My first memory is staring in awe at an assortment of cheeses revolving on a pedestal behind a store front window. My mother was busy buying me an apple and converting currencies in her head when I wandered off. I got instantly lost in the sea of legs and turned the corner, when I came upon a towering blue pillar of a policeman. Holding my younger sister in her arms, my mother panicked and eventually made her way to the police station, where she found me sitting on a blanket surrounded by policemen googoo gagaing me.
We were in Switzerland and had just escaped the Communist invasion of Czechoslovakia. Under the previous, more liberal occupation, my dad, an electronic engineer, had rewired and fine tuned his radio in order to catch western news so he could print it out and distribute it as leaflets on the streets out of his motorbike with sidecar. Under the previous, Nazi occupation, he falsified our documents to erase our Jewish heritage.
My great great grandmother was a Jew who married an albino genius judge who had memorized all the laws but who tormented her to the point of eventual death.
At the time of our escape, Czechoslovakia was the 6th most industrial nation in the world, was quite developed, had its own extensive arms industry, possibly on the point of developing nuclear weapons. In which case it would be in the position of declaring “hands off” to the Russians. Fearing the potential loss of their buffer zone against the west, the Russians sent in an army to impose a more hardline Communist government, but in their typically Bohemian manner (Bohemia is a state in the center of the Czech Republic), the Czechs put flowers into the rifles of their antagonists and reasoned in the Russian language until they completely demoralised them. As a result the occupiers sent in a new battalion, but this time drawn from Georgia, where they did not speak Russian.
My grandfather was a respected doctor who was also an Olympic gymnast. He used to practice in the yard of his country home, occasionally throwing me up high in the sky <pic>. In Communist fashion, the officials took away all his properties to parcel it out to the political elite. Watching his little empire dissolve before him, his last sit on his living room armchair, he blurted, “What will my family members do?”, and just keeled over dead on the spot. Two weeks later his wife followed him. Around the same time a young Czech student poured gasoline on himself in the main town square and set himself on fire to protest the invasion.
Inflation soared and my parents sold what they could, grabbed their two cylinder Lada and made a mad dash for the border, as the Communists declared they will become sealed at midnight (it is better to wait a bit to give an opportunity for the trouble makers to leave). Unfortunately, no matter how small of a country it is, we didn’t make it to the border in time because my dad had to patch up the car tires six times, the Czechs believing they could hinder the onslaught of Russian tanks by littering the roads with nails.
At one point we came to a fork in the road and walked to a lone country house to ask which one we should take. No one answered and we presumed it was on purpose, the inhabitants fearing we may be Communists. So left it was and on arriving to the border at 3am, we handed our passports with trepidation to the border guards. But they let us pass through with a simple wave of the hand.
On arriving to Switzerland, we all gathered at one hotel together with all the others who had just escaped, comparing stories. When we explained ourselves, the group started distancing themselves away from us, assuming we must be spies. But when we pulled out our map, it turns out that the fork we took was not on the older, Russian map. We had escaped by a 50/50 flip of a coin.