When we lived there we didn’t realize it, but when we came back for a visit, it was so gloomy. It was gloomy all the time until I went for the first time after communism was over, and it was kind of more optimistic all over the place. I don’t know what it was, if it was just my impression or something, but before the revolution, it was so gloomy all over the place.
For instance, in the architecture field, I was supposed to already be very good in drawing. In order to get into architecture school, I would have to be excellent in drawing to compete with hundreds of applicants at the time. In addition, very good in mathematics and things like that. So I didn’t even try that. But then I wanted to be a journalist.
So, thanks to the communists, when I came out of the country, I knew more than my colleagues because they were sitting in one place whereas I was all over – internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, infectious diseases. So I got the best training you can wish to survive. Thanks to the regime, and my belief not to sign ever to become a communist.
Because Stalin didn’t want heritage to be important. They wanted that indoctrination was more important than genetics. So Mendel, whom we all know about, was forbidden at that time. But you know everybody was paying a little bit lip-service, and nobody really took it seriously.
We got a contract through an organization which was called Pragosport, and there was also Pragokoncert. Those were two organizations that negotiated contracts with Western companies. But for that, we had to pay the government a pretty large amount of our salary in Western currency.
We were living in our house in the cellar, or basement, which had metal plates on the windows, and because there was a sign of ‘Doctor’ in front of the house, soldiers would be bringing their wounded colleagues to the house, and as a little boy I would be mingling around and I would see the blood dripping from the stretchers and stuff like that.
The free education, the free medical care. There were a lot of good things and if you could have political freedom and travel and exchange, then I think the system would have been very good. I didn’t understand why anybody would say no to it, because we didn’t want to declare war on Russia or some stupid thing like that.
In 1995, I began this project where I would interview former political prisoners, people who were arrested in 1948 and spent many years, ten or more years in what were Czech labor camps, equivalent to what Solzhenitsyn writes about in The Gulag Archipelago. I first started with life histories and these portraits and then, as I was progressing towards my dissertation, I started to ask questions, not so much about their individual lives, but more about their life as a community.
My son was in kindergarten, no actually, he was in nursery school and we went along the street for a walk and there was a big poster of Lenin and my [son] said ‘Look mommy, Comrade Lenin!’ And she said ‘This is enough. I don’t want this anymore. I had enough. They put it into the children. We have to go. We have to leave.’
I was terrified. Now it’s coming back to me exactly; it was August of 1969 which was exactly a year after the tanks rolled in after the Prague Spring, so there was great alarm that there might be some other military activity going on, or protests, on the anniversary. I remember having nightmares that I might get caught there, I might be arrested or…