George, I wish you still didn’t mention the fact that I didn’t bring you with me on my brief winter holiday here back in 2011. You well know that with your delicate legs, you’d have broken that neck of yours on Prague’s icy cobblestones. Don’t forget it took you four winters to get used to them after we moved here.
So, I’ve never talked much about that holiday not wanting to annoy you any further. However, I was reminded of it today when I came across a book of three plays by Václav Havel that I bought and read at the time because he died during my stay.
He was a much-loved national hero and the country’s first president after the Russians unceremoniously hightailed it out of the then Czechoslovakia in 1989. As soon as news of his death broke, a shrine sprang up in Wenceslaus Square late at night. As you know, my Irish 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 80s, scarcely four 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. When they looked around in indignation, because she was so small they didn’t see her and presumed it was me. We ploughed on.
Having lit her candle, she 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 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 Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. Shortly afterwards, World War II broke out. Seven long years later during liberation in 1945, the Americans got within 10 miles of Prague while the Soviets advanced from the east.
However, Truman and Eisenhower, not wanting 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.
After the war the little old lady would have been a teenager when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia won the 1946 elections by a large majority. However, in 1948 the party, which was backed by the Soviets, seized power in a coup d’état which resulted in a one-party state. Czechoslovakians, optimistic after the 1946 elections 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 21st August 1968, around 250,000 soldiers, 2,000 tanks, and hundreds of aircraft from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland rumbled into Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring was over as soon as it had begun.
20 years later in 1989, the little old lady, by now in her 60s, would have gone to Wenceslaus Square with hundreds of thousands of 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 80s and far less sprightly. Once again, she had made her way to Wenceslaus Square, this time close to midnight, braving freezing temperatures, to light a candle in Václav Havel’s honour. We take our freedom for granted George––those of us who have it. For about 50 years of this feisty little old lady’s life, her homeland was under occupation.
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.
“I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.”