The Border Closed at Midnight

Mrs. anderson, who lives in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, is a full-time college student, an employee of the Douglas & Mcintyre Publishing Company, and the mother of four children. The author dedicates this article to the memory of her grandfather, Eemil Skala.

With a jerk, the train slowly began leaving the station. We passed houses, factories, railway crossings, just barely visible in the darkness. I looked out the window beaded with raindrops, saying good-bye. The gentle swaying of the train soon became monotonous.

If anyone had told me three months earlier that my family and I would be fleeing our native Czechoslovakia, with all our belongings packed in five suitcases, and an uncertain future ahead, I would have told him that was as unbelievable as the day it all began . . . August 21st, 1968.

My ears began attending to a distant sound. It was coming closer. The closer it got, the louder it got. What was it? I had never heard that before. Then my whole room began to shake. An earthquake? I was fully awake now. I frantically dove out of bed to look out the window. It was still dark outside. Leaning over the edge I had to plug my ears because the noise was so loud. A long line of large dark silhouettes was slowly creeping up our one-way street. Tanks? That’s what they looked like. Army tanks. What was going on? Didn’t they know it was 3 a.m. and people were trying to sleep?

I ran to the mantel to turn on the radio. Silence. And then it hit me: War! This must be war! Grandfather! I must wake up grandfather. He’ll know/

I ran out of my room, through the dark kitchen, through the dining room, the living room, to his bedroom, which faced the back yard. He was a sound sleeper; he wouldn’t wake up even if the tanks were to go right by his bed.

“Grandfather!” I shook him. “Wake up, Grandfather! I think it’s war! There are tanks in the street!”

He put his glasses on, and we both ran through the dark house, back to my room.

“Those look like Polish tanks.” He was remembering World War II. “What do they want here?”

The radio broke its silence. “Citizens . . . citizens . . . please go to work as usual . . .” The reception was really bad. “Please, remain calm . . . There must be an explanation for their being here . . . This must be some sort of a mistake . . . We are still unable to reach the President . . . .” Static and crackling broke in. It was a woman’s voice. Not the usual announcer. Her voice shook. “We have had reports from everywhere across the country . . . There are tanks all over . . . Please, remain calm . . .” Silence. No commercials. No music. Nothing. Just silence.

Grandfather, with his head down and his broad shoulders stooped, dropped his weight into a chair. He was speechless. I stared at him. The great man I admired so much now sat before me, defeated. I put my arms around his big wide neck and sat on his lap. We just sat there, silently, and we cried.

All night long we listened to the crackling voice of the radio announcer. There was no real news until 8 a.m.: “Friends . . . neighbors . . . Around midnight last night . . . five countries . . . crossed over into our country . .. They are . . . East Germany . . . Bulgaria . . . Poland . . . Hungary . . . and Russia . . . We still don’t know why they are here . . . There have been no reports of casualties or injuries to our citizens . . . We will let you know more, as soon as we can. . . as long as we are able to . . .”

For the rest of the day, the long loud lines of tanks kept snaking their way up the streets of my grandfather’s home town, heading for Prague, 80 kilometers to the south.

All my life I had been coming to this place to spend my summer vacations, spring breaks, and Christmas. I was practically raised by my grandparents. Everyone in town knew me as Mr. Skala’s granddaughter. My grandfather was an important man in this town. Everyone respected him and listened to his advice. Grandma’s nickname was “Angel”—because that is what she was. She spoiled my brothers and me the way no one else did. Life with the two of them was like a vacation every day. We were always happy here.

Now, I didn’t understand anything that was going on around me. There were no answers to any of my questions.

One week later, my brothers and I were returning home to Prague on the bus. We were very fortunate to be on the bus. The closer we got to the city, the more soldiers became visible, the more tanks, the more guns. Prague looked as though it had been through a war. Windows on buildings were shattered from bullet holes; the National Museum at the crown of Wenceslas Square got the worst of it. The magnificent stonework, centuries old, on the face of the building was practically destroyed. Everywhere I looked were barricades, sidewalks broken up, cobblestones on the streets turned upside down. There were signs of war everywhere we looked, and yet we were told this was no war. There were words painted on buildings: “Go home . . . We don’t want you here . . . Go back to where you came from.”

Our national army’s weapons had been confiscated. We were left defenseless, empty-handed. Everyone was ready to fight. But we were told to stay calm, to do nothing. During the previous week our radio and television stations had been taken over, even though it took a while to find out where they were. Everything stood still. No one was coming in; no one was leaving. Curfew was at 8 p.m. No one was allowed on the streets, not even emergency vehicles. Our borders were closed.

Many people were shot while trying to fight back. Poor fools. Throwing cobblestones at the tanks. The whole country was in confusion; no one had a straight answer.

The next week I was supposed to go back to high school. All summer long I’d looked forward to it. Now, I didn’t even know if I’d ever see my school or my friends again. I wondered how long this was going to last. Why are they here?

Two months later. November 8th. All schools had opened on time in September. Things were kept as normal as could be expected, but nothing was really changed. Tanks were still everywhere. Shattered windows hadn’t been replaced. The curfew was now at 10 p.m. instead of 8. There were great shortages of food. Lineups for bread, milk, eggs, and fruit started at five a.m. There was no meat available at all. People were getting used to the tanks and the soldiers, but there were still no explanations for why they had come. We hadn’t heard from our President yet.

I began to notice my uncles and aunts coming over for short, discreet visits. Each one of them walked away with one of our appliances or a piece of our furniture. I didn’t know what was going on. Why was my mother giving away all our stuff?. Everyone talked in hushed voices. I heard my parents say that our relatives came over one at a time so the neighbors wouldn’t get suspicious. Of what? After all, they were our relatives, and they had always come over before. So why would anyone be suspicious of that?

One night I saw my mother’s friend from next door, who was a seamstress, sewing an extra pocket into the lining of my father’s new leather coat, under the existing pocket. Wow! My father pulled out a thick stack of money from the bottom drawer of the bureau. I had never seen so much money in my life. It took him a long time to count it all out. He took out several bills and handed the rest to our neighbor, who expertly sewed it into the secret pocket.

That weekend my grandparents came to visit. I was so happy to see them again. I no-riced grandfather’s embrace of me was extra long. He almost squeezed life right out of me. Grandmother cried a lot, and hugged me a lot. Why was everybody so upset? It felt like somebody had died. They all walled around with long faces. No one was 10ud as they usually were whenever they got together; everyone whispered. There was no happiness, no laughter, no jokes.

When my grandparents were leaving Sunday night, they couldn’t say good-bye to us. I smiled at them and said: “Grandma, Christmas is only five weeks away. We’re coming over like we always do. So why the waterfalls? You’re acting as if you’ll never see us again!” That did it! I didn’t understand what I had said wrong. Confused, I waved as they walked away toward the bus station.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 13th, as I was getting ready to go to school, my mother said to us children: “You’re not going to school today. You are going to stay at home.” I am? Why? I wasn’t going to argue. I was happy to stay home. “Great!” I replied. Then my father poked his head into my bedroom, which I shared with my brothers: “How’d you like to go shopping with me?”

“Oh, I’d love to!” I jumped up and ran to him to give him a big hug. It was the first time in months I had seen a smile on his face. It was the first time he had ever asked me to go shopping with him.

We took a streetcar downtown. At a department store we purchased five new suitcases and some odds and ends. Walking home my father said to me, handing me a 50 crone bill, “Here, go get yourself something, anything you want.”

I never had had so much money before!

I kissed him, “Really! . . . Oh, wow, thank you, father.” Being a typical teenager, I headed for the first record store we came up to and spent all the money on records. My father didn’t object. That in itself was hard to believe.

Arriving at home with all our purchases, we were greeted by my brothers, and my mother’s worded face. We each were given a suitcase. “Pack whatever you want in it, whatever is dearest to you.” My mother spoke softly.

“Where are we going? On a trip? Where to? For how long?”

“Don’t ask, just do what I said.”

This is great! I wonder where we’re going? I packed all my records, my favorite books, my photo albums, some of my personal things, and only a few pieces of clothing.

At 4 p.m. we listened to the news. The border was open again. For now.

We arrived at the train station at 6 p.m. Our train was scheduled to leave at 7:30 p.m. We walked to the station restaurant (I had been to a restaurant only four or five times before), and had a nice dinner.

We boarded the train at 7 p.m. Our sleeping compartment, which we had all to ourselves, had six beds in it. We’d be able to sleep, as we were to travel all night long.

It was then that our parents revealed our destination to us. It was Austria, actually, Vienna, the capital city. We were going there to visit our Aunt Martha. I never knew we had an aunt named Martha in Vienna. When I questioned it, my father said, “Hush up!” I remained quiet. My father wore his new leather coat, which he carefully hung up by the window.

The swaying of the train must have rocked me to sleep. Suddenly, my sleep was interrupted by a flashlight pointed directly into my face. From behind the bright light I heard: “Passports, please . . . passports, please.” Poised to strike, the conductor officially scrutinized each document, comparing our faces to the photographs in the passports.

“Where are you going?” He directed his question to me.

“To Vienna, to visit my Aunt Martha.”

“Have you ever been there before?”

“No, but I can’t wait! . . . See? . . . I even brought my ice skates !” I dangled them in front of his face. A smirk briefly appeared in the comer of his mouth.

He proceeded to search every piece of our luggage, our purses, even our pockets, systematically, very officially. My heart stopped pounding, lodging itself in my throat for a split second, when he frisked my father’s leather coat!

“Everything seems to be in order here . . . Thank you!” He saluted, turned, and walked toward the next compartment. I slowly released my breath, unaware till then that I was holding it. I could see the relief in my parents’ faces as they looked at each other. We hugged and slowly began to relax and make ourselves comfortable again.

The train stood motionless as the conductor proceeded to check the rest of the compartments on the train in the same manner as be had ours. The inspection took a long time. It was 11:30 p.m.

We overheard a group of young people in the compartment next to ours laughing and shouting as soon as the conductor left them. “This is fantastic! Now we can go anywhere we want! Can you imagine! Australia, America, Africa, Canada! Anywhere we want! We’ll never come back here!” I was shocked to hear them talk this way. I wondered if the conductor heard them as well.

As soon as he finished the inspection of the entire train, he came back. With his index finger he motioned them over, and in the deep voice of authority said: “Would you all come along with me, please!”

My father whispered to my mother: “That’s it for them! They’ll never get another passport as long as they live! It wouldn’t surprise me if they got thrown in prison!”

We arrived in Vienna at 8 a.m., stored all our luggage in lockers, and headed straight for the Canadian Embassy. We were among hundreds of refugees. Most of them were single people, or married without children. We were the largest family there. We were granted asylum almost immediately, along with tickets for a plane which was leaving in 10 days. We heard that most people waited six months to a year in refugee camps to get on a plane to Canada.

On the local radio station we heard that the Czechoslovakian border had been closed at midnight. Ours was probably the last train to get out.