Prologue: Into the Unknown
Will we be safe? That was the underlying question
in my mind, as I sat in our Munich apartment, thinking about the trip my
husband, Walter, and I planned to take behind the infamous Iron Curtain. Admittedly, my unsettled sense was partly rooted in our recent move from the New Jersey suburbs to a cosmopolitan European city: I was still trying to navigate that wrenching shift.
The dangers inherent in this trip appeared undeniable. The Cold War was still a threatening reality. The Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe with a sharp dividing line through the middle of Germany and Europe. Beyond those closely guarded borders were millions of people cowed by the fear that informants could, at any moment, destroy their
lives. Our trip would take us into the middle of Communist society: into
Czechoslovakia and Poland, through East Germany.
I tried to quiet my anxieties by reminding myself that Soviet President Gorbachev’s Glasnost (openness) policy had brought hope of Communism loosening its grip on Eastern Europe. But as I turned on the BBC TV news that evening, images of heavily armed policemen attacking peaceful Solidarity demonstrators in
Poland underscored the continuing dangers.
A complicating factor: Walter worked at the Belarus Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (commonly referred to as the Radios or RFE/RL). I knew those broadcasts had been continuously jammed by the Soviets, but I hadn’t thought much about any possible danger related to Walter’s work, until my first visit to the Munich headquarters last fall. There, I learned that several Radios colleagues had been murdered, presumably by Soviet agents.
The main reason for our trip was to visit Walter’s relatives in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Walter was born in the then-Polish city of Wilno, (Vilnia in Belarusian, and now called Vilnius, as the capital of Lithuania), but his family identified closely with their Belarusian heritage. Because Walter’s father, Jan Stankievich, worked actively for Belarusian independence, he fled the on-coming Soviets at the start of World War II. Walter’s mother (Mary Novak Stankievich) then took Walter and his two brothers to live in relative safety with her family in Prague. Walter had strong memories of his nurturing Czech relatives. Consequently, with the more liberated atmosphere that Glasnost promised, he wanted to risk visiting them.
Most of my information on Eastern Europe came from the news and spy stories. However, International Relations had been my minor at college, so I’d been following the Cold War closely for some time. The idea of going behind the Iron Curtain - to see how valid my impressions were - intrigued and fascinated me, even while it created apprehension over our safety.
That evening, we sat in our quiet reading mode after dinner: I, with a Le Carre novel in hand; Walter, with reams of daily news reports to digest. It was a furnished apartment provided by the Radios, but made to feel like home with decorations of our own, including an Austrian wood sculpture of a poacher and a minimalistic Chinese painting of vegetables.
My thoughts were distracted from the novel, for I needed to get my concerns in the open before we actually finalized plans. So I broached the question: “Walter, I was just thinking about the trip, and wondering whether we might have any problems with the Soviets, because of your family history. Do you think they’ll be aware of us - that we might be followed or harassed in some way?”
He laid his papers down on the coffee table, as he looked up with a frown on his round Slavic face. “Oh come on, Joanne, you read too many spy stories. The Radios approved our trip. I don’t think they’d have done that, if they felt we’d be in danger.”
“I guess things are getting better now, with Glasnost and all,” I replied.
“This trip is important to me,” he asserted. “I haven’t seen my Prague relatives since we left in such a
hurry in ’45 (when the Soviet troops entered the city). Cousin Mirek said Aunt Anichka is ill. I feel like we need to go there now, while we have the chance.” He was thoughtful for a minute, then added: “You know, we can’t be sure how long this openness will last. It could be short-lived, like the ’68 Prague Spring.”
That struck a nerve with me, but I kept quiet. The truth was: a hard-line Soviet crackdown could happen at any time. And I didn’t want to be in Eastern Europe if it did. On the other hand, I didn’t really want
to give in to my fears, either. I upbraided myself: Joanne, you need to stop this nonsense. You’re letting your fears and imagination rule you. Walter’s probably right; the Soviets may not even notice us traveling through. So just go on the trip and enjoy it – and leave your safety in Higher hands.
I’d made my decision. It was time to move forward. “I certainly understand you wanting to visit family while we’re in Europe. Okay then, let’s get this itinerary planned out.” I picked up maps of Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia and started marking them, since I was going to be the main navigator on the trip. It would be my responsibility to make sure no wrong turn inadvertently took us where foreigners weren’t allowed. Recently, a tourist had been jailed for that same mistake.
As we talked about the Prague part of the trip, Walter cautioned me: “Now remember, if anyone asks, we’re just visiting my ailing aunt Anichka. It might cause the others difficulties, if it’s known we’re seeing
them as well.”
Walter must have noted the concern in my eyes. He came over, fluffed my short white hair, put a reassuring arm around me, and said, “We’ll be fine.” I leaned into his quiet strength and some of my tenseness began to dissipate.
When Walter ambled off to his study, I hunkered down in the deep, brown velour sofa in the living room. I thought back to my sheltered childhood on a small farm in Washington State. I remembered myself as a pre-teen, day-dreaming, as I swung back and forth on an old tire, tied to the cherry tree in the back yard. My aspiration was to someday live in sophisticated New York City; maybe even travel to ancient cities in Europe, and have exciting adventures. However, until I was 18, I’d never traveled more than 100 miles from that farm and small hometown.
This life in Europe seemed like a culmination of my childhood dreams. But, now that the trip into what might be “enemy territory” was almost upon us, my thoughts kept shifting between anxiety and anticipation.