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
MARTA FROM THE MOUNTAINS
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.
A BUILDING IN PRAGUE
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 II: How We Finally Escaped, 1968 – 1969
Prague Spring 1968
Conditions Improve for Our Escape
The citizens of Prague woke up to the sound of rumbling tanks through their streets. It was August 21, 1968. Still, I went to work in the morning as usual. But when I saw people lining up at the food store, I knew it was the first signal that spring was over, and our dreams of freedom were gone.
Some Historical Background
To be able to understand the happenings of the Prague Spring of 1968, it is necessary to understand the geographical and historical background.
Prague is now the capital of the Czech Republic, since the country divided itself in 1992 into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. But in 1968 it was the capital of Czechoslovakia. The country was located next to Germany on the west, and the Soviet Union on the east, among others, two giants that had played conflicting roles in our land during World War II. Lots of people outside of Europe used to mix up Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which was in the south of Europe, next to Italy. Two different countries, but with somewhat parallel histories.
Czech history goes back to about the year A.D. 600. The late Senator Henry Jackson, of my home state of Washington, once surprised me by pointing out the modern history of Czechoslovakia could be quite simply summarized in major events in twenty (or so) year increments, beginning with 1918 and the end of World War I. So:
* Czechoslovakia was established as a sovereign nation at the end of the First World War in 1918, when the treaty of Versailles ended the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
* In 1938 Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany, disestablished as a country, and split into the German Protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia, ancient territorial names. With liberation in 1945, Czechoslovakia again was free. But it quickly became a satellite of the expanding Soviet Union.
* And then there was the happening of the Prague Spring in 1968, which was in fact a movement to re-establish a free and independent Czechoslovakia. But the movement failed when Red Army tanks invaded.
* Finally, twenty-one years later, the Soviet Union would collapse, and Czechoslovakia would be free again.
The Political Situation in 1968
It was a hot year in the history of the Cold War between East and West. There were demonstrations all over the world. However, the significance of demonstrations in Czechoslovakia was especially outstanding. A massive demonstration of truly democratic ideas was highly unusual within the Soviet Union’s hard fist of dictatorship. This was due to the past experiences of those who tried it, if they survived at all.
The Communist world was expanding after Leonid Brezhnev consolidated his power in the Soviet Union after the toppling of the previous leader, Nikita Khrushchev. So the Governors of all the satellite countries had to be changed as well. This was a practice proven as a survival necessity for dictatorships. There was an internal struggle for power in the Czech Communist Party leadership, and Alexander Dubcek emerged as the leader.
With such changing of the guard, it had been customary to seek the approval of the general population, and to loosen the screws of dictatorship a little bit. However, things got out of hand. The common people got involved in politics, even those who had no association with the Communist Party governing on behalf of the Soviet Union. There were discussions in the streets, and some changes were promised. These changes mainly involved the policy of governing, the economic system, and basic freedoms.
Several individuals established a new citizens independent organization in an effort to assure permanency of the promised reforms. The organization was named the Club of Non-communist Advocates, and it was growing fast. Under the rule of the communist government, the establishment of a new opposition party was unthinkable. So a club trying to help foster popular support for needed government reforms seemed to be unacceptable. This club would probably be recognized today as a grassroots democracy movement.
The leaders of the Soviet Union saw quite well what was going on in Czechoslovakia, and understood that what was happening in one of their colonies was not in their best interest. There was talk that Czechoslovakia would separate from the Soviet Union as a free country, and maybe as a member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) as well. In addition, if this were allowed, other satellite countries would follow.
So, in August of 1968, the Soviet Union, with the token help of other satellite countries, invaded Czechoslovakia with an overwhelming force. They took Dubcek and other Czech communist leaders to Moscow for a frank discussion.
And that was the end of the Prague Spring of 1968.
After the Invasion
There were hard times after the invasion by the “friendly” armies under the Red Army command. A new “loyal” government was established. A “normalization process” was initiated to finalize the fight against all those who had promoted the reforms. They were branded as “counter-revolutionary” forces, and the new loyalists were called “conservatives,” or “conserves” for short.
There was also an organized effort to make the troublemakers disappear. This was so the newly established “conservative” government would not have any difficulties with the real government, in Moscow. It is said that 10% of the population, some 140,000 people, emigrated; however, not all of them permanently.
There was some resistance within the means of unarmed citizens, after the invasion. A free underground press, radio and television for maintained for a while. But there was no hope for a democratic government once the Red Army had settled in.
I believe that the realistic struggle, with all the hope attached to it, was during the several months from the start of the Prague Spring in 1968 until August 21st of that year. Perhaps also the year before, also, leading up to those events, to a limited extent. Meaningful reforms had been planned and promoted, new politics were fostered, and dreams of independence seemed closer to reality than ever before.
When speaking of the Prague Spring, I am talking about events that happened nearly 50 years before our present time (2017). But I believe that what happened in Prague at that time has substantial significance for today. It was a struggle for democracy, specifically the struggle for freedom of individuals to be able to control their own destiny. We probably all agree the struggle for democracy, for the personal freedom of individuals, is a perpetual struggle. So it is important to remind ourselves that we have to guard our freedom with everything available to us.
In September of 2001 (just a year before I wrote this presentation in 2002) the world was shocked by a massive attack upon civilians of the United States. In the eyes of those who have fought for freedom, the United States has always been the world symbol of democracy, and its defender. This, I think, was one of the reasons for the attack. The terrorist organizations which instigated these attacks are in principal anti-democratic movements which promote dictatorships. As such, they will fight us because we stand in their way to governing by terror for the pleasure of the few.
We should never forget how lucky we are to live in a country which stands for its democratic principals, and which is dedicated to defend them. We should never forget what an effort it takes to be free. – Thomas O. Lenda, May 15, 2002
FROM PRAGUE TO THE BORDER
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.
MY RESUMES ESCAPE FIRST
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.
OUR FINAL ESCAPE
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
Getting Ready to Leave Germany for Australia
“Nobody Can Give You What I Can Promise To You!”
As I have talked with my brother about our departure from Germany after three months, on our way to Australia, I was reminded of the saying, “Nobody can give you what I can promise to you.” Promises are easy, giving is not.
This phrase comes from a Jewish person from Ostrava who had become a Communist
before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. The day after the invasion he left his wife in Ostrava, and fled to Russia. When he crossed the border he was happy, and showed them his Communist ID papers. He told them he was ready to help win the war. The Communist officials thanked him very much, and put him on a train to go further east, to a concentration camp. The promise of freedom was far bigger than the giving of it!
Every morning he told the camp commandant there had been a serious error, that he was on their side, and should not be in the concentration camp. As a Czech, he was an ally. Perhaps he did not realize that as a Jew he was an enemy, As far as the Russians were concerned, freedom was not the same for everyone. The commandant told him to get back to work, and the authorities would “work” on the “error.”
Then, after the war, in Ostrava, he worked for my father in the textile factory that had belonged to the Germans. He finally ended up in Jerusalem, selling children’s clothing, using a better version of the rule had had learned in Russia, in the far East: “Nobody can give you what I can promise you,” meaning his goods were the best of all.
A Stopover in West Germany
Our Old Jailor Became Our New Refuge
On our way to Australia we spent about 3 months in Germany in 1969, arriving first by airplane from Prague on Lufthansa Airlines. When Rose, Hana, and I arrived by plane from Prague to Frankfurt we asked people at the airport how to find the train station and get to Munich by train. The directed us to the rail yard, and we arrived in Munich the next morning. Peter met us at Munich when we arrived.
For the short time in Germany I had a small series of engineering jobs. I learned of them through various technical work solicitation ads and Industry newsletters. During that three months in Germany I had two or three jobs. One of them was working for a gentleman who had an engineering background, but also had been an SS officer. I needed the job, so I accepted, and I shook his hand. As I did, I remembered that my own father would not have shook a man’s hand who was previously an SS officer.This said that he had been stationed in Paris for the Nazi occupation there, and he had not been in the Czech lands, or at Terezin or Auschwitz. He said he had good relations with the French and that he still had contact with them after the war.
One of the projects I remember was building a large dome and it had a lot of mathematical calculations to support all the concrete. I used to slide, which was all we had before computers were invented! Fortunately, one of the projects that I worked on was exactly the same as the exercise we did at the University in Prague, learning how to do this type of engineering calculations.
Another thing I remember from the time in Germany was weekend trips over throughout Europe, with Peter sometimes, by car. Peter also was a very fast driver and often got speeding tickets. He later he assigned those speeding tickets to his brother (me!) who had left the country for Australia. When returning to German to visit, they had a record of these speeding tickets, but I did not get in trouble.
Before even getting to Germany we always knew that we wanted to go to America. We tried to go directly there, but found that there was a long waiting list and it was very expensive. Through another friend we found out that Australia would gladly welcome us. Then we learned that Australia said they would pay for everything, and help us pay for the tickets. With one little girl (Hana) and a pregnant wife (Rose) we made the very long and crowded flight, stopping in Singapore and Karachi on the way. All of the flights and travel arrangements were at no cost to us, because of Australia wanted us to immigrate there. This was because we had promised to a two year commitment to work for the Australians in order to have them pay for all of our travel there. Our biggest priority was that Rose did not want to have her second baby girl be born in Germany, so getting out quickly was important
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