A Childhood of Laughter and Forgetting

UnnamedJana Prikryl at n+1:

One day in Czechoslovakia, not long after I was born, during the gray decade that was the ’70s, my 6-year-old brother came home from school and shared what he’d learned: “Lenin was a kind person. He liked children.” Those words have acquired the force of a proverb in our family: we assure each other that Lenin liked children whenever one of us lets fly with a statement that seems dangerously optimistic. The following may fall into that category: Czechoslovakia before 1989, when the Communist regime fell, was not a bad place to be a child. For my parents, who spent a large part of their adulthoods in the country, it wasn’t all free health care and underground rock ‘n’ roll. As everyone knows by now, most people had to keep their opinions to themselves, do without traveling abroad, wait in line for bananas, accept overt and subtle limitations in their lives. As soon as kids started going to school, they too slipped under the arm of the state—witness my brother’s first-grade indoctrination. In general, though, a political system that thwarted the better instincts and ambitions of adults seems, perversely, to have been mostly congenial and comfortable for children.

I was 5 years old and my brother was 12 when my family fled the country. Instead of driving to the Dalmatian Coast with our camping gear in the trunk as we did for a few weeks every other summer, we made our way to Zagreb. My parents had heard that Czechs bound for Yugoslavia sometimes disappeared and resurfaced in more attractive countries like Italy, Germany, and France, and without quite knowing how, they hoped to do the same.

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