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More than Distance

What I Really Know About Freedom: I Had It. MY Sister Did Not.

Two sisters: same parents, different lives.

I know about freedom. My sister did not.

My parents had to escape what is now the Czech Republic in 1949. My father knew the Communists would put him in prison if he didn’t leave the country. So one night, he and my mother left their 6-year-old daughter, Ivana, with her grandmother and pretended they were merely going away for the weekend. They thought they could send for Ivana when the Communists fell, which surely would be soon. But they spent the next 20 years trying to get her out of Eastern Europe as they immigrated to Canada, where I was born, then Ohio, and finally to Los Angeles’ suburbs, where my brother and I grew up.

My sister grew up with fear and humiliation. After she reached age 9, the military police would show up randomly with growling dogs and shove her against the wall, demanding that she tell them where my parents were. My beautiful sister wanted to be a professional ballerina and was accepted into the country’s program. She also had dreams of becoming a flight attendant, as I had been. In the end, the Czech officials did not let her pursue either dream.

I met Ivana for the first time when I turned 16 in 1968 and visited Czechoslovakia with my family. Until then, the Communists wouldn’t let my parents enter the country or let Ivana out, their revenge for my parents’ escape. Ivana was 26 years old, married and had two baby daughters. She didn’t speak English and we hadn’t had any contact over the years. The meeting was awkward and my mother was nervous. Nevertheless, we began to travel all over the countryside to visit relatives. But one morning, it all changed.

When we woke up, military tanks were rolling down the streets. Out of the tops peeked Russian soldiers, holding automatic weapons. The country was in chaos and no one knew what to expect. Shirley Temple Black, on the cusp of her diplomatic career and later appointed U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, was crying on TV. We had to leave immediately.

As the train pulled out, we cried and waved goodbye to Ivana and her family. They were afraid to leave. We entered West Germany without incident.

I know about freedom because I saw what it is like not to have it. It has defined my life.

The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Sondra Dahlgren is a reader from Granite Bay, Calif.

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