August 1968 – Warsaw Pact invasion

It’s that time of year again – 21st August. I don’t know how many people remember the date and it’s meaning, but I do, quite vividly.

During that summer I’d been doing exactly the same kind of things as during most summers – including a short holiday, in Yugoslavia, with my friend Jana. Travel had become easier, because the Prague Spring had noticeably improved things and given us a glimpse of what might be possible. When we came back home, Jana went back to work as a nurse and I managed to find a great holiday job – sorting out and packing newspapers on a night train from Prague to Pilsen.

We rested on the way to Prague, on the last train, so we arrived there just after midnight. Then the newspapers started arriving and we got to work. There was a list of different parcels we had to put together and, because our train was the first one of the day, it stopped at every station, where we’d throw the relevant parcels on to the platform. And so it continued until we reached Pilsen. It meant I had to turn my life back to front and get used to sleeping in the day, so I could function during the night. But when you’re twenty, nothing is too difficult!

The pay was good and on top of that we received expenses to buy food when we reached Prague. Nobody went out of the station – not very safe for women in the dead of night and anyway – we all brought sandwiches and flasks of coffee and saved our expenses.

I did that job for a number of weeks. My parents were on holiday in Slovakia and I had a visitor from East Germany, my friend Ute. She and I had met in a children’s summer camp a few years previously and had become good friends.

One morning, in the early hours, I had a call from one of the girls who worked permanently on the night train: “Turn the radio on! Our train can’t get into Prague, something is going on!”

I did, and couldn’t believe my ears. Reports of tanks in Prague, somber music, pleas to the outside world. What a shock! And, on top of that, when we finally opened our curtains we saw a tank, strategically placed in the middle of the crossroads in front of our house. I was terrified and so was my friend Ute. She decided to leave straight away, as she was afraid that the borders would be closed and that she wouldn’t be able to get home. I found out much later that it took her about three days to get home. Sadly, I never heard from her again.

Before all this has happened, I’d planned to have a break in my university study and go to England, as an au-pair, to improve my English. I’d found a family in London, had contacted them and was prepared for a change in my life. In the end it was much more than that!

The tanks rolled in on the 21st of August and by the 28th I was on my way to Vienna.

Our family had relatives in Austria, on my Grandad’s side, and we corresponded with them. We’d never visited them, however – it wasn’t possible. But with the situation as it was, I thought, This is my only chance. My Aunt, Mum’s younger sister, and I, decided to go to Vienna; all was arranged and we travelled on the 28th.

Although it was the summer I arrived at the station looking as if I was about to go on a polar expedition – with a huge suitcase and wearing as many clothes as I could. The train was full, but it went as far as the border between Czechoslovakia and Austria, where we all got out, walked over the border and got into the Austrian train that was already waiting for us.

It was only there that my Aunt finally asked me if I was coming back with her. She didn’t have to ask, it was quite obvious. She wasn’t able to do the same, because she had a husband and daughter in Pilsen, but she fully supported my decision.

(The border was closed at the beginning of September.)

A new chapter had started in my life.