by Maurine Jensen Proctor
Growing up in Communist-held Czechoslovakia, Olga Kovarova knew religion was against the law.
When had it happened? In a moment when she had hardly noticed it, Olga Kovarova had become an atheist, pounded and shaped into emptiness by the Communist school system she hated. She was a twenty-one year-old sitting in a Czechoslovakian park in 1981 secretly reading a book about God, when it hit her. “Ten thousand times repeated, a lie becomes true,” she thought. Just as her nation had been held in Communism’s iron grip for a generation, so had her heart. The questions that would have lead her to God, the feelings that sprung naturally to her heart about life’s meaning had all been stifled.
“It was hard to admit it, but it was bitterly true,” she said. Her soul was like many of the churches she saw. Because of the Communist regime, they were boarded up, their gates locked, the weeds growing wild and unkempt, crosses leaning in disrepair, their emptiness a symbol of a nation’s despair.
“I found that I was against anything that smelled of Communist ideology, but I also suddenly saw that my life was only fighting against the wall of that current ideology. It was as if I didn’t make any time and effort except to fight against the dragon. How much time do we waste only on pointing to the wrong side of the world, instead of hiking towards a better future? I didn’t know who I was, where I came from and what the purpose of my life was.”
As she tells this story in a rich voice like Meryl Streep with an accent, it is hard to picture this young woman feeling empty. She looks like all the warm colors of the light spectrum have spilled together to paint her–peach complexion, auburn hair, an Indian madras dress touched with rust and red, cut slightly full since she is expecting a child. Far more noticeable, she, herself, seems all light and warmth, an outward expression of a soul that is sure and filled.
In the next few hours, the story she recounts is filled with secret police, clandestine gospel study and undercover missionary work, a tale of courage amidst oppression.
Olga in Prague by the famous Charles Bridge.
Rejection at College
Between 1948 and 1989, Czechoslovakia was held by the Communists, a reality like a storm cloud on the farthest horizon that hardly impacted Olga’s childhood. But the cloud came to loom over her entire sky when she was ready to apply for the university. Her exams went well; she expected good news, but the official word came back, “Due to the high number of candidates you are not accepted at Brno University.” For Olga, it was like a sentence, dooming her life and she knew the reason, had fretted over it when she made application. Her grandfather had owned a shoe factory, therefore to the Communists, her family were capitalists who had to be put in their place.
“I didn’t know what to do, and my parents didn’t know how to help me, and we all felt pretty hopeless,” said Olga who had hoped to be a physician. “The most discouraging part of the whole experience was the fact that I saw other schoolmates who were accepted at the most prestigious universities in the country but their grades were horribly poor–however, their parents were Communists.”
“Are you so naive that you don’t know that all you need is some good Communist who will back you, so that you can be accepted at a university?” her friends asked, but her father told her, “That’s a dirty way to start your life–you will be just the same as all the rest of the Communists.”
Resigned, but unhappy, Olga took a job at an elementary school where the teacher in the next office made a suggestion. Since Olga had been a national level competitor in fencing, why not reapply to the university in Physical Education and combine that major with a subject that would please the Communists like Citizen Education? Once she was in school she could switch to medicine.
“I left her office and started crying in mine.” said Olga. I couldn’t believe it. This was disgusting. I didn’t want to live in this country.” She felt the rewards came to those who learned the fine art of duplicity, burying their feelings, always speaking something different than they thought. “Do I have to become just one of the victims of the sterile society of intrigue into which I was born?” she wondered.
A Communist Bondage
However, Olga was soon pulled by her hunger for study to follow her friend’s advice. She stared at her completed application like it belonged to a stranger. “I felt I was writing for someone else.”
Physical education classes at the university were a bright spot for Olga, but her citizen education classes were a spiritual and mental bondage. “At least in the prison in your cell you could scream, but at the university you couldn’t. A class could be so impossibly boring, that you just had to hold your head in both hands to survive and not sleep.”
The trouble for Olga was the Communist ideology. Its goal was an ideal society which nobody really believed in. To Olga, her stern professors and their ranting philosophy was the height of hypocrisy. These were the ones who with a nod could end your university career. “These people, she said, were committed to only one thing and it was their own corruption. They would take money, cars, and other material privileges to admit any student who didn’t have good grades to make it into the university.
Though they talked of the glory of Communism, the reality of it was the abuse of power and privilege by party members, the degradation and bondage of all others. It was a system that drove most of the Czechs to apathy and a loss of values, a hollowness that drained life of any meaning.
Weigh your words; guard your thoughts. These were Olga’s university lessons as she was always aware that every class held students hired by the secret police to catch any dissidents. She was particularly disturbed to find that her own study group held a member of the secret police, placed there to catch the others. “He was like a squirrel running and jumping around us everywhere, wanting to know our opinions on recent politics, the president, the government, Russia, America, Western Europe. It took us actually a couple of years to find him out because he was very smart in his strategy to get close to everyone and create just the right atmosphere so we would say what was really on our minds.”A “Chance” Meeting
Life might have continued in this bleak fashion for Olga, a little bird in a cave with a stifled song, if her friend had not met a man one day on the train who knew something of yoga. A Communist would call it a chance meeting; Olga would come to see it as evidence of the hand of God.
She had learned about yoga in her physical education classes and being one who loved to push beyond her own physical and mental limitations, she wanted to know more. She went to visit this man from the train, Otakar Vojkuvka, and in his home felt something sweet and beautiful that was different than anything she had felt before. What was it? She didn’t know exactly, something in the spirit of the place, but it was tangible. In that Communist world of drawn, sober faces, he smiled all the time and was so polite. And on the second meeting, he asked unusual, probing questions.
Brother Otakar Vojkuvka who helped bring Olga into the Church.
“I don’t know anything about yoga, but I would like to learn because you all seem to be so happy. I assume it’s because of yoga.”
“So you would like to learn how to be happy?” Vojkuvka asked.
When Olga noticed unusual books in his shelves, he told her they were scriptures.
“Your hobby must be studying all of these books,” Olga noted.
“More than a hobby. It’s my whole life. Without studying good literature you cannot grow spiritually at all.”
That was a strange thought. Olga wondered what this “spirituality” meant, and she left Vojkuvka’s house with a book by an Indian yogi, Searching for Happiness with God.. What she didn’t know was that though her country had stamped out all religion, though believing was a crime, she had met a Mormon, one who would not deny Jesus Christ despite the consequences. In their next few meetings, he would cautiously test her spirit, share ideas with her bit by bit until he was sure he could be open.
She was intrigued by the book he had given her for it said that to believe in God means to experience real happiness and joy. In their next meeting she asked a question that she realized later showed how completely she had been shaped by her Marx-Leninist education. “How can you tell me that God exists when you have never seen him?”
He said, “It’s hard to answer that question. I have never seen him and I cannot explain it with words, but it is a knowledge which I have in my heart.” Olga gestures toward her heart as she tells the story. “He said it was something right in here. This was startling for me because the whole Marx-Leninist philosophy is based on logic, on science. Everything has to be empirical, measurable. But he said that you cannot explore all the things in your life only with your mind. There are things which you feel and you know that they are right.”
It was a breakthrough moment for Olga when the old world was left behind. “I was already 21 years old and I was just realizing that there are things in your life which you can only just experience in your heart. I cannot just say God doesn’t exist because I haven’t seen him. I can have an experience with him in my heart and feel his spirit. These kind of things–spirituality, the knowledge you feel in your heart, the Communists would always laugh at. They would say, ‘Those things are only feelings and feelings don’t mean anything.” Yet Olga’s feelings meant something to her.
“I left his home and I felt like a completely new person. New and real–because I had never heard what I heard that day, and my soul experienced a measure of happiness which I had not ever discovered before. Taking a tram in Brno, I held the handle and felt the tremendous energy of joy pumping in my heart and soul.
“I feel happy, really happy as never before. Is it real? I thought coming back to one of the philosophical classes at the university. Yes, it is real.
“I wrote my first spiritual thoughts and reactions in my journal during my Marxist-Leninist philosophy class. It felt so new, so wonderful to write the thoughts from my own heart, I even smiled at my Communist professor in the class. He returned the smile to me and I thought, Well, you would be surprised and not happy if you knew my thoughts and why I am smiling at you.”Becoming a New Person
Free of bondage, Olga wanted to fly. She wanted to explore everything about God. How , she pondered, can we communicate with God? Did someone actually ever communicate with him in the twentieth century? How would it feel? What would it mean to have an experience like that? Brother Vojkuvka brought her along gradually. She learned he was a Christian, that the secret police haunted his life for his belief, that he had served a brief prison term. She didn’t know he was a Mormon.
One day to answer some of her questions, Vojkuvka gave her a copy of a book A Skeptic Discovers Mormonism. She gobbled it up, took another book about Mormonism and came back again. “I am fascinated by the happy life attitude of these people. It’s such a shame that they are only in America. We will probably never know as much as we would like about them. They must live a fascinating life with the ideas they have, don’t you think?”
“‘Well, they are in the United States,’ he answered, ‘but there are a few of them also in our country,’ he said.
“‘Have you ever met any of them?,’ she asked with hope.
“‘Yes, actually I met and know a lot of them.’
“‘Could you give me the address of a Czech Mormon?’
“‘You don’t need any address, you are in a home of one of them.’
“I could hardly comprehend what he was saying at that moment, because my first thought was, I haven’t seen anyone else living in this house except for the Vojkuvka family. Then suddenly it hit me, and I knew that I was sitting in the house with a Latter-day Saint.”
What excited Olga about the gospel was that it was a teaching of pure truth, “not a half, a quarter or a little bit or almost the whole truth,” an amazing contrast to the world of lies that had entwined her.
She took the Book of Mormon to her dormitory and, since her roommate was gone for the evening, she could freely read. She couldn’t move when she saw the words, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”
“It shocked me with an enormous amount of happiness,” she said, “which suddenly opened my heart. I had never experienced anything like it. I was filled with a love and joy which I had never known before. My mind was perfectly clear, and I felt a rising sense of peace. Suddenly, I sat up, completely straight and was slowly surrounded by a light. One single, pure thought came to my lips: God lives. I was listening to my own words and feeling the reality of God in my life. As his love penetrated through my whole being, I knelt down for the first time in prayer. I didn’t say one word but felt a never-experienced amount of gratitude and love for the life he had given to me. I felt how much he loved me, and that in the same way he loved every living soul on this earth.”
Olga with the Vojkuvka family who fellowshipped her into the Church.
With this realization came an urgency to do something, but she didn’t know what. Brother Vojkuvka helped her understand that “something” was baptism, but first she had to attend church and be taught the gospel.
Olga’s first church meeting was a surprise. In an apartment on the topmost level of a house, with the blinds pulled in the middle of the day, a handful of nine or ten elderly people met secretly to worship. “Is this church meant for old people only?” she wondered.
What she didn’t know yet was that these people, who did not sing hymns to avoid attracting the attention of the secret police, who staggered their arrival times at meetings so as not to call attention to themselves–these people were heroes. Most of the young LDS people in their city had long ago defected or gone inactive, but steady and patient, cut off from any official contact with Church headquarters, without materials, without even the Doctrine & Covenants translated into Czech, these people had hung on to their faith. Many had been called into government offices and harangued by the secret police; they had been haunted by officers just waiting for them to slip up, and they had continued to believe. Their dearest treasures were pictures of their children they never saw, who had left Czechoslovakia when the Communists took over so they could more readily practice their faith.
“The meeting started and I felt immediately as if a light of joy went on,” said Olga. “I thought, ‘their God isn’t far away for them, but he is their friend with whom they converse and cooperate.'” A youngster among a church family of grandparents, Olga started the lessons she would need for baptism, keeping this hidden from even her parents so as not to endanger them.
It was ten o’clock on a dark July night when Olga was to be baptized in the reservoir, unseen by curious eyes, yet as the little branch gathered, suddenly they heard men’s voices. Who was it? Had they been discovered? They scattered along the edge of the reservoir, walking in groups of two or three, waiting to learn who was there. A branch member came back and reported: it was fishermen. The men were talking loudly to each other, sitting at the water’s edge for ten minutes, twenty minutes while Olga wondered, Do I have to wait longer? Maybe I am not prepared enough, or my testimony isn’t strong enough?” Then one of the brothers suggested they pray. He pled through tears that the Lord would open the way, and after the prayer they held hands, still hearing the men’s voice. Then within a minute or so, the fishermen stood up and left. “It was a miracle for me.”
That evening, on the way home, riding in a member’s car, Olga heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for the first time in her life. She thought, “I don’t know you, brothers and sisters, but I am embracing all of you because of the beautiful Spirit you are bringing to me for this special day of my life.” With her confirmation, “The Spirit of the Holy Ghost felt like a sweet embracing of a best friend.” She felt like she “had renewed a lost connection to the eternal part of my being.”
After baptism, Olga was consumed with the desire to share what she knew, but how when any stranger that might follow her or overhear a conversation could be a government spy? “With God all things are possible,” she thought and besides, after forty years of the Church’s existence in Czechoslovakia, she was the only young, fresh member about whom the secret police didn’t know anything. That was her great advantage.
Brother Vojkuvka gave her the idea. Why not teach yoga classes and share gospel principles while teaching some physical and mental exercises? Though it sounded strange at first, it seemed the only way to teach people without mentioning the gospel directly.
Olga approached a sports club in her hometown where she was told there was no room available–apply next year. Yet on her way out of the club one of the secretaries complained, “Oh, I have a terrible headache.” She was piled under a load of work that had to be done, she had already taken four aspirin, and she felt miserable. Olga opened the window to clear out the cigarette smoke and showed her a few yoga exercises to release stress, while other employees gathered around. Within about ten minutes, the secretary was feeling better. “We should have something like this here,” she said. Olga explained that is why she had come to the club, but had been told there was no room. “That’s ridiculous. We have rooms available,” she answered.
In a few weeks Olga opened her first yoga class. She taught her students good physical and mental health, and her message was like water on parched ground–desperately needed. The people were thirsty for it. “Everybody did exercises on his or her own level,” she said. “I was trying to teach them not to compare themselves to others which is the first yoga principle. They liked that a lot, as it was unique for them to hear that they didn’t have to be following some mob ideal, but instead their own body and mind. For many people it was like a new life discovery or even a revelation.”
After the first year she was teaching a hundred people; by the third year she needed two large gymnasiums. Her curriculum was a series of yoga exercises followed by lectures on finding joy in life, feeling gratitude, having happy family relationships–principles she had learned in the gospel. Before long, a steady stream of people were knocking on her apartment door, asking advice. “Here I was in my twenties; I had never been married or been a mother, but people of all ages and all situations thought I would have some answers. What they didn’t realize was it was the gospel that attracted them.”
When her load of students became too great, Olga knew she would need to train some additional teachers in yoga, but it had to be the “right” kind of yoga–the kind only a baptized member of the Church would know how to teach. She handpicked a few who seemed to respond deeply to the message, introduced them to Brother Vojkuvka to teach them the gospel and then, once baptized, they in turn, became yoga teachers. Many responded and Olga’s classes began to have satellites in many Czech villages, all taught by youthful converts. As these teachers quietly spoke of happiness and purpose in what looked like an exercise class, they, in turn, gradually lead their students to Christ. In this way, the church, which had stagnated for years under Communism, began to grow again–filling with young people who first came only to do yoga.
Olga teaching a Yoga Camp.
Then Brother Vojkuvka had another idea. They would invite the most eager of their students from all over Czechoslovakia to a week-long summer yoga camp and Olga would be in charge. “Wow,” she thought, “Again I have to be in the first infantry line.” Because mentioning the gospel directly could mean real danger for them, and since they couldn’t know much of the background or opinions of those who signed up for the camp, they proceeded with wariness. Their goal was simply to create an environment where people could feel something they had never felt before, where they could awake and shake off the mental lethargy of the gray Communist lifestyle. “We knew our first goal,” said Olga, was to open their minds.”
The camp had a foundation based in four principles. First, Olga and the other young Saints wanted their students to achieve general purity and cleanness, especially the purity of mind which allows release from the things which bound them; second, they introduced their students to what real freedom was all about; third, they tried to cultivate a sense of beauty in their students; and fourth, they tried to work on their students’ progress to perfection, which they introduced as searching for the truth about life and to find out what their purpose was.
Before every meal the fifty at the camp would join hands and express gratitude without mentioning God, “Dear friends, let us hold our hands, calm our minds and close our eyes to express our gratitude for the hand which prepared this beautiful food. Let us remember our families, fellow citizens and friends, and people in the world who suffer hunger or unhappiness, and send them the idea of love, Let everyone on this earth be happy.” At night they held firesides where they talked of the things that really mattered in human life from an eternal point of view..
“It was a total shock for many people, sitting on their blankets in the lotus position and expecting some kind of meditation at the end of the day, to discuss some of these topics,” said Olga. “What was more surprising for them was to see very young people, members of the church, freely sharing ideas on the importance of admiring life and its beauty. They couldn’t believe that these young people were capable of speaking on such a topic, without notes–just saying what they felt in their hearts.”Expanding Minds and Hearts
One of the biggest barriers, the young converts faced, was the questions asked by students jaded by dealing with Communism. “Why should I be happy when the environment is so bad? I cannot travel abroad or buy what I need. Newspapers lie to me every day, people who are irresponsible lead my city.” To these questions Brother Vojkuvka would answer, “Change yourself first and then help your family. Don’t try to change the world if you yourself need to be changed first.”
Olga with Yoga Camp. Some of these would later join the Church.
At the end of the week in a “testimony” meeting, camp participants would stand weeping to say it had been the best week of their lives. They didn’t want to go home. From their mouths rolled these sentiments, “I will forgive my husband,” “I have never witnessed so much love and joy in my life,” “I am going home and want to learn to express love to my father, who I have hated all my life.” Those who seemed interested were invited to a Sunday “School of Wisdom” where they were finally introduced to the gospel. In this way scores of people came into the church–people who knew they might never be able to openly practice their religion.
“All of the Latter-day Saints participating in each camp would meet every evening for Book of Mormon study and a prayer,” said Olga. “On the last night of each camp we felt like a small army of God, able to do a small part of his work and much happier for it. As I look back at these feelings, it seems to me it was like meeting each other in the celestial room inside the temple. We knew that our freedom and actions had iron boundaries, and all our activities were extremely dangerous and unsafe for our future. Each of us could easily have been thrown in prison for at least seven years according to our Communist governmental laws.”
Olga smiles as she remembers “Did you know you were engaged in something remarkable?” I asked. “Did you know you were courageous?”
She answered by telling the story of when the secret police came to the yoga camp to get her. For a week in a small room, seven of them grilled her, probing her words for a mistake, feeling for a chink. The room was pleasant enough, no grim corners or hanging bare light bulbs as in old Hollywood movies. Between sessions of questioning the secret police were friendly, bantering, chitchatting about the weather. “It was part of the trick to throw you off guard,” she said. At the end of the week she had dropped 10 pounds from nerves that had been stretched too thin. She learned, too, that the grilling had been because a friend of hers had defected, not because they knew about her church affiliation.
“So then,” I said, “you must have realized you were courageous?”
Her answer was one of those remarkable moments of light. “Oh no,” she said. “I wasn’t courageous; I wasn’t some kind of hero; I just did what I had to do.”The Velvet Revolution
In November 1989, the Communists in Czechoslovakia fell in what was called the Velvet Revolution. “Did you know there is a revolution in Czechoslovakia?” her friends asked. Olga said, “I just started laughing, ‘What are you talking about?’ I saw police cars in front of theaters where artists and university students were rallying, but I didn’t see any tanks or people. I came home and turned on TV. Nothing. I turned on radio. Nothing.” While the Communist-held media tried to squelch the revolution, the government was quietly overthrown. Olga, then a university teacher with a PhD in pedagogy, helped supply paper for leaflets for the cause. Forty years of Communist oppression was over in a week and within a short time the door was thrown open for Mormon missionaries to return. When they came they didn’t have to tract because the lists of referrals from yoga camps were so long. No other Communist-held country had been able to do missionary work. Today the branches are largely led by yoga school graduates.
“One might ask the question,” said Olga, “‘Why did it happen in Czechoslovakia?'” There are many answers. For me one of the strongest elements is that it took place there because of the great desire and unbreakable confidence of the young Czech members’ hearts who joined the Church in the Communist time and simply wanted to bring happiness to their families, friends, and other fellow men. These Czech Saints, young and old, remain heroes in my eyes. They didn’t cast down their eyes in front of the Communists and didn’t allow their spirits to be broken by danger or the fear which surrounded them every day.
They did what they had to do.
2005 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.