Rena's Memories

Part 21 (Soviets in Prague)

Prague under Soviet Occupation

Living in Prague under Soviet occupation was very upsetting. Of course my father left before the Soviets arrived.  All displaced Soviet citizens were in danger of being sent to the Gulags. Soviet citizens weren’t sent to their home towns but to be “deprogramed” or worse (we learned this from escapees).

As foreigners we had to register our passports. We needed their stamps on our documents in order to continue living in Prague. My mother got very worried when she found out that we had to register. And I said, “I don’t know why you’re worried, “They are so disorganized. On person doesn’t know what another is doing. It’s a big mess. They’ll register us and then they’ll loose the files and never call on us.”  Well that’s exactly what happened. Nobody bothered us for a long time.

Rena and her mother registered on May 14th, five days after the Soviets arrived. Their birthplaces were correct (Leningrad for Rena) but they registered as Polish ethnicity and as having no citizenship. By mid July, they had false documents claiming that the Rena's parents lived in Poland before the formation of the Soviet Union and that Rena was born there. 

Soon after we registered, my parents were able to obtain false documents. I repeated, “I was born in Przemyśl, Poland” over and over until I could answer without hesitation.

 

My mother’s friend had a job as secretary to Prague’s police chief, and she helped my mother obtain documents we needed. One of these was a pass to cross the border from the Soviet to the American zone. My father had contacted us by mail and we knew where he was in Vimperk. My mother went to visit him there and stayed for a few months. While she was in Vimperk with my father I stayed in our apartment, but I did have friends I could visit.

While my mother was in Vimperk I was able to enroll myself into a Czech school. I found out about it from Nikola, my friend from the private Ukrainian school who was part Czech, part Ukrainian. The Czech mother knew what to do. It was complicated. I had to go to a number of offices until I got my way.

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This is the document that allowed Rena's mother to  travel to Vimperk, issued one month after the Soviets arrived in Prague. It also allowed her to take Rena, but Rena chose to stay behind at that time. When she came later on, she crossed the the border illegally. For some reason the Valentin's birth date is used, not Polina's.

The owner of this confirmation is Mrs. Polina Šugajesvskà, b. May 18, 1884 residing in Prague XII, Manesova 44, which is allowed unlimited passage with daughter Ariadna Šugajevská, born 8.3.1930 to Vimperk and back.

Prague  June 9, 1945

Click on images to enlarge.

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Rena's father Valentin in Vimperk. 

He left Prague along with the other Ukrainian scholars who had been living in Prague. They managed to avoid repatriation and many eventually emigrated to the U.S.A or Canada. One Ukrainian scholar who thought he could continue his activities in Prague died in prison. More about this will be published in future chapters.

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Rena and Nikola

In Vimperk my father became friends with an American officer who spoke French. Of course my father spoke fluent French. The officer helped my father send a letter to my uncle and that’s how we connected with him. My uncle immediately started the proceedings for us to emigrate. It took about a year and a half. We got occupied in ’45 in the spring and we didn’t leave till August ’47.  So we were there for a little over two years (after the war).

Did you consider going anywhere else after the war was over?

No, we never considered going anywhere else. We had the idea of coming to America even before we left Kiev. I think my father always wanted to come here.

During this time my mother wrote to me to come to Vimperk which meant crossing the border illegally. She told me to pretend that I was Czech and that I couldn’t speak Russian. I also tried not to talk to anyone and reveal my accent. I was scared when we got stopped by the Soviet guards at the border where the American sector was, but I was able to cross into the American zone successfully. The Soviet soldiers yelled and asked questions. The passengers looked dumb and the soldiers assumed everyone was country folk going from one village to another. 

 

So you went by yourself?

 

All alone. 

 

On a train?

 

On a train. I had my ticket. When the soldiers started speaking Russian, of course I pretended I didn’t understand a thing. And they looked around… and I was just a young kid and there were other citizens and we all looked very shabby so they let us go. And that’s how I got reunited with my mother.

 

Vimperk was a beautiful village in the mountains surrounded by woods and steams. I don’t remember the exact events but all three of us eventually returned to Prague. I started school in September and we all taught Russian. It was a reasonably peaceful (if precarious) existence.

 

Why did you come back?

 

Well, because we lived in Prague. We had all our belongings and an apartment and I was going to go to school. My mother and I came back first. My father came later because we started the proceedings to emigrate to the United States after he heard from his brother. And that’s all through the American post office (and perhaps the Military Postal Service).

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These three photos were taken in Prague (1945-7). Rena doesn't like the bottom one which was staged  by her mother.

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Some in photographers in Prague would take photos of pedestrians and hand them their card. The subject could go to the shop and purchase the photo if they liked. 

Surviving documents suggest that Rena’s father was in Vimperk from early May 1945 until December 1945 or January 1946

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The marker towards the lower left shows the location of Vimperk, Czechia, a small town nestled in woods and hills. The 5th Infantry Division of the US Army reached Vimperk as the War ended. Prague, two hours away by car, is visible slightly north of the map center. The modern state of Germany is on the left of the map, Source of map: Google Maps

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Post cards that Rena's father brought from Vimperk

 

Trouble in Prague

I loved my school and had many friends there. I also joined the Sokol (athletic organization). I studied and I read a lot. In the summer 1946 I spent some time in the countryside near Prague where I took care of a vacation house for one of my mother’s friends. It was on the Moldau river and I have fond memories of it.

So I was just going to school. And then of course my father came back because we started the proceedings to emigrate. We were coming under the Russian quota. 

I don’t know any details because my parents never told me, but they had false documents for me and for themselves that they were not Soviet citizens – that they were born in the Russian Empire but moved to Poland (in 1918) before the [Ukrainian-Soviet] war and that I was born in the town of Przemyśl, Poland. That was just a story to me. I never was sure I had any such document till I started looking for things for you for our family history and I found an affidavit that I was born in Poland. So this was exactly what they did. And these are the documents with which we got out of Prague.

At that time there was still sort of an “in between” (occupied by Soviets but relatively free) because it was reasonably democratic and we dealt with the Czech civil government most of the time and we had very good friends there. We knew people from the Czech underground and we were teaching them Russian. They were all looking forward to having Russians there instead of Germans. Little did they know at that time what was in store for them. Of course they were disappointed later on (after the communist coup in February 1948). But by then we were out of there. 

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Taking care of a vacation house near Prague

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Page 1 of Rena's Czech ID lists her birthplace as Przemyśl, Poland. The Czech language has two words that translate as nationality. Národnosti refers to what we might call ethnicity and for this Rena chose Ukrainian. 

In the fall of 1946 an agent from the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) came to our apartment looking for my father. I was home alone and very frightened. He insisted that we were from the USSR. I tried to speak with a Czech accent and insisted that we were not. I made believe that I couldn’t speak Russian at all. Of course I didn’t know any Polish. I knew a little Polish before but not very much. He got totally confused and left me.

 

After the visit from the NKVD, my father stayed with a good friend who was a bachelor. It was dangerous for him to be with us because the Soviet official was looking specifically for my father. My father was Ukrainian, he was educated and he had been in a Soviet prison before. Oh! The reason he came was because my father published and he saw my father’s publication. My mother warned my father not to publish till we got out. But he published and that’s how they found my father.

 

They were trying to round up Soviet citizens. We had to be registered or else we wouldn’t have any documents to live there. I don’t remember exactly how we were registered. They said to come and register if you were displaced people and since we didn’t have Czech citizenship and we were not Germans, we had to register as displaced people. This guy who came – I don’t think he had anything to do with registration. I think he saw my father’s publication.

 

Of course we were very upset and my mother said “Oh, I wish that guy would kick the bucket.” (Russian slang that he would die.) And a few months later we saw an article in the newspaper that he was dead. He was an alcoholic and in a drunken spree something happened to him. After that nobody bothered us.  But we still had to be very careful. My father lived with his friend most of the time and we would go to see him there. He didn’t stay with us in our apartment. 

At the Yalta Conference Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to the forced repatriation of Soviet citizens. The Americans and especially the British sent back many Soviet citizens who were executed or sent to slave labor camps. Even some who had never been Soviet citizens (they emigrated before 1922) were “returned”. More than a few committed suicide to avoid repatriation.

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This is from one of the documents with falsified information. Collectively, the documents claim that Rena's parents were living and working in Przemyśl Poland since 1918 and that Rena was born there. This would mean that, even though the parents were born in the Russian Empire, they were never Soviet citizens.

The documents were carefully constructed. Actual addresses and neighborhoods in Przemyśl were used. The documents are notarized "copies" of documents that probably never existed and which refer to other non-existent documents. These documents would not have fooled the Soviet secret police, but the Soviets were not yet in complete control of the government. I don't believe that Rena's parents ever visited Przemyśl. 

There will be more details when future chapters are published.

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