You well know George why I couldn’t bring you with me to Prague for Christmas. So stop sulking. With your delicate legs, you’d have broken that neck of yours on the icy cobblestones. Anyway, as the New Year approached, even the easy-going Czechs mentioned resolutions. I thought as I do every year that I could eat more vegetables, meditate to calm my nerves, lose a few kilos, and read a book every week. Vegetables? Meditate? Kilos? I gained a few kilos—Prague ones. However, I did read a book of three plays by Václav Havel.
He died while I was there. A much-loved national hero, he was the country’s first president after the Russians unceremoniously hightailed it out of there in 1989. As soon as news of his death broke, a shrine sprang up in Wenceslaus Square late at night. My Catholic mother would light a candle at the drop of a hat and so on a freezing December night, like thousands of others, I went to the shrine to light one.
As I stood there, I felt an impatient tapping on my back. I turned around to see a tiny old lady in a little brown hat, aged in her eighties, scarcely 4 feet tall, and bent with osteoporosis. She indicated that she wanted to place her candle at the shrine. I took her arm and guided her through the crowd. She continued to ferociously tap anyone who blocked our way. Because she was so small, when they looked around, they presumed it was me. We ploughed on. She lit her candle and remained there for a long time, deep in thought. A press photographer who was standing nearby saw her and captured the moment—as I did. Then she turned around, nodded at me and we forced our way back through the throng. I watched her slowly shuffle away into the night and thought about the trajectory of her life and what she must have witnessed.
In 1938, she would have been a mere child when the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. Shortly after, World War II broke out. During liberation in 1945, the Americans got within 10 miles of Prague while the Soviets advanced from the east. However, Truman and Eisenhower, to avoid any conflict with Stalin, ordered their troops to halt. This resulted in most of Czechoslovakia being occupied by the Red Army. The country’s fate was sealed and it was to remain in Soviet clutches for the next four decades.
In 1948, three years after liberation, the little old lady would have been a teenager when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, backed by the Soviets, seized power in a coup d’état
which resulted in a one-party state. The party had won by a large majority in the 1946 elections after the war. Citizens, optimistic that the new government would move the country forward under socialist ideals, now found themselves prisoners in a communist regime.
In 1968 when she was about 40, there was a glimmer of hope for a few months. The new leader of the Communist party, Alexander Dubček, tried to introduce political and social reforms. The Soviets responded by invading Czechoslovakia. On 20th August 1968, over 600,000 troops arrived in the country. Tanks rolled into Prague’s streets. The Prague Spring was over as soon as it had begun.
In 1989, twenty years later, by now in her sixties, she would have gone to Wenceslaus Square with almost a million others to celebrate the departure of the Soviets—and her freedom. The New York Times reported at the time:
“Church bells pealed, sirens wailed and factory whistles hooted as people streamed into streets, squares and boulevards. They tinkled bells and rattled keys, teacups and beer mugs not only in Prague but in cities from one end of the country to the other.”
In 2011 when I encountered her, she was well into her eighties and far less sprightly. Yet once again, she had made her way to Wenceslaus Square, this time close to midnight, braving freezing temperatures, to light a candle in Havel’s honour.
Václav Havel was born into a wealthy family. He was a playwright, an essayist and a poet, but above all—a dissident. His plays are a grim portrayal of the reality of life behind the Iron Curtain. In 1982, when he was a political prisoner and forbidden to write, my compatriot, Samuel Beckett, wrote a play for him, Catastrophe.
On his release the following year, Havel wrote a play for Beckett, Mistake
You know George, I don’t even know why I mentioned New Year’s resolutions. They suddenly seem altogether insignificant.