PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Aug. 24 (UPI) — The Big Dipper accompanied me the entire way from Weinheim, Germany, to Prague — a six-hour drive down the Autobahn A6. My thoughts were thrown back in time. Remarkable changes have taken place since the fall of communism 20 years ago.
I had taken the drive many times from Heidelberg to Pardubice in the early ’90s. It was a drive that used to take me anywhere from 10-12 hours because there were limited highways. The communists did not want the West connected to the East. Trucks travelling down the country roads in those early days also slowed traffic immensely.
This time I was traveling back to Germany, heading to the wedding of a young friend of long standing. Now in his 30s, I had met Ruben de Graaf’s family in Ludwigshafen — where my mother was born — in 1994. It was actually the family cat Hagar who had come sauntering down to meet my cat DB. One day I walked in to find Hagar stuck in my 200 year old curtains. He had climbed through the tipped-window. Like all cats, he was on the prowl. And my cat became Hagar’s babe.
A long and deep friendship began between me and the de Graaf family. I would report back to them often about the changes in Central Europe. Walter was a businessman. Rosie worked for a prominent department store in Mannheim. The two teenage sons, Ruben and Daniel — both now partnered with former East Germans — became an ersatz family for me.
In the early ’90s I was involved in the changes in the Czech Republic and other emerging economies. I was in my early 30s — the same age Ruben and Daniel are now. I developed lasting and deep ties to Czechs and others. My own family hailed from Central Europe and Germany.
I have been interviewing people about their experiences and Cold War recollections.
A former news editor and general manager of a national German TV station recounted the story in Berlin recently of his meeting Marcus Wolf, the GDR’s top spy (“The spymasters’ spymaster,” Atlantic Eye, Nov. 14, 2006, UPI). Wolf had come from a Jewish Schwabian family. Wolf and Horst — the news editor — had intense discussions in 2004 — two years before Wolf’s death — because they both used the same spa in Italy.
Wolf was deeply disturbed by how he had been treated at the fall of communism. He had tried to give a speech in October 1989 in Berlin to the freedom movement, two weeks before the fall of the wall, and was booed by a crowd numbering many tens of thousands. Wolf had already left his post in 1987. Wolf’s book “Troika” talks about his experiences. Wolf’s family had left Nazi Germany for Russia — lest we forget, a U.S. ally at the time. Wolf showed self-critique. He had a “Buergerlichen Disputationsgeist.”
At a private good-bye honoring his retirement, Peter Raeder, the Norwegian senior diplomat and outgoing ambassador to Prague, introduced me to Jan Hajek. Hajek’s father had been the Czechoslovak foreign minister in the government under Dubcek’s reform Communists in the late ’60s. Jan, the son, had left Czechoslovakia in the 1980s for Norway because the secret police constantly harassed him. Czech Communists mostly despised the reform Communists.
Jan Hajek, an architect, showed great pain at the legacy of his father. He was conflicted by the tendency of people like me to lump all communists into one kettle (a complicated matter I will cover in more detail in a later column). Jan did not justify communism. After all he left. But a son loves his father. And his father also paid a price later during the deep days when the Prague Spring was trounced by Warsaw Pact troops.
In the late ’90s I met Boris Pankin, the last Soviet foreign minister. Pankin was also the last Soviet ambassador to Prague. Pankin was the highest-ranking Soviet diplomat to stand against the putsch against Gorbachev in the early ’90s. Pankin had stood down Czechoslovak troops who were preparing to put down the Velvet Revolution in 1989. He not only stood down the troops, he stood down the Czechoslovak government as well. Vaclav Havel, a hero in his own right, would become president of a free Czechoslovakia.
At lunch today with Maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy, his wife Dodi, the outgoing Canadian Ambassador Michael Calcott and my colleague Paul Andritzky, Ashkenazy recounted staying in London in 1963, “I did not defect, I just stayed behind.” He met his Icelandic wife in London. She was forced to become a Soviet citizen. “You are joining the freest country in the world,” the official had said to her. The same day Dodi secretly asked the Icelandic government for her passport back. “It will take a year,” the Icelanders said to her; 24 hours later she again had her passport.
Ashkenazy would give up his Soviet passport in protest of the Soviet invasion of Prague.
It would be 25 years before Ashkenazy would step foot in Moscow again.
Seven lives. Five stories. All interconnected by the Cold War.
(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A supporter of the anti-communist underground, he has advised political candidates and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)