JOHN HVASTA FINDS FREEDOM (Senate - February 07, 1990)

[Page: S1045]

Mr. PELL. Mr. President, 41 years ago John Hvasta was arrested and imprisoned in Czechoslovakia. He was accused of espionage in behalf of the American Consulate General which I had established. Not only was he arrested, but brutally treated.

He escaped from Leopoldov prison, spent 2 years hiding in the countryside and eventually made his way to freedom via the American Embassy.

Having been through this ordeal of fire and misery, he emerged a very fine, idealistic and decent human being. In this regard, I ask that an article that appeared in the Washington Post on Saturday, February 3, 1990, concerning my old friend John Hvasta, be printed in the Record.

The article follows:

From the Washington Post, Feb. 3, 1990


Slovak Native Comes Full Circle on Visit Home


Forty-one years ago, John Hvasta, a Slovak native and naturalized American citizen, was arrested and imprisoned in Czechoslovakia by the hard-line Communist government, which had just seized power. After escaping from prison 3 1/2 years later and hiding in haystacks and caves for two years more, he made his way back to the United States in 1954.

Last month, buoyed by the changes sweeping through his native land and much of Eastern Europe, Hvasta, now 62 and an Oakton, Md., businessman, fulfilled a four-decade-old dream and returned to Czechoslovakia just as Communist rule was ending there.

Because his arrest and subsequent escape were later publicized in Czechoslovakia, and because his success as president of the public relations firm American Public Research Council, Hvasta became known to Czechoslovaks through interviews on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

`It's ironic. He was there at the inception of communism and I suppose he had to be there at the finish of Communist rule,' said his wife, Helen.

Hvasta was born in Miglesov in eastern Czechoslovakia and left for the first time a week after Adolf Hitler marched into Prague. Hvasta was 10 years old when his mother took him and his brother to New Jersey, where their father already had a job working for the Ballantine brewery.

Hvasta is a tall, heavy-set, conservatively dressed man with bright eyes, glasses and evidence of a New Jersey accent.

When he was 20 and an American citizen, Hvasta returned to Czechoslovakia as a student and was hired in Bratislava part-time by then U.S. Vice Consul Clairborne Pell, now a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Eight months later, Hvasta was arrested by the secret police and accused of being a U.S. agent and of photographing underground munitions factories. Hvasta denied the charges and continues to deny them today. After a secret trial, the government sentenced him on June 1, 1949, to 10 years, but he escaped after serving 3 1/2 years at Leopoldv prison.

During this time Pell said he did what he could to gain the release of Hvasta. Pell said Hvasta `showed great bravery, he went through a crucible of fire.'

He and four other men fled Leopoldov after they were sent to mend holes in the wall surrounding their prison. On Jan. 2, 1952, when the whistle signaled time to go inside, they stayed behind. They had no trouble pulling the new bricks from the wall they had just mended and wiggling through. They ran to a railroad embankment 250 yards away where they hid until dark, then separated.

Afterward, Hvasta made his way to a farmhouse and begged for help. The family hid him in a haystack and later in a cave that Hvasta described as `a grave.' Each night, the farmer's wife or daughter would sing, and if she included a specific song, Hvasta knew it was safe to come out for food and exercise.

After 21 months of hiding there, he made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Prague, where he hid for four months until he was officially expelled by the Czechoslovak government in February 1954.

When he arrived in time for a demonstration last month in Bratislava, Hvasta was ushered to the podium. `It was a sight to see. A crowd of about 5,000 were gathered at the square, rejoicing each time a new concession was made by the Communists. This was a real revolution going on, it was exciting!' he said.

Hvasta quickly notices how much things had changed at home when he was caught speeding toward Bratislava last month. He showed the Czechoslovak policeman his U.S. passport and explained that he was rushing to speak at an anti-government demonstration. The policeman gave back the passport, saluted and said, `Just watch for potholes. Give them hell.'

However, the home of dissident Lubomir Feldek, where Hvasta stayed, was watched by the secret police during most of his stay in Czechoslovakia. `We were meeting in the dugouts in the hallways. The secret police was still eavesdropping,' said Hvasta, squeezing his brow into deep furrows.

Hvasta told the story of how he and the family noticed a man shivering in the driver's seat of a car with the motor switched off. Olga Feldek, like her dissident writer husband Lubomir, knew that the man was watching their home. She went outside and approached the man and said, `If you are watching that nothing happens to us, we are very grateful but I'm afraid you will freeze to death.' Then she offered him coffee or tea. Finally he looked up and said, `Some tea, please?' He was there for several more days.

Hvasta said the struggle is not yet over for the Czechoslovak resistance movements of Civic Forum and Public Against Violence, even though after 40 years of hard-line rule, the Communist leadership relinquished power when Party Leader Milos Jakes resigned Nov. 28.

Hvasta said the coming spring elections are crucial. `If the Communists get 51 percent of the vote all will be lost!'

Hvasta is planning a letter-writing campaign. He will ask Czechoslovak Americans to write to their relatives in Czechoslovakia and ask them not to vote Communist.

Though Alexander Dubcek, then first secretary of the Communist Party, exonerated him in 1969, the Czechoslovak government would not allow Hvasta to enter Czechoslovakia until 1986.

Hvasta discovered that the resistance, far from being professional politicians, were primarily philosophers, environmentalists and literary critics who asked him basic questions about U.S. politics and government. One request from members of Public Against Violence was for copies of the U.S. Constitution--preferably in Slovak.

Hvasta and his wife, who is of Hungarian and Ukrainian descent, are active in the D.C. area Slavic community. But Helen Hvasta was concerned for her husband's safety on his trip.

`I told him if he did go, he could stay there. That's how strongly I felt about it,' she said. He delayed his trip for several more days. `But his emotions won out. I suppose that was something he had to do,' Helen Hvasta said.

Last month, Hvasta was at Wenceslas Square in Prague, and messages of solidarity were read to the crowd from around the world. `So I wrote a message on back of my calling card telling the people that they had the support of 6 million Czechoslovak Americans, and then the man reading the messages said, `Come up, come up!'

Hvasta climbed up to the podium and spoke to the crowd. That was when he heard that the Communist government had relinquished its power. He was `elated because that was the beginning of the steps, one after the other, which the Communist Party relinquished power,' he said.

While Hvasta believes communism crippled the country in the last 41 years, he still has faith in Czechoslovakia's potential. `Now, just as one whose leg was broken and needs to stand and walk on his own, all of the inhabitants under communism will have to walk on their own, without the crutches,' he said.

[Page: S1046]