Remembering Vaclav Havel on a 'Hey Jude' kind of night

During the Velvet Revolution, the late Czech leader's speech was irresistible, even if you didn't understand the words. Then the crowd broke into a long-forbidden song.

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Vaclav Havel

During the Velvet Revolution, the late Czech leader's speech was irresistible, even if you didn't understand the words. Then the crowd broke into a long-forbidden song.

Good timing. It was 1990, at the end to Czechoslovakia’s long totalitarian night. I was fortunate enough to enter Prague just as the Velvet Revolution was offering the Czech people their first delicious taste of freedom.

Although the need for visas had been lifted that very day, my traveling companion and I had great difficulty trying to find a hotel vacancy in the medieval capital, not known for hospitality to Western tourists. After hours of pleading with hotel clerks, we were finally able to secure a room — only available for a couple of nights — directly across Wenceslas Square from the Presidential Palace, a three story frame building.

We spent two days in a round of glorious sightseeing. Wherever we went we encountered electioneering, Czech style. Soapboxes occupied each corner and people seemed giddy at the prospect of being able to cast a free ballot after more than 40 years of Communist Party rule.  A makeshift memorial to martyrs, flowers and candles, had been set up at one end of the square. Hand lettered election signs ringed the boulevards.

Footweary, I retired to my room after an early dinner to read and watch TV. The quiet was broken by a loudspeaker. A slight, wispy figure seen from across the square had emerged on a third floor balcony and was addressing a rapidly gathering crowd.

It was Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who died over the weekend and who had spent years in jail and had gone from prisoner to president in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell.

Hundreds began arriving, men, women, and children, quietly, almost reverently. The mass of humanity choked the square, children perched astraddle their parents’ shoulders. They listened to Havel as he spoke, words I couldn’t understand but which, nevertheless, might have been directed at me. At intervals the crowd responded with a wave of reverberating cheers.

Oddly, I was seeing the same scene on the blurry old TV, but more clearly and intimately through the open window of my room.

Finally, I could no longer bear to be apart from the crowd. I felt I had to join in something so much larger. I put on my dusty tourist’s shoes and rushed down the stairs to the lobby and finally out into the night and the people-choked square.

By then, the mass of people were all singing. Inexplicably and wonderfully, they were launching into old Beatles’ songs. I arrived on the pavement just as they had reached the chorus of “Hey Jude.” A young man nearby guessed that I spoke English and explained that they hadn’t been allowed the song during the old regime and now they were free and could belt out the lyrics.

There must have been 100,000 Czechs in that square, all of them serenading the shy, bookish man who helped them emerge from the Iron Curtain. It was an anthem like no other, a song straight from the heart and an amazing tribute to Havel’s struggles and to those first sweet tastes of freedom.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.