There is an old framed photograph in my parents' house, which I have known since childhood. In the foreground, you can see the back of the head of Edvard Benes, the second President of Czechoslovakia. And bowing forward to shake the president's hand is a distinguished-looking man with shiny matinee-idol hair and a neatly-folded kerchief in his pocket. That's Otakar Machotka, my grandfather.
Our family story, as my grandmother used to tell it, always seemed to me a bit like The Sound of Music, played in reverse. The Machotkas found their freedom by escaping into Germany. Otakar was our Captain von Trapp, the patriot whose political views force him to flee. One winter morning in Prague in 1948, Otakar put on his coat and hat, and left the house, and Czechoslovakia, forever. That night he trudged over the mountains from the Communist east into the American occupation zone of Germany. Weeks later, the rest of the family escaped too - my grandmother and the three Machotka children, including my mother Hana, the youngest, who was not yet four. In Germany, the family was reunited, and made their way to America, becoming, well, nobody special - just a family of five with strange accents and a funny last name.
Still, I always sensed that my grandfather, who died before I was born, had been an important person in the old country. Why was Otakar shaking President Benes' hand in one moment, and fleeing the country in the next?
"Machotka was one of the ideologues of the national socialist party, he wrote this election program for example. It was quite clear for me when the coup came that Machotka will be among the first who will be prosecuted."
Lubomir Kotacka was one of Otakar's sociology students at Charles University in the 1940s. He was also a junior member of the Czechoslovak National Socialists, a center-left party not to be confused with the German National Socialist, or Nazi party. Now 88 years old a professor emeritus, Mr. Kotacka showed me his course registry, with a stamp - "CANCELLED" - next to my grandfather's name.
"Machotka was one of the typical targets of Communist attacks. For example, he wrote an article about the scarcity of education among the working class. This statement of fact was used by the Communists as an objection to him, they said that he said that he thought that the workers shouldn't get a better education."
It wasn't always that way. Three years before, Otakar had worked with Communists - and others - to end the Nazi occupation of the country.
Spring, 1945. Otakar began meeting in secret with members of the various Czech political parties, including the Communists, to plan for the defense of Prague as the Nazi Reich collapsed. They called themselves the Czech National Council. On May 5, as a battle raged between Czechs and the Nazi SS outside the studios of Czech Radio, an announcer read the names of the members of the National Council, and said they were working to establish order.
"I sat opposite Bienert and was surprised to see he was grey in the face, and his large figure seemed to shake. We tried to calm him by offering him hundreds of cigarettes, since we knew he was a serious smoker. But after an hour, he still wasn't ready to cede control to the council."
Those are Otakar's words, and my translation. Since coming to the Czech Republic, my Czech has gotten just good enough to read my grandfather's account of his role in the Prague Uprising.
After another hour, the council got Bienert to sign a statement they had written, but in the days that followed, fierce battles still raged.
"We got to the top of Sazavska street in Vinohrady, where gunfire was much worse. The military captain of our vehicle gave the order for us to get out and each try separately to get to the Vinohrady Brewhouse. There was shooting everywhere. On the other side of the street, by the water tower, a frantic German hid behind store's roller-shutter and fired directly on our group through a small crack. Bullets exploded against the walls all around us. Somehow none of us was hit. I still remember with admiration how Professor Albert Prazak, despite his advanced age and large figure, bravely endured this dangerous situation."
Though the Nazis were doomed, the Czechs lacked the arms to force a surrender. On May 8, the national council negotiated with General Toussaint, the German commander, offering his army safe passage through Prague in return for their not destroying the city. Otakar writes that Toussaint was a handsome soldier, and surprisingly sentimental. The next day, with the Germans mostly gone, the Soviet Army arrived, and claimed they had freed the city. More than 1,600 Praguers had died in the uprising.
At a reception at Prague Castle the following month, President Benes gave an award to each member of the council. Recently I learned that that is what's happening in that old black and white photo.
Thanks to his role in the uprising, Otakar became a leader in President Benes' party. But the show of unity did not last long. For three years, Czechoslovakia teetered between democracy and dictatorship. Then in February 1948, the Iron Curtain fell over the country, when the Communists staged a coup. Josef Lesak, was just 25 years old, and the country's youngest member of parliament.
"The last time I saw your grandfather was on the 23rd of February 1948, at a meeting of our party. We ran into each other in the hallway. I said hello, we shook hands. Later I thought Machotka and I could meet again someday if I get out of this country, but instead I ended up in court, and then a labor camp. I worked for 29 years in the coal mines. And Otakar Machotka certainly didn't belong there, he was already long gone."
Lesak pointed with pride to a bookshelf in his small living room. My name is mentioned in every one of these books, he said, gesturing across two dozen or so volumes on Czechoslovak history. I asked if he was bitter that Otakar got out, and he didn't. Not a bit, he said.
"Your grandfather had no other choice but to flee. He'd have
first to be arrested. He wrote the most sharply anti-communist texts, and
the party would have taken revenge on him and his family. So I'm glad he
got out, and years ago I was happy when I heard the news on a foreign
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