When he was younger, Jiri had been in the army - a tank unit. Afterward, he studied law here in Prague. About the time he was getting settled in his life he was ordered to go back to "the tank," but he had promised himself he never would, so he left his wife, Lanka, and traveled all over the country in hiding, so the army couldn't find him until it was safe to come home again.
Lanka sits next to Jiri as he explains all this over sandwiches in their apartment on Komsomolska Street. From time to time she reaches over and says something quietly to Jiri. Her blonde hair is tied back in a ponytail. Eight-year-old Radka serves us appetizers. Adela, the 21/2-year-old, ventures out from her mother's knee on mini-expeditions to Rachel across the room and steals everyone's attention in the process.I ask Jiri to tell us a little about Lanka.
Like him, she, too, grew up near the old city of Tabor about 60 miles south of Prague. Before the war her family had been very influential. Her grandfather owned a large factory that made spark plugs.
During the war, the Americans advanced into Czechoslovakia as far as Pilsner, but agreed with the Soviets to go no further. So the main occupation of the country was from the east, resulting in Soviet control by 1948.
Most of the influential people in the country were stripped of their wealth and position. Lanka's grandfather's factory was taken over by the government. He was sent to prison for two years, at the end of which he was released only on the condition that he move to Zelezny-Brod, a provincial city in the mountainous northern region of the country. He had no options. He could not return to Tabor, or go anywhere else in the country.
It was difficult for him to find work in Zelezny-Brod. He did whatever he could, sweeping streets and doing odd jobs to make ends meet. He still lives there, living on a meager pension.
Little did I imagine that within a few days we would visit Zelezny-Brod. In fact, we spent two nights there at the Hotel Kristal with rooms that faced toward the town square and the city hall. We hadn't known when we left Prague that we would end up in Zelezny-Brod, so we didn't make contact with Jiri and Lanka's family. With our inability to speak the language, it would have been difficult anyway.
But while we were there I thought of them a lot.
I remember one afternoon, especially, when we drove into Poland and back again to Zelezny-Brod over narrow back-country roads. As we neared "home," the road dropped through a hilly farming area where log and white stucco farmhouses proliferated in the landscape. Rounding a curve, I saw off at a distance a family working together in a small field between the trees. A man was going up and down the rows with a horse and plow. Behind him, the rest of the family knelt in the newly turned soil planting seeds. A couple of children too small to work sat in the meadow picking flowers.
For some reason I thought of Jiri and Lanka in Prague.
And then that evening just before dusk a brass band began to congregate nearthe town square, next to the river. Within an hour a crowd had gathered on the bridge, and we could tell something was afoot.
Upon inquiry, we learned that today was a holiday - Liberation Day.
As we stood on the bridge and watched fireworks with the people of Zelezny-Brod, I kept thinking of Lanka's grandfather and the end of the war, and the 40 years since then, and the occupiers from the east who stripped the country of its most valuable resource - the people.
If I were to make a general statement about the mood of the country as it is now it would be best described by a comment of Jiri's a few days earlier at Tabor, when, as he showed us through the tired streets of the city he grew up in, he said, "You are visiting us in a very special time - a time between. It is no longer as it was, but when you come again, it will be very different."
While the people of Czechoslovakia realize that the struggle to rebuild their country will be long and difficult, many of them, like Lanka's grandfather, have at least been able to see the coming of the dawn.