On the morning of Aug. 21, 1968, Jiri Vnoucek woke to the sound of warplanes.
Vnoucek was 21 then, and had grown up under Communist rule. He’d been born only six months before the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia took over the country. His childhood memories were pictures of Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, of the red handkerchief he was forced to wear around his neck, of waiting in line for hours so his family could receive only the smallest of rations.
The Czechs could have no heroes, no culture, nothing to call their own. For 20 years, Vnoucek says, all he knew was oppression.
“From ‘48 to ’68, we lived in the dark where you were not allowed to say anything. Your view didn’t matter. Writers, press people, if they didn’t play by the rules they were sent to jail or there was a uranium mine in Czechoslovakia. That’s where a lot of the so-called rebels ended up.”
But there was a brief time, less than a year it turned out, when Vnoucek thought change might come.
In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek was named head of the country’s Communist Party. His Prague Spring, as it came to be called, would loosen censorship rules in the country, albeit with the communists still in charge.
The moment was short lived. When Dubcek resisted pushback from Moscow for what it saw as policies that were too progressive, four Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia on Aug. 20, 1968, and entered Prague one day later. Dubcek would resign shortly after, prematurely ending the Prague Spring.
Over a half century later, Vnoucek remembers those days still. He can see, even now, the narrow streets of Prague left filled with cars crushed by Soviet tanks. He remembers the protest when someone threw a flaming rag that exploded a transport truck, how soldiers opened fire on the crowd and a bullet flew by his head.
Now 74 and living in Nelson under the name George Vnoucek, he feels helpless watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Czechs never fought back against their invaders — Dubcek had advised against it — and in the days after the invasion Vnoucek made the decision to flee his country.
“I get emotional about it,” he says through tears. “I know what they are going through. I don’t sleep at night.”
Only days after the invasion, Vnoucek and his friends Michael Barnivek and Wassil Pohl decided they would escape Czechoslovakia. Borders were closed by the Soviet Union, but illegal passports were still being handed out by Czechs to their countrymen. A family friend wrote to his aunt in Vienna, asking her to send an invitation for Vnoucek to come for a short visit. She obliged.
The evening before he left, Vnoucek’s family and friends held a party. His mother had died of a heart attack the previous year, but he would be leaving behind his father and sister. His father encouraged Vnoucek to escape, but his sister didn’t actually believe he was going for good.
Vnoucek wouldn’t see his father again, he died in 1973, and would go at least a decade without seeing his sister.
On the midnight train to Vienna, Soviet troops checked visas. Passengers who had brought along all their belongings were tossed off, but because Vnoucek and his friends only packed a few shirts and socks there was no reason to believe they weren’t coming back.
The trio toured embassies in Vienna. They were turned away from the United States because they couldn’t speak English and had no university degrees. They were welcomed to Australia, but didn’t like the distance from their homeland. Canada promised jobs without any qualms about language or qualifications.
In November 1968, Vnoucek left Europe for Canada. He wasn’t sent to Montreal or Toronto, where so many immigrants and refugees before him had arrived at and made their homes. Instead they would arrive in Yorkton, Sask., a then-growing farm town in need of labourers. (The arrival of the Czech refugees was notable enough to garner the notice of the local paper, which published a picture of five Czechs including Vnoucek.)
Ukrainian immigrants had made a home in Yorkton — 5,955 residents of the city cited a Ukrainian ethnic background in the 2016 census. Vnoucek, who could speak Russian, found he was able to communicate with the Ukrainian woman who ran the boarding house they lived in. She charged him a minimum to stay, and he found work in the trades with other Ukrainians. It was a kindness he hasn’t forgotten.
“The only way I could survive on the job was Ukrainian people trying to teach me. They knew I could handle the job but I couldn’t communicate.”
Meanwhile in Czechoslovakia, authorities didn’t learn of Vnoucek’s escape for five years. When they did, his sister was summoned to a court where she was told Vnoucek would serve seven years in prison if he ever returned.
Still, two early tragedies marred Vnoucek’s arrival in Canada.
He had been in Canada less than a month when a Czech doctor invited Vnoucek, Barnivek and Pohl over to watch the Grey Cup. On the drive home, their car was hit by a train. No one was killed, but Vnoucek suffered a neck injury when Barnivek’s body went flying over top of him on the impact. Decades later his neck still hurts from the crash.
They went their own ways. Barnivek left after his wife arrived in Canada. Pohl, who had trained as a watch maker and goldsmith in Czechoslovakia, was sent to northern Ontario to work on a rail road. One day in early 1969 he was washing his coveralls in a pail of gas next to a car when the vehicle exploded.
Vnoucek went to see him in Thunder Bay. “I saw him and believe me, it was horrible. He was burned, well I would say 80 per cent of his body. He didn’t have a face, he didn’t have hair, all his arms, legs were burned crisp.”
Pohl underwent several surgeries, but the Canadian government didn’t want to pay further for his rehabilitation and he was deported back to Czechoslovakia. Vnoucek never saw his friend again.
Vnoucek also left Yorkton a short time later for Lethbridge, Alta., when the company he worked for went bankrupt. In 1972 he visited Vancouver on the promise of a job, only to find he couldn’t get on with the union. But on his way back to Alberta, Vnoucek stopped in Nelson to visit another Czech with whom he had played soccer. Within 24 hours he had a job offer at Kootenay Forest Products and never left.
In the ensuing years, Vnoucek married his wife Betty and had two daughters. Communism held onto Czechoslovakia until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and the country was split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Vnoucek has returned to his homeland several times since 1989, and avoided prison by virtue of becoming a Canadian citizen.
When Russian troops entered Ukraine on Feb. 24, Vnoucek revisited his own history and found himself haunted by not having fought for his country. The Czechs would have lost to the Soviet Union, he concedes, but Vnoucek wishes they had rebelled as Ukrainians are doing now.
Vnoucek and Betty are retired now, and have six grandchildren. He’s lived a peaceful life.
Yet lately, when he watches the news reports from Ukraine or those in Canada where convoys of people protest COVID-19 mandates, he wonders if the word freedom has lost the significance it held for him and those who once lived in Czechoslovakia.
“Please wake up,” he says. “Wake up. Because you don’t know the true meaning of freedom.”
If anyone would know, it’s him.