Posted on 15.06.2011 in People's Voices

Soňa Szomolány

“Did these travels influence your life?

They did – definitely! My main personality traits were formed, especially, when I was studying in Great Britain, around 1968. My generation of sixty-year olds now was formed around the ideals and values of 1968. It was this generation that was behind the profound changes in 1989.born in 1946 in Tatranská Lomnica, Slovakia”

Professor of Political Science at Comenius University in Bratislava. Currently, she is the national coordinator of a unique comparative research project being carried out in 18 countries “Integrated and United: A Quest for Citizenship in an Ever Closer Europe”.

Soňa Szomolány. Source: Europe Divided. Then and Now, publication of the Stefan Batory Foundation

Soňa Szomolány. Source: Europe Divided. Then and Now, publication of the Stefan Batory Foundation

When did you go abroad the first time?

I am from the Tatras region that is near the border with Poland. Thus my first travels abroad lead me to Poland. As an inhabitant of the border area I was able to cross to the Polish side, visit places like Nowy Targ or Zakopane, with only my ID. Then other trips followed. Crossing a border was very stressful during the Cold War. One was afraid. Even when I used to visit Poland I had to buy Polish currency on the black market in order to buy some consumer goods there. For example, since I used to ski a lot I bought skiing equipment in Poland because it was cheaper there. Then I had to smuggle it into my country. Thus, my first experiences of the border crossing were related to the checks, and to fear.

The first time I went to the West was in 1967 – to study sociology. I earned some money picking strawberries in Eastern England. My grandmother, who lived in America once upon a time, gave me five dollars for my trip. When I wanted to exchange this money in a bank in a small town, the bank clerk was so amazed that the dollar bill I handed him was from the twenties that he decided to verify its authenticity. I returned to England in 1968 as a member of a student group so I was there when the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia. I had a one-year scholarship at a university in London. The solidarity and help we Czechs and Slovaks received from the ordinary British people and even from their government were astonishing. Some older people felt that it was their moral obligation to compensate us for what the British politicians had done in Munich in 1938.

After a while we faced a dilemma whether to return to Czechoslovakia or stay permanently abroad. I had no idea how much everything had changed at home after the invasion. I longed to see the Tatras though. Emigrating meant that perhaps I would not be able to visit my homeland for a long time. So I returned to Czechoslovakia, and then could not travel abroad for a long time.

We decided to return to Czechoslovakia hitchhiking across Europe. In Venice we though that it was high time we got back home but for Easter we would go to Rome. Upon our return we were stripped of that dream of travelling to Rome by harsh reality when our Husák said that the “border crossings are not going to resemble a promenade”, and thus placed us inside a “normalisation” cage. So I finished studying sociology in Slovakia and stayed there at the University to teach.

Unlike my colleagues, who used to arrange for themselves documents enabling them to spend a summer holiday, at least, in Yugoslavia I refused to subject myself to bureaucratic tortures and instead, to seek contacts to secure the necessary documents. But I could not refuse when in 1981 my sister decided to spend her holiday in Western Europe. However, it would be impossible without connections. My mother’s admirer from her youth worked as a bank director at that time. So I went to see him and upon arrival passed on greetings from my mother. Thanks to his help we were able to travel for three weeks in an old beat-up Škoda across Europe. Before departure, we bought some western currencies on the black market. We were afraid of being able to smuggle them out of the country so my uncle advised us to put them in an empty meat tin and then fill it up with sand, which we did. We were quite terrified at the border but although we were subjected to a thorough check they did not find the currency.

What was the attitude of border guards and customs officers toward you like?

I was afraid only on the Czechoslovak side. When we crossed to the Austrian side I burst into tears because I had to release the tension and stress I had experienced just a few minutes earlier. Soon we stopped, on the outskirts of Vienna, and opened the tin to get this money out. And then we travelled free for three weeks, across France and Switzerland. I remember our amazement at the fact, that when we were crossing from Belgium to the Netherlands, there was nobody at the border crossing to check our passports. But we did need exit stamps in them.

What do you think was the biggest benefit that you derived from your travels to the West?

First of all, it was the experience of freedom and the possibility to experience the reality of a world that was different, more civilised.

Did these travels influence your life?

They did – definitely! My main personality traits were formed, especially, when I was studying in Great Britain, around 1968. My generation of sixty-year olds now was formed around the ideals and values of 1968. It was this generation that was behind the profound changes in 1989. Currently, the power elites in Slovakia are made up, mostly, of individuals who are younger who grew up during the so-called “normalisation” period, when what prevailed was the hypocrisy, corruption, duplicity, and moral decay of the declining communist regime.

Who gained more from the opening of the borders, Slovaks or Austrians?

Definitely we gained more. Martin Bútora wrote a script for an International Human Rights Day on 10 December 1989. In it he suggested that the borders be opened and the Slovaks walk freely to Hainburg on that day. His project was called “Hello Europe!” We did not believe that we would be able to organise this march at all. But in the end more than 100,000 people showed up. We walked unhindered right through the border crossing at Berg, where armed men used to stand guard. It was an incredible experience even for the Austrians living there. They were opening their windows and offering us tea. We walked in peace. It was a euphoric experience. We walked to the banks of the River Danube. The Czechoslovak flag fluttered in the wind above Devin Castle. Some artists made a huge heart from barbed wire and my daughter, who had just graduated from her school, took a piece of it as a keepsake.

These days I live only 10 minutes away on foot from the Austrian border. I still keep reminding myself how amazing it is to be able to cross into Austria without a passport. First, the visa-regime was lifted. Then we did not need our passports either. And now, we do not even need to exchange money. At the same time, the mental barriers still persist. I live closer to Berg, on the Austrian side, than to Devin, on the Slovak one. But I started to take walks in the hills near Berg only two years ago. Today these walks are a part of my routine but it took me a long time to get used to that freedom. This example shows that mental barriers can persist even for someone as cosmopolitan as I am. Today, I can imagine something that used to be completely unimaginable for me back then: all the signs of the barbed-wire border between Slovakia and Austria will disappear in ten years time, without a trace, and nearby Austrian villages will become the suburbs of Bratislava.

Don’t you find that our accession to the Schengen Agreement markedly complicated matters for citizens of third countries wishing to travel to Slovakia?

The Slovaks need time to get accustomed to their newfound freedom and prosperity before they will start to think about the needs of their less fortunate neighbours. This is the reason for tightening the borders. Like the Austrians in the past, we are the easternmost EU Member State now. It involves performing the duties assigned to us by the EU. Of course, it is important not to create a new Iron Curtain on the EU eastern border. That depends, though, on the other side too.