Childhood in Communist Czechoslovakia
I was born in Czechoslovakia while my country was under the Communist regime (1948 to 1989). People were not allowed to say what they thought; most people couldn’t travel; religion had to go underground. Living under repression only strengthened the beliefs my family passed onto me.
In 1958, my paternal grandparents and their older son were imprisoned for expressing their disagreement with the Communist government. When my 16-year old father returned home from school, he found an empty locked house with a guard in front of the door who told him that his family would be gone for years. The next day, he broke into the empty house looking for food and found a huge jar of peanut butter. To this day, he loves peanut butter. As a punishment for his family’s beliefs, my father was not allowed to graduate from high school for several years. My father eventually did get his education but was only allowed to work in a stable yard. When I was six, grandma told me about her life in prison. She wasn’t angry or bitter but conveyed to me her hope for a better future.
When I was seven, my grandparents requested allergy medicine from our German relatives for their friend, a pediatric allergist. The package with the medicine arrived, but the bottle had been intentionally broken and a brutal note written by border guards was attached, “Hopefully, this helps.” The same day, the allergist needed those drops for a seven-month old baby, who died in the doctor’s arms for lack of this medication. My grandfather said: “Helena, you must never allow this in your life.”
Since my father was deeply involved in the anti-Communist activities and the preparation of the Velvet Revolution (which would overturn the Communist government in 1989), we often received phone calls telling us that our parents might never see their children again. Because of these threats, my brother and I often could not go to school. The schools were affected by the Communist government too. When I was in the first grade, one of my teachers asked me, “Helena, why are you studying so hard? The best job you can ever get is becoming a cleaning lady.” When I returned home from school crying, my father responded, “You must never be ashamed of who you are and where you come from. No matter what job you land one day, you must do your best and do it with pride.”
In November 1989, my grandfather was dying in the final days of the Velvet Revolution. As I sat on his bed, we heard the bells ringing symbolizing our freedom. He turned his head to me and with a strong voice said, “Helena, we have always fought for the truth and we won. Remember this and never let go.” These were his last words.