Note: Aug. 20 & 21 mark the 52nd anniversary of the invasion of former Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Army. The historic event prompted entire generations to defect the country in search of freedom. The “Greenwich Meridian Memoir” is our family immigration saga from former Czechoslovakia to the USA spanning two generations. Following is a chapter- Mom’s Diary from the memoir.
Excerpt from the “Greenwich Meridian Memoir”- Mom’s Diary: in her own words
By Ella Konecny
I’ve never dreamt of travelling for the simple reason. I didn’t have money. My life was tailored around everyday mundane problems, that I will write about later.
I was a pharmacist, and it wasn’t that the profession was narrow and had nothing to offer, but I didn’t want to nurture vain ideas of travelling. So, Sunday afternoon trips to the dam in Luhacovice or Bystricka were the only means of breaking up the gray of ordinary days. The first bigger trip was our honeymoon to the Krkonose mountains with the old Tatra and mother’s comments:
“I hope the poor car will make it.”
When we arrived in Harachov, we sent a message to my parents: “We’ve arrived under Mount Blanc.” At that moment, it never occurred to me that one day I would indeed be looking at the majestic highest mountain in the Alps.
I did an inventory of my life. After five years of marriage, we had two children: Emma and Vasek. I was working part-time in a pharmacy in my hometown Vizovice and my husband Vaclav was teaching physics in Brno. He would come for the weekend to Vizovice, because I couldn’t find a job in Brno and we had no place to stay there. We were on the waiting list for an apartment, that we got in 1965. We didn’t have a car or money to furnish the apartment. My husband found out that the president of the university in Khartoum, Sudan was hiring English-speaking professors to teach different subjects. Vaclav’s English was excellent and he got the job. However, I did not know about this.
At the beginning of November, Vaclav announced his decision that he will be leaving for Sudan on Nov. 20, 1964. I gave him my blessings and never thought for a moment that I would go with him. I continued to work in the pharmacy and my boss who loved to travel kept asking me when was I going to fly to Africa.
In the spring of 1965, when I finally applied for a passport and got my vaccinations, Vaclav wrote me a letter that he was coming home, because it was the end of the school year. The university paid once a year for round trip air tickets for the entire family, regardless that he had just started teaching in November. The school year in Sudan ran from the beginning of July to the end of March; it was followed by a summer break lasting three months.
Those three months were also the worse months in Africa weather-wise, filled with sandstorms “Habub,” rain and heat. Khartoum lies on the 15th parallel close to the equator; it is the second warmest place in the world. It’s a dry tropical country with very little rain. One road stretched 50 miles north of Khartoum and 50 miles south and dead ended in the Nubian Desert.
Three rivers ran through the city: Nile, Blue Nile and White Nile. We arrived in this city in July of 1965. When we got out of the plane at the airport in Khartoum, a hot wave like coming from an oven, hit me and I couldn’t catch my breath.
We rented an apartment from the university close to Blue Nile. The apartment was spacious with two built-in balconies that were not screened, so the kids played there together with lizards and salamanders. The apartment had running water, a refrigerator and basic furniture: beds, table, chairs and two armchairs in light green color. There was no TV or air conditioning. The stores were open in the morning and evening and closed in the afternoon due to heat. Khartoum was a dead town in the afternoon.
The main boulevard was lined with stores full of merchandise unlike in Czechoslovakia where we always had to stand in line for meat, vegetables and also for toilet paper. However, compared to the USA 40 years later, it doesn’t seem as much.
The round bread baked by Greek Papa Costa was excellent. In five years, we never went to a restaurant or swimming in a community pool. The Czech community was divided into three parts: the Czech embassy and its employees, professors from the university and the commerce department, whose employees oversaw the set up in factories.
We got together once a month at the embassy, where we watched Czech films, mainly socialist propaganda such as “Anna Proletarian” or “The Red Glow over Kladno” and Janosik. Kladno was home to the iron and smelting works–a major industry in Western Bohemia. Janosik is a folk legend about an outlaw who stole money and goods from the rich to help the poor.
We also celebrated at the embassy events like the International Women’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Saint Nicholas for kids. I think these gatherings were to control the Czech people working in Khartoum. We had our own friends and got together with them at our apartment such as the Fickers from Slovakia, Jarmila & Mirek Hladci and my friend from the university, Marie Hecklova. These were simple gatherings with refreshments such as peanuts, fruits and coca cola. During the afternoon siesta, I read Czech books from the embassy. After the siesta, we went to our neighbors who had a garden. It was 116.6 F in the shade, where we knitted sweaters with Mrs. Ficker.
We had an artificial Christmas tree that caught on fire on the fifth year of our stay in Khartoum. Only the catholic church was decorated for Christmas in this mainly Muslim country, due to a large Italian population.
The kids did not go to school; I homeschooled them Czech subjects, since I never thought about emigration, I thought they would not need to speak English.
My vision was simple; we were going to save enough money in Sudan to furnish the apartment in Brno. Then, to save enough money to buy a car so we could visit my parents in Vizovice to avoid the overcrowded buses. I never got a pharmacist job in Brno, so I don’t know what was I thinking I was going to do or where was I going to work upon arrival.
After Christmas, all the couples started planning their summer vacation because there were only three months left until the end of the school year. We usually flew to Rome, where we rented a car and continued through Europe. But sometimes we flew into Athens, Vienna or Zurich in Switzerland. I have attached an exact timetable of our travels. We visited Western Europe several times; some countries like Italy, Switzerland and Austria three times or more. Austria was the only country where I would have emigrated, but my husband Vaclav didn’t speak German. We travelled for quite some time, and we thought it would last longer than it did.
We lived a carefree life and we didn’t care about the politics in our homeland. When we crossed the border at Rozvadov with an Italian license plate, the custom officials asked us if we spoke Czech. When I answered that we were Czechs they responded happily that it was Prague Spring, 1968, that freed the press and that we won’t have to leave for Sudan anymore, because everything was going to be better. We were yet to find out the real situation in the country.
We saved some money over the three years in Sudan, so we decided to save more to buy a house in Brno. Currently, we were living in the apartment in Brno and in Vizovice with my parents. We explored the beauty of Moravian Walachia: Karolinka, Radhost, Bystricka and Luhacovice. It was the last peaceful summer in my life–the proverbial calm before the storm.
In July, Vaclav left for Sudan and I left for a spa treatment in Carlsbad for three weeks on August 8, 1968 due to my constant digestive health problems as a consequence to my childhood hepatitis A and a duodenum ulcer. I paid for my stay, because I’ve been unemployed since July of 1965 for the first time due to my travels to Sudan. I was staying at a home whose owner’s mother was German. It was a nice apartment with a view on the Main Boulevard. I had a colleague in Carlsbad–Mila Duskova, who was from Slusovice. Together, we went to the fancy bakeries, coffee shops and cinemas in Carlsbad. The daily regimen consisted of drinking water from the thermal springs in the morning, spa procedures and entertainment in the evening. Time flew by and I was looking forward to being back with the kids. I visited my childhood friend Zdena who married and lived in Nejdek.
I was supposed to fly back to Brno on August 21, 1968. I woke up at 6 a.m. and I could hear the landlord’s voice gasping:
“What? The Russians are here? That’s impossible!”
I ran out of the room and met her in the hallway, where she confirmed what I had overheard in my room, that the Russians came in tanks and occupied the western border with Germany and Austria. I remembered that last night as I was standing by the window that the road to Carlsbad above was all lit up and very busy. The city of Carlsbad nestles below the road in the valley of River Tepla. It never occurred to me that the noise came from the tanks. I went to the colonnade to the thermal spring to get my morning water. However, no one was drinking water; people were listening to small radios and everyone was crying. It was a complete chaos, all the public transportation stopped. I was still thinking that I would be able to fly back to Brno. I went to the airline office, where the clerk told me that no airplanes were flying out and she gave me back my money. I went back to the apartment and sat down next to my packed suitcase and started crying, not knowing what to do. I also ran out of money, so I called my friend Zdena, if she could lend me money, since I didn’t expect to stay in Carlsbad for more than three weeks.
In the afternoon I stood by the window watching the sun lit main boulevard. All of a sudden, I saw a huge stream of people yelling. Hundreds of people demonstrated against the Russian invasion. Anger and wrath with all the other emotions overflowed against the hated occupant. As the number of people increased, so did their courage. People started to topple statues that were connected to communism and the Soviet Union. It wasn’t just the communist leaders but also the works and the art of communism that were being toppled. Most often it was the Soviet Union national symbol of the sickle and the hammer. I stood by the window crying, but because I am a chicken by nature, I did not join the demonstrations. Somehow, I knew these were going to negatively influence my life.
My husband Vaclav already had a difficult position at the university because we were Catholics and we went to church on a regular basis. According to the official communist party philosophy of Marxism, going to church was not allowed; let alone if someone was a teacher like Vaclav. It did not matter that he taught math, that had nothing to do with Marxism.
The next morning, I went to the colonnade again, the situation was the same; people were crying while listening to the small radios and there was no public transportation. We felt isolated from the rest of the country, and from the rest of the world. The Soviet tanks were moving across the entire country, the public transportation was either difficult or completely halted. The third day on the colonnade, someone told me the bus transportation may resume on that day. I immediately returned to the apartment to say goodbye to the landlord, I took my suitcase and went back to the colonnade, where the buses arrived. Even though there was no bus line going to Brno, I took one to Ceske Budejovice. From Ceske Budejovice to Moravian Budejovice and to Brno. From the bus, I could see the convoy of tanks and trucks along the road.
I arrived at our apartment in Brno approximately at 2 p.m. I finally felt safe and opened the windows to let the fresh air in. I heard the tolling of the bells from all the churches like at a funeral, that was to symbolize the burying of the little freedom we’ve had since spring, not quite half a year.
The next day, I took a bus to Vizovice to see my parents and the kids in Moravian Wallachia. My mother told me that two Czech women with husbands in Sudan, called me that they were leaving the country to Austria and flying to Khartoum and that I should join them. For the first time in 20 years, the border was open for three brief days. They were afraid if we don’t grab this opportunity, the borders will close soon and we will never get out of the occupied country.
My mother was afraid too and wanted me to call these Czech women. At that moment I felt very patriotic for the first time in my life. I said that if 15 million people can live in Czechoslovakia, so could I, regardless the politics. Our men were afraid that the Soviet Union would annex our country as their 17th republic. Many young people fled the country even from Vizovice, whom I later met in Austria and the U.S.
September 1968 came and there was still no air transportation. I called the Czechoslovak Airlines to let me know when the flights will resume. That happened in three weeks and I flew to Sudan on Sept. 28 to join Vaclav. I was one of the last spouses to leave the country; the last one after me was Mrs. Janousek. We did not want to leave our homeland.
After a happy reunion with my husband and the exhaustion from the trip, the hard reality hit home. Wherever we ran into other Czechs, the same question always arose:
“Where are you going to emigrate?”
“Nowhere,” I answered.
But, discussions at home had already started; my husband did not want to return back to Czechoslovakia and I did not want to go anywhere else, but home. Tears and heated discussions followed about what’s better for the family; no one asked what’s better for me.
In this situation, we planned another trip across Europe. This time we flew into Southern Italy and onto France, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was a long trip that lasted six weeks. My sister Anna with her husband brought us our car, and they stayed with us for a week in Austria. From there, we continued to French Riviera, Lourdes, Grenoble, Paris and to LaHavre. From LaHavre we crossed the English (LaManche) Channel to England.
We visited London, Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester and crossed the channel from Dover to Zeebrugge in Belgium and continued onto the Netherlands, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
As much as I was looking forward to coming home, it wasn’t an easy homecoming. Even though we haven’t seen any Russian tanks or troops, because they were hiding in the woods and they were closer to big cities, we could feel the tension in the air and among the people. No one knew what was going to happen next. General Ludvik Svoboda replaced Prague Spring reform leader Alexander Dubcek, and it looked like the reform movement never existed with the freedom of press gone too. Our entire family and friends were surprised that we returned from Sudan back to Czechoslovakia under the given the circumstances.
Why not? We had important business to conduct in Brno. The year before we decided we were going to buy a house in Brno. Now, that wasn’t easy business in Czechoslovakia to buy or sell a house; no one was selling because people built their houses in great hardship. Unlike in the U.S., people did not move around the country because they did not need to; everyone had a job with the same salary no matter where you went. However, people exchanged apartments for houses or apartments between different cities for example between Prague and Brno and paid the difference in price. We found a family, originally from Vizovice, who had a house in Cerna Pole in Brno, and they wanted a four-bedroom apartment with a garage. We had a three-bedroom apartment without a garage, so we wanted to pay for the additional bedroom and the garage. The owner of the house, who was a doctor at the regional department of health in Brno, kept looking for the right apartment, but couldn’t find what he wanted.
My husband and I decided that I would not go to Sudan that year, and stay home with the kids to save money for the house. I was still hoping that Vaclav would change his mind about immigration. Vaclav left for Sudan at the beginning of July, and I stayed with the kids at my parents’ house in Vizovice.
The first anniversary of the Soviet invasion in August of 1969 was approaching fast. The people panicked and were scared what was in store for us for the infamous anniversary. The most common fear was that the Russians would annex Czechoslovakia to the Soviet Union as the 17th republic. I lost my patriotism, and I got scared. I caved into the mass psychosis of fear; I packed my suitcases and kids and I left for the Austrian border in Mikulov, two days before the Aug. 21, 1969 invasion anniversary. I cried on the way there, saying goodbye to the country, because I knew I was not coming back. I did not have any problems at the border; I had a valid passport with visa to Sudan and air tickets. I let my husband know from Austria that I was coming to Sudan and that I would stay for one year.
My friends from Vizovice, who had left the country in 1968, were waiting for me at the Austrian border. I spent three days with them, left them the car and took off for Sudan. In Khartoum, I met with all our friends from the previous year; everyone was saving up more money needed for emigration. By that time, everyone knew where they were going to emigrate. It was my turn to say where I wanted to live. I wanted to live in Austria because it is the neighboring country to Czech Republic. However, that was not possible because we didn’t speak German which was necessary for my husband to continue to teach math. And the chances of getting a teaching job at an Austrian university were small, because it’s a small country with population of seven million people, smaller than Czech Republic.
What next? I was afraid that I would be considered an outlander- a foreigner wherever I went. So, the only country under consideration was America, where with the exception of the Indians, everyone is an immigrant. We decided for the USA. To this day, I still don’t know why my husband first applied for a teaching job in Australia. I would have never lived there because it is too far from Czech Republic. He also applied to Zambia in Africa to get out of Khartoum that was becoming increasingly dangerous with coups to gain power.
In the meantime, my husband got a letter from Mr. Rosenberg, who emigrated to Canada in 1968; Vaclav could go to Canada for a post doctorate fellowship in Saskatoon in the province of Saskatchewan, for six months. He immediately accepted. I knew the return to homeland was impossible. We received a letter from the Czech Embassy stating that we have to return to Czechoslovakia by March 31, 1970; the visa was extended to Dec. 31, 1970. Whoever did not return by that date, was considered staying outside the country illegally.
We had arranged for a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea but cancelled it and instead flew for a few days to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.
I wrote a letter to the homeowner in Brno, that we were no longer interested in the apartment-house exchange transaction. My parents transferred the ownership of the apartment in Brno to them, otherwise the apartment would have been confiscated by the state since we left the country illegally. My sister Anna transferred the ownership of the car Skoda to herself, but she had to pay some fees to the state. Later, we found out from my parents, that we had a trial without our presence in Brno, where we were indicted with illegal stay outside Czechoslovakia. My husband was convicted and sentenced to two years in jail and I was sentenced to 1.5 years. We could not return to Czechoslovakia or we would go to jail.
Vacation in the Middle East was nice–the Muslim world of minarets and mosques. We flew from Khartoum to Cairo in Egypt with our friends. In Cairo, we visited the vast Egyptian Museum with royal mummies and King Tutankhamun artifacts and other pharaohs. After that we continued onto the nearby Giza, the site of the iconic pyramids and Great Sphinx, dating back to the 26th century BC. It was fabulous. From Cairo we flew to Beirut in Lebanon. We saw large camps with Palestinians, who were expulsed from their own country, where a new Israel state was created in 1948.
It was 1970, three years after the Arab-Israel War. We wanted to visit Israel, but it wasn’t possible, because we were crossing Arabic countries and considered as enemies of Israel. We were only 10 kilometers from the Israeli border with the beautiful biblical country laying at our feet. So, we took a taxi and traveled to the mountains with cedars and snow. Beautiful villas built in Arabic style laid at the foothills of the mountains. There was snow in the mountains, while people were swimming in the sea. The next day, we took a taxi to Damascus, the capital of Syria known as the “City of Jasmine.” We visited the famous Umayyad Mosque built in the eight century A.D. with the tomb of John the Baptist; his head is said to be buried in a shrine there. As women, we had to be covered from head to toe in black garb. We also visited the famous bazaar, Al-Hamidiyah Souq, in the old walled city of Damascus next to the Citadel. The souq is 2,000 feet long and 49 feet wide and is covered by a 33 feet tall metal arch. The souq starts at Al-Thawra Street and ends at the Umayyad Mosque plaza, and the ancient Roman Temple of Jupiter stands 40 feet tall in its entrance. The souq offered everything from gold, food, clothing to souvenirs.
On our way back we stopped in Byblos, one of the longest inhabited cities in the world since 5000 BC in Lebanon. During an evening walk through Beirut, we met Czechs who told us that there was a revolution in Khartoum with tanks in the streets. Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956 and ever since there have been coups to overthrow the government; the altercations were led by small groups or sects. In essence it wasn’t a revolution, but a crisis in the government to gain or regain control and power. It had no effect on the university. The Soviet Union provided aid in the form of 200 technical advisors and the Libyan government sent their troops. Colonel Gaafar Muhamed Nimeiry seized power until 1986.
From Beirut we flew to Vienna. My husband was worried that in case of bad weather we would have to land in Bratislava and be back home, which he was avoiding. We invited both of our parents to Vienna to bid farewell to them. We were waiting for them at the border and I was happy to see them, even though I feared this because I did not know if I would ever see them again. Our farewell looked like a funeral, since we were all crying. The housemaid at the hotel asked us who died in the family. We sent off our parents with our car Skoda that was at our friends’ house in Vienna. Our friends were already in the U.S.A. It was a hard farewell, saying goodbye to Europe and to our families.
Copyright (c) 2020. Emma Palova. All rights reserved.