Hanka (Neugebauer), Eva

Hanka (Neugebauer), Eva

Prague, Žďár nad Sázavou, Pardubice, Czechoslovakia; Valka Lager Displaced Persons Camp in Nürnberg, Germany; Frankfurt, Germany

Eva Frances Neugebauer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia on May 20, 1925 to Richard Neugebauer and Antonia Fryček Neugebauer. She had a younger brother, Nicolas, and sister, Hannah… Both of her grandfathers died before she was born; but her grandmothers lived close by; one lived in Pardubice, Czechoslovakia and the other one was living close to Prague.

“My father was an army officer right after World War I and he stayed in the army for quite a while. In fact, I was born in an army hospital…. The First Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938) was surrounded by a lot of turmoil. So, he was called to action twice – when the Habsburgs were trying to set themselves up in Hungary again and when the Hungarians invaded Czechoslovakia and tried to set up a Soviet Republic there…. Even after my father was done with the army, he still was called to action when Poland and Russia were at war and trespassing on our borders.”

Eva’s parents wanted to be out in the country so the family moved to Žďár nad Sázavou in the Czech-Moravian Highlands, where they bought a sawmill and lumberyard. “Their business was quite prosperous so we had quite a good life. And actually, the whole extended family came to see us quite often because we had a lot of room in our buildings and so we saw quite a bit of them.

“In 1928, our first President, Thomas Masaryk, came to Žďár for a visit. A big welcome was planned and my mother and I were going to go downtown to greet the President. My grandmother dressed me up in a fancy peasant outfit and I really looked quite cute. When we got downtown, the principal of the elementary school sent me up to the podium to give the President a bouquet of flowers. Not a big one. Just about my size. So, I went up to the podium. I heard that it was quite a job for me to climb up. I don’t remember that; but I do remember being in his arms. He asked me what my name is and where is your mother? I was trying to show him my mother and I couldn’t find her in the crowd. But it was quite pleasant and he was quite nice to me.

“A picture was taken and that picture got famous. It was popular right away. It could be seen in all the magazines and even books. My father bought the newly issued History of Moravia, and, on the title page, is the President with me in his arms. So, I was kind of used to seeing the picture everywhere. Then in the year 1938 the picture was on a postage stamp and then again in the year 2000 for the international year of the child.” Eva still gets fan mails from people wanting her to sign the stamps whenever she visits the Czech Republic and even in Chicago where there is a school called Thomas Masaryk School.

“Life during the First Republic was really good. It was organized and the economy was improving fast after the war. We were hit somewhat by the economic crisis of the 1930’s, but much less than our neighbors… People were happy and quite optimistic about the future…. until Hitler threw a bump into it.

“We basically had three cultures in what is Czech Republic now and was then Bohemia and Moravia – Czech, German, and Jewish – and it has been like that for a long time, at least 1000 years and probably more. Slovakia joined us in the year 1918 but Bohemia and Moravia have been together forever. Germans have been there and Jews were there too for a long time. There was a great deal of cooperation among all of them. And it all worked until the Wehrmacht stepped over the borders.

“The whole town of Žďár was Catholic and so we went to the Catholic church some but the family wasn’t very religious. My father was actually from a Moravian family and grew up in a Moravian church. Neither one of my parents went to church; my sister and I did…. There were quite a few Jewish people in Žďár and we knew them. As far as I know there was not a synagogue in Žďár.

“My parents were members of Sokol, which was pretty much seen as a sports organization, but actually the basis of it is philosophical and it was humanistic. They had a lot of events and my parents were active always in it and I was too as I was growing up…. I went to elementary school in Žďár. And I have good memories of that. It was in a fairly old building but it was quite cozy there and I had a good teacher….

“Žďár is not a big town and it does have a nice gymnasium now but at that time they still didn’t have one. So, in 1937, when I was 12, I lived in Pardubice with my grandmother, Frances Neugebauer. I believe she was the one that insisted that I should get on with education. She just pushed it…. After one year there, we started having these troubles with the German minority. We had some German cousins and there was no trouble with Germans before that I remember….

“In 1938, there were some disturbances but they were obviously stirred up from outside, from Germany. And then Lord Runciman the envoy of the British government came to see what goes on. He made a tour through the country and just tried to assess the situation and report to his government. I heard about that visit later on in Chicago and was told that ‘Lord Runciman. knew what the situation is and we are going to have to fight Hitler but we are not ready. If England goes to war now, she is going to lose it.’ So, I guess they decided to appease him somehow and that’s what happened with the Munich Treaty in Fall, 1938, where our allies decided to give up. It was awfully painful for us and we were mad because the nation was ready to defend their country and defend the freedom of the Republic. So, it was just awful. Hitler was allowed to occupy the country right the next day, “Sudetenland,” in quotation marks, a name that was invented by Hitler. There is a complex of small ranges of mountains in western Bohemia. And it was called Sudetes since time immemorial. Now all of a sudden in ’38 it was Sudetenland and it got a political meaning. It was no longer mountains. It was the places where the German minority lived.

“I was not in Sudetenland after they took it. We were in the heartland of the country. But since things were different, the Germans took over all the institutions and they drove a lot of Czechs out. And these people from the Sudetenland came into the heartland of the country where we already had a lot of refugees…. Germany had other Nazi cities since ‘33 and eventually all of our neighbors had very authoritarian regimes. So, we had a lot of refugees from our neighbors because our Republic was democratic and generous, accepting them. Also, refugees came from Russia since 1917 or 1918, as well as refugees from Spain after the civil war…. But somehow, they were absorbed into the population and got jobs and just stayed there…. They were accepted. Except they knew and we knew that running to Czechoslovakia from let’s say Germany, you didn’t get very far from Hitler. So, they were expected to maybe got occupied and were trying their best to go overseas. However, overseas countries weren’t really accepting people because this was an economic crisis and they just didn’t have jobs for them….

“In addition, the borders were quite jagged and, in some places, Germany interrupted everything. They didn’t let any communication happen across the border. And so, the branch of my parent’s business in Moravia, which was not occupied, was in one of those corners that just had no communication, so my father somehow got there in his car in order to find out what happened to his employees. Eventually some communications were established but it was still difficult.”

At the time, Eva’s parents did not think of leaving. “We were pretty established in Žďár.” They helped refugees, including “hosting a refugee from Russia who escaped from a gulag. The gulag was on an island and he rescued himself by swimming across some straits. My parents accepted him and he stayed with us and worked for my father for a while. Then for some reason he went to Poland. He still wrote letters to us but then he disappeared.”

Eva was told what was happening at school. “They tried to make us work democratically. We were told that it is an ideal and we are working on it. We are not there and maybe we will never be because ideals are like that. And we should not be disturbed when we are not perfect. But we should try. Before the war, the school was quite comfortable and open and we were allowed to leave during intermission and go to the park or have ice cream. That got different under the Nazis….

After the Germans came, “As soon as the students got in, the doors were closed. There were guards at the door. And the movements of all persons inside the school building had to be recorded and the records were kept of all the movements. You had to stay there until school was out and then we went home. So, you could feel these changes quite fast.

“There were a lot of soldiers. Wehrmacht. They were seen everywhere. The German soldiers were not very much confined to the barracks. They were all over. So, they were seen. But we didn’t have much trouble with the soldiers. Still, their presence meant that the Gestapo could do their work. They were after a lot of people. Of course, the Jewish community. But also, they arrested a lot of people who were for them potential troublemakers. At first, they were just arresting them and then they took some people as just hostages. If something happens, we are going to shoot them. If there is some sort of a disturbance. That was the message…. Also, people who were really rich; they could be arrested for that and have their property confiscated. My father’s sawmill was never in danger. I guess we were not that important. But having a house searched or something, I guess they did, yes.

“It was a war. It’s true that we didn’t suffer as much bombing from the air as our neighbors. It was not until the end of the war that there was more bombing and warzones. But at the beginning there wasn’t a whole lot of it. But of course, the tensions were there….

“A lot of people were involved in the underground, especially my teenage cousins. In my opinion, sometimes they did things that didn’t make much sense but still that was the spirit there… resistance, resistance.

“We got information by listening to BBC. It was forbidden. And in order to listen to BBC you needed to have special attachment into your radio because it was just too far for regular radio. So, they went to the trouble to visit every household and took that attachment out of every radio so that people couldn’t listen to BBC. Of course, people made those attachments. It looked very simple – something like a spool of wire. People called it Churchill. Put Churchill into my radio and listen to BBC. If you were downtown at the time when BBC was on, the streets were empty. Everybody was at home listening.

“Sir Nicholas Winton rescued some of the children of the Jewish refugees and local Jews by sending them to England and placing them in families as foster children. I knew quite a few of them; they went to the same school and some of them even wrote back from England. But by the time the war started, they couldn’t go anymore and there couldn’t be any correspondence either and we never heard from them later on.

“Of course, we had shortages of food. We were not actually starving but there was a lot of shortage of everything. The stores were bare…. We experienced quite a few waves of terror too. In 1939, the university students demonstrated against the occupation. Of course, demonstrations were quite legal during the Republic, but the Nazis made it quite clear that this was not going to be tolerated. So, what happened, they just moved against the students. One of the students was shot and died a few days later. There were more demonstrations during his funeral. After that there was a crackdown…. My future husband, Ladislav Hanka, was in college in those days and he remembered how Gestapo came to all the dorms and just broke the door and beat the students up and dragged them away and gathered them all at the airport. There were a lot of them and then they let some of them go. Those who were the youngest. If they were under 20, they didn’t take them to concentration camps. They let them go. But there were rather few and he was one of them. Most them were over 20 and they stayed in the concentration camps for quite a while….

“As a punishment for this, they closed the university initially for three years. When Reinhard Heydrich came, he announced they are closed forever…. High school level career schools with industrial, economist, and business courses were closed too. And finally, the third of the class with the lowest grades in secondary school just had to drop out every year. So, they had fewer and fewer students. They just didn’t think that the Czechs should get education…. The only education that was beyond elementary was pretty much apprenticeship. And this is where I was working after I graduated from gymnasium in 1944 – in the youth-counselling department of Labor Office. We talked to students who were finishing school and helped them get apprenticeships.

“Our people did not go to the military at all. They were not serving in the German army and our police were not working for Gestapo…. They just got a job. And there were somehow plenty of jobs open…. My sister was quite a bit younger and was still in elementary. But my brother was still far from graduation and was drafted into Technische Nothilfe. It was not military even though they wore uniforms; they were cleaning up after air raids.

“At the end of the war, I was in Žďár with my parents and my family. We were watching all the armies approaching and were kind of hoping that we would be liberated by Americans. There was a detachment of SS in our town and they were quite belligerent. They decided they are not going to give up, no matter what. And they did not. So, they actually stirred up a lot of trouble. At the end, there was a lot of shooting between them and locals and even Wehrmacht shooting against each other. And Russian bombs into it. And so, it lasted about two days, this whole war zone. But then all of a sudden, Russian tanks appeared in the streets and that was it. There was a mess that was left. The city was bombed out. It was quite gutted and a lot of destruction.”

After the war, it was the Germans turn to be driven out of the Sudetenland, just as the Germans had driven most of the Czechs out of the Sudetenland in 1938. Eva offers her opinion that “To move a minority out, of course nowadays, it is widely disapproved of and this ethnic cleansing is bad, but this one was approved by the Potsdam Conference. And Germans were moved out into Germany and the Czechs went back to their former places where they lived before, so-called Sudetenland. Of course, I believe that not all Germans were moved out, a lot of them came up after the war. But still, I didn’t like this when it was happening and a lot of other people didn’t either. But it was felt that if it had not been for the minority problems in Czechoslovakia and Poland, there would have been no war. I don’t buy this. I think it’s a nuisance. There was a war because Hitler played war. And these minority problems that were in 1938 in Czechoslovakia and a year later in Poland, they were stirred up by the Nazis. So, this ethnic cleansing did happen.”

The Russians stayed until 1989. “So, that was a new occupation…. This is when my parents started working on a possible emigration to Australia. But it went quite slowly. It was impossible to get this or that document. There was a great deal of resistance on the part of Czech authorities. They just didn’t like any idea of people immigrating. So, it didn’t work out. My parents stayed there and my brother and my sister too…. Just my husband and I eventually left.”

The summer of 1945, Eva worked as a secretary for Nazi occupation authorities in the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” a job in the Pardubice Labor Office that kept her employed and safe from deportation largely due to her speaking good German. She then went to Prague and studied at the Institute of Modern Languages, formerly Victoria College, a British owned private school…. After the war, Prague all of sudden got just beautiful, full of light. After the darkness of the sixth year, everything had to be darkened and all of a sudden everything was light. They even had all kinds of beam lights on the important interesting buildings to bathe them in light….

In 1947, She met her husband, Ladislav Hanka, who was studying agricultural engineering. “Actually, we met before but did not see each other for quite a few years. But then all of a sudden, we met in Prague and started talking to each other about what happened to us in between. We got better acquainted and we were married in 1948.

“It was painful to leave, but the future just didn’t look so good…. My husband was really quite worried about it. He actually studied in Denmark for a semester or so before he graduated and he met a lot of people there who kind of influenced him, telling him that you shouldn’t stay there because the Russians are not going to leave and so on. And so, he expected the worst…. Of course, my parents did too. They did an awful lot of reading about what was happening in Soviet Union. Even my grandmother was so educated about it. And so, they didn’t expect anything better. They are just going to cope with another occupation and it might be long and it was.

“You could be arrested if you applied for a passport, so, in September, 1950, we just walked across the border on the wooded mountain tops. It was hard to walk because it’s wilderness and you have to get through. But the borders were guarded and so we could have been arrested even before we got to the borders, if we had been found….

“After we crossed the border, we still had to walk. But then the walking was a little bit more comfortable because on the other side it wasn’t quite such a wilderness. After walking about three hours or so, we met a border policeman in Bavaria. He took us to the station and they questioned us… recorded everything. And they let us sleep in that office. They gave us blankets…. The Germans did not tolerate sleeping in the streets. So, if they found people who had nowhere to go, they took them to these camps for displaced persons…. So, we stayed overnight at the station and the next day they sent us to an orphanage, some sisters charity place. We walked there too and stayed there for two more days or so and then they sent us by train to the Valka Lager Displaced Persons Camp in Nürnberg, Germany.

“It was dangerous to have anything on you if they found you so we just had what we had on…. At this time, we thought we would have money waiting for us. My father tried to transfer quite a lot of money for me to some business in Belgium. What happened I don’t know. But somebody was dishonest and we didn’t get it. So, we started with nothing….

“We started in the refugee camp in Nürnberg and we didn’t stay there very long. We heard from some other residents of the camp that my husband’s sister and her husband were already in Frankfurt and we wrote a letter to them and then joined them in Frankfurt where they already had a room of their own in the city. We stayed with them for a while.

“After the war, Germany was no longer the enemy… and they were trying to get a good society together and democracy. And there were of course the allied authorities and United Nations in Frankfurt and everybody could apply for legal and political protection of the United Nations and get it. We did too.

“I got a job at the IRO (International Refugee Organization), in the office. Since I was making some money, we could rent a room. It was a half-destroyed house but we could live there and it was something to start with. My husband found a job as a telephone operator about four weeks later. So, we had two incomes and it wasn’t so bad.

“My job was a good job. I was presented with a heap of all kinds of documents. And it was necessary to sort them, read them, file them, keep them in order and so on. And then when somebody asked for them in dealing with the refugees, just bring them to whatever official that needed them…. So, I was in charge of documents. And of course, I read those documents and I was shook up. I was appalled. Just what happened to millions of people….

“The refugees were getting help but I wasn’t providing it. I was just handling the documents. Somebody else was talking to them and doing things for them. But things were done…. Of course, when we came the worst was probably over. The situation was overwhelming right at the end of the war and soon after the war. But after we came, Germany was better off already. The Marshall Plan was at work and things were getting better. And a lot of the refugees were already resettled. So, the refugee population was getting thinner already. And now suddenly they could go to quite a few places. Before the war, nobody could go overseas. But after the war somehow it was quite open. The world was quite open. Canada took a lot of people and Australia did, New Zealand did, America was slower about it. You just had to either go under rigid quota which we later did; I had my passport too. And all on what they called displaced persons law that the Congress passed just after the war to help the refugee situation somewhat. But that law was so strange. We had to get acquainted with it and by it. America admitted people who could prove that they were in very certain places at the very end of the war. It seemed to be insignificant and also mysterious all those places. I hope the congress knew what they were doing because I didn’t understand it at all. But still people were admitted in the framework of that law. Quite a few boatloads went to America but then there were some other people who were still waiting for it or just didn’t fit the law. And they were hoping for another opening.

“My husband and I wouldn’t have had money to come overseas on our own. So, we had to rely on IRO. Working for them, we didn’t have to pay for the passage but we worked for them in the customs office while we waited for the boat in the Port of Bremen, and then we worked on the ship.”

In November, 1951, Eva and Ladislav came to Iowa and Ladislav started working in an agricultural establishment. “This is what we hoped to do in Czechoslovakia, but I guess it wasn’t for him. He went back to school, studied bacteriology, and got a job in the pharmaceutical industry at Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. They had a son, Ladislav (Lad) Hanka and a daughter, Janet Hanka McLemore. Janet lives in Philadelphia and has two boys. Lad lives in Kalamazoo and is an artist. The rest of her family remained in Czechoslovakia – her parents, brother, and sister. They visited quite a bit after 1989 “when it was free and we didn’t have to be worried about anything. Practically every year we made a trip for three or four weeks.”

Eva was a schoolteacher in Kalamazoo, teaching Latin, German, and the classics. She told her students quite a bit about what she knows and what she has seen. She wants children today to understand that “People can cooperate. Of course, then again, the State, the Republic, whatever you call it, has to be run according to some definitive law, the constitutional law… and the constitution has to be somehow decent and reasonable and everything. United States has a good one. And we had a good one too; everybody had respect for it. You just don’t change things like this, just at a whim. If there are supposed to be changes once in a while, then there is Congress, there is Parliament, they had better work on it… work on it diligently….

“I also told my students how I worked on the boat and worked everywhere. Now if you are willing to work you can get a lot of things. Even if you are down on your luck. You come to a foreign country, you have nothing but the clothes that you have on your back, but if you work you get yourself up again.”

Eva cautions, “Let’s be careful about fanatical movements. This is how Nazis happened. So, let’s be careful about blaming some part of the population for whatever is happening or whatever you don’t like.”

Date of Interview: May 6, 2021
Length of Interview: 97 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus

Editorial Comments: Ladislav Hanka