[Note from co-author, Michael G. Glab:]
Charlotte Zietlow, the doyenne of Democratic Party politics in Bloomington and the first female president of both the city council and the Monroe County Board of Commissioners, has written a memoir, Minister’s Daughter: One Life, Many Lives, with background and contextual information contributed by me.
Charlotte arrived in Bloomington in 1964 when her husband, Paul, joined the English Department faculty at Indiana University. They brought with them their young daughter, Rebecca; their son, Nathan, was born just a few weeks after they arrived in town. In 1967, the Zietlows learned they had a chance to spend a year in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, as part of an educational exchange program run by IREX, the International Research & Exchanges Board. Then the Prague Spring took place in 1968. Liberal reformers led by Alexander Dubček took control in Czechoslovakia, promising “socialism with a human face.” The country’s overseers in Moscow were not pleased. They reacted by invading the purportedly sovereign nation. So the Zietlows’ sojourn to Bratislava was put on hold.
By this time, Charlotte had worked as a Democratic Party field volunteer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Bloomington in every election since 1960 when John F. Kennedy inspired her to put words into action. She hadn’t even begun to entertain the notion of running for office herself.
A year later, the Zietlows found out the exchange trip was back on. They would witness firsthand the effects of Czechoslovakia’s repudiation of harsh communist control and the Soviet bloc’s ruthless crackdown that followed. Charlotte’s experience in Bratislava made her cherish American democracy all the more and informed her philosophy of governing when she ran for office a year after returning to Bloomington.
The following is an excerpt from Charlotte’s new book. The italicized text was written by me; the rest is pure Charlotte.
Minister’s Daughter: One Life, Many Lives
by Charlotte Zietlow, with Michael G. Glab
In the middle of the night, August 21st and 22nd, 1968, some 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 2000 tanks crossed the Danube River into Bratislava. That army quickly spread out over the entire country of Czechoslovakia. Their aim: to wrest control back from the country’s liberal reformers. Images of tanks in the streets of the Czech capital, Prague, appeared on front pages and flashed across TV screens around the world.
As all of this was happening, we started thinking that we would not be going to Czechoslovakia. We didn’t hear anything from IREX for a while. Then, in February, we spoke with a friend from the IU English Department, Owen Thomas, who’d been involved in an exchange program with Yugoslavia. He’d recently been in Washington, speaking with the IREX people.
Owen came back to Bloomington and said the IREX people told him, “Isn’t it wonderful that the Zietlows are going over to Czechoslovakia, even under the current conditions!”
He added, “Gosh, they’re so excited about you going.”
I said, “Tanks in the street? Are we really sure this is a good idea?”
Owen said, “Oh, don’t worry about that! That’s in Prague and they’ll be gone by the time you get there. And the American embassy will take care of you. You’re going to Bratislava; that’s way out on the edge of everything.”
Not really. Bratislava is where Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Austria come together at the Danube. It’s where the Warsaw Pact came in. They came over the bridge, going through the square on the campus of Komenskeho University where Paul would be teaching!
Charlotte and Paul contacted the IREX people and began making plans to travel to Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1969. The IREX program coordinators tried to prepare the Zietlows for what was to come but at times it seemed even they didn’t know quite what to expect.
They said, “You’ll be the only Americans in the city and you’ll be well-treated. Or maybe nobody will talk to you. It’s quite possible that nobody will want to have anything to do with you. But we’ll help you get multiple entry-exit visas so you can go to Austria any time you want to.”
Vienna was 40 kilometers to the west of Bratislava. Vienna was thriving and quite safe. I’d spent several months there with my mother and siblings in 1954.
They also warned us: “Don’t say anything inflammatory. Don’t use the black market. Don’t say anything negative about the government. You’ll be safe but the people you’re speaking with will not be.”
Anyway, we thought it would be an adventure, so we scrambled and arranged and off we went.
Fall, 1969. The Zietlows traveled by ocean liner, the MS Sagafjord, to Europe. Paul would be a visiting American professor of English literature at Univerzita Komenskeho v Bratislave (Comenius University at Bratislava) in Czechoslovakia.
We drove our Beetle out east. We were going to sell it to a friend in Chappaqua, New York. We loaded it up with a lot of stuff. We were going to take a ship from Hoboken to Copenhagen.
We were to report to the American embassy in Prague first. There were still tanks on the streets of Prague well into 1969. I was worried. I said, “They’re fighting in the streets of Prague!”
Paul said, “The State Department wouldn’t send us any place that isn’t safe.” He kept trying to reassure me.
He, on the other hand, was obsessed about whether we could get our short wave radio on the boat. He was worried it was one thing too much to load on. I was very unworried about that.
I said, “Paul, we’ll get the radio on the boat. Everything will get there. We’ll all get there. Now, what about those tanks?”
We had this wonderful counterbalance. I worried about the cosmic things and he worried about the little details. It was a good combination.
When we got to Prague, there were no more tanks in the street and we were well taken care of by the embassy. And that radio got to Bratislava and we listened to it the whole year we were there.
We landed in Copenhagen on Nathan’s fifth birthday. I stayed and made sure all the luggage got off the ship. Paul took the children and picked up a new green VW bus. Then he and the children stopped at a Danish pastry shop filled with elaborate confections. He told the children they could pick out anything they wanted. They each ended up with a brioche, just a simple little roll.
Then we met up and went to a wonderful department store where we bought Legos. We’d never heard of them before.
We drove south and stopped in Arzberg, in Bavaria, right on the Czechoslovakia border. We looked at some Arzberg china—the town is famous for it. We didn’t know at the time if we could fully stock our apartment at stores in Czechoslovakia. When we eventually got there, it turned out we couldn’t buy dishes there. We couldn’t really buy anything there so we went back to Arzberg at Christmas time and got some China dishes. We still have most of them. They’re really pretty, with blue teardrops geometrically arranged.
At the embassy, they had a commissary where we could buy Tang and peanut butter and bourbon. We found out bourbon was a highly desirable gift and only available to Americans. Whenever you’d visit somebody in Czechoslovakia, you’d take them a bottle of bourbon.
We spent some time in Prague with the American cultural attache. We went out to dinner and he went down the list of things we should know.
Finally we got to Bratislava.
The Ministry of Education assigned a “keeper” to us, Gajdos [pronounced GUY-dosh]. He’d come from a Hungarian family.
The Ministry provided us a two-bedroom apartment in one of the Eastern Bloc’s new communities of high-rises. Each of these planned communities contained a number of high-rises. Each had its own gym, its own supermarket, its own day care center. They were like little villages. The idea was good; the execution wasn’t so hot. They built the high-rises out of substandard cement so the walls were crumbling already, even though the buildings weren’t 15 years old.
The whole high-rise we lived in was called “Six.” Galaktiska 6 was the address. It was heated by a soft coal-fueled central power plant miles away. It sent heat out to several of these high-rise villages. You can imagine how efficient that was. You can also imagine how much coal had to be burned. When it got really cold, you could see the air turning a sort of green.
But we were lucky: We had our own bathroom. We had hot and cold running water. Actually, hot water sometimes.
The Czech part of Czechoslovakia was more “western” than the Slovak part. When the country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Czechs had the factories and were the clerks to the Austrians and the Slovaks were the farmers, the peasants to the Hungarians. And both were treated accordingly. The Czechs looked down on the Slovaks. The Slovaks were the “hillbillies.”
Even so, the Slovaks were not quite the bottom of the totem pole. In Czechoslovakia, there were the Hungarians and the Gypsies who were lower on the totem pole.
The Slovaks, as we found out, had a wonderful folk tradition with a strong Hungarian influence, music particularly, but also art.
Bratislava had been the capital of the Slovak region. It was an ancient city. There was a large castle on a hill overlooking the city of more than a quarter million people.
We were the only Americans in the city! We were extremely well-treated; we were treated like royalty.
You couldn’t buy anything in Czechoslovakia. You never knew what would be available in the grocery stores from one day to the next.
It was ironic because we were rich.
Paul was paid through the State Department in US dollars to make up for his lost Indiana University salary. At the same time, he was paid a full professor’s salary by Univerzita Komenskeho in cash, Czech korunas. When the time would come for the Zietlows to leave Bratislava, they’d have to leave their Czech currency behind; it was unlawful to take korunas out of the country.
We kept our money in the apartment, stashed it in a hiding place. That’s what everybody did. We would go to the American Express office in Vienna if we needed dollars from our American bank. Unfortunately, there was little or nothing to spend it on.
There was a sort of farmers market a couple of times a week. The people who lived in the little villages near Bratislava were allowed to raise a certain amount of food beyond what they needed and could bring it to the markets. There we could get fresh vegetables, cabbages, and fresh meat: pork and duck and goose.
We’d been in Bratislava about a month and a half. I was home one morning. Nathan was in detsky skola (little children’s school), Rebecca was in school, and Paul was at the university. I got a knock on the door.
I opened it to a man and a woman, both in long, black leather coats. The man said in a clipped, officious voice, “Are you TZEET-loh?”
I replied in a sweet, accommodating voice, “Yes?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Well, my husband’s teaching at the university. We’re guests of the Ministry of Education.”
The man said, “We need you to come with us.”
I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t come with you. I have to pick up my husband and my children. I just don’t have the time. Some other time maybe?”
They were used to people cowering before them. I wasn’t going to be. They were taken aback. The woman said, “We’re from the Ministry of the Interior!”
In Czechoslovakia at the time, The Ministry of the Interior handled surveillance and compliance. Agents of the Ministry would be considered officers of the national police force.
I said, “How about tomorrow?”
They didn’t know what to do! They looked at each other and finally said, “Okay. We’ll be here at nine o’clock!” And they marched off.
I called the American embassy in Prague. There was no consulate in Bratislava. We were all alone. I was told, “Drive your own car. You and Paul. Take the children with you. Then call us when you get home. If we don’t hear from you by noon, we’ll follow up.”
So the same two people in long, black leather coats came the next day at nine, sharp. I answered the door. The man said, “We’re here. You and Mr. TZEET-loh must come with us.”
I said, “The children are home for the day. They’re going to have to go with us.”
“Oh, no! You can’t do that.”
“Yes I can,” I said. “I’m sorry, they must go with us.”
“Then we will need another car.”
I said, “No, that’s okay. We’ll drive our own car.”
The woman said, “No, no, no! You have to go in our car!”
“No, I have to go shopping afterward with the children.”
Again, they didn’t immediately know what to do. They weren’t ready to be rough and nasty with the only Americans in Bratislava.
So we drove in our VW bus to the Ministry of the Interior. We went in and the official at the desk said, “Let me see your passport!” And then, in a loud voice, “Why have you not registered with us? Why did you not let us know you were here?”
Paul said, “We’re guests of the Ministry of Education! And Gajdos is our intermediary. We have residency permits.”
The man took our passports and we were moved into this cold little bare room. We sat there for about fifteen minutes and then another man came in. In a very authoritative voice, he said, “Come with me.”
We followed him into another room. It was nice and comfortable. Someone brought in coffee and slivovitz, a plum brandy. The man, softer now, said, “You have permits?”
We answered, “Of course!”
“Why didn’t we know about this?”
I said, “Well, we’re here. And these permits have been issued by your department!”
The man looked our documents over and then began to apologize profusely. Someone else brought in cookies and chocolate for the children. And then we were sent on our way.
It was just a mistake! We were so visible. We were obviously not spies! Everybody in town knew that we were the Americans in the green VW bus! Everybody knew where we lived. I would go into a store and the clerk would say, “Oh, you’re the American.”
They were used to making people scared but we really weren’t scared. Just annoyed and amused. They had all this surveillance and all this bugging and they couldn’t keep track of the elephant in the room. It was amazing.
It was a pretty bad time in Czechoslovakia. It had been more than a year after the tanks had rolled in. Then there’d been a sort of grace period after that but now, again, the screws were tightening. The purges were beginning.
People involved in the Prague Spring were gradually moved from one job to a lesser job, to an even lesser job to no job at all. Then to jail. It was a descending spiral. The book and the movie The Incredible Lightness of Being actually portrayed that period pretty accurately.
More than 20 percent of the populace were members of the Communist Party, the highest percentage of any of the Soviet bloc countries, including Russia and East Germany. Czechoslovakia was the most “communist” country. All the professionals had become members of the Party for ideological reasons. Most of them had lived through the Nazi occupation, which was so awful that, in response to it, the Czechs went the opposite way.
But the Party turned out not to be what they’d hoped it would be. Soviet Communism was not “socialism with a human face.”
Meanwhile, the economy was stymied. One thing to do, if you wanted to make money in Slovakia, was to provide scaffolding. There was scaffolding on half the buildings because they were falling apart! And bunting. They were always celebrating one Communist day or another.
The grocery stores were hit and miss. We could go to the supermarket and there’d be Russian caviar and Russian champagne and cans of lecso [pronounced LAY-cho], a combination of tomatoes, peppers, and onions. That would be it! Maybe bread. Maybe butter.
I’d stand in line, take a basket, and wander around. There was so little to pick from. I spent half my fall figuring out how to buy supper. I figured out where it would be most likely to find bread. I had a car and I had time and we had oodles of money.
There was something called Tuzex, at the time a government-run store featuring specialty and imported foods. There was something like it in every Eastern Bloc country. If you had western currency, you could buy things there. It was their way of getting dollars and francs and marks and pounds into their economies. Of course, it was illegal to have western currency in those countries. But it was one of those interesting contradictions we ran into a lot there. Crazy things, Kafkaesque.
The Tuzex stores were always full of people. You could get canned goods and Remy Martin cognac for five dollars. You could get Pilsner beer—you couldn’t get it in the regular stores even though it was the national brew! You could get Danish ham and Dutch cheese.
They had wonderful crystal in Czechoslovakia. I said to Paul, “We have all this money. Why don’t we buy some crystal?”
So we went into this lovely store with beautiful things in the window. I pointed at some beautiful goblets and asked the proprietor, “Can I get six of those?”
He said, “We don’t have them.”
I said, “Those, there. They’re in the window.”
He laughed. “That’s for display. We don’t have anything like that in stock. We just show it in the window.”
The Slovaks had a saying: “Ne nie. Nie mame. Ne existule.” (There isn’t any. We don’t have it. It doesn’t exist.)
We heard it over and over again. When we wanted to buy pens or a notebook for the children, Ne nie. Nie mame. Ne existule. When we wanted a certain cut of meat, Ne nie. Nie mame. Ne existule.
I went to a butcher shop, one I hadn’t been to before. I picked up my basket and walked around. Very clean. Too clean. The shelves and display cases were almost totally empty. There was some lard but that’s about it. I asked the butcher: “Do you have any meat?”
“Ne nie. Nie mame. Ne existule.”
So I went toward the door. He asked, “Are you Russian?”
I said, “No, I’m American.”
“American! What are you doing here? Are you crazy?”
I said, “My husband teaches here.”
“Wait,” he said and ran into the back room. He came back out with a couple of brown paper packages. He put them in my basket and wished me a wonderful day.
I paid for the packages but didn’t know what was in them.
When I got home and opened them up, they were a chicken and a pork roast. He gave them to me because I was the American.
We indulged the kids. We went about once a month to Vienna. Paul would take the children. First, they’d go to a pastry shop and they would get wonderful things we couldn’t get in Bratislava. Then they would go to a park and play or they’d go to Prater, the big amusement park, and ride the Reisenrad, a giant Ferris wheel.
Meanwhile, I zipped around, very fast, and bought all the things we needed—and that all the people we knew needed. Before we’d leave, I’d have asked all the teachers and the neighbors: What do you want from Vienna? We would bring back lemons and diapers and meat and produce. Tampons. Anything. We would pile it all on the floor of the VW bus. At the border, coming back, the guards would ask,” “Anything to declare?”
They’d be looking right at the waist-high pile covered with a blanket. “Yeah, we don’t see anything.” We never had any trouble with the border guards.
It was a hard year but we learned so much.
Nathan went to the detsky skola for children of Communist Party officials and other high-placed people. They cut him no slack. He had to march to their commands.
He was such a sweet little kid and he didn’t want to be in Czechoslovakia in the first place. But there he was. I had to get him to the center before eight and leave him until after three. Nobody spoke anything but Slovak. He could not sit on the floor. He had to sit up straight at a table. He had to hold somebody’s hand when they went out for a walk. He had to take his clothes off and put pajamas on for his nap. He was good but it was hard for him.
1970 was Vladimir Lenin’s hundredth birthday. Nathan’s daycare center was part of a large, citywide celebration. Thousands of little kids performed at the Spartakiad, the city’s big stadium. They wore their little red onesies and carried white hoops. You’ve seen the demonstrations that Soviet kids used to do on a big field with their white hoops.
The whole city was bedecked in red. When Nathan told us about the celebration, I asked him, “Who’s Lenin?”
Nathan said, “He was a nice man, a kind man. He was good to children. He took them on his lap and talked to them!”
I remembered hearing a similar story about somebody else in Sunday school.
We had a babysitter, a young woman named Katerina. She was learning English and working for us would be an opportunity for her to speak it. I associate her forever with the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. It came out the year we were in Czechoslovakia. We bought it in Vienna and ultimately gave it to Katerina after almost wearing it out on our turntable.
Katerina’s family had been prestigious at one time. But her father, a judge, was discouraged and browbeaten. There wasn’t much discretion for a judge. The law did not prevail. Somebody would come before him and he would rule as he was told.
We became friends with one person who was still a believer in the communist ideal. His name was Fero Studeny. He was an artist, a painter, and married to one of Paul’s colleagues at the university.
Fero had been a peasant in eastern Slovakia. He had fought in the mountains against the Nazis. After the war, he painted fish, and that’s all he painted. He painted fish because they were the food and the symbol of the poor. He was sent to art school after the war and became a Master Painter. He became highly esteemed by the establishment. We were told he was the butt of other artists’ ridicule.
Fero said, “This is a wonderful country! I was a peasant and now I am a decorated artist. Where else could this happen?”
He refused to believe anything was wrong with Czechoslovakia. He didn’t sympathize with the Prague Spring. He thought the communists had done a terrific job. He told us cities like Vienna were showplaces, that they were false, that all the wealth of Austria was in Vienna to make the rest of the country look good to outsiders.
Fero lived in a fifth-floor apartment with an atelier and good lighting. He painted his fish there and never went out much.
We were very, very careful not to say anything negative about Czechoslovakia or communism in front of the kids. We didn’t want them repeating anything. We weren’t too worried about ourselves so much as we were worried about the people we spent time with. They could get into trouble just being in a room where negative things were spoken. It was against the law to say negative things in public. And “in public” was a group of two or more.
We would have guests over and they would start talking about the government. They’d ask us, “What do you think about Czechoslovakia?” Our standard reply was, “It’s a beautiful country and the people are really nice.” We said that many, many times.
We didn’t want to go beyond that but many of them did! We would point toward the corner of the room, as if we knew where the listening devices were, and make shushing motions. And some of them would say, sometimes shouting, “I don’t care!”
But a lot of people did care. One man who’d become our friend was named Milan Simecka [pronounced shih-METZ-ka]. He had really gotten himself in trouble. His wife, Eva, was a colleague of Paul’s at the university. Milan and Eva were actually Moravian. They grew up in Brno. He was an historian at The Academy, which was analogous to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Research. The Simeckas had been in Germany when the tanks rolled in.
There were a number of people like the Simeckas, and Dr. Nebalov, who’d been out of the country when the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. They had to decide whether to go back to their country or not. The Simeckas and Nebalov could have stayed where they were and gotten asylum but they decided to go back and make their country strong again.
Others hadn’t made the same choice. We knew a Slovak couple here in Bloomington before we’d left for Czechoslovakia. She was my Slovak tutor and he was a scientist. They decided to stay in the United States and apply for asylum. They got it.
So, Milan and Eva came back to Bratislava. He’d been pretty vocal, publicly, during the Prague Spring. He was a good friend of Alexander Dubcek, the president. After the Warsaw Pact came in, Milan would be called in and he would be grilled.
His questioners would say to him, “Now, you said such-and-such….” Then they’d add, sotto voce, “but you really didn’t mean it, did you?” Some of them would even whisper, “Say no.”
He’d say, “Yes I did!”
More whispering: “No! You don’t want to say yes.”
He’d say, “No! I believed it then and I believe it now!”
So his questioners would say, “You’re a good historian and we’d hate to lose you but I’m afraid you can’t talk like that anymore. We’re going to move you over here.” And they’d assign him to a lesser post.
Two months later they’d pull him in and go through the same thing again. He’d stick to his guns and so he’d go down another peg.
It went on that way until, among other things, his children weren’t even allowed to go to secondary school.
It was death by a thousand cuts.
Another man we knew, Zdenek Stribrny [pronounced: STRIH-bur-nee], was the chair of the English Department at Charles University in Prague. It was founded in the 14th Century, the first university in central Europe. He and his wife were wonderful. We had good times with them. But he was eventually demoted to a streetcar conductor. His children and his wife suffered.
I’ll fast-forward to the Velvet Revolution that resulted in an independent Czechoslovakia in 1989, and its eventual split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the years after we left Czechoslovakia, Milan Simecka had become very close with Václav Havel. They were part of Charta 77 (Charter ’77) that criticized the communist government for human rights violations. Many members of the group, including Havel and Simecka, were imprisoned.
When the Velvet Revolution came about and Havel became the new leader of Czechoslovakia, he brought Milan with him to the Prague castle that would be the center of government. He offered Milan a choice: Would you like to be president of Univerzita Komenskeho v Bratislave or would you like to come with me and be part of the government? Milan wanted to work directly with Havel in Prague. He became a cabinet minister.
Charlotte and Paul learned through a mutual friend soon after the Velvet Revolution that they could now safely call Milan. The mutual friend gave the Zietlows Milan’s phone number—it was the same one they had for him in 1969 and ’70. They called and learned he would soon be coming to America for a visit. They made arrangements to meet him and his wife. Then the mutual friend called with bad news. He said, “This is terrible. Milan finally is in the castle. He’s free and can do whatever he wants. And he just died of a heart attack.”
We had our television and we could get Austrian TV. It was illegal to have a short wave radio but we’d got it through in our duffel bag. We weren’t supposed to be listening to Radio Free Europe or the Voice of America, but we did.
One night in the spring of 1970 we listened to a panel discussion on the Voice of America. It was led by the journalist Peter Lisagore, who usually leaned to the Right. Several speakers on both sides of the issue heatedly discussed President Nixon’s decision to bomb Viet Cong supply routes in Cambodia. Lisagore put the question out: What about the bombing? There are so many things wrong with the decision; let’s discuss them all. And the first speaker said, “Here’s what’s wrong….” The second speaker said, “No, this other aspect of it is more wrong….” And so on.
Yet all around us in Bratislava were people who couldn’t comfortably talk about their dissatisfaction with their government. They couldn’t say anything negative about it in public. What we had was something worth fighting for.
Charlotte Zietlow’s new memoir, Minister’s Daughter: One Life, Many Lives, is available from the Book Corner (812.339.1522), on Amazon, wherever e-books are sold, or from Michael G. Glab at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publisher’s note: Because Limestone Post uses a customized WordPress website that does not render some Cyrillic letters with diacritical marks, the excerpt above follows AP Style. The published book, however, includes the standard orthography.