Josef Jurkovic’s memories of the night 50 years ago when military tanks rolled into his hometown are as clear as the Bohemian crystal for which his native country—Czechoslovakia at the time but now the Czech Republic—is world-famous.
Now 69 and a proud Canadian living in Ottawa, Jurkovic’s face betrays no emotion as he recalls the details of events on Aug. 21, 1968, when tanks and soldiers from the Warsaw Pact countries entered Hradec Kralov, about 80 km north of Prague.
Events unfolded swiftly. TV stations were shut down and the main national radio station broadcast dire warnings of imminent arrests of the 20 signatories of the “Two Thousand Words” manifesto, a document calling on all citizens to participate in the liberalization movement that was underway in the communist country.
Jurkovic’s father was a signatory to the document, along with such leading intellectuals as author Milan Kundera. The elder Jurkovic was arrested but released after two days. The family soon decided to leave the country.
“We left just 10 days after the invasion,” Jurkovic said. “Because of my father’s prominent position (as head of the Military Medical School and chief of staff at a hospital), we felt we didn’t have a future in Czechoslovakia.”
The invasion came about because Lenonid Brezhnev, then-General Secretary of the Communist Party and Leader of the Soviet Union, had been carefully watching unfolding reforms—known as the Prague Spring—in Czechoslovakia, one of the satellite states of the Soviet empire.
After Alexander Dubček became the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia that January, he began implementing reforms to soften the harsh edge of communism. He wrote in “Two Thousand Words” that “the country reached a point where its spiritual health and character were both ruined.”
Brezhnev was enraged that the long communist winter that had held the people of Czechoslovakia in its icy grip since 1945 was beginning to thaw, so he gave marching orders to troops from Russia, Poland, Hungary, and East Germany to crush the Prague Spring movement. Approximately 170,000 soldiers and 4,600 tanks took part in the invasion.
The short-lived glimmer of freedom that Czechoslovakians enjoyed for a few months that year, and the hopes they engendered, were swiftly extinguished.
That summer, little Martina Stvan, 3 years old, was at her grandmother’s home in the country, while her parents worked at their jobs in Prague. Little did she know that her life, too, was about to change forever.
Champagne welcome to Canada
The invasion was followed by a wave of emigration to various European countries, which was stopped soon after.
The Jurkovic and Stvan families were among the 12,000 Czech refugees who arrived in Canada between 1968 and 1969 under a special program introduced by then-Minister of Manpower and Immigration Alan MacEachern.
Many, like the Stvan family, with Martina clutching her beloved teddy bear Mischa, boarded specially chartered flights from Vienna, where Canadian bureaucrats worked around the clock to process their visas, arrange transportation, and make all the necessary preparations for the refugees’ flight to freedom.
One of these was Mike Molloy, retired now but then an awestruck intern working with his superiors in the Vienna office of Manpower and Immigration where he helped process thousands of visas.
Molloy recalled flying home to Ottawa on one of the refugee charter planes.
“Before takeoff, the crew served champagne to all the passengers and it seemed to me that this was the right way to greet people coming to start a new life in Canada,” he wrote in a special bulletin of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society, of which he is the current president.
Canada: Open doors and open hearts
Even if every single refugee fleeing the communist invasion of Czechoslovakia wasn’t greeted with champagne on board their flights, all were welcomed to Canada with warmth and generosity.
“Except for Canada’s political refugee program, I wouldn’t be here. We were treated with respect and kindness,” says Jurkovic, who runs his own communications company in Ottawa.
“We were escaping a very rigid system where freedom did not exist. No freedom of speech, no freedom of expression. I was even arrested for running a student newspaper when I was a teenager,” he says of life under the yoke of communism in Czechoslovakia.
Stvan says her family was grateful for everything the Canadian government provided, including their apartment and first set of dishes in their new home in Windsor, Ontario.
But leaving wasn’t an easy decision for her parents, both of whom had good jobs; they knew there was no turning back.
“It was like plunging into an abyss and it took a lot of guts,” she says. “They had to burn their bridges because they had no hopes of ever going back. In fact, my mother never saw her parents again after they moved to Canada. She was 27 at the time.”
Communism is known for targeting intellectuals, and the upshot of this refugee movement was that Czechoslovakia lost a whole generation of intellectuals and professionals.
“But Canada gained from the skills and talents of the Czech refugees,” wrote Joe Bissett, another immigration official at the time. “They adapted quickly and soon began to contribute positively to Canadian society.”
For Stvan, life has come full circle. She is now director in the international network of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada—the same government department, since re-named, that brought her family to Canada.
In late 1989, the Velvet Revolution led to the end of communist rule in Czechoslovakia and in June 1990, the country held its first democratic elections since 1946.
Susan Korah is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa. She has a Master of Journalism degree from Carleton University and writes on Canadian and international politics as well as travel and culture.