Steve's History Website
my family's journey through time
Part 18 (Prague)
Click on images to enlarge.
I was very excited to be going to Prague. In Kiev I saw a film about Prague called The Golden City. Prague was beautiful and untouched by war when we got there and people looked prosperous compared to Russia and Poland. They turned around to look at us because we were so shabby. Prague was middle class and homogenous - everyone looked the same (there was less ethnic diversity than I was accustomed to). We lived in Prague from spring 1944 until August 1947. It was my second home and I loved it.
During the war, Czechoslovakia had a puppet government. It was considered like an independent country. We were in Kiev, we were in Poland, and then in Prague. And Prague had it very good during the war, better probably than Germany. The food situation was not bad at all and things were running smoothly. The trolleys were running. The schools were functioning. To me it was almost more normal than living under communism.
You still had to be careful. Like, my father was arrested by the Nazis. I don’t know why, but he was able to get out (with the help of my mother). So the Nazis were policing the place and keeping their eyes open for subversion. Of course there was an underground in Czechoslovakia. Later on we made friends with some people who were part of the underground.
But still, comparatively, Prague was well off.. Even with the bombing (described later on) they had less destruction than in Germany or in Kiev. The country just sort of gave up itself when the Nazis invaded them. And Czechs were running the puppet government with some Nazi supervision. In Kiev there was an occupation government so there’s a big difference.
During World War II Prague was in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a nominally autonomous Nazi-administered territory which the German government considered part of the Greater German Reich.
As soon as we arrived in Prague we reunited with the group of people from Kiev, my father’s colleagues at the University who had invitations to go west. We didn’t have an official invitation which is why we were detained at Sosnovitz, while they went all the way to Prague.
The group from Kiev were sharing apartments. We had to stay with two families in the same apartment, the Kovalevs and the Miyakovskys. Both families ended up in the U.S. Boris Kovalev (a few years older than I) remained good friends in this country. Dad knew him too. We lost touch when I moved out of New York City. My mother lost touch with them too.
My father got Mr. Kovalev a job in this country. When my father decided not to move from New York to Washington DC with Voice of America, he recommended Mr. Kovalev as his replacement. They were very thankful to him because it was a good job.
Mr. Miyakovsky came to my father’s funeral. I don’t expect that anyone from the older generation is still alive since they were of my parents age. Unfortunately I have lost touch with the younger folk.
We were crowded, but fortunately we were able to move to Manesova Street and share an apartment with the Doroshenkos. They were a family with one daughter, 4 years older than I. They were from Lvov (in Galicia), but the father was originally from Kiev.
The Doroshenkos settled in Philadelphia after they came here. The older people are no longer alive. The daughter was somewhat older than I was and was a staunch Ukrainian. I don’t think she wanted to have anything to do with someone who had mixed Russian-Ukrainian origins. But the parents were good friends and my mother visited Mrs. Duroshenko when she was in a nursing home.
How did you survive in Prague?
I was never totally aware of how my parents obtained money for living, since neither of them held a job. Later my mother wrote on her resume that she worked at Charles (Karlova) University in Prague, but I doubt if she got paid. She was able to do some work for the university in bacteriology or something. She made some contact there.
Everywhere Bobbi went she was able to find a job!
Well, when you are a bacteriologist/microbiologist, you can find a job. She didn’t have a big job, but she was doing something in the lab. And she was good at it. She was very good at what she was doing. She predicted some of the stuff that is happening now. She understood about DNA when Watson and Crick published better than I did. I was not very interested in it, but she kept saying that it was revolutionary. I didn’t realize it till later. She was right. After her first stroke she was reading Scientific American while she was in the hospital.
My father had contacts with scholars and antiquarians and so when we got to Prague he immediately established himself in intellectual circles. Now they couldn’t give him a job, but he was working with them anyway doing numismatics or archeology. Occasionally he mentioned the sale of one coin or another. I assume that the sale of coins and Russian lessons provided a living.
The coins helped us in Lvov too. Unfortunately, by the time I became interested in family history it was too late to ask my father about the details. I had only begun asking about these things and then he got sick. And he was sick for a while and then died. It was a shame because he liked to talk about the past .
Now I’m beginning to think about how he was internationally known because of his publications in his field. It’s a narrow field and there are not that many people in it, but the ones that are in it correspond with each other and they know of each other. So he had contacts with many many people in the world who knew who he was. He wasn’t just anybody. He was a known numismatist and archeologist. Those contacts were helpful to us and we made many many friends in Prague. Prague was a very positive experience. We liked the country, we liked the people.
After Germany surrendered (and the Soviets occupied Prague) in May 1945 everybody wanted to learn how to speak Russian. So we all were teaching Russian. Even I was teaching Russian and I was only fourteen at the time. I was pretty good as a teacher even then. And we made good friends doing this.
Supporting Ourselves in Prague
Rena in Prague in 1946
The back of this his photo is marked 1946? - 1947?
School in Prague
After we arrived (spring 1944) my father was able to enroll me in a private Ukrainian boarding school. It was outside of Prague on the Vltava River and it was very, very pretty — like a castle on the river. You had to take two trolleys and a bus and It took me probably an hour to get there. Most weekends I went home.
I liked it despite the fact that I disliked some people in the administration and at least one teacher because they were Ukrainian Nazis. They picked on me because I did not speak Galician Ukrainian and didn’t speak German well. I had my own experiences which were anti-Nazi and having met Czech people and knowing how they felt about the Nazis, it was hard for me to be in this situation. But as everywhere else, it was composed of many different people. There were other kid’s from mixed marriages. One of my best friends was a girl whose mother was Czech and whose father was Ukrainian, and they wanted her to learn Ukrainian. As far as the teachers were concerned, only some of them I detested.
Because I missed three years of school I had to work hard to catch up. They were really pushing German in that school. Math and geography were taught in German and we had German language every day — so I became fluent in German. I was worse than the other kids because I was just learning it, but there other things that I learned well. I had no problem with math and physics, but Latin was harder for me. I entered school in the spring of 1944 and I remember being there part of the summer.
One family asked me to be a tutor to their girl who was in a younger grade. This was in September of 1944. I tutored math and German. To my great surprise, I received a nice present from the parents at Christmas and also some money. I continued getting presents from them like a nice box of food that I could bring home for the family. When I started, I thought I was doing a volunteer job, but I was proud that I began earning money at the age of 14. This was the beginning of my “teaching career”.
One disappointment was that I was not learning any Czech. I was learning some just by living in Czechoslovakia, but in that school they didn’t even have a class in Czech. It was just German and Ukrainian. It was ridiculous because we were living in Prague were everybody was speaking Czech.
Besides class, we had to help in the kitchen and in the summer we worked in the fields. It was a pleasant year because I love swimming and we used to go swimming in the Vltava river and the countryside was very beautiful there.
I continued at the Ukrainian school in the fall of 1944. Sometime that winter the school closed because there were bombings and there wasn’t enough fuel to heat the building. We came in once a week to turn in assignments and receive new homework. I don’t remember exactly when and why I stopped going to this school. Then in the spring of ’45 the war was over.
Was that the only school you went to?
No, after the war I went to a regular Czechoslovakian school. It was a very fine school. It was a good enough school to put me directly into college here, and without any troubles. But I had to work very hard to catch up.
My father made sure that when we lived in Kiev, that I learned how to write grammatically in Russian and I knew Russian literature. I could write well because of that rigorous training. It is only later that I began to slip.
I had a gift for math. When I came to Czechoslovakia and started in that Ukrainian school, I was with kids who had at least half a year of algebra. I didn’t even know what algebra meant. But I was able to start by doing the equations with two unknowns and work myself back to one and learn what negative numbers were. I caught on, but I always felt these little gaps later on. I never had trigonometry but I took classes in this country where it was a prerequisite. Then I went home and tried to learn it on my own. I’m still very unsure of myself in trigonometry but I was able to do calculus and differential equations.
Letterhead of the Ukrainian Real Gymnasium (high school) in Modrany (now a part of Prague). It existed from 1925 till 1945. Then (I think) it was reestablished in Germany.
This student ID has Rena’s correct birth place (Leningrad). Later documents would claim she was born in Poland. Rena lived at 44 Manesova but her address is listed as 44 Barthonova (or something similar- the closest match I could find was 44 Bártlova). Rena doesn't remember why it has a different address. The address also appears on one document of Valentin's (who was in hiding at this time).
Photo from the1946-47 school year for the "State Real Gymnasium in Prague" (No. 30)