It was spring and the blossoms were in full bloom, but the people in Czechoslovakia went about their daily lives with great apprehension. They were nervous, anxious and afraid. Their leader, Alexander Dubcek spoke about a Prague Spring and dreamed of freedom of speech and other rights for his people.
Otto Hajek had lived through the shameful betrayal of his country, when in 1938, Britain handed over his country to Hitler in exchange for a piece of paper that promised peace — a piece of paper that Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain waved triumphantly on his return to Britain. Unfortunately, it turned out to be just that — a piece of paper and an empty promise. Neville Chamberlain would eventually die a broken man.
In the terrifying years that followed, the world would be engulfed in flames as the Allied and the Axis powers unleashed their might and fury against each other. The world then go mad. Across central and eastern Europe, the most unspeakable crimes against humanity would be committed. When the dust finally settled on the scorched earth, the dream of Hitler being the master of Europe had been completely and forever shattered.
Otto Hajek’s spirits rose as World War II came to an end. But his spirits would soon be dashed as he realized that for the second time, his country would be betrayed. This time his country would be handed over to the Soviets in an agreement made between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. From the gates of Moscow, the Soviet Juggernaut had not only faced the Nazi onslaught but had driven them back across Central Europe to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin at a staggering loss of 27 million lives. It was estimated that for every Allied soldier who lost his life, the Soviets lost eighty. Germany could not be trusted as the Soviets feared they would rearm and avenge their defeat. Twice, in living memory, Poland had been used as a launching pad to invade Russia. Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and the Baltic countries had allied themselves with Nazi Germany. It was therefore imperative that the Soviets would demand a buffer zone. Commanding officers of the Allies were certain that, barring a nuclear war, there was no way they could drive the Soviets back to Moscow. And so it came to pass that Czechoslovakia, would fall under the Soviet sphere of influence.
This left Otto in a quandary. He, his wife and two beautiful daughters led a fairly comfortable life. Ivana was 18 and Diane 17. But he worried about their future. Many of his friends and fellow professionals like engineers, doctors, teachers and skilled craftsmen had fled or immigrated to western countries. This led to a clampdown on immigration. The Soviets argued the clampdown was necessary to stem the brain drain. The West argued in vain that it was a violation of human rights.
The years went by and it seemed the iron grip of the Soviets was gradually easing and the Prague Spring would eventually dawn on Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek was flying high. His democratic reforms were being pushed through. But Otto knew that it was only a matter of time before the Soviets would crush that dream. He just had to flee and set about getting as much information about the outside world. From Radio Free Europe, a clandestine broadcasting entity, based in Munich, West Germany, he learnt that Austria was the main transit country for refugees fleeing Communist Regimes in Eastern and Central Europe.
Otto was fully aware that the end of World War II was not the end of suffering and oppression. The Communists do not shy away at just physical torture. they also attack a person’s mind. They attempt by subtle means to destroy it and replace it with their own ideology. No opposition of any kind was tolerated and those unable to hide their true beliefs were murdered or sent to labor camps. Otto just had to have a plan. But no one could be trusted. Everybody lived in fear. The secret police were constantly milling around and any suspicious activity was immediately checked. Otto decided he would go it alone.
A bus route from Prague-Tabor-Koruna-Cesky Krumlov took it closest to the Austrian border. It ran three times daily. This provided the best escape route. He and his family planned every detail. They bought tickets only to Tabor. This would not arouse the suspicion of the booking-office clerk. Their did not carry much luggage. They did not speak to any one on the bus. They feigned sleep. Should an official board the bus, they would say they were going to visit Aunt Eva, a distant relative who had invited them for a visit. Alighting at Tabor and as inconspicuously as possible, they exited the bus and walked purposefully, but never close together. They later returned to the bus station and bought tickets to Koruna, the next stop. At Koruna, they did the same thing, attracting little or no attention. They later returned to the bus station and bought tickets to Cesky Krumlov. Arriving there they saw two policemen staring at them. They made sure not to turn around and look at them and continued walking, all the while remembering what to say about Aunt Eva.
They walked to the address of a man whom Otto had learnt that for a tidy sum of money, he would take them to the Austrian border. They knocked on his door and were ushered in a dimly lit room. The naked bulb in a socket was always kept on to avoid any suspicion. Shortly after they found themselves on a deserted street in the dead of night. They walked in deliberate steps about ten feet apart, giving the appearance of knowing where they were going. They walked the whole night until they came to a clearing. About two hundred yards away shone the lights of a little Austrian village, beckoning to them. They were in an open field and the guide whispered to them to make a dash for it.
Dawn found them in a little Austrian railway station. An hour later they boarded the train for Vienna. They wandered around the beautiful city until they spotted a police cruiser. Otto flagged it down. He requested the police officer to take them to the American Embassy. The officer glanced at them, said nothing and promptly took them to his police precinct where he immediately locked them up. The family began to sob uncontrollably. All the planning and the terrifying ordeal had come to nothing.
Two days later, the police officer returned. He explained they had arrived at the start of the weekend and the American Embassy was closed. He had decided the safest place for them would be in prison where the Czechoslovakian secret police would not look for them. It was a beautiful spring morning, birds were singing and apple blossoms were in full bloom. Tears of joy streamed down their faces as they smiled, hugged and kissed one another as the police officer drove them to the American Embassy — and to freedom.
Otto and his family eventually settled down in Vancouver, Canada. Several years later, I met Ivana. After a courtship of two years, Ivana and I were married.