Official Magazine of the Denver Bar Association

Ilona Dotterrer: Nonfiction Winner for “How I Knew the Soviets”

Nonfiction(1)Ilona Dotterrer never needed to search for inspiration in her writing—it’s been in front of her all along


“It was my own story, in my bones,” Dotterrer says. “It just flowed.”


“How I Knew the Soviets” is the tale of Dotterrer’s family, and specifically, her parents struggle as Czech immigrants in the United States during time of turmoil. The back story is even more interesting: her father had a death sentence on his head in the Czech Republic and became a spy for the CIA after World War II. He had lived in a war environment the entirety of his formative years, and Dotterrer said that when he was finally able to go back to the Czech Republic later in life, it was like he was “reborn.”


She explains that she’s found truth in the fact that immigrants and their children are stuck between the old and new worlds. Dotterrer broke her story down to milestone dates in history to better describe her family’s experiences and the happenings in what is now the Czech Republic at each point.


“I started out wanting to write the big story, but I just couldn’t get my arms around it.” Dotterrer says. “So I thought why not make it smaller and tie it into the world events.”


Surprisingly, Dotterrer’s effortless storytelling skills haven’t always been put to good use. Although she was interested in writing – and was an editor for the law review in school – Dotterrer had put it on the back burner until recently when she enrolled in writing classes. Now, she is trying her hand at writing screen plays as well.


A Senior Attorney Advisor with the Social Security Administration, Dotterrer has two children. She’s taking her youngest son and his wife to the Czech Republic this summer to get back to their roots.

How I Knew the Soviets

In 1950, the Soviets seize Eastern Europe and the icy grip of repression spreads like a vast glacier, freezing hundreds of lives. My young vivacious Czech mother convinces her doting parents to leave their successful bakery and board a small train at the Pilsen train station. They are dropped off in a thick wood close to the Czech–German border, miles from the nearest village, and simply told to walk west. Oblivious to Soviet patrols, they take a day to leisurely stroll the ten miles into Germany, stopping to snack on stout buttered rye bread and cold breaded veal cutlets washed down with honeyed tea. Later, in Chicago, my father, who carries a large gunshot scar on his leg from his years helping people escape, marvels at their innocence and luck to anyone who will listen.

In 1960, I help my mother and grandmother wrap our old clothes into worn white sheets, slipping in yellow packets of chewing gum like pieces of sunshine, tying the pillow-shaped bundles tightly with smooth string. We write the names and addresses of the aunts with black marker, naming the beloved old country the “Czechoslovak Socialist Republic” or “CSSR,” as the Soviets dictate. Every month, we carry the parcels to Tuzex, the only agency the Soviets allow to distribute warmth and love to the people frozen behind the Iron Curtain. My mother pays the outrageous “shipping and handling” fees without a word.

In 1965, letters in tissue thin envelopes with orange and blue borders, imprinted “Par Avion,” regularly arrive at our Chicago apartment. To discourage relentless Soviet censorship, the letters are addressed to a fictitious American. Inside, dense Old World script on small onion-skin sheets describes mind-numbing grayness, empty store shelves, and constant fear. Sometimes, when there are small black and white photographs of weddings, babies, or funerals, my mother and grandmother sit together at the kitchen table, quietly crying for the distant lives left behind.

In 1968, the heady Prague spring, when a few modest freedoms pushed like tender green shoots from under an immovable ice mass, ends suddenly in the August heat. Shiny green Russian tanks filled with bewildered Siberian teenage boys rumble down the cobbled streets of ancient cities. In the countryside, villagers awake to dozens of the frightening machines circling their old towns, completely lost on the winding lanes. Television coverage in Chicago shows shocked Czech faces, angry, yelling, crying, defeated, hopeless. My parents stay home from work and spend long days with their friends, smoking and drinking Pilsner beer. Born of boundless worry, loud arguments about the invasion punctuate the nights. My mother holds on by singing along with the traditional Czech songs of bravery and strength that play over and over on my father’s big Teac reel-to-reel tape deck. Nights, I climb out my bedroom window, go next door and sit with the American neighbors, staring mesmerized at the television as the Chicago police beat young people in the summer streets.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong steps out of the Eagle landing craft, joyfully jumping across the powdery moonscape, the first human to play in space. On an equally fantastic journey, my father’s 80-year-old mother steps off a Pan Am flight at O’Hare, leaning heavily on a thick wooden cane. She has never left the tiny Bohemian farming village where my father was born, and as she walks slowly on the tarmac, she steps into a world as mysterious to her as the moon. Old round rimless glasses frame her small wizened face. Despite the July heat, she wears thick stockings and a wool scarf tied around her gray head. We wear our best clothes to the airport. My father cries openly as she touches his face and softly says to herself, “He really is alive.” The Soviets, their icy grip clutching at even the weakest, visited my small bent grandmother for years, trying to find my escaped father. They always insisted to her that he was dead. She dies the next year.

In 1972, just before I start high school, my parents, unable to resist the yearning for the homeland any longer, slip away to Vienna, Soviets be damned. My father’s Cold War skills at guiding people through small holes earned him a sentence of death that the Soviets intended to impose immediately upon his return to the CSSR. He carries a false passport provided by his old CIA contacts, just in case. Plans to rent a car fall through and my parents take a train to a small Austrian town on the Czech-Austrian border. Trying to pass as innocent American tourists, they slowly stroll through the main street to a thin forest. There are tall barbed wire fences marking the Czech border. The border dogs bark incessantly. My father finds a narrow gap between two thick posts just wide enough for one leg. He tells my mother to watch for the dogs, and before she can stop him, slips his leg through the opening and plants his foot firmly on Czech soil for a moment, his head bowed. My mother pulls him back just before the armed Soviet in the cement watch tower turns in their direction.

In 1979, when my brother and I are in college, my father sends us to visit the Czech relatives. All during that hot humid August, people whom we have never met and who speak no English drive us everywhere in little plastic Soviet-made cars painted the color of squashed green insects. Innocents abroad, unfamiliar with the rampant paranoia that is the natural symptom of Soviet-style repression, we are warned to talk only about the weather with certain family members. After a week, the wealthy college town I left behind, with its shiny bicycles strapped to every street light and a different restaurant on every corner, fades away and I begin to dream in Czech. Eventually, the potato-faced men in rumpled gray suits stop following us, but our relatives remain sad, suspicious and fearful. Rich American cousins bearing gifts can do little to lessen the soul-crushing weight of the Iron Curtain.

1n 1989, East Berlin border guards misunderstand orders, lift the gates that have divided the city for decades, and thousands of jubilant East and West Berliners take down the Wall with hammers and chisels. Like a massive frozen river cracking and thawing, the Soviet occupation breaks up all over Eastern Europe. For weeks, thousands of incredulous people flood the cobbled boulevards and spired squares. Singing and chanting, they pretend to send the Soviets home merely by shaking their keys, the traditional “final bell” for graduating university students. My parents are delirious. People pile into our house at all hours, drinking and laughing, hugging and making plans. I try to tell my father about my failing marriage. Totally distracted, unspeakably happy, he looks at me blankly, unable to comprehend my minor dramas. He sends me to the tailor to pick up his pants, flies Lufthansa to Prague, and stays for three months.

In 1995, Eastern Europe begins to return Soviet-confiscated property to its former citizens or their heirs. Old and young people all over the world suddenly find themselves the owners of drafty castles complete with dusty collections of vintage wines or isolated old farmhouses with leaky thatched roofs. My father, 60 years old, walks the fields and sits in the large farmhouse he owned when he was 22. Because his fields were close to Germany and freedom, the Soviets took his sprawling farm, planting high barbed-wire fences and watchtowers instead of wheat and corn. The crumbling watchtowers remain, but my father’s Indian motorcycle and the four beloved draft horses, along with his dreams, are gone.

In 2006, my brother and I, following my parents’ wishes, mix their ashes together into a single urn. We take the urn through airport security and my brother puts it under his seat in coach on the Chicago to Prague flight. Our cousins drive us for miles through mazes of roads just wide enough for a pony cart that meander through pristine fields and abandoned farming villages in the green hills. The rain holds off but there is some mist. In a strange combination of reunion and funeral, the entire family comes from all over what is now the Czech Republic to the tiny ancestral village. The utterly quiet cemetery, overlooking centuries-old fields and forests, lies next to the village church with a red tile roof my father paid for decades ago with American dollars. We place the urn next to other tarnished vessels holding the ashes of my father’s parents and grandparents. Through streaming tears, reluctant to leave my parents so far away, I shove photos of the grandchildren encased in zippered plastic bags under the heavy granite slab. Holding me close, my 90-year-old uncle whispers in Czech, “They are home.” And I nod, finally understanding their undying love for their country that, despite the icy sheets of history, bloomed again and again, like yellow crocuses in the spring.

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