With this blog, I will begin posting vignettes from my forthcoming (early 2022) book, COWBOY FROM PRAGUE: AN IMMIGRANT’S PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM. The following is the opening chapter, titled “Escape”:
Two soldiers emerged from the darkness and pointed their rifles at us. They were Nazi SS murderers rumored to be hiding near the border less than three years after the end of the war. Or they were Communist border guards under orders to stop escaping “enemies of the state,” like my parents. In either case, I was certain that I would not live to see my thirteenth birthday.
The previous day, I had been worried—but not frightened—when my father explained why we had left Prague in a hurry and driven a couple of hours toward the western border. After all, Papa had fought with the Czechoslovak Brigade of the British army and defeated the Germans. He would never let harm come to Mother and me.
“We’re leaving the country,” my father told had me in the car. “The Communists have taken away our factory and they would harm us in other ways if we stay. So, we’re going to start a new life, hopefully in America. But first, you’ll have to be brave because we’re going to cross the border tomorrow night, and it’s going to be dangerous. The Communist border guards may try to shoot us.”
After spending the night in a hotel, the next day—Saturday, March 13, 1948—we got back in the car and rode out into the countryside. There, with no one in sight, Papa drove the Ford into a field. We took out our baggage, abandoned the car, and walked back to a small village we had passed. Mother went to a bus stop, while Papa and I continued to the other side of town. We went into a tavern and had a snack. My father whispered to me that we were taking separate busses in order not to arouse suspicion. An hour or so later, he and I went back to the stop and caught the next bus to the town of Aš, the country’s westernmost large town.
We met Mother in Aš and walked to the railroad station. Papa bought third-class tickets to Rossbach, a village near the German border. The train, belching white smoke from the stack of the coal-fired locomotive, arrived a few minutes later, and we rode it without incident to Rossbach. The village station was tiny, and there was no one in sight. But a few minutes later, a horse-drawn wagon pulled up near the tracks.
“Mr. Heller?” asked the driver. “Come with me.”
We piled our belongings into the wagon and hopped in behind the driver. He cracked his whip, and the two horses began to trot out of town. We rode for some time until we came upon a farm at the edge of a thick forest. The farmer motioned us inside.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” he said. “You’ll stay here till midnight.”
I noticed that he never introduced himself, nor did we ever hear the name of his wife, who served us dinner. Had I realized that this would be our last decent meal for many months, I would have savored it more. I dozed off in a chair, while my parents sat quietly and spoke to one another only occasionally. A grandfather clock in the corner seemed to be in slow motion as its little hand crawled toward twelve. Finally, the clock announced that it was midnight.
“Get your things and let’s go,” we were ordered.
Sleepily, I put on my jacket and shoes and headed out the door. Just as I was about to exit the house, I heard my father scream at the farmer.
“Where is our suitcase?”
It turned out that he had stolen one of our bags while we waited in the living room. He proclaimed his innocence, but how else could one-fifth of our worldly possessions as we headed for exile disappear inside his house? There was nothing my parents could do but go on, now considerably poorer than we had been when we arrived.
Outside, we were greeted by a spectacular, starry but moonless, sky. The farmer motioned for us to follow him, with Mother carrying one suitcase and Papa having two bags strapped together, one in the front and the other in the back. I carried a bundle of blankets which, I would find out later, contained valuable jewelry that would constitute the majority of our assets as immigrants. We walked across a field to the edge of the forest. There, the farmer stopped and pointed into the woods.
“Walk for about three hours in that direction and, if you’re lucky and the border guards don’t shoot you, you’ll run into American soldiers. Good luck.”
With that, he turned and sauntered off to the farmhouse. We began walking in the direction he had indicated, avoiding footpaths in order not to be detected. It was dark and scary in the woods, and I imagined being attacked by wild animals or worse, by German SS killers who were rumored to be hiding in the forests. My bundle was getting heavier with each step, and I stopped every few minutes to rest.
Occasionally, Papa referred to his compass in order to make sure we were heading west. He urged me to keep up with him. I kept tripping over roots, stumbling and falling, all the time frightened that I would give us away by making so much noise. I expected to hear gun shots at any moment, and my heart was beating wildly. The night was cold, but I was sweating profusely. I was totally exhausted when, after three hours, we reached the end of the forest.
Suddenly, out of the darkness stepped two men in uniform, shining flashlights into our eyes and aiming their rifles at us. We stopped in our tracks as they approached, calling out in a strange language.
How can Papa be so calm? He may be a war hero, but he’s not armed—and they are!
The soldiers came closer. My father spoke to them—in the same, strange language. Finally, he turned to us and smiled.
“These are American soldiers,” he announced. “We’re in the US Zone of Germany. We’re free!”