The autobiographical story of F/O Jaroslav Polivka’s escape from German occupied Czechoslovakia to England:
I hadn’t known Mírek for very long prior to our from Prague. I met him first on a canoe trip I took with Otak and Gerta Hubschmanhad on the Vltava river. We had our canoes taken by a lorry some 50 miles up and slowly drifted back towards Prague for several days. Mírek at that time was a student of Mechanical Engineering at the Prague Technical College. That was in summer of 1938. At the time I was employed by the Ministry of Public Works in the Department of Civil Aviation.
When the Germans came in 1939 I soon realised that I would find it very difficult to live together with them and I became interested in a program organised by a group of volunteers headed by škpt [staff captain] Černy, the Department’s test pilot. He was a former Czech Air Force pilot, hence his title škpt under which everybody knew him.
I don’t recall how often I met with Mírek after our canoe trip or who was the first to suggest that he leave the country with me. I agreed with Černy that I’ll depart on the Second of January. He didn’t tell me much about the organisation of the underground; the less I knew in case I was caught the better. He had no illusions about his own safety and realised that sooner or later he also will have to say good bye to Prague. After the war I learnt about his fate. Knowing that the Gestapo preferred to make their arrests during the night, he never slept home but visited during the day. He had an agreement with his wife that should she receive unwelcomed visitors during his absence, she would lower the window shades of their second story apartment. Deep in his thoughts as he was approaching the house one afternoon he didn’t notice the shade.
Mírek and a former Air Force flying instructor, Sgt. Antonín (Tonda) Ploček left with me from one of the Prague big railway stations – the President Wilson station. The plan was to travel to Hodonín in Moravia and cross underground to Slovakia which by then was a separate state while Bohemia and Moravia were the so called Protectorate. After we crossed Slovakia on train again we were to be whisked to Hungary and continue on to Yugoslavia where in Belgrade we would be able to breath friendly air once again and somehow end before long in France. Černy took down the number of one of my 10 Kčs notes. The number was somehow relayed to a contact at the French Embassy in Budapest where the note, which I carried with me, would represent our identity card, so to speak. We all carried large amounts of money which would be changed at each border as we passed over.
So that we wouldn’t be noticed that far too many men were travelling between Prague and Hodonín we bought tickets to three different railway stations past Parabudice where we to change trains. In Parabudice we purchased tickets to go to Hodonín. On the train we sat within sight of each other but not close to each other so that if any of us was for some reason apprehended the other two had a better chance to carry on.
We arrived at Hodonín late in the afternoon. Whenever possible the two places near the border to be crossed – the point of departure on one side and the point of arrival on the other – were rather large cities so that the appearance of a few more travellers would not be suspicious. We considered visiting the birth-place of Tomáš G. Masaryk but for security reasons decided against it. We went directly to the hotel whose name and description of its location I was given by Černy and gave the keeper the password, an innocent kind of statement which he answered just as innocently and to which I answered with another coded statement – like playing a ping-pong game. He gave us a room and supper.
Before we left the railway station I noticed a tall man with a black sheepskin hat on his head whom I recognized from Černy’s description as the leader of the local underground unit, the headmaster of one of the local schools. I nodded to him but he wouldn’t talk to us then. We met him later in the hotel where he introduced us to a young student who would take us over the border the same night.
He was to accompany us to Skalica in Slovakia, to an inn, and hand us over to another contact there. Fortunately he told us the name of the inn. We were to walk through deep snow some 7 kilometers and across the frozen river Morava which was the actual border. There was a full moon and it was freezing. We were young and under different circumstances it might have been a nice promenade.To avoid the border patrol we walked about l km away and parallel with the road connecting Hodonín and Skalica. After about half an hour we noticed the patrol on the road – the bayonets were glistening in the moonlight. We laid down in the snow and waited until they passed. Our guide then suggested that we proceed on our own and that he would meet us later. We never saw him again.
We plodded on and finally arrived at the river. The ice looked strong enough though there were pockets of air under it next to the banks caused by the fact that the water level dropped some 20 cm since the time the river froze over. One after another we stepped very cautiously from the bank on the ice and proceeded to the other side. The opposite bank was higher and steeper and as we struggled up, the ice broke and we fell into the freezing water up to our knees. As soon as we climbed up the bank, the snow froze on our pants which immediately became two stove pipes clanging against our legs. The travel was now even more difficult and in spite of low temperature we perspired. Eventualy we made it to Skalica at about 10 p.m. The night was clear and there were some lights so we didn’t miss the town. That first night and on other nights when we had to travel without any visible landmarks we relied heavily on the constellation Orion which somehow was always located in the direction we were to move.
The streets of Skalica were empty. I left my two companions inside a church and went in search of the inn. It was soon obvious that the task was more difficult than I imagined but our angel guardian was not asleep. Suddenly a streetwalker appeared and offered her services. After I talked myself out of a possible adventure I asked for the direction to the inn. Once there I paced in front of it to and fro. Partly to keep my blood circulating, partly because there was nothing else to do. After I don’t know how long a man came out of the pub and looked around. I greeted him and asked whether he was waiting for visitors. He was not and went back inside.
When the cold was too much for me I went in and ordered a glass of beer which needless to say I never intended to drink.I looked arround for the man I saw on the street before. He was sitting all by himself, reading a newspaper. I went to him and and risked telling him my story. My gamble paid off, he was our man and it didn’t take too long to convince him that there was a grain of truth in it.
We went out separately. I gathered Mírek and Tonda and walked with the man to his small Tatra car (called hadimrska – the snake’s tail), parked two blocks away. He was to drive us to a flour mill where we were to stay for a while. After about two kilometers we ran out of fuel and had to walk a few more kilometers on foot.
Here we found more fugitives and with them we moved on by train across part of Slovakia to Senec which was on the border of the area taken from Czechoslovakia by Hungary after Hitler marched in Prague in 1939. Here we were welcomed by an employee of the railways. All I remember from this place was the railwayman’s wife who told us fortunes. I don’t remember what she told Mírek or Tonda. For me she painted a most successful future. If she found from Tonda’s hand that he shall be dead in a few months she didn’t say so. In England, Tonda became a pilot with the No. 3ll Czech Bomber Squadron. While returning from a night raid over Germany with the radio of his Wellington shot up by the German ground flack he was staggering over blacked out England without knowing where he was. When he didn’t answer communication from the ground, when he was over London a Beaufighter night fighter piIot was sent up to shoot him down. Alas, tragic missunderstannings of this sort were not too rare.
In the night we started a long walk along the main highway across the border to Pusztafödémes (in Slovak Pusté Úľany) a Slovak community, now in Hungarian hands. The night was clear, snow everywhere. We were instructed that as soon as lights of an approaching vehicle appeared in the distance we were to disperse immediately in the fields on both sides of the road and lie down in the snow. There were more cars travelling in both directions than we liked and the the original vigor with which we would throw ourselves in the dry snow somehow diminished. When we approached the Puszta Fedmesz railway station a welcoming committee of a platoon of Hungarian soldiers were waiting for us. As we were led towards the entrance I noticed one of our group throwing his pistol in the bank of snow. A nice gesture, very wise. An old man walking by chance towards the station started talking to me. He was a Slovak, now living in Hungary and not liking it. He was very sorry for us.
There was a nice hot fire in the waiting room. I threw my special passport and a card identifying me as an officer of the Czech Government in the fire. They took my pocket knife. After a while we were taken to military barracks where we staved until morning. I do not remember whether we obtained any food. We had beds to sleep on. We heard later that the guide who took us across the border was badly beaten up by the soldiers. What happened to him when he returned to Slovakia I can only guess.
In the morning we were put in front of a wall in a long line. There were about fifty of us, maybe more. About a dozen soldiers were facing us under a command of an officer. He barked orders as army officers usually do. The men took their rifles from their shoulders and pointed them at us. After another bark loaded them with a case of 5 shells each. It looked serious but not deadly serious. I realised that at an executipn there is always more rifles than those who were condemned and such was not our case. In modern times when machine guns are used it’s the other way around. From my Air Force cadet days I remembered a procedure to be foIlowed when an army prisoner was to be escorted from one prison to another. By facing his escort loading rifles with live ammunition he was to be impressed by the fact that his chances for a successful escape were negligible. We were escorted back to the border and handed over to the Slovak Customs. Objects taken away from us the night before were returned. The Customs were to hand us over to a Gestapo officer who was due at the post in the afternoon, so we were told by the Slovaks. They didn’t have any intention to hand us over. After a stern lecture we were ordered to return to Senec and to take the first train back to Prague. They didn’t offer any advice how to cross the border between Slovakia and Moravia and we didn’t ask for any. The whole lot broke up in small groups and started drifting away in the general direction of Prague. We didn’t make it back there, Mírek and I until some 6 years later.
After about one kilometer of plodding through light mist we established a temporary residence in what from a distance looked like a large haystack. It was made of straw. We dug three holes in it, close enough to keep warm and distributed what food we still had. Some chocolate was available I still remember, not much though. It was a long day.
In the afternoon we heard some shooting which was coming closer. Hunters shooting birds. It occured to us that that some of the birds might fly too close or even land on top of the stack and we might find ourselves within the target. By and by the hunters passed.
Darkness came early and we were back on the road. Needless to say we took all kind of precaution not to repeat the mistake of the previous night. Unpleasant memory of the Puszta Fedvmesz railway station was responsible for our decision to bypass it and head for the next station on the line, another 10 miles or so. We walked along the railway track so that we wouldn`t miss the station and we also considered it to be less guarded than the highway. We finaly reached Galanta. The big station was deserted but there was a nice fire in the first class waiting room and we spent a few hours in there.
We studied timetables and when the time of our departure was close and the station began to fill with travellers I approached one of them after I overheard him talking Slovak and asked him to purchase for us three first class tickets to Budapest. I gave him more than the cost and asked him to keep the change. He got the idea and made a few useful suggestions such as where the first class wagon will be standing when the train arrives; also not to board the train immediately but watch for possible army personnel and keep out of their way. Doing just that we found ourselves at the end of the train when it stopped but made it eventually to the first class wagon and immediately located,the conductor. He spoke Slovak and after I parted with some more pengos he locked us in an empty compartment. It was up to us to keep guessing whether he locked us in our own interest or whether he wanted to make certain that we don’t run away when he alerts the first sentry in sight. He told us when the time came to change trains and pointed out the platform from which to take the train to Budapest.
Prior to our departure from Prague we were advised by Černy to dress up as well as we could and to keep our appearances as neat as possible. Well dressed folks give less reason for suspicion than the others. We brushed away very carefully anv straw from our hair and ears and kept the shoes as polished as was under the circumstances humanly possible. At the railway station we separated again but still within signt of each other. I bought a German newspaper and pretended to read so as not to be drawn into conversation by some well meaning fellow traveller.
In Budapest we took a taxi to the French Embassy. I was in Budapest a year and a half ago under very different circumstances. During one week I represented the Czechoslovak Aeroclub together with the well known meteorologist Dr. Miklenda, at the 900 year anniversary of the death of the first King of Hungarv. Stephen the First (St. Stephen). I then learnt a few Hungarian words which now came in very handy. Incidently, Dr. Miklenda also tried to escape in 1940, was caught by the Gestapo and executed. The pistol which he was carrying was mainly responsible for the harsh verdict.
At the Embassy we were welcomed with less enthusiasm than we expected. The halls were full of escapees; our contact, Bondy, a member of the Czech aviation industry family [Avia], sighed deeply when we presented ourselves. I almost forgot to hand over to him my cherished 10 Kčs note when he casualy remarked whether I had anything for him. His position in Budapest was now becoming more difficult every day. Under heavv pressure by the Germans the Hungarian government was less and less lenient towards the French Embassy efforts to provide escapees with means to travel to France. All he could do for us at the moment was to give us an address where we could find accommodation with a Jewish family. The familv no doubt did not survive the holocast when the Nazis finaly entered Hungary. Most of those we contacted during our Odyssey across Europe met with jail sentences and death. The three of us were planning to repeat the journey after the war should we survive it, meet all of those who made it possible, but we never did.
During my previous visit to Budapest I met one of the officers of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a charming young lady. I sat next to her during a banquet given to foreign flyers by the Ministry in the hall of the Budapest Royal Palace. We exchanged addresses and now I went to see her and asked her assistance. She found it difficult to believe my story because I looked so spic and span, no trace of straw in my hair or sneezing after falling in the icy Morava river. She called up an officer of the British Embassy who agreed to meet with me. She was a dour old lady and after learning that I didn’t have my passport she refused to deal with me at all.
We all became restless, particularly Tonda who started talking about going back to Prague. Mírek and I agreed that one of us will always have to be with him so that he couldn’t embark on his futile trip. Did he have a premonition of what was ahead?
Polish refugees of whom there were in Budapest even more, as a matter of fact much more, than Czechs, were treated slightly better. The Polish and Hungarian Governments were always friendly to each other and unfriendly to Czechs. Same could not be said about the people of those two countries. I always had very good relation with any Pole or Hungarian I met either before the war or after. As a matter of fact I could say the same about Germans. In our hour of need I went to see the Commanding Officer of the Polish Army refugees, a colonel, at the Polish Embassy which still existed and found him very understanding and helpful. He arranged that the three of us were given Polish documents and transport to Barc a town on the border between Hungary and Yugoslavia on the river Drava. For the documents we had to have our photographs taken. In the studio we pretended that we were French, hoping that the photographer wouldn’t speak French and so call our bluff. He spoke French. I studies aeronautics in Paris for a year and spoke it after a fashion but nobody in their own mind who had some knowledge of the language would call me a Frenchman.
We were cautioned to live up to our new, that is Polish, identity as much as possible. Already on the train we kept to ourselves and answered any questions with a monosyllable or pretended we were asleep. Though Polish language is similar to Czech, both belonging to the Slavic famiIy of languages, there is as much difference between the two as for example between English and Dutch. In Barc only the Camp Commander knew who we were, we were registered by the Hungarian administrative officer of the camp as Poles and billeted with a very nice Hungarian family. How many people we fooled we shall never know. With the locals we communicated in broken German. Our hosts took very good care of us. On Sunday we had to accompany them to the church, sing Polish hymns and the Polish national anthem. Fortunately the Polish attendance was so enthusiastic about singing outloud, that whatever came out of our mouths was drawned in the chorus. Mírek went to a dance one night; I was already asleep when he came back and I have already forgotten what he told me the next day about his survival on the floor as a Pole.
There were regular departures from Barc across the river to Yugoslavia. The departures were very secret, though anybody with any intelligence must have noticed that the number of refugees still living in the town didn’t exactly correspond to the total number of arrivals. We never found out how it was explained to the authorities with whom we registered on arrival. We were not even allowed to tell our hosts when time to move on came, though they themselves hinted once that we probably won’t be staying with them long. One day the three of us were told to have our bags ready and to appear at a certain place for departure at a given hour.
We walked towards the river and along the river for about 2 km, along a path between the river and some woods. We were told to keep a single file so as not to leave any sign that many people were using that lane. They were serious about this. When I tried after a while to nudge next to Mírek and to talk to him a guard who was walking behind me threw me forcibly back in line. He cursed me also, though in subdued voice to avoid being heard by the wrong ear.
The river was frozen over and we expected to walk over the ice to the other side – Yugoslavia – after we were gone far enough from the town. To our great surprise we halted at a place where the fast running water prevented ice from forming. Two large boats with two men at oars in each were waiting at our side of the river. Without giving us any time for discussion of the safety or hazards of this way of transportation we were ushered in the boats and were moving. Since then, it slipped my mind how many people were escaping that night or how many were of us in each boat. I do remember though vividly the sight and the noise of the water hitting the boat as we were crabbing across. We were not surprised when we heard much later that on one occasion a boat was swamped and all occupants were swept under the ice.
On the other side we three said goodbye to our Polish friends who waited for the rest of the party to be brought over before they departed towards Zagreb. What means of transport that had from there, from one of the sea ports of Yugoslavia – I doubt that they went across Italy to France – we didn’t know. We started towards Belgrad.
It was a long walk through snow again, guided by the Orion, towards Terezino Polje. The name of the place I have not actualy known at the time. A map at which I am looking at now tells me that that was the village where we arrived towards midnight, hungry, exhausted and wet. Dogs were barking as we approached the little community. We stoped at the first house and banged on the gate. It took some time before someone came out to ask what the matter was. The Croation language spoken in the region is also a Slavic language, closer to Czech than Polish is and somehow the man understood that we needed a roof above our heads and he took us in. It looked like several families sleeping in one large room together, men, women and children. They vacated one large bed for us where we all piled up without undressing. One reason for not changing into our pajamas was our timidity to show ourselves in our birthsuits as they were all starring at us, the second, more practical was to keen warmer as we huddled together under one large feather cushion cover. Those covers were in use in most of continental Europe those days. It was a fretful night.
In the morning a neighbour arrived to tell us in halting German that our hosts would love to invite us to breakfast but that they have hardly anything themselves to eat. Another neighbour will be glad to give us food. It took a while before it dawned on us what he wanted to tell us. After we had something to eat we inquired how to find our way to the catholic priest. We gathered that he would speak German and advise us on our next step to take to reach Belgrad. On the way to his place we met a policeman who, no doubt, was informed of our presence and began asking questions. His questioning resulted in us being escorted about 10 km to the county seat Virovitica. A big young man armed by a heavy stick was the escort. He, like the others in that village, wondered why we ran away from Czechoslovakia rather than fighting Germans. We should die fighting rather than running away like cowards.
Ours was the Virovitica chief of police first case, because he was at loss as to what to do with us. For a while he was pacing the big room ornate with heavy red window curtains and then he called the Governor of the Province in Zagreb. He was instructed to ask us whether we were Communists. We were not so he let us go. Our escort took us to a restaurant whose owner was a Czech. This one was rather nervous when confronted by three compatriots on the wrong side of the law. He gave us a free meal and advised how to get to the railway station. Life seemed beautiful once again.
Up to this point my memory, considering that I am describing what had happened more that 45 years ago, was serving me fairly well. Once relaxed, impressions lost intensity. I don’t recall how we came in touch with the Czech community in Belgrad or where we were staying there. It seems that several hundred Czech and Slovak refugees were gathered in that big city and eventually we all left on a special train – or was it just one or two special wagons attached to a regular train. Across the Southern part of Yugoslavia to Saloniki in Greece then over to Turkey. I don’t remember crossing the Bosporus. Perhaps we did so in the night. We visited Constantinople where we must have stayed for longer than one day because we did much sightseeing. Then to Syria through deep canyons where the train was going faster than we thought was safe. We were to visit this place again in particular, when the war was over. We saw Balbeck and finally made it down the hill to Beirut.
Of that city I recall only that we stayed in a place called Pension Paradise and swimming in the Mediterranean, in a beautiful cove. Mírek bought himself a camera. We were shown a tall appartment house which one of two brothers had inherited from their father. It used to have a beautiful view of the city and of the sea behind it. His twin brother inherited an empty plot of land adjacent to the house. The two brothers, as it sometime happens, were quarelling. The one with the empty plot built his own house, a little higher, with a windowless wall only one metre away from his brother’s house wall, so cutting out the beautiful view his brother and his family had until now. Strange that I should remember a story of this kind. I also recall a visit to the French Army barracks where we signed up for the French. Probably for the Foreign Legion. We eventually left for Marseille on a French ship, the ‘Champollion’. During the trip for a day or two the sea was rough. The waves were so high that occasionaly the ship’s propeller would come out of the water and the engines would then run at high speed until the stern would sink in the water again. Because of the danger of running into an Italian submarine, blackout was rigorous. Portholes had to be either shut or the light in the cabin had to be off. That arrangement didn’t suit some of our men from whose cabins the light was shining across the Mediterranean. It didn’t take long the guard on duty to spot such disrespect of the order. He complained to the captain, who had to get out of his bed and had the commanding officer of our transport out of his bed who in turn had me out of my bed to be the interpreter. We were all furious, the captain the most. He threatened to put anvbody who commits same offence again in irons.
In Marseille we were marched to Fort Saint-Jean, the headquarters of the Foreign Legion. As we were passing through the gate we could read above our heads the famous quotation from Dante’s Inferno “Abandon all hope those who enter here”. Somehow we couldn’t care less. This was the 16th of Februarv. We were on the road for 6 weeks from Prague to Marseille, glad that the war was not over yet and that now that we were here we’ll see to it that the end won’t be far away.
During those 6 weeks, though we were together 24 hours a day, we got on very well, no disagreements or quarrels. Mírek in particular was a good fellow traveller. Our health was pretty good inspite of the tribulations. One of us, I forget which one, had a bad cough in Budapest. I had blisters on my heels due to a fairly new pair of shoes I put on prior to our departure from Prague.
After one night here, we all took a train along the coast of the Mediterranean to a big camp of the newly formed Czechoslovak Army and Air Force in exile. Spanish leftist, who lost their civil war a year ago were housed here after they escaped from Spain. By the time we arrived they were all gone.
Once in Agde we were separated. Tonda and I found ourselves with the Air Force section, Mírek with the Army. Both Mírek and Tonda lived in the camp, while I was billeted with an old couple in what looked like a museum. It was actually advertised as such. We liked Agde, the former stronghold of pirates and buccaneers. It’s inhabitants hated to be reminded of “Agde, ville noire, habitee par des brigands” (Agde, black city, inhabited by robbers]. My hostess, Madame Janin, has forbidden me to repeat in her house this description of the city’s dark past which I picked up during a visit to a nearby Béziers.
The Air Force was soon moved to an airport near Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast. Very convenient to make the next step when France capitulated on 17th June same year. I knew some English and I arranged a flight to England of 25 of us in an RAF twin engine transport plane with fixed undercarriage. Recently I found among my papers a list of those who partook in that trip:
|npor. Bubílek||por. Leskauer|
|rtm. Burda||npor. Navrátil|
|por. Doubrava||npor. Ondrůj|
|por. Eichler||ppor. Ing Polívka|
|por. Horák||škpt. Secký
|čet. Janšta||por. Šimon|
|ppor. Jarošek||asp. Stark|
|por. Kilián||por. Študent|
|rtm. Kochan||ppor. Štusák|
|por. Kubíček||škpt. Rypl|
|por. Landa||por. Truhlář|
|por. Langer||ppl. Dr.Unger|
The list contains information on the persons addresses in Marseille and an account of personal belongings left behind. Many of the names have black crosses attached to them.
It was dark when we left. During the flight I began to improve my skant knowledge of English in talking with the members of the crew. There was one word which puzzled me no end. It was EMERGENCY painted in red on part of the cabin. It was much later that I grasped its meaning.
We landed at Hendon late after midnight. Hot English tea was waiting for us and never tasted better. The question of security was brought up and it was necessary to go through an official mill to ascertain that none of us 25 were a 5th columnist. They called Col. Kalla, who was the Czechoslovak Air Attache to Great Britain and let me talk to him. I knew him well from Prague and at 3 a.m. he vouched over the phone that I could be trusted. He arrived the next morning and betwen the two of us we cleared all but one of any suspicion. I knew most of the flyers from Prostějov, where I served in the school for cadets and from No. 2 Air Squadron at Kbely to which I was attached for a while after I graduated from Prostějov.
The one who spent the war on the Isle of Man together with other undesirables was a former member of Prague Gestapo. He didn’t make any secret of that activity, claiming that he joined so that he could inform the underground of what the Gestapo was planning and so warn those who were in danger. When he realised that his own status was to be questioned by Gestapo he left like the rest of us. The British didn’t wish to take any chances, and we never saw him again.
The same day, 18th June, 1940, Dr. Beneš, the former president of Czechoslovakia and now the head of the Government of Czechoslovakia in exile wrote a letter to Sir Archibald Sinclair, the British Secretary of State for Air, asking for help to evacuate from France the Czechoslovak Forces, especially all the aviators. In his letter he mentions the flight I had arranged from Bordeaux to Hendon as an example of an effort already made in the right direction. It looked like it might not be easy to run again should the Nazis come to England, so we settled down and stayed a while.
Jaroslav Polívka initially served as Intelligence Officer with 310 Czechoslovak Fighter Squadron and later as a pilot in 311 Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron. He died in the USA.
Jaromír [Mírek] Francu flew with the No. 311 Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron as a navigator. He died in London in August 1974.