Letter from Prague 1989 from abroad

22-11-2009 02:01 | Jan Velinger

The events of 1989 commemorated 20 years on this week brought back many emotional memories. I was 19 when it happened, still living at home, only not in Czechoslovakia, but in Canada. Like thousands of others of Czech descent, born in new countries, I watched the Velvet Revolution unfold on the TV screen, night after night, until, somehow, miraculously at the end of it, the Communist system crumbled and collapsed.

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NBC, CBS, ABC, and of course the CBC – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - all were essential viewing. We watched the highly-respected correspondent Joe Schlesinger, a son of Czechoslovakia who had been saved from the Nazis by Nicholas Winton. His characteristic accent and his summary of what was happening in my parents’ homeland, have stayed with me to do this day. Back in 2005, I even had the chance to interview the former CBC news head, to ask him about those incredible days –a real privilege. It was Schlesinger, along with colleagues, who reported on the revolution in countless Canadian living rooms. We watched riveted as crowds of hundreds of thousands gathered on Wenceslas Square. We watched as strikes broke out throughout the country. And we couldn’t believe it when Alexander Dubček and of course Václav Havel took to the podium. All the time we kept our fingers crossed.

November 1989 in PragueNovember 1989 in Prague Who could have believed it would ever happen?

Back in the early ‘70s,my parents certainly didn’t, writing to their families month after month, even as back home Normalisation set in. Several years after they left, one of my grandmothers was finally allowed to visit. Alone. By then I was four years old, and truth be told, unaccustomed to members of the older generation. Already somewhat bilingual, it was easy for me to confuse the words bába or babička with ježibába (one means grandma, the other, witch). So, my first encounter with granny did not get off the best of starts! But she’s still here today: 98 years-old. This week she too, even in her phenomenal old age, marked 20 years of freedom.

When I was small, my other granny, from my mother’s side, also visited Canada around the time I was a pre-schooler. She also had to come alone. I have vague memories of long walks with her, just a little boy grabbing at her hand. Once, she stepped onto someone’s front lawn and to my astonishment began to gather bright red apples off the grass, even as the home’s owner peered suspiciously out the front door. “Granny, you can’t do that,” I berated her, “They belong to somebody!”. “Then why are they leaving them to rot on the grass?”.

Two memories, just two. There were others of course, many more, but not enough. Usually, they were letters. Postcards. Then there was the scratchy line of the odd phone call at Christmas. I grew older and even though one of my grannies later came to Canada fairly often, there was always the knowledge that time was limited. Departures could be put off, but only for so long. And they were of course always painful.

When I was small, Czechoslovakia was a strange and far-off place full of dark medieval buildings and deep shadows – photos I saw in a Sudek book. It was a town, or a garden or even simply a chicken coop my country granny kept, which I had only ever seen in pictures.

When I entered my teens, I read Kafka for the first time and remember my father giving me some articles about Joe Papp and support for Václav Havel in 1986. I read, but at that time, can’t remember if I really understood. I was 16 and had lots of other things to worry about.

In 1989, then everything unexpectedly came to a head. Communist government after Communist government in the Eastern bloc collapsed, and by now we waited anxiously for Czechoslovakia to follow suit. Eventually, it did.

If it hadn’t been for those days, my life, like that of so many others, would have been completely different. For me: no discovery of the people and culture here - the good as well as the bad. No experience of the transition to a full-fledged democracy.

My two grannies, too, at least lived to see the fall of totalitarianism, and to see their grandson, as an adult, come back. To visit… and eventually to live. I cannot describe how rewarding that was for me – and I think also for them – it is something I will always be thankful to have experienced. On the anniversary of the fall of Communism I found myself again thinking of both (one still living, the other now departed): how they lived apart from their own children and grandchildren – and what that must have been like - thanks to one party and one-party rule. Thanks to the Communists.

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