Metamorphosis in Prague

Source: Tablet mag / / By Edward Serotta /

On the 30-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution ending Communism in Czechoslovakia, notes on how to transform a one-party state into a democracy in a matter of weeks

It was Oct. 17, 1989, and I was driving up from my home in Budapest to Warsaw, and was stopping off in Prague. That afternoon I met photographer and translator Jaroslav Koran, translator Michael Zantovsky (who had trained as a psychologist and was now filing for Reuters), along with writer Eda Kriseova. Sitting outside the Malostranska Café I was full of good news about what was going on in Hungary, which would, a week later, announce itself a multiparty democracy. And we all knew Poland had its first non-Communist prime minister.

The three Czechs sipped their coffee and sighed. Nothing like that will happen here, they said. We’re just too timid.

Afterwards, I crossed the Vlatava River, drove into the Vinohrady section of town and knocked on the door of a friend, Dr. Bibi Vodickova. Well into her 60s, Bibi was a physician whose biography mirrored that of her country. Born in 1925, she grew up in what had been the only stable democracy in interwar Central Europe, but on March 14th, 1939, her parents drove her to Prague and put her on a Kindertransport to England.  German troops marched into Prague the next day; Bibi never saw her parents again. Trained as a nurse in England,  Bibi flew with the first British medical team to arrive in Theresienstadt in June 1945. She trained as a doctor in Prague, served as a moderately high official during the short-lived reforms of Alexander Dubcek in 1968 and was afterwards demoted by the thuggish regime that took over the country. Bibi was sent to a farm village to work and commuted 90 minutes each day to get there. Bibi was past pension age and could have retired, but she wanted to keep working.

Bibi was more optimistic than the threesome I had just met with and thanks to her years in England, she followed BBC World Service on a tiny shortwave she kept in her living room. “Just look at what’s happening around us!” she said as we took our regular walk through the “new” Jewish cemetery  near her flat. It was our habit to go there and read gravestones to each other and we invariably ended, with a sigh, before Franz Kafka’s grave. Bibi held up a hand and counted off on her fingers: “There are Monday night demonstrations in Leipzig and no one’s stopping them, in Poland Communism is already gone and in Hungary it’s on its deathbed. Vaclav Havel has been out of jail since May, although he’s been a little too quiet for my liking. But surely something has to happen here, too.”

Michael Zantovsky
Michael Zantovsky, April 1990. By this time Zantovsky was press spokesman for President Havel and was traveling on the presidential plane to Israel. He is reading a guidebook on Israel. A few years later he served as Czech ambassador to Israel, the U.S., and Great Britain.

Something did indeed. When I returned to Prague in late November, Jaroslav was set to become the mayor of Prague, Michael was the press spokesman for the soon-to-be President Havel (and would go on to serve as Czech ambassador to Israel, the United States, and Great Britain as well as write a well-received biography of Havel), while Eda was on her way to work in the president’s office as a cultural adviser. In all the hubbub of demonstrations that November and December, I knew Bibi would be on the street with the other half million citizens of Prague. This would have meant the world to her, and since I couldn’t reach her by telephone, I wrote a note with my hotel’s number on it and taped it to her door.

The changes had begun on Friday, Nov. 17, when the authorities allowed students in Prague to hold a march to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the killing of a local teenager by the Germans. The students had been told they could not march toward the center of town, which is what they did. Waiting for them on Narodni Street was a wall of riot-ready policemen, who set upon them with clubs.

The students went home that night with blood streaming from their heads. And Czech mothers and fathers, the very ones so many people thought of as timid and sheepish, seemed to suddenly wake up and say, “Not with my child, you don’t!” A metamorphosis had begun.

The very next day, a Saturday, parents started protesting alongside their children. They headed for Wenceslas Square, a rectangle of a boulevard that sloped up a gentle hill and was crowned by the neo-Renaissance National Museum and an art deco statue of good King Wenceslas surrounded by four Czech saints. If ever a city space was perfect to hold a half million people, this was it. And this is where it happened.

Andre, Andrea, and Marta Ernyei
Andre, Andrea, and Marta Ernyei in their Prague apartment, November 1989

On that first Saturday after the demonstration, Andre Ernyei, a mild-mannered piano tuner who sometimes volunteered at the Jewish community, and who scoffed at his wife and daughter’s political activism, went out onto the street and punched a policeman in the face. “How dare you hit my daughter!” he yelled as they hauled him off to jail. But except for very rare exceptions like that, the protests remained peaceful.

Indeed, while the crowds grew, Czechs never ceased to be the orderly, polite people they were known to be: Protests did not begin until after working hours. I am still trying to figure this one out: The local football (soccer) team called a strike, but in football-mad Prague they played their Sunday game, and then went on strike. To what purpose, I wondered. But in the town that gave us Franz Kafka, the reasoning seemed sound to them.

Meanwhile, the Communist party became the butt of jokes. One sign a friend translated for me read, “What is the beating heart of the Party? A truncheon!.”  And Milos Jakes, general secretary, it was said, would fail a lie detector test if he began a sentence with “I think.”

On Nov. 22, knowing Prague’s police would not take on crowds that had now swelled to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, Jakes called on his People’s Militia, the well paid shock troops that answered strictly to the Communist Party and ordered them to wade into the crowd. When they refused (not out of decency, Zantovsky wrote, but only because they knew this time they’d not get away with it), Jakes resigned. He was replaced by a railway man by the name of Karel Urbanek, who, Zantovsky described as “the only man dumb enough to take the job.”

By the end of this first week, entire families were gravitating to the center of town, just as they were doing in Brno and Bratislava and elsewhere. With breathtaking speed, political dissidents banded together and formed their opposition group, Civic Forum (along with People Without Violence in Bratislava),  and they were led by playwright Vaclav Havel, who had spent more than five years in prison for his writings.

Rita Klimova
Rita Klimova fielding questions, early December 1989. Klimova was appointed as Czechoslovak ambassador to Washington, but she developed cancer two years into her term and returned to Prague, where she died, age 62.

Havel and the writers, artists, economists and students gathered around him demanded roundtable discussions with the startled Communist authorities, and with a staggering number of citizens behind them, the negotiations began. Translating for Havel was Rita Klimova, who had been born in Romania to a Jewish family that had moved to Prague, but fled to the U.S. in 1939. By the time her family returned to Prague in 1946, Klimova had brought a New York accent with her, became an economist, then a dissident and friend of Havel’s. It was Klimova who described what was going on in her country as a “velvet revolution.” And the term stuck, all while posters went up everywhere, “Havel na hrad!” Havel to the Castle, the presidential palace.

By this time, Wenceslas Square was filling every evening and rock bands donated massive outdoor speaker systems so that every speaker could be heard. Havel, who was in charge now, had clearly been listening to his colleagues. He normally spoke in tortured, often obtuse sentences better suited for evenings in the beery, smoky pub he liked to inhabit, but suddenly he was laying matters out in crystal clear prose that everyone could relate to.

Wenceslas Square
Wenceslas Square, December 1989

But it was on Nov. 22 in the late afternoon, as at least 300,000 people stood in Wenceslas Square, that 47-year-old Marta Kubisova took the microphone. In 1967 Kubisova had had a huge hit with her mournful, organ-accompanied Prayer for Marta, a song as evocative as A Whiter Shade of Pale. It became the anthem for Czechs and Slovaks when Warsaw Pact troops invaded their country in 1968. Kubisova lost her recording contract, could no longer appear on television, and found herself singing for the next 20 years in small rooms to groups of old friends who had also lost their jobs as diplomats, economists, and journalists.

Now as she sang an acapella Prayer for Marta on that icy November afternoon in 1989, there wasn’t a dry eye on the square, and when Kubisova finished, for a few seconds, almost no one applauded. This metamorphosis was taking shape.

Students stopping cars
Students stopping cars on the highway out of Prague, November 1989

The Communists and the STB, the secret police, weren’t going down without a fight. The very next day, Nov. 23, when the staff at Czech television began broadcasting the Prague demonstrations to the rest of the country, the STB stopped it. In an instant, I saw teenagers dashing off news reports (where had they gotten their hands on copy machines? they were strictly controlled), and were standing on the main highway leaving Prague and demanding  that passing cars stop. They reached in and handed the startled drivers their notices. Aging buses rumbled to a stop while cheerful, laughing students gave scores of leaflets to the drivers, who took them with bemused smiles and passed them back. The students had begun their own grassroots media network. And the demonstrations started going out on television again.

On the streets in Prague
On the streets in Prague, December 1989

Every day the Communist Party officials had tried to cling to power like a man who has grabbed onto a boat that is drifting away from the dock. They thought they could surrender just a few ministries. After all, who were they negotiating with? Artists? Playwrights? Musicians? But those creative types turned out to be quite skillful and they were backed by the crowds on the street. When Ladislav Adamec, prime minister, announced a new government on Dec. 3, there were 20 Communists and five nonparty members in it, the crowds were having none of it and he resigned on Dec. 7. On Dec. 10, the aging president, Gustav Husak, gave up the ghost.

That was the night Civic Forum began announcing who its ministers would be, and Jiri Dienstbier, a crusading journalist in 1968 who had been fired and reduced to being a janitor, reported to his boss in the apartment house where he worked that he would not be there to stoke the furnace in the morning. He was going to be foreign minister.

I had picked up bits of a conversation at Civic Forum headquarters when Zuzana Blühova, a Slovak living in London, was somehow attached to Dienstbier. I overheard her saying that Dienstbier would arrive at Czernin Palace, the block-long, 18th-century palace that housed the Foreign Ministry, at 9:00 the next day. She looked over at me and saw that I had been listening. She said. “Don’t you dare.”

I dared. I was in front of Czernin at 8:30, stomping my feet to keep warm, and promptly at 9:00 a black Tatra limousine arrived and out stepped Zuzana and Dienstbier. She shook her head. I held up a camera. Deinstbier shrugged and nodded.

Jiri Dienstbier
Jiri Dienstbier on his first day as foreign minister

Over the next two hours I photographed as Foreign Minister Dienstbier settled into his enormous new office, welcomed both the Soviet ambassador as well as Shirley Temple Black, the American ambassador, and made torturous small talk with both of them. After they left, while he was reviewing newly placed folders on his desk, I tiptoed over and asked, “Jiri, can I go upstairs?”

He knew what I meant. He nodded to me then looked at the row of ministry staffers lined up like bowling pins and jerked his head sideways. Two men in suits literally raced before me through the halls while a third very nervous Communist-era holdover (like, from yesterday) walked me through a palace so large it nearly bankrupted generations of the family that built it. Through the halls and past rooms stuffed with 18th-century furniture and more than a few portraits of Habsburgs on the walls, to the stairway at the far end of the building then up one flight and another until we came to the top floor and a landing.

As the two men before us opened a set of double doors, we entered the living quarters of Jan Masaryk, the last non-Communist foreign minister and son of the founding president of Czechoslovakia. Masaryk served in the government during its exile in England, advocated for it all during the Second World War, championed the sale of Czech weaponry to pre-state Israel in January 1948, and decided to remain in his post even after the Communist coup of February that year, all while enemies of the newfound Communist state were being picked up off the street, only to turn up dead or in jail.

As we walked briskly through the living room, the two men before me were pulling off the white sheets that had spent decades covering the sofas and arm chairs, and as the sheets fluttered around the room like ghosts, I knew  exactly where to go—past the dining room, past the kitchen, into the bedroom and into the bathroom itself.

Jesus, I thought as I opened the window and felt a blast of winter air; I am the first outsider to stand here since 1948. This is where Jan Masaryk, distraught, depressed, and considering suicide, climbed on this ledge. The next morning his crumpled body was found in the courtyard below. Had he been manhandled and pushed out of the window? Did he kill himself? Recent evidence points to murder but it will more than likely never be established.

Edward Lucas, who was filing for The Independent in Prague, wrote, “Whether he jumped or was pushed, what mattered most was the democracy his father had founded was dead before his body hit the ground.”

That was on March 10, 1948, and I was leaning out of that window on Dec. 11, 1989. Forty-one years, nine months and 29 days. I shuddered, closed the windows and made my way through the vast palace to tell Dienstbier. Then I stopped and thought, “Tell him what, exactly?” When I stepped into the main floor, it didn’t matter what I wanted. He was now surrounded by dozens of reporters.

Someone had left a message for me at my hotel and I called the number. The woman on the other end of the line said she was Bibi’s neighbor and she was sorry but she had only just seen my note, which had fallen to the floor and had been half hidden by the door mat. She told me, “Madame Vodickova is in the University Hospital on Karlova Street.”

“You mean, she’s now working there?”

The reply came: “No. She has cancer. It’s not good.”

From then on, I spent the rest of my days in Prague that December photographing on the streets, selling a few images to the Associated Press, then I’d dash off to the hospital every evening to tell Bibi what was going on. I felt like the saddest Scheherazade in the world.

Bibi would squeeze my hand and smile as I filled her in on the news. And on that first night, when I told her about my visit to Czernin Palace, her eyes widened as she stared up at the ceiling. “You were in Masaryk’s apartment?” she whispered and tried to squeeze my hand. “My, but you have come a long way.”

I did go back the next night and the night after that, and then on Dec. 15, I entered the women’s ward to tell her the news of the day, but Bibi Vodickova’s bed was empty. A few days later, as per her wishes, Bibi was cremated, just across from the cemetery where Franz Kafka was buried, and it was just a few days before Vaclav Havel was sworn in as president.