Sunday, October 15, 2006

Brezina - War and After

George & his parents left in April, 1948. They drove to Prague and visited his aunt, and left silverware with her, without saying anything.

Afterwards they drove to Pilsen and had lunch in a hotel, and left the car in the yard behind the hotel. Then they took the train to Stribro where an uncle met them, drove them to Tachov, and beyond to a mill in the woods. After dark the mill owner took them to meet the smugglers - a boy & a girl, about 16 & 17 yrs. old. They went on a string through the woods, with George in the middle. They had a bag of food, and a suitcase of clothes, George's stamp album, & a box of Rina's jewelry. Some of this you have seen our girls wearing - for example, the cross, which the family bride wears, dating from the Battle of the White Mt. in 1620 (a section of Prague now, fairly near the airport). They also took a green onyx ashtray which Rina has in her room here now. The companion side-table Aunt Hana has in Prague. These were gifts to Josef Hucl, George's grandfather, when he was head of Bank Slavia. (Mucha window, St. Vitus Cathedral) One summer recently this man from the mill came to visit Rina at her sister-in-law's near Pilsen! He brought with him a cloth napkin they had left in his mill!! Rina gave it to him.

Across the border into Germany they spent the rest of the night in the kitchen of a farmhouse. In the morning a vehicle of the OSS picked up the family to take them to the county seat for questioning on the status of the then present life in Czechoslovakia. (George drove me to these places in the early '90's.) The next night they spent in Regensburg where they met two men, friends, who had also just escaped! These men had offered to take George's father along - but he had refused, saying, "only with my wife & son". Then they stayed in Bamberg for awhile, waiting for trunks they'd given a man who came in a little truck to Brezina to be brought by smugglers, but this never happened. Then they were in a refugee camp in a town called Berg north of Frankfurt and lived in a noodle factory for about 4 months, and afterwards for just over a year in Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart. Then they took a ship to Africa, and the train to Rhodesia where George's dad had a position as a farm manager.

In refugee camp there was sometimes a little schooling - one man who later wrote for Newsweek for years attempted to teach the children history. George sold shoes and newspapers. His father was a Rotarian, and the Atlanta, Ga. Rotary Club sent shoes, clothes, socks. Lots of socks were singles, but hand knit, so the women unraveled them & made new things. Food was very sparse, but in Ludwigsburg it was somewhat better. George remembers his dad, who had a few American dollars, taking him to the Army post to the canteen to eat - oh, wonderful tasting - waffles.

One of the initial things Bozenka, George's school mate, from Brezina, now living across the road in the blue house, said in April 1990 when we first visited was, "I could ride with you to school in the coach when it rained." Gasoline was not used for anything so minor as taking children to school. The war quite annoyed his aunt - she had to take the train from Prague to Pacov, and then the coach met her. She was used to traveling by car. Farms were important to the Germans, so there was fuel to take milk to Tabor to the dairy co-op. George remembered that city better than Pelhrimov, our own county seat. Bread used to be baked in an oven once a week, but during the war they baked several times a week, so that visitors could take it back to Prague with them, where bread was very scarce. Butter was churned by hand, at home, secretly, as all the dairy products were supposed to be delivered to the co-op. Apples were locked-up in the room that is our furnace room now.

When Germany first occupied Czechoslovakia the crown was high compared to the mark. The Germans lowered the crown, and encouraged the Germans to come shopping. George's grandmother was quicker, and managed to buy enough chocolate and coffee to lock-up and last through the war.

It was fun for young boys to see soldiers and armaments, but then one would hear of someone who'd been taken away & shot, so war was not so much fun. George watched German tanks & troops moving east for many weeks on Route 129 above us; some time later the remnants came back for days. Once there were 1000 German soldiers in the farmyard where they slaughtered animals and cooked meat; on the upstairs veranda (which we are now repairing) were 7 downed Russian flyers. The seven year old boy walked freely amongst them all, and never revealed anything. Or I would not be telling this story!

The universities were closed, and many of the students were sent to work camps in Germany. So, if you could, you would offer students important jobs, such as on a farm. To Brezina came Vaclav Icha, a sculptor who had been George's father roommate, along with Prince Karel Schwartzenberg, at cavalry school in Pardubice. Icha sculpted George's grandmother and did some sketching. Mostly Icha is remembered for making "bathtub gin" and partying. "Uncle" George Homolka, George's father's cousin, studying medicine at Charles University, helped with the bathtub gin, but also helped with supervision of the alcohol factory.

After the war, in Oneonta, NY, as in many other American schools, classes outfitted Junior Red Cross boxes for the poor children in war-torn Europe. Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, washcloth, Lifesavers, crayons, pencils, eraser, small notebook, a small toy. BUT NO WAR TOYS. The children in Europe are tired of war. Meanwhile, the children in Europe were collecting real bullets, hand grenades, and guns. My mother, in Oneonta, NY, read in the newspaper about the poor children blowing themselves up, as did Rina here at Brezina. So she warned George to report any weapons he might find. This was while he was dismantling bullets on his play table. Luckily no one walked by with a lit cigarette, or I would not be telling this story, either. Later, at refugee camp, they benefited from the Red Cross boxes - the toothbrushes lasted for some years after they had arrived in Africa.


Monday, October 02, 2006

First Accomodations at Brezina (publication date?)

Many of you moving to the Czech Republic have temporary accommodation provided by your company. Usually these include hot and cold running water, electricity, heating, beds, a sofa, and a kitchen!

Our permanent accommodations lacked most of these amenities. We bought some mattresses and moved out of the hotel. The mattresses were the old Czech-style three-piece, so we had to put our suitcases at the foot, otherwise the mattresses moved around the floor during the night. The village firemen left a few tables, chairs and dishes. Within the week, some of our boxes arrived by air. Then we had blankets.

The first day we cried “Eureka!” when a helper broke into our room with washbowl and cold water faucet. We proceeded to wash the filthy floors.

Parts were damp. Until we got a furnace in the hallway, where the one bathroom was, towels would be wet in the morning if we forgot them.

Electricity functioned here and there; some plugs even worked, so we bought an electric hotplate. Buying meat was difficult, because butcher shops in our area were closed for several weeks for privatization. I did not realize that one might buy fish and chicken at the little grocery store. Finally, in another town in a sort of supermarket, I found poultry and proceeded to buy a slepice. Slepice had been one of my first Czech words – taken from a book. I didn’t know this meant “tough hen” rather than “tender chicken.” I boiled and simmered it on that hotplate for three hours and we gnawed it for supper. The next day I cooked it some more.

Former experiences can come in handy in a new situation. For five years I had been camping coordinator for several Girl Scout troops. One of my tasks was teaching girls and adult helpers how to make fires. Since my children were scouts, or helped with campouts, they are all expert fire builders too. If I ever say to you “I [or he/she] am keeping the home fires burning”, please realize that this is a literal statement of fact. Now there’s a woodshed; back then I hunted sticks in the park.

We had plenty of visitors, with varying agendas, for example “My grandfather did the tile stoves for your grandmother. Perhaps I can help you.” One Sunday we had 18 visitors, five arriving before we were dressed! We lived here and there around the zamek, choosing rooms that had both their inside and outside windows and/or woodstoves.

When one of my daughters heard about all the work her sisters had done, she began claiming that we hitched Tibbs the cat to a little cart to clear rocks from the fields. This is not true. Tibbs had his own extremely important work to do: catching mice. Tibbs also loved it that many doors didn’t work and he could run in and out at will.

With my interest in words, I soon learned to say a phrase which beautifully alliterates in Czech, although not in English: Bydlím ve starým, strasným, spinavím, studenýn zámku – I live in an old, terrible, dirty, cold castle. Daughter Caroline stayed with Aunt Hana in Prague when she worked on The Prague Post. One morning, Hana was making tea and laughing. “Why are you laughing, Hana?” asked Caroline. “Well, you know what your mother says.…but a castle should be old.”