Guest Columnist

Letter from Prague, 1968


The column “1968” by Joseph Pentheroudakis (May 2022) compelled this response. It is the first time in about 54 years that I have read of anyone else experiencing the same kind of thoughts and intense feelings as I had regarding Prague Spring.

My sister and I were on a 75-day minimal budget tour of much of eastern and western Europe, at an age that was hit very hard by the events of 1968.

We were in Prague for several days, troubled a bit by the ubiquitous loud speakers in public squares and by the fact that we could not turn off the radio in our dorm room and suspected it was also a listening device. Czechoslovakia was also the first country we had visited where our mail had been opened. A further detail was the griminess and emptiness of the commercial buildings.

But the rest of my memories are very different. It seemed that everywhere we walked in Prague, people would guess we were from the U.S. and stop us on the sidewalk to talk about Prague Spring and democratic socialism. I remember a lightness and maybe optimism and certainly joy. Each person made it very clear they believed in socialism, but a socialism based on democracy.

On the last evening five of us went to the oldest brewery in the city, built about 1400, for drinks and dinner. To our disappointment, the staff would not let us sit in the main section with other patrons, which we much preferred, and insisted on taking us to a large basement room by ourselves. The beer was some of the best I had ever tasted, so on that note we were reasonably happy.

Three other customers came in. The staff tried but were unable to keep them out. We were told they were a popular Czech actor, his wife and his sister-in-law, who was celebrating her name day.

After a while we got fairly tipsy and uninhibited and started singing. The actor asked if we could sing his favorite song — “John Brown’s Body,” an anti-slavery march sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” We could and did. They joined us in singing and then joined us at our table.

We talked for the next hour or two. All of a sudden, the actor shut us all up instantly. He indicated that we were being listened to. There was a lot of fear in the air and our party broke up soon after. The next morning, I had my first hangover. It was very much worth it.

We left Prague and soon crossed the eastern border for a 10-day stay in the USSR. The border crossing was hostile and worrisome. And then, for eight hours, we passed a convoy of troops headed to take over Czechoslovakia.

Soldiers had small bonfires by the side of the road and were obviously well prepared. Prague Spring and its hope were over. As a 32-year-old then, I remembered with anguish the self-immolation of Jan Palach several months later. His name blended with those of other heroes of 1968 as Prague Spring blended with Arab Spring and so many other bright openings extinguished decades later.

I wanted to somehow share these long ago but intense memories. The crushing of Prague and the often challenging time in the Soviet Union were followed by a grim visit to Poland, where Warsaw was being rebuilt mostly by hand after the unspeakable destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, the systematic destruction of Warsaw itself, among many eternal flames burning to memorialize WWII reprisal assassinations of Poles.

That summer of ‘68 and the rest of the year shaped so many of us, for good and ill. But among my most vivid memories of that time are those brief, almost ethereal visions of Prague Spring and what it promised.

Sharon Oswalt lives, loves and writes from Gig Harbor.