Why I will never forget 21st August 1968

Every year on 21st August, all my Czech and Slovak friends remember this. This is a chapter from my book.

Soviet invasion

21 August 1968, the Soviet Bloc armies invaded Czechoslovakia. Thirty years later, I talked about it with my son Adam. He was 11 then.

“So, what did the Czech army do? Did many people die?”

“No, Adam, there was no fighting. The radio was asking everybody to keep calm. People were demonstrating, shouting in Russian at the soldiers on tanks to go home. There was a pop song we were all singing, telling the Soviet soldiers to go home, that our girls don’t love them.”

“Did you sing it? And demonstrate?”

“I remember approaching the tanks in our street. I wore a tiny miniskirt; I was 15. The soldiers flirted, but I just made a face and said, ‘Idite domoj.’”

“Go home.” Adam repeated the Russian. He was electrified; he got up from his chair and started pacing the room. “Were you scared, Mum?”

“No, the soldiers seemed confused. They were told the Czechoslovak people and government were asking for help against counterrevolutionaries. They expected to be welcomed. In Prague, they randomly shot bullets at highly decorated 19th-century buildings. Maybe they thought these were palaces? One was the National Museum on Wenceslas Square. You know you said once that grandma’s house looks like a little castle? They shot at it, too.”

I remembered that growing up, I didn’t used to like the house we lived in. It had 19th-century architecture with little gargoyles and gothic arches; I learnt to like it later. I suppose it is now aged enough to be beautiful.

I told Adam that we had been on holiday in the mountains at the time of the invasion. My grandmother Franzi was with us. I remember hearing about the invasion on the radio. I cried.

“When we came back to Prague three days later, the window in my room was broken by the shots. The glass-fronted small bookcase above my bed had bullet damage, the glass shattered all over my bed, and I retrieved a bullet embedded in my Czech copy of Alice in Wonderland. I still have that book.”

Adam was listening, open-mouthed. “You could have been shot, Mum!”

“Everything was changing – censorship and propaganda in schools were reintroduced and the Soviet army left some of the soldiers behind ‘temporarily’.

To us nothing was more permanent. ‘Temporary like the Russian army’ meant forever. The invasion was now described as ‘Brotherly help aimed to prevent an invasion by NATO.’ I was 15. After the Soviet invasion, I pestered my mother to emigrate. But she told me she was too old and that she couldn’t abandon her mother.”

“Why didn’t you all go?” asked Adam.

“We could, but Grandma was quite frail, and your Grandma Magda wouldn’t leave without her.”

“But you emigrated later, Mum, on your own, right?”

I didn’t tell Adam that my main reason for emigrating four years later was to not to be with my mother.

“Grandma Magda was only 40 when the invasion happened. I could have grown up in the West. France, USA, Canada, even Israel. Our relatives abroad would have helped us.”

I blamed my mother for it for years, for not being brave. But I did not understand the bond she had with her mother. They had already lost too many people.

I told Adam about the two students, Palach and Zajic, who burned themselves in a protest against the invasion. We all went to Palach’s funeral. It was one of the last demonstrations to be allowed. We walked slowly; most of us were crying. Mother tried to stop me going, as she was afraid I might get into trouble. But I got used to not obeying my mother.

Then Adam suddenly came closer, hugged me and said, “If you emigrated then, and not later, you would have never met Dad, and I would never exist.”

I kissed him and said, “I am glad you exist, my darling.”

“Oh, may I have a hug, too?” asked my husband Harry, walking to the room.

“I was just telling Adam about 1968 and the invasion.”

“Mum could have been shot, but instead, the Russians shot Alice in Wonderland, Daddy.”

I had never told Harry about it, so I had to start again. Adam kept interrupting, telling the story for me, but when he kept asking about 1968, Harry said, “Come on, Adam, it was 30 years ago.”

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