For as long as I live I will remember that day.
It was very early dawn and at first, I thought I was dreaming, hearing peculiar rattling sound. Then I heard another sound – loud thunder. I was pretty much awake and realized that it was a sound I didn’t recognized. As I was trying to figure out what was going on, I heard that rattling again and looking in the direction it was coming from, I saw that it was my teacup from last night, jumping around in the saucer. And then the sound of thunder again – and I realized that planes were flying really low over us. And at that point, I heard more rumbling topped by my grandmother running into the room and yelling: “Wake up, get up – the Russians are here”. The only thing I could think of is that she had lost her mind and is reacting to a bad dream. Surely it is either a bad storm outside or maybe an earthquake???? Why in the world would the Russians be coming here? They are our friends, no?
Trying to turn on the radio was not much help – it was panic all over the place. The TV was already gone – off the air – and I realized that this was no fun, no joke, no bad dream. This was in fact a reality – the Warzsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia – the communist government of the Soviet Union very much disliked the event of Prague Spring, Alexander Dubcek and everything that was going on, including the enthusiasm of people when they heard the word “freedom”.
My memories of that day are a blur of crazinest. Rumours, gossip, reports of Russian tanks shooting at people and everything they felt was not to their liking, historical building being severly damaged…. You have to understand, Czechs are incredibly proud nationalists, treasuring their heritage with unmatched vigor and the fact that the National Museum on Wenceslaw Square in Prague was being attacked was almost enough for people to start fighting back.
I quickly threw some clothes on – the only thing I remember for sure were white socks, because they were what I spent most of the day running around in. I met with a group of friends in the town square, wanting more information and trying to understand what was going on. Shortly after we met, the thunderous rumble of tanks reached us and the decision was to either stop them and ask them what the hell they are doing or run. We ran – and that is when I lost my shoes. We met up in our secret meeting place in our town’s park, out of breath, scarred and really, really mad. We figured the tanks were heading for Prague and the only thing we could think of is to take shortcuts to directional signs and turn them around. Whether that worked or not, I will never know – but it felt good just doing something.
After couple of hours, we reached a field with few crossroads and right in the middle of it quietly stood about dozen tanks and army trucks. As we ran out of the forest surrounding the fields, we realized that the soldiers saw us. We stopped trying to figure out what to do next. Then we saw two soldiers walking toward us – turning around and running away was not on the agenda – after all, we clearly saw that they were armed. I can tell you that in a moment like that, the time stops and so do your brain functions. The soldiers approached us with straight faces and started talking to us – in polish. The two languages are quite similar so we could actually communicate – they were asking us to tell them where they were. We couldn’t believe they didn’t know! One of my friends – Stan – totally lost his temper at that point and started yelling at them without choosing his words carefully. We told them that their army is a part of an invasion of our country – and much to our surprise, they were shocked. One of them started crying – sight I will never forget. They honestly thought they were on an army exercise.
The rest of that day and events that took place after were beyond sad. Alexander Dubcek was held in captivity and his government replaced, student Jan Palach burned himself alive in protest, all media was directed by Moscow and thousands of people were running away from the country, looking for freedom.
The one thing I remember of the aftermath is seing russian soldiers everywhere I went. Especially in the shoe stores. They were buying up shoes like crazy – regardless of style, colour or size. Weird memory? For sure – but then – the whole thing was weird.
I am one of those people who left the country – not immediately and not exactly running. But that is another story, for another day. For now – my heart goes back to my homeland, my lost future in there and all my lost dreams – just remembering August 21st, 1968.
It’s 41 years later – you think I could watch the videos I just found on YouTube without emotions? Not a chance – this is a fresh as it was then.
Hope you enjoy watching these 2 videos – the background voices are asking to calm, trying to avoid loss of human life and the music is very appropriate. In the second video, the confirmation is given that the government has been replaced and the video ends with national anthem. Oh yes…. more tears – but just for the past, because the present is very, very good