A number of years ago, I came across a box of letters sent to my great-grandmother (and a few to my great-grandfather) from family in Czechoslovakia. The letters date from the 1920s through the 1950s, with many covering the WWII era. There are over 250 letters in the collection, and I only have transcriptions of two. I can only imagine what I will learn if I ever find someone to transcribe the others.
This letter I find especially poignant; it is written by a woman named Lidka who lived in the little town of Sušice in the southwest part of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) known as Šumava. It describes the end of World War II, German surrender, and the town’s reaction.
This letter is rather long, so I have divided it into two parts. It was originally transcribed in 2008 by a Czech friend of mine, Josef, and I have left most of the phrasing as he wrote it, even if there are some grammatical errors.
We’ve received your letter three weeks ago. The American soldier delivered it to us. We are glad that you are all alive and healthy. The soldier sent us a message last week, from Krumlov– it says your Jirik is going home to America. I think he’s going to be there sooner than this letter.
Now I have to write you something about the arrival of American soldiers. We heard the shooting in the last weeks of April, day and night. The Americans were fighting in Sumava’s woods and they were using heavy artillery. That noise was frightening us; all the windows and doors were shaking. Germans were running away from Czechoslovakia through Susice. They wanted to be captured by Americans rather than Russians. In my opinion, Americans are too nice to them. On May 5th at noon, we were listening to broadcasting from Prague; they were calling for help, they were trying to get people to revolt. At 2 in the afternoon you could see a bunch of people at the Susice square. They established a committee. The committee was negotiating with Germans. They wanted them to surrender. The Germans didn’t want to at first. But when they found out that all phone lines were cut and they couldn’t call for help, they surrendered. Right after that, the local broadcaster announced that we were finally free. However, after all these years of terror, humiliation, and fear, nobody could believe it’s over. It was not a happy take-over like in 1918 (you can remember that one, you were still in Czechoslovakia.). There was a lot of pain in every family after 6 years of war now. Everybody was crying instead of celebrating, they were thinking of people who were not that fortune and died in the war. At the beginning, it was chaos. Germans were locked up in their apartments, people were putting away German signs. The American army was 20 km away from Susice. The committee sent a messenger to them asking for protection. There were many SS men in the city. They were armed with guns and grenades. We were afraid that they would start to shoot people and destroy the city. We had to wait for Americans until one o’clock p.m. the next day. It was Sunday. When the first American tanks started to drive into the city, it sounded like a big Sumava thunderstorm. People were standing everywhere, they were waiving flags, yelling vivat, throwing flowers. It looked like a huge Sokolsky slet. However, the soldiers were too calm, almost cold to all that. They smiled a little, raised two fingers and continued to ride. We could not understand how come they were so calm when we gave them such a warm welcome. They were driving through the city from 1p.m. until 10 p.m. It was such a big noise, everything was shaking and we couldn’t yell anymore. Our throats were sore. Soldiers were throwing chocolate, chewing gum and cigarettes. It was like a fairy tail to us. When the German trucks with soldiers were going through the city before, we were hiding, cussing and cursing at them, this was different, totally opposite. We were yelling; “go to Prague, they need your help.” It was very nice to see a soldier who called somewhere, and told us they are going to be there at 10. But they weren’t. They couldn’t. They could come to Beroun only and they had to stop there. It was said that only the Red Army could liberate Prague. We are so happy the Russians didn’t come to Susice. Because of this order, Prague was bleeding on barricades until Wednesday May 9. Then the Russians came. A lot of blood and lives could’ve been saved if they let the American soldiers help the people of Prague. They were very close but they couldn’t do anything. It still hurts. It upsets us.
In the evening of the May 5, soldiers came to our house; they were looking for shelter for two American soldiers. We gave them our daughter’s room. They set up an office downstairs. At 10 in the evening, there were 14 soldiers instead of 2. We didn’t mind at all, we would be happy to see 50 of them for what they did for us. They saved our homes from Germans. The Americans are very social people, the problem was, we didn’t understand each other. We were trying to find a way to communicate, we were using our hands a lot, drawings, and stuff like that. It’s much better now, our English or our communication skills improved a lot, especially the young ones, they are learning very fast.
The next day three American and three Czech priests said a mass. The soldiers are very religious. They go to church every Sunday. General Patton paid us a visit on Wednesday. There was an army parade at the square. Everybody was in kroj (traditional folk costumes). The Americans were very enthusiastic to see us in kroj. We were smiling and they were taking one picture after another. Our girls gave away some presents to Americans COs, vases, and matches which we make here. They were shooting a movie here, maybe you’ll see it in America. We took some pictures too, but we can’t develop them yet; we don’t have “paper for snapshots” right now. Many Americans promised us that they would send us colored pictures when they get back home. I hope they do. Every night, when everybody was back at our house from their “work,” we listened to the radio or somebody brought a gramophone so we could listen to music; we ate canned food, drank coffee, ate crackers, and lots of other delicious things. During the war, we couldn’t even dream about things like this. This is like a fairy tail. The last day, the day of their departure from our home, we killed our last rabbit, we made boiled dumplings, (there was one soldier who had Czech parents, but he couldn’t speak Czech at all, and asked us if we are going to have ZELI (a cabbage dish)– that was the only word he knew). We made a dinner for everybody in the house. We got rid of every single door in the house–we didn’t want them to be in our way because we were dancing and dancing everywhere. We cried when they left the next morning. We wanted them to stay for a little while, they couldn’t though. Then we got new tenants, three COs. They were different. They didn’t have our sympathy. Unlisted soldiers are much better to deal with. They are not stuck up. Right now, we don’t have anybody in our home. They live in hotels and schools now. One thousand soldiers are coming next week. We’ll see, maybe we’ll get new roommates. Our daughters are enjoying soldiers’ company the most. They play volleyball with them. Funny story, there was this soldier and he was always talking about “papkorn” or something. When he came next day, he brought a little bag of corn. We couldn’t get it at all. We told him that we soak it in the water and feed it to chickens. However, he was like, no no no, I’ll show you in the dictionary. And he showed us the word “pop”. (Note: they were confused because in Czech the word refers to sounds like shooting a gun or fireworks, so the word didn’t make any sense to them in that context). He still wanted to show us, so we gave him a frying pan, then he showed us in the dictionary what else he needed, and that made us laugh. He wanted lard. The problem was, we were getting just small portions of it, like a tablespoon a month for a person. So, we were laughing and he didn’t know why. Nevertheless, we gave him a little piece. He mixed it up with corn and he started to fry it. In a few minutes, it started to pop up under the lid, exactly as the dictionary says. He got a bucket and he was catching the blooming corn into it. Wow, he was a magician. He could turn a few corns into a whole bucket of…, oh well, “papkorn”. He salted it. It was delicious. That’s just one of many funny stories. They are very kind and nice people. They don’t bother anybody, they are not rude to our girls, they don’t try anything “cute,” if you know what I mean. One can see the intelligence and the western culture in their behavior.
To be continued