I was very close to all four of my grandparents, especially my father’s parents. I grew-up two miles away and often went to their house before and after school. From an early age, they shared their family history with me, especially stories about how they escaped Communist Czechoslovakia and made a new life in the United States. Although I remember many of their stories, as a young child it was hard for me to fully comprehend the scenario, especially without the benefit of a deep and mature understanding of the political situation at the time.
My grandfather died in 1993 and my grandmother died ten years later in 2003. Fortunately, the details of their lives in Czechoslovakia and their daring escape across the border into West Germany were not lost. They took the time to write their memoirs so that their history could be passed on to future generations. From time to time I re-read their memoirs and always learn something new.
My grandfather spent his early adulthood in the travel and hospitality industries. He traveled throughout Europe participating in many sports including ice hockey, tennis, swimming, skiing, and golf. He worked at many resorts and spas and had contacts throughout Europe. Through his work and his travels, he learned German and English as well as Czech. While working at a travel office on Brno, Czechoslovakia, he met my grandmother.
My grandparents both described how they lived in fear when Hitler took their country in 1938 and 1939. They also spoke of the danger during WWII of the American bombers flying overhead and how they built a makeshift shelter in the mountains. At one point, my grandfather hid in the basement of his office during a bombing and didn’t think that he would survive. In the midst of this danger, my father was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia.
My grandparents described the euphoric feeling of seeing the American soldiers march through their town at the conclusion of WWII. Because of his connections, his knowledge of the area, and his ability to speak English, my grandfather was hired by the American military after the War as an interpreter. He also promoted tourism in Czechoslovakia among the American soldiers and military personnel who were stationed in Germany. For three years, they lived in relative freedom, associating with the American military, going to parties at the Officers’ Club, and enjoying many outdoor activities.
However, when the Czech Coup occurred in 1948, my grandfather was viewed upon with suspicion since he never joined the Communist Party and had many connections with American, British, and Canadian military attaches. He lost his job with the Ministry of Foreign Trade and knew that he had to escape the country otherwise he would be arrested as an enemy of the state. My grandparents decided their best chance to escape would be to cross the border into Germany through twenty miles of thick forest in the countryside.
Due to a series of events, my grandmother and my father (who was three-years-old at the time) had to cross the border before my grandfather. They were led by a guide for the first part of the journey. However, within several miles of the German border, the guide stated that he could not continue any further because of personal danger. My grandmother was left with her young son to complete the journey. She was not strong enough to carry him and had to encourage him to keep walking. He would occasionally sit down, cry, and refuse to walk but he would always snap out of it and continue forward. They eventually made it to Germany where they were placed in a refugee camp.
My grandfather made the journey across the border through the same forest about a week later. He was picked up by American soldiers in Germany and they were able to reunite him with my grandmother and father.
Because of my grandfather’s connections, he was able to obtain a Visa to move to the United States with one catch: my father had the whooping cough and would not be permitted to accompany my grandparents. They ended up entrusting his care with a foster family in Switzerland until he recovered. About six months later, he was reunited with my grandparents in New York.
They had a very difficult time finding work and supporting themselves. But again through my grandfather’s connections, he was hired to teach Czech at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. My grandparents were finally able to rebuild their lives and establish a solid foundation for my father, my son, and me in one of the most beautiful and exclusive places in the world. What a legacy for a couple of Czech refugees: from Hitler’s invasion, to enduring WWII, to escaping Communist Czechoslovakia, to hard times in New York, to building an ideal life on the Monterey Peninsula!
Among the assets my grandparents were able to pass onto future generations – a house, a club membership, and family heirlooms – their stories and their written memoirs are among the most treasured and significant. Traditional estate planning naturally focuses upon material assets. But, finding a way to also transfer family values, history, and stories to future generations so that they can understand their roots and their family’s place in the world is priceless.
KRASA LAW is located at 704-D Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove, California, and Kyle may be reached at 831-920-0205831-920-0205.
Disclaimer: This article is for general information only. Reading this article does not establish an attorney/client relationship. Before acting upon any of the information presented in this article, you should consult a competent attorney who is licensed to practice law in your community.