While I was having coffee at the W&M Bookstore in Virginia with John Lom, an attorney at the U. S. Department of the Treasury, our conversation drifted to family affairs. What unfolded was a 20th century odyssey.
When his father, Maximilian, was 18 years old, John told me, a detachment of SS soldiers marched into his high school classroom in Nazi-occupied Bohemia. The students were ordered to state their age. His father, on impulse, said he is 17. The 18-years-old students were separated from the rest, and taken away. All of them were subsequently shot by the Nazis, in reprisal for a hostile act by Czech patriots.
Maximilian and his childhood sweetheart, Gerta, who was forced into a Nazi slave labor camp, survived the war and they got married. Lom, after earning a graduate degree, secured a position at the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Trade. Being proficient in English, he was sent to the United States in 1947 to promote the sale of Czechoslovak ceramic products.
Life in New York for the Lom family was the fulfillment of their dream. Then in 1949, he was called back to Prague. Although he was warned of the increasingly repressive methods of the new, Communist government, he decided to return. It was a fatal mistake.
Tainted by his stay in the United States, Lom was dismissed from his position at the ministry. His prospect for getting a decent job was minuscule because he was branded. He decided to flee.
Surveying the border-region with West Germany, he realized that the border was heavily guarded. He plotted his escape route through Communist East Germany. “My father seldom talked about the past,” John said. “But he was willing to tell me about his escape.”
Lom packed the family into his car, the last vestige of his former position. Pretending to go on vacation, he drove to a small town, close to the East German border. To avoid arousing suspicion, he parked in front of the police station and the family went on a hike.
They found a hiding place close to the border, and at nightfall, they crossed undetected into East Germany. A train took them to divided Berlin, and they reached the American sector by subway.
As a high-ranking former government official, defecting from Communist Czechoslovakia, Lom was welcomed by American authorities. But he feared being kidnapped by Communist agents and wanted to leave Berlin in a hurry. Gaining admittance to the United States, however, was a prolonged process. The Loms, immigrated to pre-Castro Cuba instead.
“My father became a partner in a motor-scoter business there and prospered,” John, who was born in Cuba, recalled. “But Fidel Castro’s broadcast from the mountains convinced him that once he gained power, Cuba will turn into a Communist state, just like the one he fled from.”
The Loms, by then Cuban citizens, gained entrance to the United States as refugees. “I was five years old,” John said, “and it didn’t take long for me to turn into an all-American, kid.”
His father got into several business ventures, finally establishing a charter-flight company in Denver, Co. “He arranged the visits of thousands of American tourist to Europe, for some even to Czechoslovakia” John said. “But he himself never entered his homeland, until the fall of Communism.”
Having survived Nazi occupation and Communist rule, Lom, was determined to implant in his children his view of America. “He called it the last bastion of hope for mankind. He told us that for freedom and liberty to survive, they must be constantly earned. Once taken for granted, they will be lost and almost impossible to restore.”
He added, “My late father also told us never to take anything for granted, and to beware of those who turn passion into zealotry. But he had great faith in the inherent good nature and general attitude of Americans. They make judgments about people based on their merits, he used to say.”
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.