On Saturday, November 16th, 2019, Michaela and Zdeněk Bakala commemorated the most important event of modern Czech and Czechoslovak history- the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The Association of American Friends of the Czech Republic (AFoCR) in La Grange, Texas hosted the event.
Together with other participants of the event, they first visited the Center for Czech Heritage and Culture in La Grange. The Center hosted exhibits demonstrating the history, language, and culture of Czechs from the Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, who chose Texas as their new home after emigration.
Guests of the celebration in Texas included the Czech Republic Ambassador to the USA Hynek Kmoníček, Texas Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic Brian Vanicek, Astronaut Andrew J. Feustel and Marlene Malek (see the featured image), widow of Fred Malek, founder of the AFoCR. The ceremony was opened with a presentation of The Association of American Friends of the Czech Republic, followed by a video program depicting the events of 1989 that led to the Velvet Revolution. After the video presentation organizers presented a Civil Society Vision Award to Founder of the Center for Czech Heritage and Culture in La Grange, Ms. Retta Chandler, and another to Bill and Effie Rosene, Founders of the Museum of the Czech Center in Houston.
During the celebration, Michaela Bakala, gave a speech sharing, not only her memories as an 18- year-old student in the November 1989 events, but also her memories of what it was like to grow up in Communist Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution. “Czechoslovakia was, in many ways, a sad country. There was fear, skepticism, and resignation in the air. People had no hope for the future. It was so serious- that some even decided not to bring children into the world. Today we can’t forget about the people who risked their lives and ended up in prison because they decided to fight against the regime. Many others decided to leave the country seeking freedom, a better life, and the opportunity to study and fulfill their dreams, like my husband.
She stressed that the Velvet Revolution brought not only stability, security, and prosperity, but also the fulfillment of dreams of a free and open society. She also paid homage to Václav Havel: “We are proud to support the legacy of our first Czech President and dear friend Václav Havel. He was the true hero of our time. He was a gentle but strong man with a great heart and devotion to our country and its people. “
The Velvet Revolution brought hope, light, color, and fresh winds to the land, bringing together all generations. Noting how life often imitates art, Michaela said, “in 1989, freedom and democracy prevailed over a totalitarian regime based on lies, propaganda, weapons, and fear. But as in any film – the fight continues. Because even when evil or bad forces are defeated, they hide and prepare their return.”
She concluded with a heartfelt reminder and call to action: “Therefore, we should not be lax and we must stand up to politicians who try to rewrite history and suppress the values that Václav Havel left for us. Values on which the Czech Republic was built. As we celebrate 30 years of Czech democracy, it is essential we never forget that the loss of freedom can occur quickly inconspicuously, but its return is a hard fight. That is why we must remain vigilant and active. We must not allow our society and the world to again divide according to social status, color, fear, or religion.”
Michaela Bakala’s Speech in La Grange, Texas, on 16 November 2019
I’m very honored to be here today. I am proud to be able to celebrate this historic moment with all of you here in Texas – people who share a connection to the Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, and its history. Thank you to Marlene Malek, your Excellence Mr. Kmonicek and the whole team of AFoCR (American Friends of the Czech Republic), and a special thank you to our dear friend Fred Malek, who left us this year.
Fred was an amazing man who dedicated his life and service to the U.S. and yet never forgot his Czech background. He worked hard to keep the relationship between the Czech Republic and the U.S. alive. We will miss him very much. Today it is our job to continue his work. I would also like to welcome and thank my husband, Zdenek, and greet three of our four children – all proud Czech-American citizens. This will be their first time hearing me speak publicly about my experience during the revolution.
This anniversary marks the date of something that will always be dear to my heart. Marlene asked me to share my own personal experience with you. So I will try to do that. I believe that many guests here have their own memories, so perhaps we can compare.
I am what you call in Czech “Husakovo dite” – “Husak’s child”… Husak was a communist president in the seventies, during which the government raised special incentives to young families to have more babies. It worked for a while, and here we are. So, in 1989, I was an 18-year-old student of an Agricultural University striking in the streets of my hometown, Brno. Why? What made me be part of it? What were we thinking and dreaming about at that time? Let me explain.
Do you like Hollywood movies? I do. I especially like action-adventure movies with happy endings. The Velvet Revolution could be and is, in fact, one of them. There were the good guys, represented by the United States and the bad guys were from the Soviet territory fighting all over the world, and in reality, the good guys won. The United States helped us in Czechoslovakia dismantle the oppressive communist regime. Freedom and democracy won over a totalitarian regime based on lies, propaganda, and fear. I am very lucky because I live this dream, and I am part of this amazing story. Some people may already forget what it was like to grow up in the grey and communist Czechoslovakia. But my memories are clear, and I will never forget that it was not easy, and it was not fun.
We grew up in an ultimate “fake news” world. There was one official TV and radio station. Everything was owned by the state and directed by a communist government. We were occupied by the Soviet Army and taught Russian as our principal language for 40 years – this explains my limited English and Eastern accent. I apologize, and thank you for your understanding. We were not allowed to speak freely; we were taught fake history at school. We could not travel abroad. We could only read books, newspapers, listen to music or see a movie – that the state officially approved. Anything else, cool or foreign, was a risk and required smuggling. Even to get a landline phone or buy a car was a big deal, and required many years of waiting. Everyone was scared because you never knew who was listening, watching you, and reporting to the State Police. The state decided who and what were you allowed to study and what will be your job. Purely for political reasons – many people could not study at the university (such as my mother and my husband), and many people ended up doing manual labor even if they had an academic education and profession.
Today we cannot forget people who risked their lives and ended up in prison because they decided to fight against the regime (my grandfather ended up in a uranium mine for years). And as we know – many other people felt pushed to leave the country to search for freedom, a better life, and the opportunity to study and pursue their dreams (like my husband).
Czechoslovakia was, in many aspects, a sad country. There was fear, skepticism, and resignation in the air. People had little hope for the future. Some even decided not to bring kids into that world – it was that serious.
And then came the winds of change and hope! We were alerted to these winds from listening to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America… The fall of the Berlin wall! On November 17th, there was a strike on Narodni trida on Friday night. Police were beating up peaceful protesters with candles and flowers in their hands shouting “mame hole ruce” “we have bare arms” – this was the trigger or the spark to the process – and as every movie has- there was a mystery. The whole world was shocked and informed about the death of one of the Prague students. Three days later, it was disclosed as a communist secret service agent who was healthy and alive. But nothing could stop the events – the students and the whole country were ready to stand up and strike back! November and December 1989 became one of the best times of my life! It brought hope, light, color, and fresh air into our country. It brought all the generations together. This was the moment in time when I was the proudest to sing our national anthem.
During the weeks of protests, we did not mind the cold weather – people brought us hot tea, money, and food. We slept on the campus grounds. We used paper and copy machines to deliver the news and message to the countryside. We produced signs and pins for demonstrations. My personal favorite was “Havel misto savel” – “Havel instead of violence.” This is why Vaclav Havel called this peaceful revolution, “Velvet.” He was the real hero of our times. He was a gentle but strong man with a big heart and devotion to our country and its people.
In December 89, we had a new government, the leading role of the communist party was wiped out from our Constitution, and Vaclav Havel became the president of free Czechoslovakia. It was a great and living example of the “Power of the Powerless” (A Vaclav Havel term and book). A Happy ending! But the Story continues. The Velvet revolution opened the door for our entry into NATO, and our way into the European Union, “Back to Europe.” It brought stability, security, and prosperity to Europe and the Czech Republic. Our dream of a free and open world came true.
Also, my dreams came true – everything was possible – to travel, to study abroad, to get a new job and new opportunities. I used most of them. A trip to the USA inspired me. I also became a proud Beauty queen of Czechoslovakia. Many people could return home, and families were brought together again. We lived in euphoria. It also brought my husband back to his home country to help with the new system – democracy and capitalism, building a free market, bringing investment, and establishing the Prague Stock Exchange.
My husband and I are grateful for the opportunities presented to us. We share the same values – courage, freedom, and education. We feel the responsibility to give back to our country and its society. We are proud to support the legacy of our first Czech President, and dear friend, Vaclav Havel. We also support young, talented students and free media.
Today, as we celebrate 30 years of Czech democracy, it’s essential that we never forget that losing freedom can happen quickly and inconspicuously, but getting it back is a hard fight.
As in every movie, the struggle continues. There are the bad forces defeated but hiding, and getting ready to come back again. We must not become relaxed, we must push back against the people, and politicians who are trying to re-write history and suppress the values that Vaclav Havel left for us. Values on which the Czech Republic was built.
Today, hundreds of thousands of Czech people were again in the streets of Prague and elsewhere – not only to celebrate this anniversary but also to remind the world that once again, there are attempts to limit our freedom and democracy. Politicians openly trying to silence the media, and bring back populism, lies, and nationalism to public debate. Some are trying to shift our orientation back to East – to Russia and China.
We must stay alert and active. We must not let our society and world be divided again – not by social status, color, fear, or religion. I will never forget what life was like on the wrong side of the wall.
Vaclav Havel said something that I believe in: “Pravda a laska zvitezi nad lzi a nenavisti.” “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”