It is with certain trepidation that I approach the 50th anniversary of Soviet occupation of former Czechoslovakia on the night of Aug. 20 to Aug. 21, 1968.
The milestone seems unbelievable to me. It was such a pivotal moment that influenced the rest of my life. What followed the occupation changed two generations; a massive exodus fleeing from the occupied country to its Western neighbors.
There is an old cliché saying that time heals everything. Decades of other events in history may have put layers of dust over this one. But those whose lives have been touched by the invasion, will never forget.
I’ve only heard other people’s accounts of the invasion; recently a video posted on Facebook stirred my memory.
People reacted to the event in two basic ways: either they stayed in the country or they emigrated to the West. The majority stayed in the country.
My father professor Vaclav Konecny decided for the latter of the two. That is to leave the country rather than endure the regime. Fifty years later, both of my parents have certain regrets. My mother Ella more so than my father.
“I left behind my sick parents against my beliefs,” she said. “That haunted me until the day they died. All those years, I felt guilty.”
The invasion suppressed the Prague Spring liberalization movement led by Alexander Dubcek, and substituted it with hardline communism or dark era of totality.
Those who stayed paid the price. No one could leave the country without exit visa.
Those who left illegally could not return without persecution.
Freedom truly isn’t free. It never has been.
“I think our modern history shows us that freedom isn’t a gift, which the powerful fight for to giveaway; it can be obtained and defended only by those who work to obtain or defend it.” late president Vaclav Havel in his speech on Victory Day May 8, 1994.
A half-a-century of Czech expatriates living outside the old country well beyond the Velvet Revolution in 1989, has shown their adaptability and assimilation into other cultures.
Our own immigration story has been molded by the 1968 Soviet invasion. At the time, my parents left from Sudan, Africa for Canada, and eventually to Hawkins, Texas where dad taught math at Jarvis Christian College.
The story got more complex, when mom Ella decided to return to Czechoslovakia in 1973 followed by dad. The return was both a nightmare and a mistake, as my dad later recollected it many years later. He left Czechoslovakia again in 1976, and after a battle for emigration visa mom joined him in 1980.
It wasn’t until December of 1989 that I was able to leave the country for the USA for good. I became an American citizen in August of 1999 at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids.
Looking back at this chronology of now historical events, I have to ask myself if I would do it again, much like I have asked my parents.
“Yes. I would do it again. I have no regrets; my entire family is here and I consider this country to be my home.”
The other question that people either ask me or I ask myself, “What is it that I miss about the old country?”
I do miss my friends from school and the university. Whenever, I miss the food, I just cook it myself. My son Jake was naturalized earlier this year, and my husband Ludek will become an American citizen on Aug. 22, 2018 in Detroit.
However, life is not just a chronological sequence of events or it shouldn’t be.
“How would our lives be different if we stayed in the old country?”
Those questions remain hanging in the air unanswered. I don’t expect any answers to them anytime soon or ever.
When I published my book “Shifting Sands Short Stories” last summer, I realized I would not have been able to do that in Czech Republic. If for nothing else, I wouldn’t have been able to do it because of language barriers. There are no English language publishers. Either way, it would have to be translated.
We adhere to Czech traditions and customs, mainly during Christmas and Easter. Our adult children Emma & Jake are fully bilingual. Jake is teaching his kids Czech.
I laugh when I say, “I am 99 percent American and one percent Czech.”
That one percent means; Vaclav Havel remains my hero and we speak Czech at home.
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