When Hana Marritz’s father became a marked man following the Communist takeover, her family had to make an arduous escape across the Iron Curtain.
Sociologist Otakar Machotka was decorated as one of the leaders of the Prague Uprising. However, as a senior member of Edvard Beneš’s post-war government he became a marked man soon after the Communists took power in 1948, and he and his family were forced to make a terrifying escape from Czechoslovakia.
Last week I heard all about that hazardous journey from Otakar Machotka’s daughter Hana Marritz, who was just three years old in April 1948. She and her family were on a visit from the US when we spoke in Prague.
Given that Hana’s parents were born around the turn of the 20th century, I was first curious to learn what they had told her about some of the fascinating history they had lived through, including the first world war.
“They didn’t really talk about it. It was just part of the background – the whole thing with Austro-Hungary and the changes and the different democratic periods… all of that was very, very hard for them.
“I admire that they went through all this and I wonder how it was possible for them to go through it all.
“It was so much suffering for one lifetime.”
Many people speak about the First Republic, the 20-year period after Czechoslovakia was founded, as a particularly successful period for the country, at least for some sections of society. How did your parents speak about that period?
“Well, it was a long time ago [laughs]… But when I came here in 1980, I expected to find some remnant of that world, and I didn’t. There was nothing.
“It was a time of grace, when people spoke kindly to one another.
“I remember my father said that he had worked at the Statistics Office and a man would come every week with cash to pay people their salaries – and there was never any problem about walking around with cash to pay people.
“A student came to my father and told him that he was on a list of people to be arrested and executed. He left immediately.”
“It was a very gentle time, when people thought that life was going to be very good.
“They thought they had actually reached a pinnacle of some sort of social contract, shall we say.
“So they spoke about in terms of a very golden kind of a period.”
Your father was a sociologist. Did he have any specialisation? I understood he founded the first marriage counselling service in Czechoslovakia.
“I don’t know about that, but I know that he did marriage counselling in America. Family was his specialty, yes.”
Tell us about your father, Otakar Machotka, and World War II. What did he do in the war?
“He was a freedom fighter and he resisted the Nazis. He writes about it in his memoirs.
“There was an uprising and they fought against the Nazis. I heard stories, but you know they didn’t really talk about it all that much.”
When did your father become involved in politics?
“As far as I know, it was after the war. But I don’t really know. He didn’t talk to me about that.
“He became part of the transitional government. He became the vice-president of whatever the transitional government was called.”
When the Communists came to power, your family were among those people who immediately found themselves in danger. Could you please describe your family’s escape from Czechoslovakia?
“A student came to my father and told him that he was on a list of people to be arrested and executed. And my father left immediately.
“We don’t quite know how he got out, because he never talked about it. My mother thought he took a plane.
“But I don’t think that they every spoke about it, which is pretty amazing.
“He left my mother with three children.
“She dyed our clothing black that day, and we set off for a so-called hike in the country. We packed rucksacks and left. It might have been the same day, I don’t know.
“We travelled around for two weeks by train. Slept in hotel lobbies.
“All the while, she was in contact with the party [Beneš’s Czech National Social Party]. They were trying to find her a way out.
“She made three attempts. The first two failed. One was because it snowed, and we couldn’t leave tracks.
“The second had to do with the person who would have been taking us across – she got a warning that this person turned people in.
“And then on the third try it worked.
“All the borders had been closed, except this one mountain in Šumava, which is called Ostrý. It’s the highest mountain there.
“No-one would take her with three children so she found another group that would take my brother. My brother was 11.
“He went with total strangers. He must have been terrified to do that, but he did it.”
“My brother went with total strangers. He must have been terrified to do that, but he did it.”
How old were you and your other sibling?
“I was three and a half. And my sister must have been eight or nine.”
Do you have memories of the escape?
“No. Zero. I knew nothing about it until I heard about it later, when I was 10 or 11.
“I have no memory at all. But it obviously had a very profound effect on me.
“But let me tell you about the escape.
“It was a group of people and a man who knew the countryside very well. There were quite a few smugglers’ paths and this person knew the paths very well.
“It was at night. It was a group of people, less than 12, I would say.
“My mother couldn’t carry me, so this student carried me. I met him years later.
“It was cold. It was April. There was still some snow on the ground and I know that at one time when my mother sat down it was so dark she sat in a stream.
“Dogs were barking. There were guards. But they were able to make it up the mountain. It took most of the night.
“And then when they got up to the top, they didn’t know where the border was. There no markings, so that was a little bit hairy.
“Then finally a farmer saw them and waved them on to the German side.
“My brother had found him already, because people connected them. So both of them were at this place. It was called Alaska House. It was an old mansion.
“We hadn’t eaten anything for those three days. My mother had slept in churches, or I don’t know what.
“A student then told her where my father was.
“It was a weekend. There was a fence around the place and she couldn’t get in, because the guard had orders not to let anyone in until they had been screened.
“But he saw that we were a family. They passed us chocolates through the fence and stuff like that. And the guard let us in.”
You say that this escape greatly affected you. How did it impact you?
“What happens in childhood is the foundation of how we are in the world.
“I would say one of the profound effects that I feel all the time is that I forget everything. There’s this sense of forgetting.”
Is it the case also that years later you retraced that journey through Šumava to Germany?
“We did, yes. My son and my cousin’s daughter and myself. We came back about five years ago and we retraced that journey.
“It was really wonderful to do it, to see how difficult it was and just to be there – to complete the circle.
“It was quite amazing. It was very beautiful. It was summertime and there were flowers everywhere.
“Now it’s a recreation centre and people are riding their bikes, and skateboards. Everybody’s having a good time.
“So the feeling for me is: We don’t know what’s gone on anywhere, and the whole world is full of places where dramas have played out for people.
“We came back about five years ago and we retraced that journey.”
“It’s profound, this feeling of, This is such a beautiful, calm, lively place, and yet people can turn from being human beings to being something other, so easily.”
Tell us about your family’s move to the States. I was reading that your dad, and perhaps your mum too, had already been there in the 1930s. But still it must have been a big adjustment. They were I guess in their late 40s when they moved to the US?
“Yes, they were in their late 40s. I think it was a terrible adjustment.
“They had been there in the early ‘30s, before the war.
“My father had a lot of connections in sociology. He met with Margaret Mead and some other big sociologists, so he had connections already.
“They travelled all around. They saw the West, which for them was a big deal; the West is much admired here.
“So my father had a job almost immediately. We only spent a few months in France and then we went there.
“He worked at the University of Chicago first, and then at Cornell, and then finally this new University of the State of New York opened up in Binghampton and he took that job.
“It was a good job at the time – five thousand dollars [laughs]. It was a big deal.
“But yes, their adjustment was very difficult. One thing was that there was a lot of suspicion, post-war.
“People didn’t want to rent us a house. My father finally said, What am I to do? I have children.
“So finally we were able to rent. It was difficult. And they never really adjusted.
“They had excellent English skills, but it was a huge culture shock for them.”
“Who knows? Probably, yes. There was a lot of post-war hysteria.”
Growing up in the States, how alive to you was your Czechoslovak background?
“It was very alive. At that time there were still groups of Czechs and Slovaks who got together.
“There used to be this thing called a slet, which is where they get together and do gymnastics and stuff like that and then there was a big cookout, with their wonderful sausages and cabbage.
“So we would do that every year. We would go to those and my father would often speak.
“And little by little those things just went away. People moved on and those groups disbanded, unfortunately.
“But I had a very close sense of culture because my parents kept it up. They spoke Czech at home and they were very attached and close to it.
“You know, they couldn’t communicate with their families, so for them it was a way of keeping it all alive.
“Now I speak Czech because we spoke Czech at home, and it’s very advantageous [laughs].
“Language is so important for keeping culture going.”
Jumping forward many years past your childhood and youth, I understand your fathers ashes were interred at the Vyšehrad cemetery, here in Prague?
“Right, yes. My brother arranged that.
“He lives in Italy but he comes here frequently and has many, many connections.
“He arranged for my father’s ashes to be brought back. And for my mother’s.
“We just visited the grave site and, you know, it’s a great honour to have them here. They never returned.
“My mother could have but she was not real well at the time. And I think emotionally she would not have been able to handle that.”
And how do you feel being here today?
“I feel… it’s home to me. And to my family – they all feel very much at home here.
“I feel like I’ve completed the circle. We just love it here.”