The Beginning of the End
By : Hana Dubova, written 2004
Every time I watch a parade, a shudder goes through me. Even the peaceful St. Patrick’s Day parade on Fifth Avenue or the colorful Shriner’s parade, where grown up men act like children only to look foolish and silly, gives me a feeling of fear and anxiety.
Although many years have passed, the sight of people marching en mass is still frightening to me and brings back the memory of the German Nazi Army on their tanks and on foot marching into our land in 1939.
After Munich, when Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, so generously disposed of Czechoslovakia, we lived in a constant fear and hope. Fear that the inevitable war would break out soon; hope that our country might not be involved, that Sudetenland would remain the only part of Czech soil under the Hitler regime.
Despite the “Anschluss” of Austria and what happened to her when the Nazis took over, we refused to take it as an example. This can only happen to Austria, but not to us! Not to our republic! Our government was an example of democracy to the entire Europe.
Thomas G. Masaryk, the founder of Czechoslovakia, our first president, was not only a politician but a philosopher and a world figure. Even America, the big democratic land, on several occasions extended invitations to lecture over here. His pupil, Dr. Edward Beneš, our second president, followed his policy completely. No, Beneš would never submit to the Nazis.
Our land, which after 300 years of Hapsburg suppression finally gained its independence after the First World War, could not lose it so fast. Our freedom could not last short 21 years. We were just getting established, getting mature.
Nightly my father turned the radio on, keeping it low, very low, listening to the BBC and nightly my mother called : “Go to bed Josi! Don’t wake the children!”
We children pretended to sleep, but sensed that something of great importance was going on. Although our parents tried to keep the home in its normal routine we knew that things were changing. Dinners were often eaten in silence. Father exchanged meaningful looks with mother, the significance of which we children did not understand.
In the home, in the streets, in school, the same tense somber atmosphere prevailed.
I went to a French school, Gymnase Real Francais du Prague. All subjects were taught in French; the teachers were Frenchmen or Swiss. Little by little the teachers started to drop out. First the mathematics professor, then the history professor, then the chemistry professor returned to their native lands in the middle of the term. Finally the principal left and the school, although supported by the Czech government, was pronounced “temporarily closed.” “Temporarily closed” became permanently closed as four weeks later, Czechoslovakia was occupied, and even after the war the school never reopened. Four weeks later our beautiful, modern school became the headquarters of the Gestapo and after the war the headquarters of the Cominform.
But how little did I know about the fatal future the last day I went to school. As usual I took the streetcar, my schoolbag on my back, as was the custom, rushed the last minute into the schoolyard to find all other pupils gathered there. We played as usual waiting for the bell to sound. It was way overdue to ring. We started to get nervous, something must be brewing, no teachers were in sight either.
Finally an hour later, an official came and announced there would be “no school,” not today, nor tomorrow and we would be notified by mail about further developments.
“Hurray, no school today! Not tomorrow either! Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!” Embarrassing each other, shouting, yelling, we kept repeating : “No School, no school.” Wonderful, hilarious, unheard of, no school in the middle of the term. Joyful, happy, I arrived home, shouting out loud at the door :
“Mother, no school, not today, nor tomorrow!”
“Why?” my mother asked.
“Don’t know, they will notify us by mail.”
I rushed into my father’s office :
“Father, no school!”
“That’s the beginning of the end” my father replied.
“Why” I asked. But he shrugged his shoulders and returned in silence to his papers.
“That’s the beginning of the end,” kept ringing in my ears.
Where have I heard it before? Suddenly I remembered.
The very same words were spoken when my grandfather became ill and then died. Are we all going to die? Why all the important listening to the radio? Why the careful reading of all the newspapers, except the favorite liberal “Prager Tagblatt”? “Prager Tagblatt” was not seen anywhere anymore. It stopped to exist as so many other good things did these past months. I was not interested in newspapers, but somehow I missed the familiar heading of the Gothic print at the breakfast table. I wanted to ask my father about all this but did not dare. He too changed. I could not talk to him as I used to. The joy about not having to go to school left me. Sad, distressed, troubled, I left his office.
At home I tried to help my mother. Silently she performed her housework and silently I helped her. It was no fun to stay home. I wanted to return to school. Envious of my brother who still attended his classes. I read a lot and even tried to solve some mathematical problems. Then came the note about the school being “temporarily closed.”
“But I want to go to school, please enroll me in another school” I implored my parents.
“I thought you like to play hookey,” my father replied trying to be humorous.
“Not anymore, now I want to go to school, any school will do.”
“We will see about it,” he promised without conviction in his voice.
A week later, the fatal March 16, 1939 the German Army marched into Czechoslovakia.
No blood was shed, no battles fought, no resistance...
Easily, silently, they crossed the borders during the night. In the morning they already paraded into the paralyzed city. Stiff, erect, in even rows they marched in the accompaniment of noisy brass bands. The capitulation was unconditional.
Forced to give up his high office, president Benes abdicated in favor of the traitor Hacha. All that day hundreds of people jumped out of the windows, gassed or shot themselves.
It was the beginning of the end.