A Terrible Otherwise
(Part II of the Lamos story). Click here for Part I – From The Frying Pan into the Fire.
Jan Masaryk, Foreign Minister, was one of the few remaining non-Communist ministers in Czechslovakia after February 21, 1948. Born in 1886, Jan had left the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1907 for the US at the same time as Pauline’s father, Paul. Jan drifted from New York to Chicago working odd jobs in factories and mines and then headed back to Prague in 1913 in time to fight in WWI, as did Paul. Eventually Jan followed his father Thomas into politics and became the Czechoslovak ambassador to Britain, where he remained until after WWII. The Lamos family greatly admired Jan Masaryk, as did most Slovaks and Czechs; he, like his father, “was a symbol of the cultural values and the humanistic traditions” of the country. (1)
On February 22, 1948, the day after the 12 other non Communist ministers resigned, Soviet Ambassador, Valerian Zorin, arrived in Prague to arrange a coup. Armed militia and police soon took over Prague as Communist demonstrations grew and anti-Communist protests were shut down. Prime Minister Klement Gottwald stood in Wenseslas Square and spoke before a huge crowd threatening a general strike unless President Beneš agreed to a Communist led government. On February 25, Gottwald met with Beneš at Prague Castle, and convinced him to accept the resignations. Gottwald made his way to Wenceslas Square, where his historic speech marked the ending of Czechoslovakia’s short lived dreams of democracy and the beginning of 40 years of brutal Communist reign:
“I have just returned from the Castle, from seeing the President of the Republic. I can inform you that the president accepted all my proposals, exactly as they were laid down.”
The assembled crowds in the square went crazy with excitement. Jan Masarayk was devastated. The Lamos family, still waiting for travel documents in Bratislava, was by now in a panic.
Almost immediately after the bloodless coup, the Iron Curtain began its descent. Bratislava and Vienna, just 40 minutes part, were linked to one another by tramway; in order to seal the border, police patrols took over the tramway and Bratislava residents were moved as barbed wire fences were erected to fortify the city.
On March 2nd, the last plane flew from Prague to the West, and in it was the Lamos family. Their papers had finally come and with the good fortune of luck and timing, they were among the last free citizens allowed to leave the now Communist country. They flew on to London and from Southampton, England on March 5th, boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth and sailed to New York.
From New York they took a train to Windsor, Ontario, where Pauline and her family awaited the Lamos family’s arrival on March 11. En route they learned of the death of Jan Masaryk the morning before; he had been found in his pajamas in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry in Prague below the open window of his bathroom. To this day his death remains a mystery: was it an accident, suicide or murder by the Communist secret police? Regardless, it was clear that “the Communist Coup, or as the Party came to call it, “Victorious February“, was the cause of his death.” (1, p.78).
The Lamos parents and their three lanky sons were driven back to the Shuster farm in Leamington where they lived until they settled into their own place. Pauline’s son Milan, 8 at the time, remembers the first night the Lamos family stayed on the farm. In typical Pivnica Slovak hospitality, a grand meal was laid out for their welcome, and the Lamos parents were given Milan and Jerry’s bedroom. The two young Shuster boys were sent to sleep for the night in the front bedroom which was occupied by nothing but a big bed and storage. With five extra people in the house that night there were no duknas left, and the boys huddled together dressed in layers of clothes. It was a frigid night, and Milan was so cold he took off his pillow case and crawled inside it in an attempt to warm up. To this day, Milan still occasionally wakes up in the winter pre-dawn hours shivering at the memory of that night 63 years ago.
Dictators are rulers who always look good until the last 10 minutes. Jan Masaryk.
(1) Thomas Masaryk was the first Czechoslovak president, and close friends with Pavel Országh Hviezdoslav who became a member of parliment in the first government of 1918. Pauline’s in-laws, Michael and Marisa Shuster, were good friends with Pavel in Dolny Kubin, where Marisa was from.
(2) Under A Cruel Star, A Life in Prague 1941-1968(2), Copyright 1986 by Heda Margolious Kovaly. An easy read, it’s an excellent first person account of what it was like to live in Czechoslovakia during WWII and after, under communism. She describes beautifully why many people bought into the myth of communism, as it was seen as the antithesis of Nazi Germany.
(3) Listen to Jan’s short 1938 speech (referring to the Nazis) in the first video to hear where the title of this blog comes from.
(4) An interesting video from 1948 of the RMS Queen Elizabeth.