A Thanksgiving to Remember : Ten Years after Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" Ended Communist Rule, an American Recalls Witnessing That Momentous Event

Article excerpt

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a time of traditions and memories: turkey and dressing with cranberry sauce; mother's special pumpkin pie; perhaps a long journey to visit relatives; college football on television and touch football on the lawn.

But for me, Thanksgiving means memories of Prague: roast pork and bread dumplings with pickled cabbage salad on the side; mugs of foamy Czech beer; the snow-dusted spires of the Tyn Church; the romance of walking across the Charles Bridge at midnight without another soul in sight.

Every November for ten years, from 1983 through 1992, my husband, Tom, and I traveled to Prague for five days during the Thanksgiving holidays, as the escorts for a cultural tour sponsored by the University of Maryland's Munich Campus, where Tom was a professor. Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia (and later of the Czech Republic), was less than a day's drive from the campus in Germany. But the tour we took to Prague in November 1989 turned out to be much more than a standard sight-seeing trip: We arrived in the middle of a revolution.

Our busload of forty-five people left Munich early on Wednesday, November 22. Less than two weeks earlier, the Berlin Wall between East and West Germany had opened, and political unrest rapidly spread to other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia. Our tour group comprised several U.S. military and government employees stationed in Europe, as well as students from our university, all of whom had signed up for the trip before the East bloc began to crumble. But despite the instability and the uncertainty about what might happen in Prague, only a couple of people decided at the last minute not to go.

When we arrived in Prague that afternoon, the Czechs with whom we talked were very uneasy about the political situation. Glancing nervously about them as they spoke, they told us about the brutal police attack against peaceful demonstrators on the previous Friday, the subsequent strike by university students, the protest demonstrations that had occurred each day in Prague, and the general strike planned for the following Monday. Those events had already been reported on television in Germany, but suddenly they seemed much more immediate to us as our tour bus briefly drove past the mass of people gathering for that evening's demonstration in Wenceslas Square.

That afternoon, however, no one knew what might happen next. How long would the police refrain from using force once more against the demonstrators? Would the workers join the strike? Would the government decide the protest had gone too far--and use that as an excuse for even greater, more violent repression?

Vladimir, our Czech tour guide, whom Tom and I had known for several years, was visibly shaken. The events of that week had caused him to take up smoking again. Instead of making his usual announcements to the tour group about concert tickets and art exhibits, he solemnly informed us that all concerts were canceled and all galleries closed. Then he emphasized his most important advice to us: "Be careful--very careful. The secret police are everywhere. And if you see the riot police anywhere near a demonstration, get away--fast."

On previous tours to Prague we had always stayed at the Hotel Europa, an Art Nouveau--era building conveniently located on Wenceslas Square in the heart of Prague's commercial district. But in 1989 we were booked into a different hotel, far from the city's center, so it wasn't until the next day that we had an opportunity to see for ourselves what was actually happening downtown. Camera in hand, I headed straight for Wenceslas Square.

I had never seen anything like Prague on that Thursday morning. The towering equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas overlooking the square was covered with banners and posters: "No Violence," "Pluralism--Not Brutality," "Rude Pravo [the Communist Party newspaper] Lies," "Forty Years of Lies," "General Strike," "Resign! …