Escape to Freedom: The Rest of the Story

The Continuing Story of Tom Lenda and His Family
Their Escape from Communist Czechoslovakia
and Journey Around the World in Search of a New Home in Freedom.
(C) 2017 Thomas O. Lenda, All Rights Reserved

Part I: Another Concentration Camp
Communist Czechoslovakia, 1945 – 1969

and the Danger of Knowing Too Much.

The energetic Marta from the Mountains was a popular member of the Lustig family. She was a beautiful Jewish girl, gifted and knowledgeable in accounting.

Marta married a young local Dentist, Doctor Vick. He had his dental office in the village called Hory Ratiboršké (Ratibor Mountains) located close to a larger town called Tabor in southern Bohemia. The Vicks owned a house with the dental office on the first floor and with the living quarters on the second and third floor, a common practical arrangement for professional people in those days before the Nazi occupation of Bohemia.

Dr. Vik was not Jewish and so this was a mixed marriage; it become an important feature after the Nazi takeover.

The Vick family did not suffer; they were needed and they were an important part of the Hory Ratiboršké community. Dr. Vik was a nice person and a good dentist. He was very popular, especially with the locals. His Dental practice was recommended by everyone to everybody.

There were and still are some typical habits a popular dentist is gifted with. One of those habits is to minimize the pain associated with treatment. Another habit is the doctor’s speaking and the patient listening: the patient sitting in the dentist chair becomes a trapped listener. The doctor speaks and the patient has to listen, no matter if he likes it or not! But when the patient has his mouth free of the dentists’ hands and instruments, then the patient can and will express his own opinion. Most of the patients feel obligated to show that they have a story to say as well. So the Dentist becomes a well-informed person; which sometimes qualified as a person knowing too much.

The Vicks had two children, Jarik and Hana. They both were gifted children; pretty, creative and inventive. The family lived happily in the village until the Nazis came and occupied the country. They established a Nazi sympathetic local management administrative. And again, the local dentist talked to the captive audience sitting in the dental chair; he knew everything and he shared his knowledge and opinion with the locals.

After some time, the Nazis started to impose their discrimination policy; they applied their racist rule of an individuals’ racial qualification. They had a rule about who is Jewish, and who is not. It would mostly depend on who the parents and grandparents were. This applied specifically on mixed families.

After some time, the Jews were locked up in concentration camps and transported to termination camps with a general goal to extinguish the Jewish race. As far as the Vik family was concerned, Marta and the children were somewhat protected by the mixed mirage status. But Marta finally had to be sent to a concentration camp; although almost at the end of the war.

However; the creative Jarik came up with a family tree, documenting that the Jewish part of the family, the Lustigs, was actually not fully Jewish: they were originally one of the better positioned Protestant families who changed to Jewish religion at the time of 30 Years War. It was around the year of 1621, when the Protestants were executed or sent out of the country losing their property. Jarik dug out a family tree documenting that the Lustigs were originally actually the Pycha (Proud) family. They were actually some Protestant knights. They accepted the Jewish religion so they would not have to accept the Catholic religion to survive. And this actually saved their lives now again: Marta was not 100% Jewish and the Vick children Jarik and Hana were less than 50% Jewish. They did not have to go to the concentration camp, they outsmarted the Nazis, and they survived. Marta survived also.

However, they did not outsmart the Communists:

The war ended in May of 1945. Czechoslovakia was freed of the Nazis, mostly by the Russian Red Army. They were in the space of Russian interest now. Accordingly, there was established a Communist government in the “free” Czechoslovakia shortly after the war ended, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (CSSR).

The locals who used to be Nazi sympathizers had ruled the local offices during the Nazi occupation. They changed their color when the war ended and they became the Communist sympathizers. They became members of the ruling Communist Party.
Dr. Vik was still talking to his captive audience and he was expressing his feelings about those who changed their colors and ruled the community now. His talking spread around again. The local rulers did not like it at all.

In the meantime the Vick’s children grew up. Marta wanted Jarik to become a Physician, as most Jewish mothers wanted for their sons. However, Jarik was enthusiastic about electronics and played with radios. Hana studied at a commercial school and in different languages.

However; the local communist rulers had other plans. They installed a radio transmitter in the dentist’s waiting room and had the secret police find it and arrest Dr. Vick. They claimed that he became a spy for the western “Capitalist enemies” and that he had a radio transmitter send them important strategic information. Dr. Vick was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to the uranium mines.

Exposure to uranium affected the body of the prisoners; almost all of them became sick with cancer after some time. Dr. Vik was not an exception. However; for a while he became a dentist in the prison facility. Finally he was sent back to his family to pass away in their hands. I visited the Vik family at that time and it was not a nice view. And this was just for knowing too much and not keeping the knowledge to himself.

Marta and her children had to leave shortly after Dr. Vik was sent to prison. The dental office of Dr. Vik was nationalized, practically confiscated. And since the living quarters were attached, they were confiscated also.

Marta and Hana left and went to Prague, the capital city. Jarik was already in Prague, officially enrolled at Charles University.

Marta was looking for accommodation for herself and Hana. There were some friends and relatives living in Prague, so she thought she had a chance to find accommodation. There was a shortage of everything in Prague and in whole country, specifically a shortage housing. After a lot of effort, they found a small room with one bed; they shared it and were happy to have a place to sleep.

After some time they found jobs, Hana in the newly established Centrotex Company; it was a whole state textile exporting company. She was fluent in several languages. After some time Hana fell in love with an employee of the Foreign Relations Office (similar to Secretary of State in the USA) and she got married. They had twin girls after some time. Her husband’s work took them to foreign countries in the capacity of a Czechoslovak state representative, and they ended up in communist China. Hana criticized the local habits, the inferior position of woman there. This was not appreciated considering their political position, but she would not give up, and the situation lead to a divorce and Hana’s return home to Prague with the twins.

Part True, Part a Dream!

The whole story (part is true, part was a dream) started a long time ago, in 1962, when my Uncle Otto from Canada visited us in Czechoslovakia, in our town of Sumperk. The Communists had seized power in 1948, and we were living with limited freedom in a socialist state under Soviet control.

Otto had left Czechoslovakia when it was occupied by the Nazis in 1939, and went to China. After the war, he finally settled in Canada. For some time he could not visit Czechoslovakia, because he would be immediately drafted into the army. So he waited. When he was too old for the army, he finally visited his brothers Pavel and Fred, and their families, safely. He invited me then to visit him in Canada, promising to pay all the expenses of the trip. I applied for permission to leave the country. Because it was a friendly time for the Communists (Stalin had died, and there was new management running Russia) I was permitted to travel to visit my Uncle and his family in Canada.

I discussed my plans with my Jewish friend and counselor, a retired engineer, Dr. Raichel. He had some valuables from Czech people who had held them for friends during the war, friends who never returned from the concentration camps. They gave these valuables to the friendly engineer, to pass on to their relatives now living in the West, including Canada, the United States, and other countries. All these valuables were supposed to be given to the Czech Communist government, so keeping them put the friendly engineer at risk. To take the valuables out of the country would be a risk also. So he suggested that I take them to the people’s relatives in Canada! Well, I was not all right about being asked to take them. So I suggested I would take some non-valuable items as a test, to see if the border officials would let them through.

And it worked! In 1964 I made it, and visited relatives in Canada and also the United States. While there I noticed a special business practice of having people model suits in the display windows of stores, in the evenings and at night. I had some friends doing the same in Prague. So when I returned home, I decided to try it.

In Prague I continued my normal life. I would go to my job in the General Bank for eight hours each day. Then I would drive home to my family in our basement apartment, and I would work on some designs for a new building hopefully planned for a future bank building. Then I would drive back downtown, and would settle and dream in a sales window of an office building in downtown Prague. It was the same building which is the official Czech Bank today. It was in the middle of Prague, at a place with big, arched glass display windows. I sat there, and moved around, dressed in a nice suit that was for sale. And people looked at the suit, hoping to buy it. Sometimes I got so tired I fell asleep. Then when morning came I would go and eat at the Wenceslas Place, and went on to my work at the main Bank down the street. This routine went on quite successfully for some time. In 1965 Rose and I were married, and our daughter Hana arrive the next year. The “Prague Spring” had arrived in 1968, and Soviet control was eased.

I had a dream: One evening a young man approached the arched glass display window where I was sitting. The young man held a heavy brick in his hand, and he threw it through the window. The glass shattered, and the brick fell inside. I was very afraid, but I wasn’t hurt. A policeman came and took the young man away to investigate him. It turned out he was the son of an important Russian official, a General in the Russian Army! So the General supposedly invaded Czechoslovakia with the Red Army, to get his son out of prison! Well the result, it seemed, was that the Red Army occupied Czechoslovakia.

Of course the Soviet invasion was actually to end the Prague Spring and enforce Soviet control, but all my so-called “friends” blamed it on me! So I decided to leave the country, which I did with some difficulties. Finally, I am now in the United States!

Now here is the true story of how it all happened . . .

(Part of Tom’s presentation on the Prague Spring coming here)

Part II How We Finally Escaped, 1968 – 1969

Our First Attempt, in 1968

I had been to Vienna sometime before to meet my brother Petr, who settled there for several days. He had visa to France, with transit through Germany. I received a permit to New Zealand. I returned to Prague to get ready to go with with Rose and Hana.

We settle into a fast train from Prague to Vienna, and on to Yugoslavia for recreation.
A policeman asked us to show our documents and found some “differences on our documents.” He asked us to get out of the train at the station before border. And so we did.

The local border officer sat the three of us in separate rooms. Looking through our things, they found $3.00 (English) and some of my engineering equipment, not needed for recreation in Yugoslavia. They confiscated the money. Rose was told that I had some foreign money and I will be sent to prison. Rose was also nervous as she did not know where Hana was. After a while, she found that Hana had been given some railway rubber stamps to play with.

We were released, and sent out on the next train back to Prague. Our family, Rose’s mother in Prague and my parents In Moravia, were surprised to see us return. Friends in Vienna had called my Mom reporting that we did not show up.

We settled in our home in Prague again, but it took some time. It was somewhat complicated situation; the return was not a good situation. I got another job, again in Prague, but in a place close to the top of the City Square, and continued to work on our project of apartment house.

I was called to a “People’s Office” and I was sentenced to pay some money for intending to leave the country…

After Several months, we were called to the police station in Prague and our documents were returned without explanation. It took us another year before we tried to leave again.

My brother Peter settled in Germany, in Munich. He worked on the Subway. There were around him some friends from Sumperk in Moravia, including Mr. Sptzkopf, German friend who was sent to Germany (West) after the war. He traveled to Prague often for business, znd supplied people Prague with special high quality items for Czech people who had foreign money. He wanted to help us to get to us to “The West”. He offered to take our school documents from the technical university of Prague. We met at underground public rest room in middle of Prague and secretly transferred our documents from our bag to his. This was a great risk for him, but it worked, he gave the documents to Petr when he went home in Munich, so we had documents to help us get qualified work once we arrived in Germany.

Still, it was hard for us to leave Czechoslovakia. Like Peter, Rose and I had both been educated at the Prague technical University of Architecture and Building Structure. We graduated from there in Building Practice and Economy. We both worked during our education, and the boys also had to attend military classes for four years. But the government also paid for much of our education, so we had to agree to work wherever they sent us, for little money, for a long time. More and more we were determined to escape to the West.

We tried again a year later. We had again permits in hand to go to West Germany with our Passports, and Peter had our education documents. But we needed West German visas.

Passing Papers in a Bathroom Stall

Before our next attempt to escape, I had to send my papers on to Germany for use in job hunting once I got there. These included a resume, list of qualifications, and certificates. These had to be smuggled out of Czechoslovakia, so the authorities would not know I was planning to leave permanently. But how to do it?

My brother, Peter, was already in Munich waiting for me. He had a job with the city preparing for the 1972 Olympics. He knew a man (name?-peter would know) who was half German half Czech, from a small village in Czechoslovakia. When things were good after the war he stayed with his Czech side and when things went bad in Czechoslovakia he moved to Germany.

(After the war, people from the Czech German border area, the Sudetenland, were required to move back to Germany, if German. If half German, they could choose where to live or to stay.)

This man arranged to meet up with Peter to help move my paperwork. The transfer of these papers was done in some kind of retail or residential complex that had public bathrooms in the basement, and the papers were passed under the door from one bathroom stall to the other. It seemed mostly to make it more of an adventure for the guy who was acting as courier! But at the same time it was clear that these transfers could not be made in the open. Still, I thought it was very dramatic, and suggested it was more dramatic (using bathroom stalls,),then was really needed.

From Czechoslovakia To Frankfurt

About a year after our first attempt to flee by train, and being turned back at the border, we had finally gotten all the Czech documents we needed to travel from Prague to Germany. But we still needed West German entry visas, and plane tickets.

At that time I was working for a building construction company in Prague. Just across the road was a large West German office where the visa documents had to be obtained. You could tell a lot of people wanted those visas, because there were long lines reaching all the way outside the building, day and night. I did have a permit to leave my work for 42 days, but it would not be acceptable to be seen standing in line across the street for a visa from West Germany. However, just a short distance away there was a new travel agency that offered to get the visa documents for 72 Czech Crowns, a decent price. They promised to obtain the visas in two days, so I used their service. But, two days later there were still no visas.

I got very nervous, and suspected the travel agency was in reality a police office created to pick up and arrest travelers wanting to go to Germany. I was so nervous that I got sick, and had to go to the toilet often. When I went to the doctor for help, I was sent to a clinic near my home, and placed under quarantine, so no one could visit me. After several days of this, my wife, Rose, came every days, but she had to look at me from a distance.

Was did not come was the German visa! However, after a few more days my Uncle, who was a doctor brought me a piece of chocolate to eat, which was good medicine. Shortly after, I was back home again.

Meanwhile, Rose had obtained more money for the German visas. I decided we would fly on a German airplane and found a lady who represented the German airline, Lufthansa. She arranged for tickets to Frankfurt, with return in 42 days. But I had to go and pay at a Czech office downtown. The young lady at that office told me she thought it was not nice for me to use a German airline. I kept silent, thinking, this will be the last time the communists will ever talk to me! And off I went home with the tickets.

Several days later, Rose’s brother drove us to the airport. Nobody stopped or inspected us. We boarded the plane, and off we flew to freedom, never to return.

III. Life In Germany,

IV. Life In Australia

V. USA. – a New Home

VI. The Lessons of War and Hate

VII. Where Is My Home?  The Czech National Anthem