John McCaslin

By age 25, she was one of the world's top models. Now, Petra Nemcova is best known for being the woman who, for several hours, desperately clung to a tree, her pelvis broken in four places and her legs unable to move, when the catastrophic tsunami struck South Asia on Dec. 26.

Her boyfriend, British photographer Simon Atlee, was one of 250,000 people forever swept away by the massive waves, as we read in "Love Always, Petra: A Story of Courage and the Discovery of Life's Hidden Gifts." (All proceeds of the book benefit the Give 2 Asia Happy Hearts Fund, a tsunami relief fund.)

But what's also worth noting in this amazing story of hope, faith and survival is how Miss Nemcova has woven into its pages the story of her childhood, spent under the specter of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. She sat down to discuss her book with this columnist late yesterday, and compared her country's 40-year struggle for freedom to what citizens in Iraq are fighting for today.

"I was baptized in the Catholic Church, but I didn't grow up with religion. This isn't surprising, since the communists didn't encourage religion any more than they did humor," she writes. "Every day was a struggle for people like my parents. ... Young as I was, during the first decade of my life, I did have a sense of the heaviness all around. It's difficult for people in the free world to imagine what it was like.

"I can tell you about some of the repression and deprivation, but what's harder to tell you about is the 'grayness,' the sadness, which was in the very air we breathed. The regime had an iron fist, and we were weighed down by rules and regulations."

Communist rulers, she says, worked day and night to ban any Western influence, allowing no independent newspapers, magazines or broadcast news reports. Hollywood movies were considered among the biggest threats - "they simply weren't shown. Control was the key, and it was everywhere."

Even in school.

"Actually, discipline was the most important subject, and it was rigidly enforced," she says. "We had no type of recess; we couldn't run, we couldn't even walk around on our own. During breaks we marched around in a circle in pairs. Every time we passed a teacher, we had to cry out, 'Cest praci,' which means 'Viva work.' We were always saluting work."

John McCaslin

John McCaslin is a contributing columnist on and author of Inside The Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops, and Shenanigans from around the Nation's Capital .

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