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Ukraine-Czech Exodus

By Peter Stein

My dad and I moved briskly toward the Sudbahnhof railroad station in Vienna. We entered the large concourse with its five platforms, large bow windows, and very high ceiling of wooden beams. It was also the home of countless pigeons flying at will throughout the building.

Platform 2 was rapidly filling with adults and children also waiting for relatives and friends. We were headed for one area to welcome a set of Czech relatives, the Novaks. We found an emptier spot about halfway down the platform. I was to look to the right while dad scanned leftward. A Czech man standing near us complained, “Where is that train? Those Communists can’t even make a train run on time.”

When my father telephoned his cousin Vera Markus Novak in Prague the evening before, she said we would see Vera, Josef, Hanna, and Tomas today. Now he wondered whether the train was delayed by Russian soldiers checking everyone’s documents. “You know, Peter, before the Soviet invasion, the afternoon train from Prague was mostly empty. You can see how that’s changed.”

My dad was serving in his second year as the director of the American Fund for Czech Refugees (AFCR) in Vienna. His office processed Czech refugees. The year before, he had helped about ten refugees per week; now he saw about ten refugees each hour. He and his staff greeted the often scared and shocked newcomers. They offered coffee, rolls, and food coupons for local stores; helped with housing; identified temporary jobs; and answered tons of questions. And they had a few toys for kids.

Many refugees were trying to cope with a very confusing situation that had turned their lives into a nightmare. Most needed help in finding countries that would accept them, and Dad spent a lot of time trying to match the skills of the refugees with the needs of the host country. He was especially pleased when he was able to persuade Sweden to accept a group of Czech lumbermen and Germany to accept medical technicians and a few doctors.

I was a graduate student at Princeton working on my sociology thesis at the time. I decided it would be more fun to join my dad for a ten-day vacation in Eastern Europe than spend more time plowing through data from a sample of 15,000 American college students. Anyway, my thesis advisor was away.

A few days before I was to fly, I learned the tragic news of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. On August 20, 1968, four Warsaw Pact nations—the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary—invaded Prague. I expected the invasion would change our vacation plans.

The 3 p.m. train finally arrived about an hour late. The train was full and as the doors opened, I saw a sea of women, children, and men pouring out. They carried their limited possessions—suitcases, knapsacks, plastic bags, strollers, and packages wrapped in paper. They were warned by Czech authorities to carry only one valise—everything else would be confiscated. It seemed like an order left over from Nazi times—I wondered why today’s Czechs were following this Nazi playbook?

As people exited the train a roll call of Czech names filled the platform with many greetings of Ahoj—for Jan, Martina, Vaclav, Gerti, Frantisek, and others. I tried scanning faces, but I wasn’t sure whom I was looking for. I had met Vera Novak more than 20 years before when she was a young nursing student in Prague and had lived with us for a few months. Suddenly my dad shouted, “Tomas, Tomas,” and a young man with dark hair, wearing horn rimmed glasses, about my height, and carrying one full knapsack, spotted us.

We embraced and chatted busily in Czech. “So where are your parents and your sister?” my father asked. It seems that Tomas’s parents were warned by a neighbor that families seeking to leave together were being harassed and even arrested at the train station. Tomas said his parents would come in a few days, and his older sister, Hana, was to come a few days after that.

In the next few days, I got to know, for the first time, my cousin Tomas—we developed a strong friendship that has lasted more than 50 years. We toasted our families regularly at Café Hawelka at #6 Dorotheergasse Street, often joined by one of Tomas’s Prague friends who had just arrived in town. Tomas playfully introduced me as his “rich American cousin,” and so I mostly wound up picking up the evening’s beer tab. And in the next ten days, we returned to Vienna’s railroad station several times to welcome his father, Josef, a medical doctor, his mom, Vera, a nurse, and Hanna, his sister, a nursing student. Years later, Tomas also became a doctor and still practices emergency medicine at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

Our reunions were lively, but the Soviet bullying was unconscionable. In the spring of 1968, Alexander Dubček, the Czech Communist leader, announced a reformist political program he called “socialism with a human face,” in which the Communist system would be reformed from within. The landmark reforms included the abolishment of press censorship, restoration of civic freedoms, freedom to exercise one’s religious traditions, and the slow liberalization of the political system. This period of Communist liberalization became known as the Prague Spring. However, the leadership of the Soviet Union had decided that “socialism with a human face” was too dangerous and might provoke a wave of democratization across the Soviet-controlled eastern bloc.

The harsh Soviet response changed the nation and the lives of men, women, and children. Any hope for reform was snuffed out. The invasion was followed by a wave of emigration estimated at 70,000 people immediately and about 300,000 in total. Almost all of these highly qualified refugees settled in Western countries. What were the costs endured by the Czechs and Slovaks and their country as refugees fled their homeland to seek safe havens elsewhere?

Volunteering in my father’s office gave me a chance to speak with a number of men and women. I met experienced professionals and skilled workers—politicians, clergy, business owners, professors, doctors and nurses, artists, skilled craftsmen, auto mechanics, writers, and poets. Most held pro-democratic values and refused to live under a totalitarian regime. The country lost a lot of productive talent; a major brain-drain occurred.

I was also impressed with their educational accomplishments and general optimism about their futures. Most men and women I spoke with were married and most also had children. Some, like my relatives, were in their 50s and 60s, but a clear majority of refugees were in their 30s and 40s. Many wanted to settle in the United States, seeking their desire for political freedom, economic opportunities, and the optimism they saw in American films, music, and art. But the US government in 1968 was much slower in processing applicants than the Scandinavian countries, or Germany and Canada. Three different families we knew chose Canada because of the shorter wait. Other relatives, including several Holocaust survivors, chose Germany, partly because they could return to Prague more easily should things change. However, after the Soviet occupation, Czechoslovakia became one of the most brutal, authoritarian, and isolationist regimes of the Communist bloc.

It seems to me that many of the Czechs who left due to the events of 1968 were similar in many ways to the Czechs, including my parents and relatives, who fled the Communist coup in February 1948.

What have we really learned? Can past migrations help us understand what’s happening in Ukraine today? Ukrainians continue to leave their homeland as long as the war continues. By August 2022, at least five million men, women, and children have left for Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Germany, Finland, and other destinations. Will they settle in any of these countries, or do most want to return to their homeland? We don’t yet know who they are, but certainly there is a substantial group of professionals and well-educated persons who strongly prefer democracy to a dictatorship. The country is already experiencing a “brain-drain”—we don’t know now how extensive it will become.

In each historical case—Czechoslovakia in 1948 and 1968 and Ukraine in 2022—a much larger and militarily strong country invaded the territory of a smaller democratic nation. The citizens of the attacked country suffered the most and they had to flee their homes. Their nation lost the skills and the contributions of several generations.

© 2022, Peter Stein. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.