying Czech flags and singing their national anthem. On the whole, most of the people remained calm, and many of them were gathered around the Russians talking to them. The Russian soldiers on the whole were young, about 18 or 19, just like our U.S. soldiers now fighting in Vietnam. It was really sick to see something like this – the takeover of a country by military might.
At night, I walked inside Alcron Hotel and talked to the United Press International man on the hotel telephone (I talked to him and the Associated Press man the night before to determine if I could get a job with their organizations in Europe. Neither man gave me any encouragement.) I tried to sell the UPI man my story I witnessed that day. He told me to type it up. I borrowed a typewriter from the hotel staff. When it was nearly finished, the Soviets began firing into the side street in front of the hotel. Everyone, including myself, froze. The firing, which was earsplitting, kept on and on and I cried in my thoughts, “Oh, please God, let them stop.”
One bullet hit the side of the hotel and caused sparks to fly off the wall near the front doors. Everyone cleared the lobby, hurling themselves over the main counter and couches. Finally, the shooting stopped. We didn’t know exactly where and why they fired. Was I scared? You bet! I had to go to the bathroom after the shooting was over.
I slept in the hotel lobby that night, not wanting to walk the streets at night to my room. The UPI man said he had lost his telex line, and said I should somehow try to get it to UPI in Vienna. It was impossible to get a telephone call through.
In the morning, I walked back to my room in the private home – the old woman was greatly relieved I was safe. Bless her heart! She fixed me a meal, and I slept for three hours. Then, I walked to the American Embassy again and found out that a freedom train would leave at 7 p.m. that night. I hitchhiked to the old woman’s house — everyone who had cars really wanted to help people in need. It was the best hitchhiking to date in Europe. The first ride took me to a bridge way south of town. Russians troops guarded the bridge, and they wouldn’t let me cross. I started to hitchhike back. A man on a motorcycle and his wife in a sidecar stopped and gave me a lift; I shared the seat sitting behind him. He stopped about a half-mile up the road and I took a small ferry boat across the river.
I got my gear at the house, gave the old woman two American dollars, and promised to write and wished her luck. (I previously paid her $8 for a six-night stay in her home)
I hitchhiked back to town. I ate an apple and threw it on the sidewalk in front of a store. The proprietor was sweeping the sidewalk and he angrily yelled at me that I shouldn’t put clutter in front of his store.
For cryin’ out loud, I thought, your country has just been invaded and you are worrying about an apple core being dropped in front of your store. Then I realized these Prague people have been under suppression for so long that life goes on no matter what happens to them. That store owner takes life as it comes, making the most of it.
The street sweepers were out today, back on their jobs sweeping up the trash from the street gutters as if nothing had happened at all. However, all the people I saw were sad, what a contrast to just a few days before. I noticed that practically everyone in Prague wore small Czech colors, such as ribbons, that day.
It started to rain, so I hid under an eave of a building to keep dry. In town, the Russians began to get nasty. They cleared everyone off the main street and announced there would be a 10 p.m. curfew. Anyone found on the street after that time would be shot. I took a taxi with another American to the train station (the first train station I went to was the wrong one and that was where I met the other American).
There were about 450 foreigners on the train. Some Czech people came to the station to send and wish us Godspeed. We wished them luck. “Give ‘em hell,” one excited American student yelled to them. We didn’t have a bit of trouble getting on the train. No Russian troops stopped us, and our bags were untouched at the border.
I have such a hatred for Russia, and if I were in the U.S. now I certainly would let myself be heard. When I get back to the states I will personally march on the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C.
The damn Russians can go to hell as far as I’m concerned. I’m not even sure if there is a God who would care. But if he does, I hope he will send Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev and his commie thugs and murderers to hell where they belong. Maybe the United States is not so bad after all. At least we have freedom in a capitalistic society.
We pulled into Vienna at about 5:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 23, 1968. Man, we felt like celebrities. Television and radio people were all over the place and interviewing us. The American Embassy had buses for us and whisked us off to hotels – they found rooms for us, although it cost me $5 a night.
One time someone clanged metal on the sidewalk and I was startled. I, for an instant, thought the Russians had fired another shot. In the evening, I walked to the Prater area and sat back and enjoyed some beers in a bowling alley. I thought about the great American way of life. Freedom!
I thought about Vladimir and his friends. After the invasion, I went to Vladimir’s home but he wasn’t there and no one knew where he was. Some feared for his life. I don’t know if he was working in the resistance, or had fled the country. I hoped he and his friends were all safe. — from “My Life Shattered then it got worse, until…”