The coffee was served in perfect pink china, accented with gold. From the Czech Republic, Ladi said – as was the meal of roast pork, sauwer kraut, and dumplings. I felt like I’d stepped through some wrinkle in culture and was experiencing something totally outside the small BC town we were in.
Ladi’s tall form more than filled the doorway as he and Vlasta welcomed us into their home for dinner. We admired their view and chatted for a few minutes then were invited to gather in the living room. Ladi sat, not on the couches with the rest of us, but on a tall chair in the middle of the room – music stand in front of him, violin case open on a chair nearby. He then introduced us to the plan for the evening. He would play for us, then we would discuss drinks and enjoy dinner. Then, if we wanted him to, and if the music was pleasing to us, he would play for us again after dinner.
The evening was presented as a gift. And rightly so. It WAS a gift. Not just the dinner – though that would have been generous and beautiful enough. They shared their lives.
When Ladi was little, a man went through the schools in Czechoslovakia and chose the children with an aptitude for music. He had them mimic tones on the piano with their voices and rhythms with their fingers. He’d look for long fingers and quick minds and Laddy was chosen to be a violinist. He was told if he practiced 2-3 hours every day, he would be as good as those who practiced 5-6 hours a day. And Ladi did practice – after a fashion. (Being someone who loves music and thought the dictate of practicing 1/2 hour every day too much, I loved this next part of the story.) He would go out into the hall way and put his time in, practicing in earnest for the 1st hour. But after that, he would noodle pieces he knew while he read his book on his music stand so his mom would think he was still practicing. Doesn’t that just make you smile as you just picture that in your mind? He found a way through.
Being a musician wasn’t the only choice made for him. While he was teaching music at a school, he was asked if he was communist. I thought his reply very diplomatic. He said he was teaching music not politics. But a diplomatic answer was not the kind they were looking for and he was asked to leave his teaching position.
Ladi was finding it more and more difficult to live there. At 21, he married Vlasta. They wanted to build a new life in a country that was more free, but getting permission to leave was next to impossible. The first obstacle was that every young man was required to serve in the army. Ladi wanted to avoid this because he knew that once you served in the army, you could not leave the country for 10 years for fear you would share the country’s secrets. Ladi also had stomach problems (which he later found out were ulcers in a test in Germany) but nothing would show up in the tests in Czechoslovakia. He talked to a doctor who was willing to take a chance and help him out. Ladi was not a smoker, but the doctor gave him this advice before his army medical exam, “Smoke a cigarette and swallow prunes with pits in them just before you go for the exam, then black spots will show up on the x-ray that will indicate ulcers.” Ladi followed his advice and got a blue card which meant he didn’t have to go into the army. He found a way through.
The army wasn’t the only obstacle. Permission to leave was not granted if you brought your family with you – because you might not come back. It was not granted if you didn’t have enough foreign currency. It was not granted without paperwork from several different government agencies. But Ladi and Vlasta wanted to leave. The blue card took care of the army requirement – Ladi never had to serve. Vlasta applied to leave from a different city than Ladi. Both were asked if they were taking their children with them. As they had no children, they both said no. No one asked about a spouse. No one noticed that they were a couple leaving together because of their applications from different cities. They told no one – not even their families. They escaped to Switzerland. They found a way through.
Vlasta took over this part of the story. We were eating dinner at this point, the story being shared in accents that sounded like music to me. The first night of their arrival in Switzerland, they were welcomed by a butcher. He promised Ladi a job in the butcher shop and Vlasta a cleaning and cooking job in their house. You’d think it’d be a dream come true but for some reason, they felt uneasy. That night they both had the same nightmare.
“The man [their host],” Vlasta said, “was chasing Ladi with a … what’s the word in English?”
“Ax,” Ladi replied.
They both woke shaking and afraid and slid a dresser in front of the door. They passed an uneasy night then packed before breakfast and slipped out to take a train to Germany. They found a way through.
“Ladi was sick – very sick – when were were there,” Vlasta told us. “One time, he had a throat infection. It was so bad it was poisoning his heart. We didn’t have the money to take care of it but a doctor we knew said he had to go get surgery right away but even then, he would probably die. He went to the hospital. I wanted to see him. I wasn’t sure he would live but I had no money. I had worked and so had Ladi but we hadn’t received our cheques yet. I had food because that came with my job so I was OK. But it was too much for me not to see my husband and to know how he was. One day, while I was cleaning tables, I was crying.”
At this, tears choked Vlasta even these decades later. “A lady came up to me and asked if I was OK. I cried more. She spoke in my language. She was Czech! I told her that I just needed to see if my husband was OK but I had no money. God send just the right person as she was the one in accounting. She wrote my cheque that afternoon. Each time, God provides.”
They continued – sharing of their children lost and born, of their escape to Canada, of the punishment of relatives left behind, of new beginnings. And I felt blessed to share a table with these two. Not just because of the way their story captivated me, or because of the soaring music or the flavourful food. Because they had made it this far, and were still finding a way through.