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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

My Trip Behind the Iron Curtain, 1958

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Object ID: WV0390.3.002

Description: European Special Services director Jean M. Fasse describes a trip to Czechoslovakia in 1958. She discusses having people stop to look at her, the poor and underfed nature of residents in the country, the architecture and her hotel in Prague, people's curiosity about her status as an African American, attending a dance, her exchanges with Czech college students, state-sponsored health care, the spas in Carlsbad, an outdoor concert Marianbad, and the importance of education in Czechoslovakia.

Creator: Mayme Jean Moore Fasse

Biographical Info: M. Jean Moore Fasse (1908-2008) of Lillington, North Carolina, served in the Red Cross during WWII, and later the Special Service, from 1946 to 1963.

Collection: M. Jean Moore Fasse Papers

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full Text:

MY TRIP BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

I have traveled in many countries and sections of Europe, but the country which I found most interesting and fascinating was Czechoslovakia. When it was approved that I was to be one of four people to visit Czechoslovakia, I began making arrangements to meet the other people in Germany, some three hundred miles away., Being the end of the month, when all club reports are due, I had much work to accomplish before leaving. The eve of my departure was the only opportunity I had to pack and take care of any personal matters.

After having dinner with some friends at the Officer's Club, I returned to my quarters to pack. Just as I started to place a few things together, several people dropped in to wish me a "Bon Voyage". I stopped packing as it was very difficult, if not impossible, to pack and talk all at the same time.

The last soul departed shortly before 1:30 and I finished the packing that I had hardly started. At 3:00 I got into bed knowing that I had to get up at 6:00 the same morning and being so excited about  the trip, I was unable to sleep those three hours.

I decided to drive my car to meet the group in Germany and by 7:30 I was on my way. Driving all day, I arrived at my destination and had my car placed in a garage. As we were not to leave until midnight I got a room at the hotel (where we met) and went to sleep. I hoped that maybe I could catch up on the sleep that I had lost the previous night. I woke up at 11:00 that evening and went down to the lobby to meet the others, all of whom I had never seen before. In the group was one other girl and two men. We left the hotel at the prescribed time and started our trip "Behind the Iron Curtain."

[handwritten: It was 1958 when I was there, much of this might have changed since then.]

We crossed the border into Czechoslovakia and after going some distance we were met by a guide which was provided us by the Czechoslovakian government. He remained with us throughout the trip.

The first place we visited, was the city of Pilsen, the world-famous beer brewing town. Visiting the underground part of this brewery, where the majority of the people work, would give cause for any freedom loving person to become sick to t he heart . ~here one can see, women, some of them very frail; working alongside of the men, handling big barrals filled with beer. The normal working day for those people is from ten to twelve hours. It is very cold and damp, which necessitates their standing and working in water all day. They wear as many coats as they can put on and high rubber boots. The women looked very strained but had cultivated big muscles from the heavy manual labor.

I asked the guide about the health conditions of these people after working so long underground with these conditions., He told me that very few contracted illnesses by working in the brewery.

Every section where stops were made, [crossed out: the people would stops were made] the people would stop work to come as close to me as possible. I asked the guide if the people stopped work like that every time one of the numerous groups of summer tourists came through. He stated that they did not, but that they were given the privilege to stop work to see me. He asked me if I objected to this and I told him that I didn't mind. Everyone smiled at me. I started smiling back and continued smiling all the way through Czechoslovakia. In this brewery, we saw the whole process  of beer malting, from the time the "hop" is brought in, until the bottle is capped and put in a box ready for shipping .

From Pilsen we journeyed on to Karlsteyn, 28 kilometers from Prague. Karlsteyn is situated on the left bank of the Ferounka River, here also is one of the best preserved medieval structures of Central Europe. This structure is a castle which never fell to a conqueror throughout its"[sic] entire history. Because this castle was never conquered, its’[sic] interior has been preserved almost intact., Its’[sic] walls held the crown jewels of the Czech kingdom and the German Empire. It was built originally as a safe shrine for the coronation jewels of the Bohemian Crown.

Travelling through the country, mostly women are noted doing manual labor. The homes and farms are in poor condition. Everything looked underfed. Although I only saw seven dogs during my travel in Czechoslovakia; they were in poor condition along with cats, cows and other animals.

Inquiring from the guide why there wasn’t as many men seen working as there were women, he stated that most of the men had to work for the state; which meant training to be soldiers and factory workers, Finally, after many winding roads and hills we reached Prague.

Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, lies almost in the exact center of Bohemia, on the River Ultaua. Because of its unique architectural landmarks, Prague is one of the most beautiful cities one could visit. Not only is Prague the head, it is also the heart of the Czech Republic. Driving through the city of Prague enroute[sic] to the hotel, I was fascinated by the beautiful architecture of the buildings, especially the state buildings. We reached the hotel which was situated on the main street and section of Prague. It was without a doubt the best hotel in Prague. Tired and hungry from the long drive, we didn't tarry outside but signed in and were shown to our rooms. I might say of mine—a suite. Those were the kind of accommodations that I received at every hotel I stayed. Although as I stated before, there was only one other girl along, I was put on a different floor. The way everyone acted, one would think I was the most important person ever to go there. When I would come out of my room, the elevator boy would nearly run to take my handbag.

At first, the people could not believe that I was an American Negro. When they were told that I was an American Negro, they became more curious. Everyone that could get close enough to me would start asking questions about the status of the Negro in America, about the Little Rock situation and how the Negro was treated in America. How was I able to travel and wear nice clothes? They commented that I was very intelligent and wanted to know if I had gone to school in Europe. I explained to those individuals who asked such questions that I went to school in America and was a teacher there and now I was working in Europe and that I had the same opportunites[sic] to travel as any other American. I was asked again about the Little Rock situation. I told them the situation which is existing in Little Rock is not entirely America. That there are sections in America where all people went to school together and that under our democratic government and constitution, thia situation would be resolved by the laws of the land. One man then wanted to know why is the Governor of Arkansas able to get away with such actions. I tried to explain that America being a country of free speech and actions, he would try to get away with it, but under due power of law, he would soon be handled. I stated no, and to my knowledge, the State Department didn't know I was there in Czechoslovakia. The State Department didn't ask me any more questions. One thing I was asked by someone else was about the man who was doomed to be hanged in Alabama. When I left France and Germany, I had not seen this in the newspapers and when asked about this negro man about to be hung for robbing a white woman of $1 .98, I flatly denied that anything like that would ever happen in America and I really thought this; not for $1.98 anyway. When I got back to Germany and was able to get a newspaper, it was there as big as day. Such acts and publicity as that do give America a very bad name, but what the people in other countries must realize is that everyone in America is not alike in his feelings towards the Negro and his progress , and that America should not be condemned because of the way some act and feel. I have traveled many places during my stay in Europe and everywhere I go the same questions are always asked. When I am trying to answer some of these questions, I [handwritten: don’t] deny that some of these problems do exist in America, but I do try to explain that we are making progress under our Democratic government.

The hotel in which we stayed had a very nice sidewalk cafe. The weather being so nice and warm it was very pleasant to sit outside and watch the people go by, but whenever I came out, it would become so crowded that it was almost impossible for anyone to pass. Everybody would stop to look at me and smile. The crowd became so great one day, someone put up a notice asking the people to move on and not make a fool out of themselves. In another section, I met people from Marovia, some of whom would come and rub my skin. Instead of the guide being able to explain the points of interest to the group, [crossed out: he had to explain the points of interest to the group] he had to explain to the people, who would gather around, something about me. How I got there, where was I from, etc.

The other girl on the trip was also a Special Service Director and since our jobs were quit similar, we found much to talk about. Just as soon as I was alone someone would wRnt to know if she were in A~erica would she be so .nice to me o I explained that there was not a place in America that people did not speak to one another if they knew the person. [handwritten: She was white.]

While sitting at the sidewalk cafe one evening, I looked at the crowd of people which was standing there and I saw a negro man looking at me. We looked at each other and smiled, so he managed to make his way through the crowd to me. He seemed very happy to see me. He was surprised to see me there as I was curious to know what he was doing there, if he were not on a tour. He told me that he had been living in Prague for three years, and he was teaching English in one of the schools. He further stated that he was living quite comfortably and had a lovely apartment. He avoided answering questions about his family but he did say that he sought political asylum there.

I was sent invitations to go dancing; two of which I accepted with the understanding that my traveling companion would also be invited if she wanted to go. She was also interested in seeing all aspects of life in Czechoslovakia, so we accepted the invitations when we were told that these people were of respectable character. We were taken to the entertainment hall in Prague and we couldn't have asked for more courtesy from anyone.

I met several students from different countries who were attending the University of Prague on scholarships from the Czech government[sic]. In discussing the educational system there, as compared to American educational systems, I discovered that the student from Czechoslovakia must work all summer for the state and does not receive any pay for this work. This doesn't apply to students from other countries who are there on scholarships. The state is responsible for education and provides it free of charge.

The students were interested in an exchange of records. If I would send them popular records, they would send me classical ones. The Czech student wanted magazines but stated that he could not receive them through the mail. My companion had brought a "LIFE" magazine along, which she gave to him. The student was very happy to get it, but she had to meet him outside when it was dark to give it to him. He stated that he could not be caught accepting it. We took it outside, gave it to him and he rushed on up the street and we never saw him again. This Czech was the only person I met who seemed to be very afraid of something.

Social medicine is practiced throughout the country. Health services are available to all citizens of Czechoslovakia, free of charge at health centers, each of which serves a residential area. There is about one clinic in each district where specialists treat patients recommended by a medical practitioner. It was explained that tourists who become ill would also recive[sic] free medical care. I was told that the doctors are the best to be found in the world; since I was having a little trouble with my toe, I decided to try out some of this medical care, so I told the guide that I wanted to get to a chiropodist. The appointment was made for me. I was taken over to a beautiful building where inside, about seventy-five people waited to betreated. I was taken immediately to a booth. A lady came in and my interpreter stated what I wanted to have done. First she started cutting my toe nails and she was working at it so fast that I was afraid for her to touch my toe. When she finished cutting my nails and was getting ready for the toe. I explained that my toe was so sore that I couldn't stand for anyone to touch it. My interpreter gave her the message; she looked at me rather funny but gave an indication that it was alright[sic]. I asked what she charged and she said nothing. I thanked her and left. I was telling the guide what happened so he stated that the next day we would be in Carlsbad, the world famous spa, and he would get a specialist to look at it. The next evening we were in Carlsbad and I hadn't mentioned my toe to the guide again, but evidently he hadn't forgotten. After dinner I was in the grand ballroom dancing when I was paged to come to the lounge of the hotel. When I got there I found a doctor. a nurse and the guide waiting for me. The doctor and nurse accompanied me to my suite where I showed him my toe. He stated that it was in very bad condition and that he would operate on it, but I would have to remain there three or four days. I thanked him and explained that it would be impossible for me to stay. He then told me to see a specialist as soon as I got back to my station. I did see a doctor and so as I sit here writing this I have only four toes on the foot that once had five. I was charged nothing for the doctor's visit to the hotel.

In Carlsbad, people from all over the world go there to drink the mineral water, which is supposed to cure any ailment of the stomach or heart. Therefore, many of the wealthy people come to spend at least one to three months a year to take the cure. The poor people who are in need of a certain operation will be sent there by their doctor and given the best treatment for nothing. (Mothers are paid and given a great deal of care when they give birth to a Child.)

Frorry Carlsbad, we journeyed to Marianbad. This is a vacation spot in which the best workers are given fourteen days free vacation. When we arrived there, there were many people sitting around listening to an outdoor concert. We got out of our bus and were going to enjoy a few concert selections, but when we started to go down the aisle people started to crowd around us and in a few minutes just about everyone who was seated had gotten up and joined them. I looked up to see if the concert had ended and saw the conductor had turned sideways and was trying to look at us and conduct at the same time. I do not know if he finished the piece he was conducting, but he stopped.  

The thing I noticed most of all was the listless, tired look of the people. The majority of them were old or looked old. Although this period of rest was free, with all expenses paid, the people seemed too tired to enjoy it. Those I talked to though did have energy enough to know the situation in America.

Education is very important to everyone in Czechoslovakia. There are more bookstores and libraries to be found there, than any other country, unless it is Russia. There are no families without a library, no matter how poor they are. Every person in Czechoslovakia buys at least three books a year. All workshops and factories have their own libraries and reading rooms. Reading is called a passion in Czechoslovakia. Illiteracy no longer exists. Schools of all types are free, from nursery schools to elementary schools, to technical and specialized schools and universities. Elementary school is compulsory, and higher education is accessible to all who prove their ability. Those who wish to continue with studies while employed may arrange evening and correspondence courses with the same standards and the same final degrees as normal full-time courses.