My story begins on a Saturday night in Tel Aviv on September 25, 1982, when a large crowd of hundreds of thousands of Israeli "leftists" demonstrated in the central city square against the war led by the Israeli government in Lebanon and the massacre of 2,000 Muslims in Lebanese refugee camps by Israel's Christian allies only a week earlier.
This was and still is the largest by-far demonstration in the history of Israel.
I was then in the early '80s a TV producer journalist working for ABC News in New York, and I saw the frightening sights of the war only on the local TV when they chose to report and even then, only a minute and a half ... I heard the voices coming from Israel at night before going to bed on shortwave radio. I was sorry I could not be there on the square, the "Kings of Israel" square with the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. A big hole in my resume. I was NOT there that night!
Fast forward to December 4, 1989, afternoon, with an Israeli passport in hand and an NBC News journalist's Press Card in my pocket, I took off for Prague via Frankfurt.
I was flying to Prague on an assignment for NBC News following the growing demonstrations in the Czechoslovak capital, where hundreds of thousands have been protesting for two weeks already in the capital's main square against the communist president. It seems that the Czechoslovak republic is going to be the next story and the network is starting to get organized to cover the events there.
News agencies reported half a million protesters In St. Wenceslas Square in Prague, there in their "Kings of Israel" Square they gathered from near and far away, holding flags, calling for the resignation of the Communist president, trying to revive the “Spring of Prague of 1968”. This was the revolution that would later be called the "Velvet Revolution", i.e., a non-violent protest.
Just three weeks earlier, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and another team from the NBC News bureau in Herzliya was already there in Germany to document and broadcast live the shattered parts of the wall and the masses flowing from East to West. Once again, I felt a big miss. Another hole in the resume. Once more, I'm not part of a "game-changer" event.
Reports from Prague indicate that young Czechs and Slovaks "smell" the change in the air coming from the Northwest, from Berlin. They heard that in another Communist régime, in neighboring Bulgaria the communist prime minister had relinquished power. They hear about a rebellion that is starting to appear in Romania as well, so they believe that the power is with them, with the good ones. In Berlin and Sofia the regime was replaced without a single shot, so why not in Prague.
The Bureau Chief in Herzliya, Israel, looks around and there are no other people in the office - the staff crews are out at work. He calls me and asks if I think I can enter Prague with an Israeli passport if I get there by flight.
I smile and ask - when is the next flight leaving.
At home, I pick up my Bellingham bag and the Chimidan, I say goodbye to the girls, and not too long after, the taxi was on the way to Tel-Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport.
The feelings are mixed. On one hand, getting excited as we get closer to the airport, excitement a rush of Adrenaline, On the other hand – leaving Naomi & the girls once again for an undetermined period. Nervous, as this was my first assignment overseas which I am on my own, by myself, flying to a place I have never been to before, going to join a team of professionals who were all very experienced, based in Europe, with an American producer I have never met before who flew into Prague from New-York.
The latest news from Prague before boarding is that the pressure of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across the country is bearing fruit and the communist president formed a new government that removes the barbed wire fences on the border with West Germany and Austria ... the iron curtain continues to crumble.
During the flight from Frankfurt to Prague, the capital of the Czechoslovak socialist republic, the Lufthansa's plane cruises at 25,000 feet above feather clouds and clear winter skies, I close my eyes and think about the situation; an Israeli, with a blue-and-white passport, on his way to a communist country, into the unknown beyond the iron curtain, entering a country that has no diplomatic ties with Israel. What is my chance of really entering the country without becoming caught up in it all, in the worst case, or just being returned shamefaced to Frankfurt in the least bad case scenario ... but as in previous trips, I have in my Billingham bag a pinch of Israeli audacity and a great deal of determination and I am already less than an hour's flight from the destination, Prague International Airport.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the captain has just switched on the fasten your seatbelts sign….
The plane begins to lose altitude before hitting the landing strip, “To the city that is captured in its dream, a heavy unknown shadow emerged, and red moon dipped his kingdom in soot” Arik Einstein sang his very special song, “Prague”, to me.
Prague for me was Alexander Dubccek and the " Prague Spring " of 1968. Josef Koudelka’s famous picture of a young Czech man holding a flag standing on a Soviet tank turret on the main street in the city, one of two thousand tanks and other armored vehicle crossing the border into Czechoslovakia in August 1968, and the student, Jan PalachFalach, who set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in protest of the invasion.
I remember the morning I learned about the Russian invasion. I'm a 15-year-old boy who, from a much earlier age, has been arguing with his father about who should read the daily "Haaretz" newspaper every morning, who hears news at every opportunity, and so that morning in August of 1968 I heard the news on the little transistor hiding under my pillow. The British Broadcasting Service reported about two hundred thousand soldiers and weapons of war that have crossed the border into Czechoslovakia and are moving towards the capital Prague.
The burial place of the Golem ... The ancient Jewish cemetery and the source of the crystals that my grandmother had in the cabinet behind the glass. A city that writes another chapter in its long history.
I landed alone at the deserted airport of Prague. On the flight from Frankfurt, there were no tourists, just more journalists and radio and TV crews rushing out of the field, rushing desperate not to miss the last hours of light, to catch up and shoot the large crowds overflowing the square, and broadcast the images and atmosphere as the demonstrators were gathering there, already for nearly two weeks.
And while everyone else hurried out of the airport, I walk slowly, carefully, looking to the sides to see that no one is following me, walking to the passport control counter in the airport while I run through my mind for the umpteenth time the answer I have decided to give the passport officer who must wonder what the hell an Israeli guy is doing with an Israeli passport at the airport of a country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel ...
When the NBC News bureau chief back home in Herzliya asked me if I thought I would be able to enter Prague with the Israeli passport and of course without a visa, I replied with great confidence that although Israel has no diplomatic relations with the Československá socialistická Republika - I trust the atmosphere of change was in the air and it would be enough to get my passport stamped.
At the checkpoint sitting behind thick glass the border policeman takes my passport, I smile and add I AM WITH NBC NEWS AMERICAN TELEVISION - it does not impress the officer is not too interested in my story, he has probably seen quite a few journalists in the last two or three weeks. He turns over the passport, right and left, looking for the visa which obviously I did not have... He looks up at me and I smile back at him and keep silent. No doubt, in what seemed like minutes, but was only seconds, he lowers his gaze back to his desk, takes the round big wooden stamp in his hand, and stamps my passport. Thank you Sir I mumble and walk away toward the exit doors of the terminal where I meet the Czech driver who was sent to take me to the "Intercontinental" Hotel, my home and office for the near future. For how long ?!? Well, no one is asking, and my estimated guess would be for about four weeks. But why get ahead of myself, I have not yet arrived ...
I sit in the back seat of the cab, the driver does not speak English which makes the journey easier for me, and I can gather myself in excitement. Adjacent to the window, I’m trying to see as much as possible on the road from the airport to the hotel located in the center of the city between the Old Town and the Vltava River, about half an hour drive in the old Mercedes taxi that has seen better days. On the way, the road crosses agricultural areas and workers' housing, gray buildings. Railroad tracks that change lanes to the tram that is the bus here.
We are approaching the city center. A neighborhood of detached houses. I guess here live the people in power, the communist party activists, and maybe even foreign diplomats. I try to identify the local cars; Made in Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Trabi, the East German Trabant. Simple little cars, which I have never seen in Israel, not even as a tourist in the other parts of Western Europe. The side streets are paved with stones. And again, housing and more housing projects. Unattractive or un-unique buildings. And here's the main street approaching the river - a restaurant and another. People on bicycles. People walking in groups are probably walking to Wenceslas Square. People holding Czechoslovak national flags. It is very cold outside, and the people are wrapped in coats and scarves. The driver takes the turn off the main street and here we are in the hotel’s parking lot. NBC Hotel, he is saying. I smile and say in Hebrew "thank you" he smiles back. Not sure he understood.
Another minute in the cab before I’m heading out into the outside world, putting on a big smile, picking up the coat, the Billingham, and heading out into the freezing air. There is no such cold in Israel, not this "wet cold" that promises that the snow would arrive tonight. I take my chimidan from the trunk of the cab, wave goodbye to the driver, and enter the hot lobby of the Interconti as the journalists call it.
A quick check-in at the reception, I get a key and take the elevator up to the room where I throw the chimidan on the king-size bed, open the closed curtains on the big window of the 12th floor and the city unfolds before me. This story, in Prague, whatever it may be, I will not miss. I am here to stay, whatever it takes until I can move on having recorded it - added it to my C.V.
While the revolution is being carried out peacefully in a Central European manner in Czechoslovakia…
In Romania 100,000 industrial workers are marching towards the main square in Timisoara the second largest city in Eastern Romania, marching on to the Opera Square. They come to protest the communist government and the dictatorial president. They are protesting their terms of employment, low wages, living conditions, and severe food shortages.
Two days later, 100,000 protesters gathered to listen to the speech of the Romanian President Ceausescu in a Bucharest square in front of the Party’s headquarters. For an obscure reason, the crowd "turned around" on him and started shouting slogans against him. The demonstration quickly deteriorated when soldiers and tanks of the Romanian army together with the special Securitate, the security forces confronted the demonstrators. Blood in the streets.
What had happened in Berlin, Sofia, and Prague – didn't happen in Romania where the revolution has ended in bloodshed, the killing of unconfirmed numbers [estimated between a few hundred to 3000] of protesters, and the execution in a drumhead court-martial of the president and his wife.
On Christmas day, December 25th, 1989, the Ceausescus were both put on trial. Both pleaded guilty to numerous crimes including genocide, namely, murdering "over 60,000 people" during the revolution in Timișoara. The couple was immediately executed by a firing squad. The TV cameras would broadcast the recorded images to the whole world only 48 hours later.
On December 25th as we are coming back to the office at the Intercontinental after covering Christmas day Church services bringing the spirit of the revolution mixed with the holidays’ spirit and the masses overflowing the streets singing with the churches’ bells ringing - very special atmosphere seeing all the masses celebrating the freedom they fought for in the last five weeks. Seeing all those people whom I have seen gathered on the streets day in & day out.
I felt lucky and excited to have seen and met the students on campuses during the days and those we met at bars in the city at night, in Prague, and outside the capital. I was excited for Alexander Dubcek in Bratislava - Dubcek who was the symbol of the failed "Spring Prague" of 1968, Dubček who refused us an interview even though we drove 300 km in each direction from Prague to Bratislava to his house in the middle of the night just to ask for his thoughts on the political process and outcome. I will never forget the stakeout at the demonstrators’ headquarters in town, and Vaclav Havel, a statesman, a playwright, and a former dissident, Havel the symbol of the Velvet Revolution, coming “to work” daily riding his bicycles…. Havel who was democratically elected only 5 days after Christmas, as the first democratic president of Czechoslovakia! I felt lucky to have seen it all in the last 21 days.
I will never forget the Czech and Slovak people who invited us into their apartments without heating and shared with us the bottle of Slibowitz alongside their political views. I will not forget climbing buildings with the camera gear because the elevator did not work. I was happy for the young Czech doctor who finished his shift in the hospital and returned home with us to have a quick bite before going back to the street for another "shift" on the square. I felt I owed all of them a big "thank you" for accepting us into their life without a fear and without suspicion.
I thanked the god of TV who gave me the opportunity to be one of them for three weeks!
I was proud to add the coverage of the Velvet Revolution to my resume. Unforgettable three weeks.
On the ride back from the city center to the NBC office at the Interconti on the 12th Floor we hear the news about the alleged mass murder of thousands of civilians in Timisoara and the execution of the Romanian President & his wife just outside Bucharest. It is time to move on then.
NBC decided to move me to Romania.
The distance from Prague to the Romanian border is about 1000 km and requires passage through Slovakia and Hungary. A flight from Prague to Bucharest is not an option because the airport in Bucharest is closed.
Meanwhile, the NBC London bureau is updating us on rumors coming from Eastern Romania about an alleged massacre of people and dozens of bodies being discovered in the backyard of Timisoara Central Hospital.
I open my Pirelli Atlas that was my backpack companion on each trip, trying to figure out where Timisoara is and what the fast way is to reach the land border and hope we can cross. It turns out in a conversation with the senior producer on the foreign news desk at the London office that the quickest way is to fly from Prague to Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia that was still under pre-revolutionary communist rule to meet there at the airport with a team of a cameraman, a sound tech, and a reporter and together to attempt to reach the Romanian border and from there to Timisoara, a total distance of about 150 km.
A taxi takes me from the Prague Intercontinental hotel to Prague airport. There is no passport control or security checks there. I grab my Billingham and Chimidan walking into the departure terminal looking for the private jet that would take me to Belgrade as was planned.
It is a short flight - landing in Belgrade is another “first” but this time with much more confidence - explaining to the passport control officer that I am with NBC News and in transit - he doesn’t even stamp my passport and off I walk out of the terminal to meet up with the crew and the correspondent and the four of us are driving to the Romania-Serbia border.
Early in the evening, we arrived in Timisoara, the second-largest city in Romania located in the east of the country where rumors of revolutionary opponents who were executed and buried in a mass grave in the backyard of the local hospital were reportedly found.
We turn to the main square. Another square, another crowd. It is dark and cold. A few thousand demonstrators are on the square, the Opera Square. Young people singing what they explain to us later is the old Romanian anthem that preceded the rise of the Communists. A local pastor approaches us when he recognizes an American TV crew, asking us to follow him. We walk with him. He wants to tell us a story and we hear for the first time about the massacre that was (or was not) in the city. He tells us about the bodies of several dozen murdered civilians he claims to have seen. He is telling us about the secret agents, the security guard, those infamous secret police agents who were hiding the bodies. The pastor invites us to join him for a tour of the hospital backyard and he says we can photograph the bodies, some of which he insists are still in the pits behind the building.
We decide to wait for the first light and meanwhile look for a hotel that someone in the church recommends in a nearby town. And we get into the rental car we brought from Belgrade, and in the bitter cold of late December, by candlelight in the windows illuminating small Christmas trees, we are making our way for a first night in Romania.
Merry Christmas Romania.
To Be Continued...