27 Aug Vacation On a Sand Beach
Last Week Of Last August
We did not know for sure that it was our last vacation in the old country, we forbade ourselves to presume that.
I’m talking about August 1972 we spent in Yevpatoria, a Crimean city with silk-soft beaches. As luck would have it, we rented a room in a building that sat a few meters from one such beach.
The room fit a double bed and a folding twin for 4-year-old Emily and a generous windowsill that served as a pantry and dining table. The outside corridor held a row of two-burner stoves and basins for bathing, one for each room. A faucet without a sink on each of the two floors and a five-stall outhouse accommodated the beehive of renters of the rickety structure and an occasional outsider.
On the beach, Emily made friends with a redhead girl from Volgograd. Her dad, a grim-faced army major, invariably spread his blanket at the choicest spot available and turned his tape recorder to the highest volume. At the first sound, the nearby beachgoers scattered far enough to pretend they could not hear the songs. Scattered because the major favored Vysotsky’s songs. Not that they were forbidden per se…
My husband and I longed to bolt too but the girls refused to be separated. Stomachs in knots, we sat stoically in the major’s company surrounded by no man’s land. When he finally warmed up to us beyond monosyllables, he started talking. Non-stop, fiercely, angrily. On the fourth anniversary of the event he talked about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
“My father fought the Nazis there. Now, the Czech said, ‘Father a hero, son an invader.’ If not my pregnant wife back home, I would have aimed my tank at my commanders.”
He spoke over the sound of the music as though summoning an audience. “You don’t understand: we had orders to mow over people if they tried to stop us!” He willed us to scream with him. We sat frozen. Had he mowed over people?
Last Week Of Another August
That invasion struck in 1968, in the last week of August, in response to the Czech’s version of socialism. Prague Spring they called it. Socialism with a human face. Socialism without censorship or political surveillance – if that did not threaten the spirit of Marxism-Leninism, what did? Tough love was to straighten out a younger brother temporarily led astray. Enter a new joke: “’We are all friends, and we are all brothers,’ said the Boa, opening his arms.”
Yevtushenko’s poem ending in “This Russsian writer is crushed by the Russian tanks in Prague” spread like fire, copied by hand. To avoid more bloodshed, the Czech government accepted the invader’s demands. (Lesson learned: twenty years later, as the weakened Big Brother’s reins loosened, the Soviet allies and non-Russian parts of the Union ran as fast as their legs could carry them. Coincidentally, the date of the Moscow putsch – last week of August.)
The Voice of America and the grapevine reported that the walls of Prague buildings displayed harsh messages: Run home, Ivan, Natasha is waiting; To occupants, not a drop of water, not a loaf of bread; 1945 – liberators, 1968 – invaders; You have conquered the cosmos, but not us; Long live democracy – without Moscow. That the invasion outraged even the Moscow-fed Western Communist parties. That eight Moscovites protested in the Red Square:
Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremliuga, Pavel Litvinov, Viktor Fainberg, Tatiana Baeva, and Natalya Gorbanevskaya who had recently had a baby.
They were swiftly arrested and imprisoned or committed to psychiatric wards. They dared to speak out. Precious few did – quite the math: 8 out of 300,000,000. We felt beholden to them and ashamed of our cowardice.
Last Week Of April
We think we understand the moment we live in. Could we really, in absence of hindsight, tell the fleeting from the defining? History did sprinkle my path with a few rare moments when I could.
The Six-Day Arab-Israeli War of 1967, or rather its reverberations for the Soviet Jewry transformed us, tangibly, profoundly. In the space of six days, a voiceless, belittled people grew stamina and dignity.
On the heels of it came the last weeks of the two Augusts, four years apart, the Czechoslovakia invasion and the Soviet officer who could not live with his role in it. They, the Czech and the officer, had no choice. We hoped we did. We did know that it was too scary not to get out.
On April 21, 1976, on the way to Vienna, Austria we had a layover in Bratislava , capital of Slovakia then part of Czechoslovakia. Our stash of bread, salami and hard-boiled eggs sufficed for adults but to feed the girls we were prepared to dip into our $450 allowance.
The waitress at the station’s café fed us all like royalty, including warm milk for Polina, for one dollar! While we ate, the staff surrounded the table and quizzed us, in Russian, about the trick we had used to get away from the Big Brother. As we got up to leave they applauded. One waiter galloped to the platform to bring the stuffed poodle that Polina had left behind and some pastries for the road.
Let’s remember the watershed moments that changed the world—52 years since the Six-Day War, 51 years since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 50 years of the Soviet Jewish emigration and 43 years of my family’s exit.