I will never set foot in Germany.”
The year 1968 was the height of the revolutionary activity of the 1960s. That summer, just after I turned sixteen, my family planned to take a trip to Europe. We were scheduled to fly into Paris at the end of June, and there was some question whether we could take the trip at all, because there was actually a general strike going on in France. The strike had paralyzed most economic activity in the country—even the airports had shut down. The entire French nation was in the grips of a political upheaval that had begun, incredibly enough, with a protest in favor of coed dorms at a new campus of the Sorbonne in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris.
Eventually the strike subsided, the airports reopened, and we were able to fly to Paris. We saw the end of the general strike, which had originally been led by anarchists, if that oxymoron is possible. I witnessed the gendarmes, who had capes with lead hems, beat the student demonstrators by gathering the ends of their capes in one hand and using the lead hem as a club. The police cleared the last barricades in the Latin Quarter that the student protestors had constructed out of steel tree grates and cobblestones they had crowbarred up from the streets. I also saw the brave posters of the strike pasted on walls all over the city, with clenched fists and slogans such as, SOUS LES PAVÉS, LA PLAGE—UNDER THE PAVING STONES, THE BEACH.
My mother had a friend in Paris named Jacqueline, who was a dentist. My parents had met Jacqueline on their honeymoon in France in 1948, when they had visited a navy buddy of my dad’s who had married Jacqueline as a war bride. That navy pal had since passed away, and Jacqueline had an eighteen-year-old son from that marriage, Fred, and a new boyfriend, Jean-Pierre. The three of them were planning to take a long vacation that involved an odyssey across Europe in two cars, and they invited me and my mother to come along, for reasons that only became clear later.
My mother, always an adventurous soul, agreed to the trip, but on the condition that she would never set foot in Germany. That was a phrase I heard over and over again in my childhood: “I will never set foot in Germany.” Having lived through World War II, my mother retained a deep grudge against anything German, as did many Jews.
It turned out that Jacqueline and Jean-Pierre’s intended destination on this trip was a Club Med resort in Romania. In order to get from Paris to the Black Sea, it would not so easy to go around Germany. There was the little matter of the Alps, for instance. Jacqueline and Jean-Pierre refused the detour, which would have added several days to their journey. They insisted on going through Germany. My mother finally agreed, but only if she could stay in the car the entire time we were on German soil. That seemed possible, since we could stop the first night just before the German border, and then possibly make it to Austria the next day. My mother assented, on the condition that we would leave the Club Med before our friends and fly back to Paris on the return trip.
The first day of our journey, we got into the two cars, my mother and I riding with Jacqueline’s son Fred in a Volkswagen bug, and Jacqueline and her boyfriend in the other car. Driving all day (there were no autoroutes between Paris and the German border back then) we made it to Strasbourg on the French side of the German border the first night. There was a huge downpour the next morning, though, and Jacqueline and her family wanted to avoid driving in the storm. We decided to sightsee in Strasbourg for a couple of hours. Shortly before lunch, we left Strasbourg, with Germany just across the border. I remember the tension in my mother as she heard German spoken by the uniformed border guards as they checked our passports. Memories of World War II movies must have been wheeling in her head.
By the time we got to Baden-Baden, a German town just across the border that had been a spa since Roman times, everyone was hungry. Our French friends had heard of a good restaurant in town, and wanted to try it. Would my mother actually get out of the car, though? Take-out food was not common then. In order to eat anything before dinner, she would have to get out of the Volkswagen. Well, to my amazement, she did enter the restaurant, breaking her lifelong vow. She grumbled, but the excellent Wiener schnitzel greatly improved her mood.
We drove across Southern Germany and Austria practically without stopping, since Jacqueline and Jean-Pierre had paid for their stay at the Club Med, and needed to arrive in a couple of days to get their money’s worth by arriving at the time that their reservation began.
As we entered Hungary, we passed right near the point where that country’s border intersects with Austria and Slovakia. Slovakia was then part of Czechoslovakia, which was experiencing enormous upheaval. Most of the country, including the government, was rejecting the Soviet-era model of communism in favor of a freer, more open system, without censorship. There were plans for free elections. We looked at the Czechoslovak flags flying at their border, and talked about their brave experiment.
Even though we were in a rush to make it to the Club Med, we did spend one night in Budapest. At the time, Hungary, unlike their Czech neighbors, had one of the most hardline, Stalinist regimes in the world. We stayed at a good hotel and ate a fairly nice meal at the hotel restaurant, located on a hill overlooking the Danube. As usual, we spent a long time at the table, since we were travelling with three people from France. French must be the only language that actually has a verb that means to linger at lunch or dinner—traîner. The restaurant had closed for the night and we were the last guests still eating. For some reason, the waiters seemed eager to hustle us out—did they just want to go home? As we were eating our desserts and chatting, a large family entered the restaurant, all of them dressed in elegant clothing, much nicer than the garb of the people we had seen in the streets of Budapest. We heard the new arrivals speaking Hungarian to the staff, who were extremely eager to serve them. There was one waiter for each member of their group, and the waiters hovered in anticipation of the family’s every wish. Their food arrived quickly, and the waiters served them delicacies that were not even on the menu—oysters, veal cutlets, a whole fish. It was clear this was the family of a Communist Party official. For someone like me, who had grown up a leftist, this was a shock. But not the last one on this trip.
Hungary has had its own currency for many centuries, called the forint, its name deriving from a Florentine gold piece. During the period when they had a communist government, in order to increase their holdings of foreign currencies, Hungary insisted that visitors had to preorder a certain number of forints for every day they were going to stay in the country. The amount was more than one could spend in twenty-four hours—there wasn’t much to buy there. It was a blatant scam to absorb more foreign currency.
When we had driven all the way across Hungary, we arrived in our two-car caravan at the heavily guarded border with Romania. The guards on the Hungarian side searched our cars, including the trunk, and made us show all our currency and jewelry. Apparently they were looking for smuggled people or valuables. The actual border was a no-man’s land heavily guarded by soldiers in uniforms, toting machine guns and standing behind barbed wire fences. There was no nearby town. It was a fearful place.
When we reached the Romanian side, different soldiers from a different army again searched our cars thoroughly and made us declare all our valuables. My mother asked where she could change her Hungarian forints into the Romanian currency, the leu. The soldiers explained that she could not exchange currency—it was illegal to use Hungarian money in Romania, even to change it into their currency.
“But I have quite a lot of money here. How can I spend it?” she asked the military men.
“Only by going back to Hungary.”
My mother and I planned to return to Paris by plane, so we would not be travelling through Hungary on the way home. The money was worthless to us, and Jacqueline and company already had more forints than they could use on their drive home to Paris.
“I’m going to cross back into Hungary, then,” vowed my mother. We assumed we would not have to pass through customs again in both countries, since they had already searched us thoroughly, and we had not even left the passport control office at the border. But the Romanian guards said we would have to go through the entire process again, including filling out multiple forms. Understandably, Jacqueline and Jean-Pierre refused to go back to Hungary.
My mother, undeterred, decided to walk across the border herself, dressed as usual to the nines. She was wearing a stylish beige dress, a fancy hat that looked like a turban, and matching high heels. She left me with our French friends, walked back through the barbed wire fences and across the no-man’s-land between the two Communist countries, with the machine guns of the soldiers on both sides pointed at her. She returned about an hour later, similarly watched by all the armed border guards, but carrying a shopping bag. She had bought all the most expensive items she could find in the little grocery store by the border in Hungary—red wine and chocolate, as much as the local law would allow her to transport, and none of the border guards dared to say a word to her.
The actual border was a no-man’s land heavily guarded by soldiers in uniforms.
Those tightly packed groups looked more terrified than care free, though.
The Club Med in Mamaia on the Black Sea in Romania (this Club Med no longer exists) was filled to capacity with French people when we got there. In the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 movie La Chinoise, one of the left-wing radicals famously claims that the Club Med “is built along the same lines as a concentration camp.” If this was a concentration camp, it was one with a very good chef from Paris, who used the freshest ingredients that could be found in Romania, including delicious local crayfish and some of the best tomatoes in the world. The fees for all activities in this “concentration camp” were covered by the weekly price, among them sailing, biking, and dancing to live bands in the evening.
Apparently this Club Med was also a destination for swingers. Before long, my mother figured out why Jacqueline and Jean-Pierre had wanted company for their son on the long drive from Paris. Since they had two cars in Romania, both Jacqueline and Jean-Pierre could run off to nearby hotels with willing partners from the Club Med. My mother was less than happy with this arrangement, and made no secret to me of her disapproval.
Mamaia—the name is curiously similar to the U.S. resort of Miami—was already a resort in the days when the ancient Greeks colonized ports on the Black Sea. It is also about 60 miles (95 kilometers) from the border with Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. Romania, still under the Ceaușescu communist regime, had sided with the breakaway government of Czechoslovakia, which was testing the limits of how far a communist country could depart from the Russian model.
My mother booked a one-day trip for August 20, 1968, departing from the Club Med and travelling to Kiev. That city in Ukraine was where her own mother and grandparents had lived before they emigrated to the U.S. Throughout her childhood, my mother had heard stories about the beauty of that city, with its golden beaches along the Dnieper River, and its onion-tapered domes. She was eager to see it for herself. She left at dawn that morning for the nearby airport, accompanied by others from the Club Med, and left me in the care of our French friends.
I decided to go for a bike ride into the nearby town of Constanța, named for the Roman Emperor Constantine—that’s how ancient this part of the world is. On my way home I was struck by the large clusters of people standing together on the street, listening intently to transistor radios. How nice, I thought, that people here share the experience of listening to the radio. Those tightly packed groups looked more terrified than care free, though.
When I returned to the Club Med, I heard from our French friends that Russia had just invaded Czechoslovakia to topple the rebellious regime there, that tanks were shooting at protestors in the streets of Prague, and that a division of the Russian army was reported to be massing on the Romanian border just one hour’s drive from our little resort. And where was my mother, who was scheduled to tour part of the Soviet Union that very day?
My mother reappeared with her tour bus several hours later. Their plane had never taken off, and no one at the airport would tell them why all air traffic to the Soviet Union had been suspended. The airport officials had just sent them back home with no explanation. When my mother heard what was going on, she decided to book us on the next flight back to Paris.
The next flight was on TAROM, the Romanian national airline. The plane was not in what you would call peak condition. If there was a loudspeaker system in the plane, it was not working. Instead, the copilot came out of the cabin to greet us in person. When he tried to shut the cabin door behind him, it wouldn’t close, and with an awkward smile, he tried while facing us to slam it shut several times with his elbow, but to no avail. In the end, the crew had to prop it closed with a boot, but somehow, the aircraft managed to get us back to Paris.
The year 1968 was a turning point in many ways—historically, it represented a high water mark in many countries for movements advocating for a freer, more egalitarian society. For me, personally, it was when I learned that elites—whether Western or Eastern, capitalist or communist—were not going to give up their power without a fight.
Featured image header: photo credit Henri Cartier Bresson