When I was very young, I believed that Olympians from the Soviet Union or Soviet block states would be punished if they failed to win a medal.
This was the late 60s and 70s. Back then, I would still play in the occasional bomb shelter dug in the occasional family backyard. I remember nuclear attack drills in grade school. The news was full of disarmament talks and Soviet military aggression and nuclear war and communist threats spreading around the world.
For many Americans during the Cold War, the televised Olympic games offered one of the few glimpses behind the Iron Curtain. And this made the Olympics mean much more than a simple athletic competition. It seemed that the entire superiority of nations, culture and values hinged on whether the Soviet Block countries beat the US and Western countries in these games. And my child’s logic reasoned that with so much at stake for civilization as we knew, it must be especially bad for communist state athletes if they lost. Because surely those scary, militant authorities behind the iron curtain would be looming and punish anyone who did not win and bring glory to their country.
I truly had no idea what life was like behind the Wall. I suspect very few Americans then understood more than we were led to believe.
Forty years later, as I travel behind the Iron Curtain for the first time to the former Soviet Satellite state of the Czech Republic, I’m slowly catching glimpses of a history and the upheaval that people survived in the last century.
We are in the town of Cesky Krumlov, deep in Bohemia near the Austrian and German border. This town is a Unesco World Heritage Site … dominated by a massive castle and preserved as it was in the 15th century. Truly beautiful. Truly beleaguered by tourists.
But it wasn’t the castle or the museum or the gardens or the historic churches that brought back the memories of my early impressions of life behind the Iron Curtain. It was a small photography museum in the restored home of a local photographer, who lived through the turmoil and documented life in thousands in this community with his early black and white photographs.
Joseph Seidl, and later his son, built a photography studio in their home. They produced postcards for the tourist industry, took local portraits and documented social occasions of life in the town and local villages on the Czech/Austrian/German border. Seidl images are here.
During their lifetimes, they ran a prosperous business after CZ was granted independence after WWI and experienced a huge boom in culture and their economy. When the allies caved to Hitler in 1938 and paved the way for Nazi invasion and occupation in WWII, Seidl was imprisoned for 7 months for “saying treasonous things that could be harmful against the Reich”. The elder Seidl died in 1935.
After the war, Czechoslovakia was turned over to the Soviets, and the younger Seidl’s fiancé was expelled to Germany along with over 2 million other residents with German heritage. Eventually his fiancé was allowed to returned and they married and lived happily together … though by then it was too late for children.
Three years after the Soviets took CZ, the Communist party took over the government. The Seidl’s business was nationalized, along with the land previously owned by the noble families and factories, all to be redistributed for the benefit of the state. By the 1950s the country was bankrupt.
As I listened to this history, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live here in this country during decades of turmoil. Evidence is everywhere … the former Jewish communities that we biked through south of Prague that were eradicated during WWII as residents were sent to concentration camps. The brewery whose owners sided with the Nazi’s and were later killed after the war as sympathizers, the brewery turned over to the state. And the enormous agricultural fields, very different than the rest of Europe – the size of huge corporate farming fields in US Midwest – that must have been tilled at the expense of countless homes and trees and changed the ancient landscape forever.
I try to imagine: what must it have been like to live through those times? So many upheavals in everything you take for granted. War. Then independence … with its hope and opportunity. Then War and occupation and genocides. Then communist upheaval. Then finally … independence and change again in 1989. And each transition had its own casualties and brutalities and changed lives forever.
Perhaps this is the first glimpse of understanding life behind the Iron Curtain. I would love to understand more. I’ll keep working at it.
If a visitor from abroad traveled through my rural US hometown twenty years from now, how would they reflect on the life we lived? The life we took for granted as children. How would those distant travelers view an age when normal life included children hiding under their desks to protect themselves from nuclear attack? And the Olympic Games being political events less about the lifelong feats of athletes and more about grandstanding for political dominance? Humanity has a way of making the abnormal … normal. It’s how we survive.
Traveling and learning means picking up nuggets of information as you go, trying to string them together to make sense of a complicated story.
But ultimately many stories are not understandable unless you lived through it. And even then, that story that might not even seem extraordinary by those who actually survived it.