The opportunity [to defect from Communist Czechoslovakia] did arise when in September 1964 the authorities unexpectedly granted us permission to pay a weekend visit to our friends Hans and Edda Moritsch in Vienna.
Marica, perhaps feeling guilty about abandoning her widowed elderly father and much younger brother, started having second thoughts. But this time I was firm. I reminded her about the many discussions we had in which she would tell me how much she longed to get out of Czechoslovakia. “You were always convincing me that we should leave if the opportunity arises, and now we have a realistic chance,” I said.
As the invitation from the Moritsches was for a weekend stay in mid-October, the departure date was set for Saturday, October 10. An important decision to make was whether to tell our parents about the plans. Even though my parents often commented that we would be better off in the West, we had never before been in a situation to actually do something about it. I decided that I would let my parents in on the secret, and Marica agreed.
We debated whether we should tell Marica’s father, but in the end we decided against it. One reason was that we lived in his house and undoubtedly Marica’s father would be the first to be questioned by the ŠtB when we had not returned by October 12, our scheduled date to be back home. It would be in his interest to be able to tell the secret police truthfully that he knew absolutely nothing about our plans to defect. Another reason was that Marica’s father was emotionally more fragile than my parents, and we could not predict what his reaction would be if we told him that we were leaving for good.
My parents were supportive of our plans. They said right away, “Go! You will have a better future in the West.”
It was not difficult to imagine how hard this was for them. They—and we—had no idea how long it would be before we saw one another again, and there was the possibility we would not see each other again in our lifetimes. Other than my parents we told no one.
We did not worry much about the possessions we would be leaving behind. Marica and I did not own a great deal. We lived in the house that belonged to Marica’s father. Most of the furnishings we had in the three small rooms we occupied were hand-me-downs from my parents and Marica’s father. There were a few works of art received as gifts and a nineteenth-century writing desk acquired by Marica from money she put aside from her modest income. As was true of most of our friends, we lived from paycheck to paycheck, we had no personal savings, and, in any case, we were allowed to carry only a minuscule amount of cash to Vienna. Our most valuable material possession was the small Škoda automobile my parents had bought when they sold their parcel of land. We planned to travel to Vienna in our car, so that we could take it with us to Belgium or whatever other country might turn out to become our destination.
Concealing our emotions was an enormous challenge. At work, we had to pretend that all was as usual. It helped that I was working feverishly to complete the assembly and editing of manuscripts for the proceedings of the Smolenice interferon meeting. (Although by the time of my departure all manuscripts were ready to be sent to the printer, the local powers that be decided that publishing the conference proceedings, be it with or without my name included, would be politically too embarrassing, given my defection.)
A few days before our scheduled departure my technician came running to let me know that I had a phone call from Vienna. I froze up. It was very unusual to get a phone call from a Western country, especially at work. Then I thought to myself, “It must be Hans Moritsch cancelling or postponing the invitation.” I grabbed the phone, shaking. It was indeed Moritsch calling. He said, “I have tickets for the Vienna Opera for all of us. Can you bring your tuxedo?”
On October 10, 1964, about two weeks after receiving the permission to visit the Moritsches in Vienna, we packed two suitcases into our small Škoda automobile and departed for Austria.
The border between Czechoslovakia and Austria was part of the Iron Curtain—equipped with watchtowers, minefields, and electrified wire fences—separating Communist countries from the free world. Even before reaching the border, only a few miles removed from the center of Bratislava, we had to pass through a checkpoint manned by armed guards. At the border crossing we waited in trepidation as the Czechoslovakian border guards examined our papers, hesitating for the longest minutes of our lives before they let us pass to the other side. Would they become suspicious because we were carrying heavy winter coats for our three-day visit to Vienna in early October? Would they search the contents of our two bags and find that we had packed more than three shirts and three sets of underwear? The guards opened the car trunk to make sure we were not smuggling someone out of Czechoslovakia. They inspected the underside of our car. But they ignored the winter coats and they were not interested in how many shirts or pieces of underwear we were carrying.
Once on the right side of the border, the free Austrian side, we were elated. On a deserted two-lane highway about a half-mile from the border crossing, safely out of the reach of the Czech guards, Marica and I stepped out of the car and embraced. “We made it,” I said, my voice trembling. She nodded, wordless, her eyes glistening with emotion.
Now we could begin to shed the fears not only of the last two weeks, but also of the years before. Vienna was forty miles ahead of us. We could not begin to guess what lay beyond. We got back into the car and drove on."