Rena's Memories

Part 20 (The War Draws to a Close) 

When the apartment was bombed and I was underneath the debris and I thought I was going to die I was not scared. Spiritually I felt “up”. (Raises her hands)

Click on images to enlarge.

Bombing of Prague. February 1945

War seemed to be far away from Prague until it hit us directly.  Some planes were coming back from a bombing run and had leftover bombs that they dropped on us. I think the planes must have gone to bomb Škoda Works, which was the big industry in Czechoslovakia and had munitions factories. There was absolutely no warning. They just dropped them on Prague and it was a residential neighborhood. It was the Americans who did that. 

I was sick in bed, Dedushka was doing his scholarly research at a library in a different part of town and Bobbi was out food shopping. I wanted boiled beef and cabbage and since I was sick she was roaming the city trying to find some meat. Meat was not easy to find. The fact that there was a butcher store in the neighborhood doesn’t mean that they had any meat. 

 

Suddenly the sirens started and I recognized the sound of airplanes descending. I knew this meant we were going to be bombed — I had enough experience with it. Just as I was getting up so I could run to the cellar, I was thrown down onto the bed by an explosion and covered by debris from head to foot. I had a few cuts from broken glass.

After the noise stopped, I grabbed a suitcase (already packed for this type of emergency) and went to the cellar. Since I had been in bed I was not dressed. It was cool so I had a robe on or something. I didn’t have shoes on and I went barefoot all the way with the suitcase to the cellar. And I never cut my feet. It was like a miracle because of all the glass. When I got there other residents were already there helping each other out.

There were many fires in our section of Prague. The civil defense people worked hard and was efficient in putting them out. I was just sitting and worrying about my parents when my mother suddenly appeared crying and screaming. She could hardly believe that I was alive — most of our street was destroyed. The house just next door was gone as was the house across the back yard, and some bomb fell on the street, so part of our building — just the front part — fell.

When my mother saw all the rubble, she thought our house disappeared and she was just about ready to faint. She said people had to support her. Then she looked up and behind this pile of stones she saw our number and she realized that our house was standing. That’s when she came in and realized I was alive. 

 

My mother had taken the wrong trolley and ended up in part of the town that was not bombed. She had been so annoyed about the wrong trolley. Of course if she did take the right one who knows if she would have survived. 

 

There were two types of bombs. Those that exploded and those that started fires (incendiary bombs). I watched the civil defense go on our roof and bring several incendiary bombs down. They hadn’t ignited, so I was very, very lucky. 

 

When my father started coming home, he had no idea there was even a bombing —there was no alarm or anything. The planes appeared from nowhere. They were high up and they came down and just got rid of their surplus bombs before flying back. And he, of course, was upset. So we pulled ourselves together, we swept all the glass, and we got cardboard to cover the windows. We had tickets to a movie — in Prague you had to have tickets — so the three of us went off to a movie. We weren’t going to miss it. My mother said it would do us good. And that’s the way you lived there.

 

That bombing was the only bad bombing I experienced. Of course there were other bombings in Czechoslovakia. They did try to destroy the munitions factory. I never read up on it later to see what had happened.

 

Did the street have separate houses?

 

No it was a block of attached houses, but part of them fell down and part of them stayed. Dad and I saw the street, Manesova Street, when we were in Prague.

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Photos from the Prague bombing. The two bottom photos are by Stanislav Maršál and I found them here.

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Recent photo of 44 Manesova in Prague

Image from Google Streetview.

From the English language Wikipedia article Bombing of Prague:

The Bombing of Prague occurred towards the end of World War II on February 14, 1945, when the US Army Air Forces carried out an air raid over Prague. According to American pilots, it was the result of a navigation mistake: at the same time, a massive bombing of Dresden was under way, 120 km north-west from Prague.

Forty B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 8th American Air Force dropped about 152 tons of bombs on many populated areas of Prague. The bombing resulted in the deaths of 701 people and the wounding of 1,184. About one hundred houses and historical sites were totally destroyed and another two hundred were heavily damaged. All the casualties were civilians and not one of the city's factories, which might have been of use to the Wehrmacht, were damaged.

For a web site with additional details, photos and links click here.

 

The Final Days of War

The bombing of Prague was in February 1945 and the Germans surrendered in May. Before the surrender, the Soviet Army was far away and the Americans were very close so we assumed we were going to be taken over by the Americans. Still, as a precaution, my father and the other Ukrainian scholars left and traveled south towards the American forces. They were not able to go past Vimperk, a Czech town near the border of both Austria and Bavaria. Fortunately it was occupied by the Americans. My mother and I refused to run. After all, the Americans were close (a few hours away) and the Soviets far (three days away). We didn’t know about the Yalta agreement and the fact that Churchill and Roosevelt had signed away eastern Europe.

 

As the Nazis began to scamper and recede, the Czechs, who had a very strong underground and were armed, started shooting at the Germans. They were very angry at the Nazis and there was a large German population, so one atrocity was replaced by another. They were actually pulling out and killing German men and women and were very brutal to them. There were a lot of German civilians. I think they had come from Germany. I doubt if they were there for generations. I don’t know for sure.

 

The Prague Uprising, May 1945

In one interview I specifically asked my mother about the Prague Uprising. First, here is some background from the English language Wikipedia article Western Betrayal.   See also: Prague Uprising.

On 5 May 1945, the citizens of Prague learned of the American invasion of Czechoslovakia by the US Third Army and revolted against German occupation. In four days of street fighting, thousands of Czechs were killed. Tactical conditions were favourable for an American advance, and General Patton, in command of the army, requested permission to continue westward to the Vltava river in order to aid the Czech partisans fighting in Prague. This was refused by General Eisenhower, who was disinclined to accept American casualties or risk antagonizing the Soviet Union. As a result, Prague was liberated on 9 May by the Red Army, raising the standing of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. According to a British diplomat, this was the moment that "Czechoslovakia was now definitely lost to the West."

I’ll describe the Prague Uprising. The Germans were about to lose the war and everyone knew it. The local population was full of hate for the German occupiers and there was a Czech underground which rose up in rebellion. 

 

You woke up the day of the Prague uprising, was everything normal?

I don’t remember any of that very much because it was normal enough for me to go to my music lesson. No, not a lesson. I used to go to a place where I could practice piano – for a price. I went there to practice piano because I wasn’t going to school and that occupied my time and I enjoyed it. 

And then when I left, there was shooting in the streets. The local Czech underground set up barricades and they and Nazis began shooting each other. This began when I was practicing piano. What was normally a half hour walk took hours and hours. I had to get home in a round about way running from doorway to doorway. I went through smaller streets and zigzagged around until I came to where I lived. I could see shooting and dead bodies. I was much more scared than during the bombing.

My parents were worried but weren’t aware of how bad it was because Manesova Street was fairly quiet. So it was just in some streets. And what I was told was that when the Germans started retreating the Czechs started shooting in their backs. I don’t have a good memory of all the details. I just remember how difficult it was to get home.

The uprising went on for three or four days. Do you remember the days after that (after it started)?

 

I don’t really remember much after that. We didn’t worry too much because we knew that the Americans were close. But I think my father left around that time because he suspected that the Soviets were going to come in rather than the Americans and there was a chance for him to leave.

So you don’t remember the next few days of fighting.

 

Well, the fighting continued but we were not in imminent danger where we lived. You just knew about it. You would know about it from people who would walk in and from neighbors.  We had some very good friends there. One them was in the underground and later they began to be part of the administration and they helped us with documents and doing all kinds of other stuff.

There was no government for 2-3 days. Then the Soviet troops arrived. Of course they claimed to have liberated the city. The Americans never entered Prague. In fact they pulled back.

Fortunately Vimperk remained in American hands. My father made friends with an officer who spoke French and was able to send a letter to his brother Leonid in New York City.

At the beginning when the communists came, they let the Czech people govern themselves. So they had sort of a democratic government there in the beginning. The Soviets tried to round up the refugees from the Soviet Union and send them back and all foreigners had to register, but it was not till the communists took over the government (communists coup in spring 1948) that it became a lot more restricted there. My father was able to come back to Prague. We had friends right in the Czech Police Department and and they’re the ones who helped us with a lot of stuff.

How were they helpful?

They were helpful in the way that we could get documents for traveling. I don’t know all the details. My parents kept a lot [of information] away from me because it was politically dangerous for me to know. It’s not that I would have told anyone – they trusted me – but it was better if I really didn’t know. We were not doing anything subversive but we had to hide the fact that we were from the Soviet Union. We didn’t want to go back.

In researching the other Ukrainian scholars in Prague I have found two accounts that give some details on the flight from Prague to the American zone. Both accounts have the scholars leaving shortly before the arrival of the Soviet Army. One account also mentions Vimperk (German: Winterberg ) as the town they ended up in. Unlike Rena’s father who later returned to Prague, the others eventually crossed the border and settled in the town of Transfelden, Germany.

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Barricades along a street in Prague, erected to prevent the passage of tanks and give Czech insurgents cover from German fire.

Source: click here

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Abandoned German tanks in Prague, May 1945.

Source: click here

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General Vlasov was a Soviet General who, after being captured defected to the Germans and formed the Russian Liberation Army with Soviet POWs. During the Prague Uprising he turned against the Nazi troops and aided the Czech partisans.

Source: click here