A Childhood of Laughter and Forgetting

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. In the Croatian capital my father phoned an old friend in Austria who told him that we should apply for four-day tourist visas to Austria and then try to cross the border “legally”—even though our Czech passports were valid only for travel to Yugoslavia and we might be sent home, where my parents would be arrested. I remember just one strobelike flash of this journey: our car is inching forward in the queue toward the border, and my father reaches into the back to hand my brother a wad of bills to stash in his shoe. As a 5-year-old I hardly grasped our predicament, but I got a fright seeing that furtive transaction. I understood what it meant from years of soaking up fairy tales: if anything went wrong here, my brother and I would be on our own.

That moment acts as a hinge in my childhood, closing the door on one set of recollections and keeping them intact. The sweetly intimate memories of my first five years in Czechoslovakia—close-ups of rhyming storybooks, flickering birthdays, favorite cousins—appear in my mind against a drab background of sooty avenues, elevators pungent with urine, shop clerks who should not be so rude to my parents. How do you square such contradictory memories? Can a sunny childhood occur in a politically overcast place? And is it possible to talk about memories that predate a mature command of language (a language you no longer live in) without distorting those memories?

A recent UNICEF report on the well-being of children in “rich countries” has found, among other things, that Czech children are faring better than those in wealthier parts of the world, including the United States, Great Britain, and France. The Communist government is gone from the Czech Republic, but to various degrees, socially and culturally, the old regime’s legacy persists, and I’ve been tempted to trace reflections of my childhood in the new report’s findings. It’s with some discomfort that I do this. I remember very few full-blown anecdotes from my first five years in Czechoslovakia; instead I possess hundreds of mental snapshots, detailed and lush with the moods that originally ran through them. What folly to compare that old photo album with the numbers and terse captions of a social survey. But failed attempts can be illuminating.

The study measures the welfare of children in six categories, including material well-being, health, education, and slippery categories like “subjective well-being.” It appears that the Czech Republic ranks above countries like the U.S. because it does relatively well by children in four areas: material well-being, health and safety, education, and “behaviors and risks,” like sexual activity and drug use. (The C.R. performs poorly in two categories: personal relationships and “subjective well-being.” As I said, it is not an optimistic nation.) Some of the report’s quantitative findings are peculiar. The “income poverty” of households, for instance, is reported for each country relative to its own standards of poverty: in other words, if a smaller share of Czech children live below the Czech median poverty line than the share of American children below the American median poverty line, then Czechs come out on top-even though American incomes average far higher than those of Czechs. The method is standard practice in defining poverty, its being to expose “inequality and exclusion” within individual societies. By these standards, Czech kids seem lucky, placing near the top of the survey, above their counterparts in wealthy countries including France, Australia, Canada, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. (which placed last in this category).

But the only economic advantage to being a child in the Czech Republic is that your peers are all about as poor as you are. When 11-, 13-, and 15-year-olds were asked about their possessions—Does your family own a car? Do you have your own bedroom? How many times did your family go on holiday in the past year? How many computers does your family own?—Czechs scored next to last, with 40 percent of Czech children reporting low family affluence. By comparison, only about 13 percent of American children reported low affluence.

Judging child welfare according to numerical markers obscures as much as exposes the facts. My family was restricted in its travels under Communism, but we, like a great many Czechs, had a cottage in the country. It was tucked between a forest and a meadow in the Beskydy Mountains, an hour’s drive from our apartment in the grim industrial town of Ostrava. A Czech kid’s life at the cottage was sharply, agreeably distinct from life in the city. Our little retreat hinted at adventure while presenting absolute stability: each weekend our chata welcomed my brother and me with the same narrow staircase creaking up to our gabled bedroom, where a pine tree sent its shadows up past the window. The place was snug enough for a hobbit. After we left Czechoslovakia, our family holidays stretched into long, curiosity-fueled expeditions: we drove south through the United States and clockwise around Western Europe and north and east through Canada. But a childhood near that pine tree in the cottage window—the classic Czech childhood, even after 1989—while narrower, might have had its own pleasures.

I sometimes think Czech culture during the Communist era was engineered with children in mind. With only 10 million citizens gathered under a paternalistic regime, the national “conversation” was all too coherent and willfully simplistic. When Communists came to power in 1948, they did their best to erase traces of modernist Czech artists and writers, the Surrealist poets and playwrights, Cubist painters, and minimalist designers who couldn’t be made to parrot a single national identity. The new official Czech culture was to be folksy and “accessible.” That this state-mandated culture fostered a kind of childishness, that it endeavored to reduce grown citizens to wards of the state, doesn’t mean it was necessarily appealing to children, though I do recall a uniformly cute aesthetic in posters and illustrations and magazines and TV shows—a daily wallpaper that seemed to me delightful.

As a little kid I was devoted to a Czech singer named Karel Gott, whose media presence in the late ’70s was due in large part to his public support of the Husák government’s quashing of Charter 77. Last summer when I visited my sister in Prague, I came down for breakfast one day to find my 4- and 6-year-old nieces in front of the TV, starstruck by Gott playing a prince in a pohádka (fairy tale) from the ’70s. They beamed at him with the same weird mixture of childish glee and protosexual attraction that I’d felt twenty-five years earlier. I found it hard to imagine an American child caught in a piece of cultural amber in quite the same way: a little girl today going gaga over Donny Osmond instead of Justin Timberlake?

Czech culture still has a slow metabolism compared to that of the U.S. and other wealthy Western nations (many of which happened to land in the bottom third of the UNICEF study). It’s hopeless to debate whether this is good or bad for kids; it can be wonderful to grow up imbibing a small, self-contained world of books and films and personalities, one that has long defined itself with or against a state-imposed standard. And in some cases, the kitsch adored by Czech kids before 1989 was complicated. For instance, the word pohádka refers not just to the traditional fairy tales of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, but to a genre of relatively high-budget Czech films, the best ones made in the 1950s and 1970s, that presented wry and psychologically sophisticated versions of children’s stories, usually featuring famous actors and musical numbers. Today these films still enjoy tremendous ratings when shown on Czech TV. Before 1989, they occupied a middle zone between the simplistic official culture and its subversive fringes (though the films were never officially out of favor). Their plots were based on simple stories every “worker” could understand, but the filmed versions were often open to ambiguous political readings.

My favorite was Tři Oříšky pro Popelku (Three Acorns for Cinderella, 1973), in which Cinderella is far from the victimized young waif of the traditional story. Popelka, played by the gorgeous Libuše Šafránková, seems to submit to her stepmother’s bullying, but when she finishes her chores, she changes into a boy’s hunting outfit, mounts her white horse, and rides into the snowbound forest, where she becomes a willful tomboy, a rogue. Her independence must have been especially appealing in its time, a few years after the Prague Spring. And the film’s depiction of natural landscapes, which fill the screen with clean expanses and pine forests where Popelka is able to conceal herself, also seems politically relevant. Before the Prince comes along, nature offers Popelka an escape from the opprobrium of her everyday life. These odd, bewitching movies contain a special irony: here are Czech filmmakers and viewers quietly resisting the oppression and infantilization of the state through entertainments meant precisely for children—raising the question of just how effective this form of resistance could be. At least the kids lucked out.

Extended families were very close when I was growing up in Czechoslovakia. Before 1989, the country’s economic situation forced relatives to rely on each other more, perhaps, than did families in wealthier parts of the world. Grandparents played an active role in kids’ lives: generally both parents had full-time jobs and grandmothers took care of the children. The UNICEF report suggests that some of that cohesiveness may have survived past 1989, perhaps influencing how close parents and children still are today. Czech parents seem to communicate well with their kids: the country is near the top in the report’s survey of 15-year-olds who say their parents spend time “just talking to them” several times a week (73 percent in the C.R. versus 46 percent in Canada).

This is especially impressive because the Czech divorce rate is just under 50 percent, the highest in Europe. The UNICEF survey shows that the C.R. has one of the highest percentages of children living in stepfamilies. I’m afraid my family is exemplary in this regard: my parents, all but one of my aunts and uncles, and about half of my cousins have been divorced at least once. Our family tree has always seemed to me an urbanely sophisticated plant, a Cubist version of the traditional oak; and most members of our family—even the ones who are legally no longer part of it—remain on fairly good terms with each other. Growing up I didn’t have the sense that ended marriages and blended families amounted to “broken homes”: Czech culture itself, perhaps tacitly encouraged before 1989 by a regime that didn’t mind the atomization of a potentially powerful unit like the family, seemed indifferent to the growing rate of divorce. As far as I know, the children of divorce in Czechoslovakia endured less schoolyard teasing and official hand-wringing over the shape of their families than did children in the United States (in the era of Kramer v. Kramer, at any rate), where the divorce rate has been similar.

The easy intimacy of Czech families has an unfortunate flipside in Czech society: the unkindness of strangers and acquaintances. Until very recently, the cashier who sold you milk at the corner store felt no incentive to smile or even acknowledge you. Such constant dyspepsia is catching, and even the UNICEF report hints at a certain gruffness in the Czech character. The saddest finding here is that Czech children make up roughly the lowest percentage, 43 percent, of those who say they find their peers “kind and helpful” (versus, say, 81 percent in Switzerland). The Czech Republic has the second-highest percentage of children who say they got into a fight in the past year—48 percent versus 25 percent in Finland. (The highest is Hungary.) And the C.R. has the second-highest percentage (topped by Iceland) of 15-year-olds who agree with the statement, “I feel like an outsider or left out of things.” I imagine these figures would be even higher if the poll had been taken closer to the end of the Communist era, when rudeness was a standard-issue armature one wore in public—even as a kindly folk aesthetic was imposed on culture by the state.

My own acquaintance with Czech meanies (yes, I’ve known a few) was probably an early sign that continuing to grow up in that place, in the 1980s, would not have been as charmed an experience as my first five years had been. My parents’ young adulthoods did not bode well for the future of their children either: in their youth my mom and dad had been prevented from attending medical school as punishment for their “bourgeois” backgrounds (my mom’s father had been a lawyer, and my dad’s grandfather, ironically, a dean of medicine). In 1969 my dad, by then working as an engineer, secured the necessary visas to accept a research position in Glasgow, but he was inexplicably turned back at the border, arrested a few days later, and interrogated regularly for several months. After that, his chances of leaving the country legally seemed nil, and later it seemed just as doubtful that, among other things, my brother and I would be allowed to attend the universities of our choice. The future must have appeared bleak for my parents, who are coupon-clipping, list-making, goal-setting types, to have fled with their two children on little more than a hunch. Luckily we made it, and my childhood in Czechoslovakia sublimed into nostalgia for pohádky and a pine tree in a cottage window. During a visit to the Czech Republic in the 1990s, my parents and I went to see the old chata, no longer ours (we hadn’t reclaimed it when the government offered restitutions). Where the pine tree had stood, once reaching to twice the height of the cottage, was a fresh-looking stump.

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