Part 22 (Escape from the Soviets)
Preparing to Leave
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For the first time in my life I was experiencing democracy at work. There were four political parties (Czechoslovakia was a democracy until a communist coup in February 1948). We were taught democratic principles and had mock elections in school. In the spring of 1947 it was obvious that the centrist party was by far the most popular. At that time I also knew that we would be leaving in August, but I had to keep it a secret so my school friends didn’t know I was saying my final goodbye at the end of the term. I felt sad and elated at the same time.
During this time my father was going through legal channels to obtain permission to emigrate to the America. My uncle was sending us packages which was helpful because food was still scarce. We were able to exchange coffee for meat and flour. Vegetables were available from local farms – Prague’s vegetable markets were wonderful.
To immigrate to the the US we went through legitimate sources with my uncle and we came under the quota system. The Russian quota was not used very much because the Soviets were not letting people out. Everything was legalized in Washington. My uncle had friends in Washington and they were helpful, but we came the old fashioned way – the way immigrants were allowed in back then. At that time they didn’t give you any special status if you were political refugees or anything else.
So we used all the correct channels. The only thing that was not exactly correct was my false birth certificate, but I was not of age yet anyway so it didn’t really matter. I was coming with my parents. But to get out from under the Soviets we had to hide the fact that we were originally Soviet citizens. We said we didn’t have a citizenship of any kind.
And they were disorganized enough so that you could get away with it?
Yeah. My parents had false papers and I had the papers stating I was born in Poland. I don’t know where they got them. They did not tell me much about these things except for the things I was supposed to say, because the fewer things that people knew, the better. And when they came here they didn’t even want to think about it.
Also it was hard to get a passage. We were with the first civil passengers on Queen Mary after the war. It carried troops during the war.
So you had the tickets for the voyage before you left Prague?
You had to have the tickets for the voyage before you left Prague and you didn’t leave on your own. There was a whole bunch of immigrants that traveled as a group. And my father was able to arrange a trip to Paris ahead of the group because he wanted to spend a few days in Paris. With the group you stop one day in Paris and then you cross the channel and you stop one day in London – or two days in London – something like that. And then you went to Southhampton and sailed from Southhampton.
So you got out by having false Polish documents?
Only me. My parents didn’t have that. We had some influential friends in the Czech government and they gave us some kind of document to cross the border [between the Soviet and U.S.A. occupation zones]. And we still held our breathe till we got into the American sector in Pilsen. Once we got out from under Soviet occupation we heaved a sigh of relief. We had all of the correct documents for the United States, we had our passage paid for and everything. My uncle paid for the passage.
We gave the key of our apartment to the friends who had helped us and left them most of our possessions. Our neighbors didn’t even know that we were leaving for good. Only our close friends knew about it.
And you could leave because the Soviets were not controlling Czechoslovakia too strictly?
Czechoslovakia had occupational forces and some of them were Americans but they were only in the south. The rest of the country was occupied by the Soviet troops. Prague was under the Soviets, but the Czechs had their own civil government.
Soviet troops claimed that they liberated the country and they were letting the people govern themselves. The Soviets sent a few NKVD people and that one kicked the bucket because he was a drunkard and then they didn’t bother us anymore. The people who came and registered displaced citizens — who knows what they did with the documents. We had other friends from the Soviet Union there and they were still there when we left. Maybe they had to leave later.
Three months after we left, the communists took over the Czech government. During this time we were corresponding with one of our friends. In the very first letter we read that three days after we left, the NKVD came to arrest my father. So luck was with us again. All three of us survived and were on the deck of the RMS Queen Mary at 5am on August 1947 looking at the Statue of Liberty.
The Immigration Act of 1924 stopped immigration from Asia and set quotas on the number of immigrants coming into the United States from various countries. To reduce the the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, quotas for those countries were set at 2% of the US population from those countries in 1890 (when those populations were still small).
Source Wikipedia article, Immigration Act of 1924
Elated immigrants arriving in New York Harbor. The ship is not the RMS Queen Mary. Source: Click here.
This document refers to Rena’s birthplace as “Przemysl, Polish district”. A rough translation of the pertinent parts is below. Providing this documents was one of the many steps in obtaining a travel visa.
National Security Directorate in Prague, March, 1 1946
Miss Ariadna Shugaevsky,
apartment in Prague XII., Manesova 44
born on March 8,.1930 in Przemysl, Polish district
this certificate is issued as a document to the US visa office which certifies that police records do not contain any penalties