“Shut the windows, I am listening to Vienna:” Reflecting on my life behind the iron curtain

Katya King

As a child I was taught not to speak to strangers. Strangers included my teachers, neighbors and my friends’ parents. Strangers were not to be trusted with information about our family: what we talked about at the dinner table, what we thought about the government, what our hopes and dreams were.

We were particularly careful about what we said on the phone. It was assumed that every phone call was monitored. We were careful about what we wrote in letters. We knew they were opened and read by censors. We were careful about what books we read and who knew about it. Some books were banned.

“Shut the windows, I am listening to Vienna!” my grandfather would call out when I was little. I still remember his portable transistor radio and the strange and eerie sounds it made when he tuned it. Bilingual in German and his native Czech, my grandfather liked to get his news from Austrian radio. Vienna was east of us geographically, but west of us ideologically, and its public radio station reported very different news than Radio Prague.

The adults in my world were constantly on edge. Had they said the wrong thing in a meeting at work? Had they not said enough to signal their political alignment with the regime? Would someone turn them in for listening to Radio Free Europe or Voice of America? The consequences could be dire, as they had been for some in our family. Prison, displacement, confiscation of property, abrupt ends to careers.

This fall marks the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc, eight European countries that after World War II found themselves under the hegemony of the communist Soviet Union. A new Europe, partitioned by the “Iron Curtain” had taken shape in the late 1940s, and a new, “Cold,” war, a war of ideas, had begun.

The Cold War lasted until 1989. The Berlin Wall crumbled on Nov. 9th of that year, and the Iron Curtain, less tangible, but no less real a divider, gradually parted over the coming years.

My now-Canadian father, who, in 1968 had found himself on the other side of that curtain when Soviet tanks rolled into our country, and who stayed in the West once the borders were closed, was finally able to go home. By then, his own father was dead, his mother an old woman, his child – me – an adult, his childhood home no longer in the family.

Ours was one of a million tragedies just like it. Gradually, after 1989, national economies were rebuilt, borders reopened, families reunited, relationships repaired. Strangers began trusting strangers again. Joy mixed with pain, mixed with hope, mixed with new tragedies. Lives were changed again.

I have lived in the West for most of my life. Often, I pass for an American, even a local. But I still can’t think like one, and there are certain fears that I will never shake. I think about members of my family, the rights and freedoms they craved. And how they coped with oppression; some by leaving, some by adapting, some by turning inwards. Sweden, Germany, Canada and the U.S. welcomed some of my relatives. Others joined the Party and learned to speak the language of the day. Some turned to books, and long walks in the woods and avoided talking to strangers.

I take long walks in the woods. I look for mushrooms — to forage is an ancient Slavic art — and I think about what was and is. Just as there are certain fears that I will never shake, there are precious rights and freedoms that I will never take for granted. The freedom to authentically engage — or not engage — ideas in a public sphere. The right to read what one wants. The right to think freely, and to speak one’s thoughts, and not fear punishment. The right to cross borders, and the right to be with family. 

It has taken me 30 years to get here.

Katerina “Katya” King is the Director of Fellowships at Williams. She was born in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1965.