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FRANK SHATZ: Two milestones: Part I

November 13, 2008
Lake Placid News
Since the time of recorded history, each year has been marked by significant milestones, dates of great battles, horrific disasters, births and deaths of historical figures, and a host of other remarkable events. Nevertheless, what individuals remember most clearly are milestones in their own lives.

In my own case, one of those milestones was marrying my wife, Jaroslava, 60 years ago this month. We took our wedding vows under the famed Orloj Clock at the Old Town Tower in Prague shortly after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948.

The second watershed event in our lives was our arrival in America, 50years ago this month. We came here as refugees from a country that used to be a democracy, but under the Communist rule had become a repressive dictatorship.

Following the Communist takeover, the Iron Curtain descended and the borders were sealed off. As an accredited foreign correspondent, I had a valid passport and could have left for the West, leaving my wife behind. This I have refused to do.

Just as in other East European countries under Communist rule, shortages in goods and services were part of everyday life. My wife and I, however, had a privileged life. Representing Hungarian newspapers, I had access to the highest ranking government officials and freedom of movement. My wife was executive secretary to the deputy minister of commerce. The myriad restrictions and shortages hardly touched our lives.

As the nightmare of post-war Stalinist terror started to engulf the country, I found myself getting more deeply involved in the anti-Communist underground movement. Because of my ability to travel freely, I was asked to help people in danger of being arrested to escape to the West.

One episode sticks in my mind. I was told to make contact with the captain of a motorized barge plying the Danube River between the Czechoslovak port city of Komarno and Vienna, Austria. He was a seasoned smuggler of people.

I was shown his photograph in Prague and told to meet him at a local coffeehouse, in the port city. I was instructed to take a seat at a table opposite the door and place a pair of yellow pigskin gloves in front of me. When he entered, I was to playfully lift the gloves and place them apart.

Alas, all my preparations were for naught. The captain didn’t show up. My instructions were, if no contact was made, I was to return to Prague.

I decided to make a last attempt to contact the captain.

The port where his barge was at anchor was patrolled by the border police. My press credentials got me through the gate. Glimpsing the barge flying the Austrian flag, I noticed a man lounging on the deck. It was the captain.

Pulling out the gloves from my pocket, I waved at him. Then I walked toward the bar. A few minutes later, the captain followed me. I told him, “I will be waiting for you tomorrow morning at the coffeehouse.”

This time he showed up. Eastern Europe was undergoing one of the worst droughts in history. The water level in the Danube was so low that hundreds of ships got trapped in ports. In an effort to avoid arousing suspicion, the captain had stopped going to town.

The water level was now rising, he said, and his barge would be ready to sail in a few days. I returned to Prague. Two days later, a sealed wooden crate was delivered to the barge. The fake custom declaration identified the contents as machinery. In the crate were hidden two men.

Subequently I received a telegram from Viena: “We are celebrating the birth of our twins. They are healthy and beautiful. Love, Hans and Julia.” It was a message from the two fugitives.

Our rejoicing didn’t last long. We were struck by the proverbial knock on the door. It was the secret police. Our home was searched and I was taken to the headquarters to be interrogated.

Jaroslava was not a suspect, but she insisted on coming along. The documents picked up by the secret police at our home contained my published interviews with powerful Communist leaders, and letters from them. My interrogators were impressed, and I was let go.

Less than a year later, word reached us that I was again under suspicion. We had to flee. We left Communist Czechoslovakia only with the clothes on our back and a small piece of hand luggage.

But we also carried with us the hope for a safer and better life, in the West.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.



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