It was 60 years ego that my wife and I escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia. We didn't tell anybody about our escape plans, not even my wife's parents, to protect them from the accusation of aiding and abetting in our escape.
Instead, we told them that we were going on a three-day hiking trip in the High-Tatra Mountains. As we had anticipated, when we didn't return from the trip as scheduled, in panic, they run to the police. They were asking them to help to locate us. They feared that we were lost in the wilderness.
It didn't take long for the secret police to figure out that we escaped. My wife's parents were harshly interrogated for days. Then they were ordered to register at the police station every day for months. Their ordeal ended only when they presented a letter from my wife, explaining that she had no choice but to follow me into exile. It took 10 more years before the Communist authorities permitted my wife's mother to visit us in America. Her husband had to remain in Prague as a hostage.
To protect our close friends, we had never mentioned to them that we intended to escape. Subsequently, to shield them from retribution, we avoided contacting them from the West. During the decades of Communist rule, we lost contact.
Recently, Vlad Sobel, a friend who serves as professor at the Prague campus of New York State University, happened to come upon the obituary of a noted professor at the venerable Charles University. He was one of our close friends we left behind.
With a little detective work, Sobel located our friend's daughter, Marie. She was living in Prague, and we got in touch.
"I was born when my daddy was 44 years old. So, I don't remember much about his young years," she wrote. "But I would very much like to learn about those years."
I wrote her back that my memories of her father, Vladimir, are vivid and fond. "Even as a young man, he was very bright, studious, kind and friendly. Everybody in our 'gang' liked him a lot. We had gatherings every weekend at the apartment of our mutual friends, Jindrich and Dasha. Everybody brought some food. As a foreign correspondent for Hungarian newspapers, I was the only one with some money, thus I was paying for the beer. We had great debates about the arts, literature, music and sports. Not, about politics or religion, two dangerous subjects. We played the guitar, and in spite of the repressive regime, we managed to carve out some good time."
In her reply, Marie, explained that in the 1960s there was a short period, "socialism with a human face," when her father, "whose life was tied to books, knowledge and academic excellence," could realize his teaching plans at the university. "But after 1968, following the Soviet invasion, the same old Communists from the '50s returned back to the University. My daddy's position became very perilous. He was close to becoming an unemployed person. ... Because of his physical condition, TB in his youth, he limped and walked with a cane, it would have been very difficult for him to get another job. Many intellectuals fired from their jobs, became manual workers."
She noted that after the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989, the situation changed, and Vladimir became the deputy head of the department of Romance Languages at Charles University. "It was a very bright period in his professional life, He published and translated books. He was in the center of action."
Revisiting the past is not easy. I would have liked to tell Vladimir how proud I am that he left such a rich academic legacy. Now, at least, I was able to tell it to his daughter.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.
(Editor's note: For more on this subject, read Frank Shatz's book, "Reports from a Distant Place" ($12.95), available at Books-Plus and from Amazon.com.)