An Interrupted Flight
Dana Roman (+Video)
I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia. When the Soviets invaded in the 60s, my husband and I decided to leave. I hid fifty American dollars in the best warm boots I ever had, hunted for at the last minute. When the plane stopped in Berlin, we shook with fear, worrying that we might be imprisoned if they knew we were leaving for good.
In a communist country, any goods—including shoes—were something you had to ‘hunt’ for, not shop for. We got used to that word; it was actually very exciting to find the right pair of shoes after a few years of hunting.
My parents came of age in a country that was free, democratic and prosperous. They taught me to love it, even while they watched it deteriorating under communism. I loved my life there, and not having goods in stores, or occasionally even food, was never a big deal. There were bigger problems. Even when I was a small child, my parents taught me not to say in public the things I heard at home, or they might end up political prisoners. And I knew that certain books hiding in the back row of our bookshelf had to stay hidden if a visitor came. To live in a free country must be hard to imagine what ‘freedom’ actually is since you’ve always had it. In communist countries, people were scared of each other since there was an informer on every corner.
The most terrifying time in Czechoslovakia was in the 1950s. Things improved during the 60s when I was a teenager—the Iron Curtain opened slightly, and people were allowed to travel abroad. My husband and I got married in 1967 and spent our honeymoon hitchhiking around England. We could have stayed there and never returned home, but we had a new hope for our country. Everybody was elated, and we wanted to be part of the big change to more freedom.
Unfortunately, the Soviet Union did not want freedom, and in the summer of 1968, they crossed our border with thousands of tanks and soldiers to occupy our tiny country. Other countries looked on in horror, but none of them dared to stand up to Russians. The only help they dared give was to welcome immigrants with open arms. Having lost all hope, Czechoslovakian people ran away in the thousands.
We were taught in school that lots of people in the west sleep under bridges and that life was harder than in communist countries. We did not believe anything the propaganda fed us, but we still had this nagging feeling that if we emigrated, since we had no money, no jobs, and no friends or relatives abroad, we actually might end up sleeping under a bridge! It was not easy to leave our country and our loving families, but we wanted children and wanted them to grow up in a free country, without lies. We finally decided to go to Canada.
I knew that I would need warm boots in Canada, so I went hunting—and was lucky enough to find some! They were beautiful, lined with shearling, very warm and very expensive—but that didn’t matter. Czech crowns had no value outside our country, so there was no point in taking any with us. Our uncle gave us fifty American dollars, and I hid the money in the sole of my new boot. At last, we boarded the plane from Prague to Stockholm. It was supposed to be a direct flight, but the plane landed unexpectedly in East Berlin. All the passengers had to get out. In front of the plane stood a line of soldiers, guns pointing at our shoes. We were both shaking, believing they had stopped the plane because somehow, they found out we were planning to stay abroad—which would be treason. After about an hour of waiting, to our great relief, we were sent back to the plane; they must have been looking for somebody else.
I wore my boots in Stockholm for three months until the country of our dreams—Canada—accepted us. In Canada, we both found jobs in our profession in two or three weeks, and I could buy any boots I wanted, but I wore those precious ones for the next fifteen years.
DANA ROMAN came to Canada in 1969 from communist Czechoslovakia, shortly after Soviet armies entered the country. She wasn’t able to visit her family until 20 years later. Dana has worked as an architect, textile designer, and business owner. She moved to Canmore 20 years ago and is now a full-time studio artist, having won many awards, including ‘Canmore Mayor’s Spotlight on the Arts Award.’ Her triptych ‘The River’ hangs in the Council Chamber at Canmore Town Hall. She has three children and five grandchildren.