Czechoslovakia 1952 to 1968

Childhood

I read that wisdom was the best possession a person could get. I believed it and still believe it. What kind of existence is any person likely to have who does not know the difference between right and wrong?

Those who know the difference between right and wrong experience difficulties. How much extra trouble can people who do not knowthe difference between right and wrong expect? To prosper, we need know the difference between right and wrong. Here, I share with the readers the tale of how I learned the difference between right and wrong.

I was born on 25thJanuary 1952, a few years after World War II, in Bratislava, in what was then Czechoslovakia, into a family with a Catholic background. Dad was into “modern” ways of thinking. He liked Freud, for example.

Bratislava

Bratislava lies on the banks of the Danube river. The Hungarian name of the town was Pozsony, while the German name was Pressburg. The name used depended on who ruled at the time. Bratislava is an ancient town. Before World War I it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There are also Roman ruins in it. A large fort, built a millennium ago, sits on top of a hill next to the river. The wall of the fort are seven meters thick. It has since been turned into a museum and is now a tourist attraction.

The Ottomans sailed up on Danube in 1529 and 1683. They tried to sack Vienna. Both attempts were unsuccessful. At Bratislava they were shelled from the fort before arriving at the gates of Vienna. The last defeat heralded the end of the Ottoman empire.

Our ancestors arrived from Transylvania, according to father, which is in Rumania. Mother was a teacher. Her ancestors were from France. In 1957, father was arrested, tried, and jailed by authorities for “anti-state activities.”

I have four siblings, a brother and three sisters. We resided in a building known as Avion. We lived in a three-bedroom apartment with two balconies. It was home. My earliest recollections are excellent. There was warmthin the family.

I remember mother taking me out in a carriage. It was a bright, sunny, fresh morning. The air was breezy and fresh. I felt comfortable. I was half awake and enjoyed the rocking of the carriage. A lady joined mother and the two of them talked for a while.

The woman peeked at me, trying to get a view. I had a feeling that they were talking about me. Suddenly, mother turned the carriage and the sun shone brightly in my face. I closed my eyes, turned slightly to the side. It was exhilarating. I was fortunate.

In the evenings, I remember as we were going to bed, you could hear the streetcars on the street below squealing as they turned. Also, you would discern reflections of the traffic moving below crawling across the ceiling. There was also a large advertisement attached upon the wing of the building next to us, which kept flashing on and off.

In the mornings we would wake up and see prints of different artists such as Van Gogh on the walls of the apartment. My parents room had a painting by a well-known painter: it was called Napoleon’s Return from Russia. It showed a downcast Napoleon trudging on horseback back to France.

Bratislava had relatively fresh air. I remember the feeling of being alive, looking at the difference between shade and the brightly area next to it. The difference between light and darkness, it seemed, was important.

Birth of a sibling

I remember going to the hospital with father and siblings when my sister was born. I was four years old at the time. It was evening, and father was in a hurry.

“Hurry up kids,” he said, “the taxi is waiting.”

A friend of his took us to the hospital. It was the first time I had a ride in a car. The taxi was black, with a chequered stripe, halfway from the top. It seemed big, and inside had a peculiar, leather-like smell.

I remember waiting in the hospital hallway. It was quiet and poorly lit. There was an air of expectancy in the air. After a long wait, mother appeared up with a bundle in her arms. It was my sister.

Medical Garden

I remember the first time we went to the park. We walked for a few blocks. The air was fresh, and there was a feeling of excitement. We passed by streetcar tracks and arrived at a gate on our left. It was the entrance to a park. It was known as the “Medical Garden.” Parents would take their children to play there. People would pop in there to relax.

Inside the park the atmosphere was relaxed. The bustle of the city receded into the distance. It was a protected zone. People walked around or sat on benches. Children played on a sandbox or on swings.

The adults nearby were watching. In the sandbox, the kids were transporting sand in toy trucks. There were buckets and spades, and red tractors. I was impressed. I wanted to join them, but my parents did not let me. Later, they relented. I had my first opportunity to play – in a sandbox. It was great.

Primary school

I remember my first day at school. My mother dropped me off and told me to line up behind a few children. For the first time, I was alone. There was a boy in front of me. I asked him,

“What is your name?”

“Abraham,” he replied. I did not realize the significance of this name at the time.

School was fun. I enjoyed it. I grade one we had to sit with our hands behind our backs. It was uncomfortable. This was an introduction to the rigors of communism. Later they relaxed this rule, to our great relief.

We all read “The Three Musketeers.” A friend designated himself as D’Artagnan, and two others as Porthos and Aramis. I was Athos. We also read the novels of Karl May, Jules Verne, Mark Twain and Jack London.

We learned from European works of writers. It felt as if reading about adventure replaced religion as education. Almost all the great works of western literature were available in translation, with an exception: George Orwell. His Animal Farmwas a criticism of communism. No wonder the authorities did not care to translate that novel. Orwell was probably blacklisted.

At school we would regularly have to welcome various people. For example, we welcomed the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. That was in 1963. Another time we went to welcome Nikita Khrushchev. It took place not long after Tereshkova’s visit. We stood on the sidewalk for hours. It was trying.

Finally, after an extended wait, we saw a vehicle. In the back was a bald person, his head glistening. He was far. I did get much of a peek at him. The auto disappeared in about thirty seconds.

“Was this thirty seconds appearance worth the wait of several hours?” I thought to myself. Then we went back to school.

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was more dramatic. I was ten years old. We were taken to a bomb shelter nearby. Everyone was discussing if there would be a war. I thought there would not be a war. It turned there was no war. But the atmosphere was tense.

Literature as Education

My education was reading literature. Among my favorites were the Three Musketeers, the Count of Monte Cristo, the books of Karl May including “Winnetou,” “Treasure on the Silver Lake” and “Through the Desert.” The “Treasure on the Sierra Madre” by B. Traven and “Genghis Khan” were popular.

I even recall going to a few western movies. This was a rarity, as the authorities allowed very few western films to be screened. An exception was High Noonwith Gary Cooper. It is a black and white classic, made in 1952. It was made during the McCarthy years.

I think I was too young to understand and appreciate the plot, in which the lead character, the town sheriff, was abandoned by town folk to face a gang of criminals alone. He prevailed, nonetheless. Additional films allowed in were the Man from Rio, with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Rio Bravo, made in 1959, with Dean Martin and John Wayne, films based on Karl May novels, and Genghis Khan.

I enjoyed adventure. I hardly realized that I would experience adventure, at the moment being recalled in these pages. We read Jules Verne, including “Around the World in Eighty Days,” “Journey to the Moon” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea,” about Captain Nemo and a submarine called Nautilus.

Detective tales featuring Sherlock Holmes by sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were also a favorite. The Mysterious Islandwas popular, too. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were also enormously popular.

Also, the Last of the Mohicans and other novels by James Fennimore Cooper, who according to some wrote the first American novel. In addition, we read books by Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens. In Canada I got to read Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy.

In one book I read about Moses. I resolved to learn later what was the great thing he achieved. After finishing reading for the day, I recall leaning out of the window and having an excellent, peaceful feeling.

Right and wrong

We had to learn about right and wrong from experience and literature, as we had no classes in religion, to keep us on “the straight and narrow,” as they say. Neither were there any classes about morality. The communist perspective denounced wealthy people, implying that people become wealthy by cheating or rather “exploiting” people.

Thus, we were raised partly wild. It was extra pronounced with my brother and me, as for about three years even Dad was not there to “restrain” us. I think mother just assumed that we would “naturally” be good.

This is broadly in agreement with romantic conceptions of humanity, articulated by Rousseau in the Emile, a text on education rivalling Plato’s Republic – apart from revealed texts – in the Western tradition. The Emile, one could say represents the romantic tradition, while the Republic articulates its classical aspect.

With all due respect to the European philosophers, neither of these books, if I may be permitted to say, does the job of properly educating a person. For education without an awareness of God – I have to say – is imperfect.

Theology as a subject became shunned in Europe. Socrates was put to death partly for the “crime” of apostasy, as the Athenians of his day understood it. He did not believe in the gods of the Athenians. This does not necessarily mean that he believed in God. On top of that he was accused of corrupting the youth.

Rousseau, by contrast, was not an atheist, but his views about religion were not exactly in sync with the mainstream. While Rousseau was not killed, the Church authorities censored him and his home was attacked by a mob after the publication of the Emile, which contained a chapter on religion.

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” was a favorite proverb of Leo Strauss, I heard from former classmates. I think Strauss was aware of the problematic character of the thought of the two thinkers but was not too forthright about it. His reticence is understandable, as he worked in the United States, one of whose founding principles is keeping religion and politics apart. So, what to do?

Malacky

Once time we were visiting grandparents. Malacky was a town about a hundred kilometers from Bratislava, near the Hungarian border. My grandparents lived in a single-story house surrounded by a garden. It was a pleasant place, enclosed by a wall.

Upon one of those visits dad asked me to go with him for a walk. He met a friend on the way and then talked to this man for a long time. It felt as if we were there for hours. We finally went back.

Another time a relative presented me an antique flashlight. It had no battery, but I was assured that with a battery the flashlight would work. I met a friend from the neighborhood who was chewing a Wrigley’s chewing gum. To possess anything from the West was a mark of status. My friend then showed me the package in which he had a few more chewing gums. I asked for one.

“Not for free,” he said. “What can you offer me?”

All I had was the flashlight. Suddenly I wanted to have of those chewing gums. I offered him the flashlight in exchange for a chewing gum. At first, he appeared disdainful, but then he accepted the offer.

I parted with the flashlight and he parted with a chewing gum. I started chewing. The taste was fine, but I noticed that the chewing stick shrank. I felt regret that I gave up the flashlight in exchange for a diminishing chewing gum. But it was too late. A deal is a deal, as they say. It was however, my first taste of the world of business. I tried to be more careful after that before I entered any trade.

Tanks

During the visit, I was told not to cross the street near the grandparents’ house. One day I crossed to the far side. There was a meadow. Before I had a chance to go back, I started hearing a quiet, rumbling noise. After a few minutes, the rumbling turned to a deafening roar. A tank emerged from behind the bend in the road. And then another. And another. The tanks rolled steadily forward.

Many tanks passed by right in front of my grandparents’ house. The Hungarian revolution and the response to it were under way. The tanks of the Warsaw Pact were on their way to Hungary. It was 1956.

I was four years old. I became anxious. I thought of running back to the house between two tanks. But they followed each other very closely. If I tried to run between two of them, I could be run over. Better wait it out, I said to myself. It was a long wait.

The rumbling felt unbearable. The ground as shaking under the weight of the tanks. It took a long time for the last tank to pass by. Finally, no more tanks appeared from behind the corner. I felt greatly relieved. I could now safely go back.

Bielovce

After my grandfather died my grandmother moved to Bielovce, where my aunt worked as a teacher. Bielovce was a village on the Hungarian border. Everyone spoke Hungarian there. Slovakia was separated from Hungary by a river called Ipoly. The river was green; we used to swim and fish in it. Across the river, there were foothills in Hungary. We used to go to Bielovce from time to time and we would take the train.

I remember a time in particular when we all travelled together. Father was with us. It was before 1956, the year that father went to prison. There was a warm feeling in a train compartment. I was staring through the window at the houses outside.

In Bielovce I learned Hungarian. I remember I was always very excited to go to the village and the specially the time that we got off the train and then the train left suddenly it was also quiet. Literally we could hear a pin drop. It was peaceful.

Once my cousin brought a basket of new-born kittens. They appeared endearing. I was shocked what my cousin then asked me to do.

“Go and drown them in the river.”

I was horrified at the thought of drowning the kittens.

“I don’t think I can do that.”

I felt terrible for the kittens. He looked at me angrily and went away with the basket. I never saw the kittens again.

At the back of the house was a barn. My cousin showed me a piece of rusty shrapnel from a bomb dropped nearby during World War II. The rusting piece of metal was embedded in a wall made of mixed mud and grass.

In Bielovce, my aunt was a teacher. One time in Bielovce my aunt took me to her classroom. The national anthem started to play. Everyone got up except me.

“Stand up,” my aunt said.

I remained seated. I did not see any reason for standing up. She came up and slapped me on the cheek. After that, I stood up.

Farmhand

Once my aunt arranged for me to go out with the farm workers to work on the collective. I was quite confident and agreed to go. As a city-boy, I had no idea what I was getting into. I woke up bright and early and joined a group of workers. We were taken on a cart pulled by a tractor to a field about six kilometers away.

There were both men and women workers there. When we arrived at the destination, I expected everyone would begin working. Instead, to my surprise, everyone sat down in a circle and started to eat something or simply talk.

“So, this is how people work in this system?” I thought to myself. “No wonder we are lagging behind the capitalist system. People do not seem to work that hard.” This went on for almost an hour. Then one person exclaimed:

“Supervisor!” At that point in time everyone, about a dozen persons, stood up and went to work. It took the appearance of the supervisor to get everyone working.

I was given a fork and asked to spread a hardened heap of hay, so it would dry in the sun. We would later load it on vehicles and cart it back to the communal farm.

The heaps of hay were hardened to the point it was hard to break them open. I struggled with about two. It took me most of the day to break them apart and spread the hay in the sun. The hay was dark grey on the outside, but yellow and moist on the inside. I never worked so hard in my life. I was happy when it was time to go back. I went to sleep, completely exhausted. The next morning, Dad woke me up and said:

“It’s time to go to work,” He said. I tried to get up, but the moment I moved a muscle I felt an excruciating pain. My body felt like it was broken into a thousand little pieces.

“Come on,” said Dad, “let’s go.” I tried again. But the moment I moved, again the pain struck me. I did not realize one could feel so much pain just from working.

“Dad,” I said, “I don’t think I can go. I feel a terrible pain in my whole body.” He seemed a bit skeptical, but after a while relented. That was the first and last time I ever worked on a farm. I realized how incredibly hard farmers work.

Grandmother

Grandmother was from a wealthy family. Before the arrival of socialism, she owned a fair bit of land. Her family also had the best café in Bratislava. Under communism, both the café and the land were taken away. Private property was not allowed.

After grandfather passed away, grandmother moved to Bielovce. She lived in an apartment in building at the edge of the village. I have fond memories of visiting her. She was always attentive. Grandmother made wine. I remember once my brother and I drank a glass each of her red wine and became tipsy. We could barely ride straight on our bikes.

She showed me my grandfather’s business card and said:

“You should know who your grandfather was.” I read on the card:

“John Terebessy, Chairman of the Highest Court.”

Grandfather had an interesting history. He was from a large family with eleven brothers and two sisters. His father was an architect. He designed a few buildings in Bratislava. In his youth, grandfather was a friend of Bela Bartok, the Hungarian composer.

Bartok used to join grandparents every Sunday for dinner. When my grandfather got married, Bartok declared:

“John’s musical career is over.” He was right.

Grandfather and Bartok attended music classes, as seen in a faded black and white photograph that may be found on the Internet. Grandfather and Bartok in the front, two boys in the back, and the teacher on the side. All holding a violin in a traditional way, with the stick pointing straight up.

Grandfather had a Stradivariusviolin, which is today worth about US $ 17 to 18 million. I was supposed to inherit that violin, but apparently a relative said:

“Leslie does not play the violin, so he will not need this.” I guess I was not going to get that violin. Oh, well.

During the war, grandfather was a judge in the Nazi state of Slovakia. The National Slovak Uprising took place in 1944 and failed. The Gestapo did “investigations” and found out the names of the leaders. Then they asked the Supreme Court to pass a death sentence in absentia on the leaders.

The Supreme Court refused to pass the death sentence. In response, all three judges of the Court were sent to a concentration camp, on the instructions of Ribbentrop, the Nazi minister of foreign affairs. They were subsequently freed by the approaching Red Army. My grandfather survived to tell the story. Many did not. Ribbentrop was subsequently tried and convicted of crimes against humanity in the Nuremberg trials. He was hanged.

Secret Service

I remember the day the secret service arrived. It was a traumatic experience. It happened in June 1957, just a year after the suppression of the revolt in Hungary by the Warsaw Pact.

There was a knock at the door. Four men in coats and gangster hats poured into the apartment. I was struck by the arrogance with which they acted. My father was not in.

I remember feeling offended by the way they carried on. At the tender age of five, I felt I had to do something. But what? I had to put up resistance, at the very least. I resolved to go up to the nearest person and start kicking him. But I thought I should ask first.

“Hey mom, I’m going to go up to one of these men and start kicking him in the legs.”

“No don’t do that,” she advised. I did not carry out the plan.

The men turned the place upside down. All they found was a pistol that fired blanks, used in sports. They took it with them.

Dad was finally released in May 1960, under a general amnesty. Eight years later, mother, my brother, my two younger sisters and I migrated to Canada. Another sixteen years later, when I visited him from Canada, he told me he was alerted by a friend in the Secret Service that the men would be arriving.

He cleared the apartment of all evidence. Except he forgot to search behind the dresser. The men found a letter there. He was convicted on the basis of a letter and given a nine-year jail term for working “against the state.”

Dad also told me that there was an entire team of secret service personnel in the adjoining apartment equipped with eavesdropping equipment. The caretaker informed him about it. Whenever my parents had to talk about anything “sensitive,” they would do it in the bathroom, after opening a tap of water. Apparently, the interference made by the noise caused by the running water made it impossible to understand was being said in the apartment at that time.

Mother, on her part, was followed by secret service 24/7. She was suspected of having helped in the writing of the letters. She was interrogated several times, with bright lights pointed at her face.

“They didn’t get any information out of me,” she said.

Classmates

I remember eating lunch at school with a few friends, in grade one. We were all talking about what our dads did. When my turn came, I said what I had been told at home.

“My dad’s travelling.”

“Like hell he is travelling,” said my friend sitting on my right.

“He is sitting in a prison,” he added.

I was dismayed and embarrassed. What? My dad is in prison? Is he a criminal then? How did my friend know where my dad was and I did not? What was going on?

At home, I demanded answers from my mother. She tried to placate me. My friend did not know what he was talking about, she said. I finally accepted her explanations. Dad was traveling, after all.

“But why is dad taking so long to travel”? I asked.

“That’s because he’s traveling very far,” she said.

“How far?” I inquired.

“He must be in China by now,” she said.

Of course, what my friend said was true. I did not know much about politics at the time. Not long after this, I was transferred to another school, which Charlie, my brother, already attended.

Now this was a “working class” institution, in a supposedly “classless society.” The school was on a run-down street, in an old building, unlike the school I attended earlier, where the kids of party members were sent. But hey, this place was more fun.

The two schools reminded me of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Tom would definitely have attended the first school. Huck Finn would definitely feel better in the latter place. I guess there was more of a Huck Finn in me than Tom Sawyer, as I really enjoyed the second school better.

Tales from the penitentiary

Dad told me a few stories from his detention. There was a difference between political prisoners and ordinary criminals. The latter were not allowed to mix with the former Just after he entered the camp, he wanted to join the political prisoners. He went up to them and try to get close.

“You are a political prisoner,” a big man who appeared to be a leader of the others asked him.

“Yes, I am,” Dad answered.

“How many years is your prison term?” the big man asked.

“Nine years,” was the answer.

“Nine years?” the big chap laughed out loud.

“You must be joking. See this man here?” he pointed to the person on his left.

“He got twenty-years. And this fellow here?” he pointed to the man on his right.

“He has twenty-five years.” he said.

“See the others? There is no one here with less that a twenty-year sentence. And you say that you are a ‘political prisoner’ with a mere nine-year sentence. I don’t believe you. Go away from here and join those people over there, the murderers, cutthroats and thieves, you belong with them.” He waved Dad away.

Dad also told me how men confessed under interrogation to crimes they did not commit. The method of interrogation used was the “good cop bad cop” routine. A person would come into the cell, the bad cop, and he would abuse the prisoner, sometimes even torturing him. After a while, he would leave and another, the good cop would come in. He would say things like:

“I’m so sorry about what that other guy did to you. I also don’t like him.”

Then the “good cop” would try to make friends with the prisoner by being extra kind to him. Then the “good cop” would leave and after a while the “bad cop” would return, and the whole process would begin anew. This would continue until the prisoner broke down and signed the confession the people holding him wanted him to sign.

This process is well illustrated in a 1970 film by Costa Gavras, with Ives Montand and Simone Signoret. The French title is L’Aveau, meaning Confession. The story is about the deputy foreign minister of Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, during the Slansky trial, the foreign minister of Czechoslovakia that who was accused of being a spy. The story is very realistic and instructive. I recommend it.

Among other noteworthy Costa-Gavras films are “Z,” about the assassination of a Greek politician, “The State of Siege,” about a military coup in Latin America, and “Missing,” with the American actor … The story of “Z” in particular was reminiscent of the assassination in America of JFK.

A police officer even bragged to Dad that he could break down any prisoner. He compared the treatment of the prisoner to that of a horse. He could break down any horse, or prisoner. He explained how:

“You hit the horse on the most sensitive part of his body – his nose – as hard as you can with a two-by-four. Then you start showing kindness to him by stroking him gently. Then you hit him again. You repeat this process until he breaks down.”

“The only way to guard against the “good cop bad cop routine,” Dad said, is by repeating to yourself all the while:

“These people are not my friends, they are my enemies.”

It is especially important to say this when the “good cop” arrives. Prisoners used to be tortured. They would be burned with cigarettes or would have weights suspended on their genitals.

Trial

Dad and some of his friends were charged with “undermining” the state. They were faulted for reporting about Khrushchev’s secret talk where he detailed the acts of Stalin and Beria. Dad and friends were also demanding the release of political prisoners that were victims of illegal trials.

Dad told me he had an argument with the judge during his trial. Dad was saying something critical about Stalin and the judge interrupted him.

“Mr. Terebessy,” the judge said, “we all know that Stalin made a few errors of judgement.”

“Your honor,” Dad replied, “What Joseph Stalin committed were no simply errors of judgments. They were heavy crimes against humanity.” The courtroom became silent to the point you could hear a pin drop.

Tales from the war

Dad also told me a few tales from the war. My uncle John escaped to America before the war started. He settled in New York. Dad apparently wanted to follow later. It seems, however, that he took the wrong route. He went through Poland. I few days after entering Poland, the country was attacked by the Wehrmacht.

He was caught along with a few others. They were held in a compound and it looked that they were about to be lined up against the wall and shot. Just then a high-ranking Nazi officer arrived in a motorcade. The soldiers guarding the prisoners apparently had to line up and greet the arrival. For a few moments, the prisoners were left unguarded.

“Let’s get out of here, now!” Dad said to the others. They stared at each other and agreed. They all escaped.

Another story he told me was about how he helped several Jews to get back to Slovakia from Poland. He was at the border with four Jews. They asked him to help them to get back to Slovakia. A German border guard was sitting at a makeshift desk.

“You people want to go to Slovakia?” he said.

“Yes, sir,” Dad replied.

“But these people appear to be Jews,” said the guard, pointing at the four men. “And we have instructions to detain every Jew,” he added. The four were shaking from fear.

“No, no, they are not Jews, sir, they just appear to be Jews,” Dad said.

“I am sorry, but they really appear to be Jews,” the guard insisted. “I have to arrest them.”

Suddenly Dad said to the four men:

“Alright gentlemen, drop your pants and show this soldier that you are not Jews.”

The four men were stunned. He could not mean that. He didn’t. But the guard was even more stunned.

“No, no need to drop your pants, I don’t want to see. Just go. Get out of here,” he said. So, the five of them were free to go. Dad’s bluff worked.

But that was not the end of their tribulations. Along the way back to Slovakia, they were emaciated from starvation. Once they got trapped in crossfire and had to take refuge in a frigid stream to evade the bullets flying overhead.

Avion

In Bratislava, we used to live in a building called Avion. There, we used to play downstairs in two courtyards. Tag and road hockey were the popular. My brother and I would become associated with a range of mishaps, for example a broken staircase window or being disrespectful to the superintendent.

The caretakers were Hungarian, burly men. They would take care of heating during winter and put coal in the furnace, heating the water that kept the building warm. Each apartment had radiators.

But the caretakers would maintain discipline among the children and restrain them from time to time if they were becoming too troublesome. I was slapped, after being rude. It was a hard slap and I almost fell over.

A favorite pastime was going on to the roof, which we were forbidden to do. However, I found a way to get there, by a dangerous crawl through a window, three feet from the roof. I would swing to the roof, holding on firmly. Below was a distance of seven floors.

Beatles

I remember when the Beatles penetrated the iron curtain. A few of my friends got a hold of a few Beatles records and used to play them to us. After a time of listening to, I remember going back home and feeling incredibly charged up by the music. The words and sounds kept echoing in my mind: “It’s been a hard day’s night …” I did not understand the words but it was really quite sweeping. That was in 1964, and I was twelve years of age.

I even managed to borrow a vinyl record for a day from a friend. I played it to my Dad at home on our old gramophone. Dad liked it. He listened especially carefully to the song, “When I’m sixty-four.” He was not yet that age, but he knew English and thus understood the words.

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four,” went the words. The song was released in 1967, a year before we emigrated to Canada. Little did I realize that by the time he would be sixty-four, we would already have been in Canada for six years. Nevertheless, we kept in touch and he send us practically the entire collection of book by mail, parcel by parcel. He would also write postcards regularly and we would reply in a comparable manner. It seemed that the books helped to maintain the link between us.

Danube

Danube flows past Bratislava. Swimming in the summertime was a favorite past time. We even camped on the river bank, a few times. Mother was adventurous.

I swam across the river on a few occasions, always from the Bratislava bank. I remember I once misjudged the distance of transport barges. There were three cargo barges, pulled by an engine ship. I suddenly realized that I might end up between the vessels, as they were arranged side by side. I could turn back or speed up. I decided to do the latter. I had to swim hard.

Thank God, I made it safely past the vessels, but just barely. After that I was a bit more cautious about my swims in the Danube. But I did not stop being reckless.

Another time I swam from the Petrzalka bank towards the nearest pillar of the bridge. Apparently, the bridge was built by the Red Army during the war to replace the bridge blown up by the retreating Nazi troops. The bridge had three or four pillars. On top was a road and street car tracks, plus a pedestrian walkway.

I saw a few people who would go up to the first pillar, grab it and hang on there for a few moments. I wanted to try that too. It worked. The current was very fast, however, and I had to balance myself exactly in the middle, or else the water would sweep me to the side.

After I while I let go. I was told that if I were to be pulled below the surface by one of them, I should not resist, because after a few moments the water would bring me back to the surface. However, I did not experience being pulled under.

A few brave or reckless persons went for the middle pillar, too. I did not want to be left behind. There was a wooden ladder against the pillar from the top of the pillar. To the bottom rung of the ladder was attached what appeared to be a cable. I wanted to reach the pillar and then go up the cable, then the ladder, and then walk on the bridge to return to the riverbank.

Things turned out a little differently, though. After reaching the pillar, I the water swept me away. As I tried to grab the pillar, I grazed my fingers on the rough surface of the pillar. I cut the tips of fingertips and began to bleed.

I managed to hold on to the pillar. Then I noticed a police boat approaching. I thought they wanted to detain me, although they probably wanted to assist, thinking rightly that I was in trouble.

I managed to reach the rope that hung form the ladder. To my horror, I realized that the rope had steel hairs peeling form the cable. So, this was the cable I was going to use to go up to the ladder. I resolved to proceed. As I pulled myself up the cable, a barb would cut my hand, here and there. I grabbed a different part of the cable.

A few of the barbs scarred my chest, too. I finally reached the bottom of the ladder. Here the ascent was easier. I reached the top of the bridge, bleeding. I ran to the bank and cleaned myself up as best I could. It was not a good day.

Another time I went to the Kayak Club on the river with a couple of friends. The Club was run by a group of young guys, our seniors. The Club was in a large cargo barge, exactly the type I had to evade during that swim I related earlier.

The Club occupied a space on the barge equivalent to a workshop. Indeed, the fellows there built their own kayaks there out of fiberglass. They also built other types of little boats. I was impressed. There was a little factory inside the Club, you might say, but also an area for relaxation.  They lent us a kayak each and we went out kayaking.

I found out that kayaking was hardly a walk in the park. You had to be tough, or you would not last on the river. After less than an hour of paddling, I started to feel pain in my muscles, and was ready to pack it in. I thought of the well-known tune by the CCR, Proud Mary.

“People on the river are happy to give …” said the words in the tune. It was about a community of people existing by the river. The tune was popular.

There is a feeling about the river. It had a life that differed from settled lifestyles. I also thought of the story The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnby Mark Twain.

“What would it be like,” I thought to myself,” sailing down the Danube all the way down to the Black Sea?” Now that would be an adventure.

Drama Club

Once I impersonated – did a pantomime – of a fisherman at home. Mother suggested I join the Drama Club at the House of Pioneers. The House of Pioneers, housed in a beautiful building in Bratislava, the former residence of the bishop, featured a few clubs. Initially I resisted, but after joining, I enjoyed it. The best part was a journey around eastern Slovakia upon a rickety bus.

The tour took place over about two weeks. We visited a few towns. We stayed in tents in parks, or gyms at schools. It was fun. We had a play that we performed for kids.

The play was about a town with animals. I was a goat. There were cats, rabbits and chickens. A “wealthy” cat just moved into the “village.” She held a party for all residents of the village, except two kittens who lived at the edge of town. They were not invited, because they were poor.

A few days after the part, the wealthy cat’s house burned down. She went searching for shelter, but all villagers turned her down, making various excuses. Finally, the cat reached the edge of the village where the two kittens stayed. She knocked and asked if she could stay with the kittens. The kittens welcomed her, despite the fact that she snubbed them earlier.

Particularly enjoyable were trips about a hundred kilometers from Bratislava in the countryside. We lived in tents and took our meals in a shared dining room. There was a table tennis table and we would also play ping pong.

We sometimes visited even in the winter time, although at such time we stayed indoors, in the main building. We had to heat the place. The mornings were particularly cold. I remember when a senior member, Maros, read to us from a notebook of wise sayings that he had. Maros was a piano player. He played exceptionally well. I remember one such wise saying. It said, “Criticism from a genius is better than praise from a fool.”

It was during one of these summer camps in August 1968, that I found out about the occupation of Czechoslovakia. On 21 August 1968, early in the morning, a friend woke me up before the usual time. I did not understand what he said, and he left before I had a chance to ask.

“What could possibly make this person wake up everybody ahead of the scheduled time?”

I remember thinking. Something really unusual must have happened. I finally got out of bed and went upstairs into the dining hall. I saw a whole bunch of my friends sitting around a small transistor radio on a table, broadcasting something.

“What’s happening” I said to the nearest person.

“We have been invaded,” he replied.

A few days afterwards, on the way back to Bratislava, half of the highway was used by military vehicles. All remaining traffic, both ways, had to share the free half of the road. It took a long time to get back to the city. My life would never be the same again.

Things were different after dad returned from prison in May 1960. Mother blamed father for “leaving her alone with five kids.” He should not have involved himself in politics and thereby jeopardize the well-being of his family. She claimed she was interrogated by the secret service. Bright lights were pointe in her face during the interrogation. She was also followed around. She lost her job as a teacher – at least temporarily – and worked in a kindergarten.

Dad was not exactly repentant. He told me once that he tried to act in a way that if there indeed was a hereafter, that he could look into the eyes of all the people he respected.

They had a few “arguments,” but not too serious. He never touched her. During one of these confrontations, I felt as if I was in a dark place up against a wall. Thankfully, this feeling went away. The family was fractured. Perhaps this is why I have become conservative in my perception of the family.

Summer camp, 1968

August 20, 1968: Czechoslovakia is invaded by the troops of the Warsaw Pact and the Prague Spring is crushed. I was in a summer camp at the time, organized by our Drama Club, from the Young Pioneers. These summer camps, of which I attended three or four, were great fun. For all the faults of the communist system, they did organize interesting activities for the young people.

The camp was near Bratislava, about two hours’ drive by bus from the city. The camp was made up of three or four square kilometres of land, in a pleasant part of the country. There was a small hill in the centre of the camp and perched on top of it was our community hall. It is where we had meeting – which were not too frequent – and, contrary to what people might think, there was hardly any indoctrination going on. There may have been one or two meetings – and not too long ones at that – where anything of a political nature may have been touched on. If it was touched on, it was done so very gently.

We would hear about the need to develop discipline, to be kind, and to be motivated. I do not recall the communist party having been mentioned even a single time. That may have been one of the reasons why the invasion of Czechoslovakia, while still nominally a communist state, was invaded during the Prague Spring, by 600, 000 troops of the Warsaw Pact, no doubt on the orders of Brezhnev and the politburo, and likely in response to a secret request by the adversaries of Alexander Dubcek and his liberalization drive.

We used to get at 6:00 am in the morning, and a thirty-minute workout on the field followed. We stretched our limbs, did push-ups, and jogged. After that it was to the shower rooms in the community building up on the hill. Then it was off to a breakfast. Hot chocolate and coffee were served, along with pastry brought fresh from a nearby bakery. We ate well, and the food was prepared by motherly ladies that knew how to prepare home-made food even for a large crowd of adventure seekers such as the members of the Drama Club.

In fact, meals were served five times a day. At ten o’clock, there was a break for a snack, which many of us skipped simply because we were still too full from breakfast. Then came dinner – as we called it – at 12:30, which was a full meal. Meat with potatoes and vegetables was served. There was also chicken, rice, and risotto were served. There was even English style roast beef from time to time. We weren’t starving.

In the evening, we would at times sit around a campfire and sing songs. There was a player with a guitar to help out. There was a feeling of togetherness. There was a sense of belonging.

The camp was subsidized by the state. Parents did pay a small sum to send us there, but this amount represented in all likelihood a mere fraction of the entire cost of the excursion.

Departure

One day in 1968 my mother announced:

“We are leaving for the West.” That was a shock. However, I soon got used to it, and even began to look forward to going “west.” I remember going into the city a few days before departure, and thinking to myself:

“Is this really the last time I am seeing all this?”

It was, at least for a while. I did not return to Czechoslovakia again until 1983, to see my Dad. I felt homesick.

My father took care of passports and other details. We took the train to Vienna. On the way to the railway station I remember thinking in the streetcar whether we were doing the right thing. I convinced myself that the answer was yes. After all, if I stayed home, I would not be allowed to attend university, given my father’s background. It was worth to emigrate, just to get an education.

The immigration officer on the train suspected something was amiss, seeing our large suitcases.

“Are you planning to leave permanently?” he asked. My sister saved the day by saying,

“How could we leave without the pet dog alone?”

Vienna

We arrived in Vienna and went to a refugee place. Food as supplied by the Red Cross. We were housed in a red brick factory building. There were five or six floors, and each floor had many beds. There was hardly any privacy.

One of the guests had a bottle of Coca Cola. I looked at it and he asked me if I wanted some. I nodded, and he poured me half a glass. It tasted different. That was my first taste of the West.

Vienna was beautiful, but we did not do much sightseeing. So, this was the bourgeois capital of Austria. We went to the Australian embassy first. After waiting for a long time in the ante room, a Roma family entered. It was very big family. After a while mother signaled to me and my two sisters to follow her. She went out the door. After the door shut, she looked at us and said:

“I don’t want to go where those people are going,” meaning Australia. We went to the Canadian embassy.

The Canadians were friendly and helpful. They arranged tickets for us and the departure was in about ten days. Mother scored many points on account of her PhD and ability to speak English. We were off to Canada.

Author: Abdul Karim Abdullah

Writer and editor

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