We held off on posting this information on our trip to Prague until after the summer when we had a chance to visit Ken's dad, Elmo, of whom much of this posting is about. So, finally, here it is!
In the winter of 1944-45, my father was assigned to the Eighth Armored Division and joined Gen. George Patton’s Third Army as the Americans cleaned up at the end of the Battle of the Bulge near Bastogne and St. Vith, Belgium. From what I remember, Dad was a truck and Weasel driver/mechanic/go-fer as the 8th Armored continued across Belgium, Luxembourg, across Germany into (at that time) Czechoslovakia.
Patton finally stopped short of Prague near Plzen. From what he says, Dad was a replacement troop for a unit who bivouacked at a little town called Ejpovice (pronounced Eh-po-veets-uh), between Plzen and Prague. He stayed with a family by the name of Klucina (Clue-chee-nuh).
Over the years, the family has heard bits and pieces of his WW II story at various times, but not in a coherent manner until our daughter, Ali, asked him about it. Then we learned the order of his experiences. Further conversations led to the revelation that he had communicated with one of the daughters of the Klucina family (Vera) until such time as she expressed a desire to marry, like one of the village girls, and move to America. At that point, Dad stopped communicating with her.
With that titillating bit of information tucked securely in the back of my little brain, Angela and I met the soccer coach from the International School of Prague at a soccer tournament in Warsaw. Forcing my innate shyness aside, I asked her if she could recommend someone as a tour guide. Some time later she connected me with a former student who speaks Czech and English (and her native Vietnamese). When I contacted Lucy and told her my idea, she became very excited about being involved.
On her own, Lucy contacted the village of Ejpovice and learned that the Klucina family still lived there. She tracked down one of the Klucina residents (Rudolf), who invited us to his home.
In October, Kim, Angela, and I flew to Prague for our Fall break. We spent a couple days getting our bearings in the Old Town. On Monday afternoon, we picked up a rental car at the airport. Tuesday morning, Lucy met us at our hotel and we drove to Ejpovice, about an hour southwest. Google Maps took us directly to Rudolf’s home, where he was waiting.
Rudolf, Vera’s brother’s son, cordially invited us into his home and explained that his wife was at work, but would return in the evening. Over snacks and coffee & tea, we all viewed photos that had been taken during the American occupation and looked over a book that had been compiled shortly after the war. The book was a tribute to the American “Armady” that arrived in Ejpovice on May 6 and liberated the area. Included among Rudolf’s pictures was a photo of my Dad with two girls sitting on his knees. One was Vera, the other her friend, Jarka (Yar-ka). I gave him a printed copy of a photo of Vera that Dad had given me. I also gave him a picture of Dad from Dad’s college days.
The town erected a monument following WW I and added a plaque to the American soldiers involved in that liberation.
After a couple of hours, we took a drive out of town to the village cemetery, stopping by the community center the town residents had physically built. At the cemetery Rudolf showed us Vera’s gravesite; she died four years previously. Jarka currently lives in Prague, but her health did not permit her to have visitors during the time we were there –THAT would have been COOL!
Returning to Rudolf’s home, we all took a walk around the village, while Rudolf explained various things about the town. Along the way, he introduced us to his father-in-law, Vaclav Cerny (which is close to the Russian and Ukrainian chor’nay; all mean “Black”), who was 18 when the Americans arrived. We also met Yarmilla, who lived in the town when the Armady arrived and remembers the Americans. On our tour we could identify buildings we had seen in Rudolf’s pictures.
Rudolf’s son now lives in the family home, which they still own. It is being remodeled again; both Rudolf and Dad agree that it does not look like it did in 1945.
When the Americans arrived, they first started to set up a tent city in a nearby field. The local residents were having none of that, and invited the soldiers to move into their homes. Dad and one or two other guys slept on the Klucina’s porch. Rudolf has a picture of two GIs with Vera’s mom in front of the house.
A large field to the west of town became a hastily-erected POW camp, filled with German soldiers running from the advancing Russian army. Very likely the same field where the Americans were going to set up camp for themselves.
The Americans continued on a short distance to the somewhat-larger city of Rokycany, where they finally stopped for real after liberating the city on May 7. When Rudolf’s wife got home, following a lunch of sandwiches and tomatoes, we all drove back to Rokycany to see the monument that was placed, showing the Line of Demarcation where the American and Russian armies “met”.
Czechoslovakia came under Russian “protection”, and the Americans left. The Russians ordered to local residents to get rid of anything having to do with the Americans, and taught that the Russians were the Czech liberators. Things American – mementos, pictures, etc. – all were destroyed or went into hiding. These things came back out with the dissolution of the USSR in 1989-1991, and the truth was revealed. Some of the Czechs had stayed in contact with some of the GIs over the years. The Czechs have an annual parade in May and invited the GIs to attend. Several did, and one (Frank) returned several times. Frank died a couple of years ago and donated his uniforms to the town, and they are displayed at or near the village government building.
Before our walking tour, Rudolf had called the village center to see if we could view their historical displays. The center was closed. While we were on our tour whoever Rudolf talked to made some calls. When we returned to the house, Frank’s uniforms were hanging in the dining room for us to see.
Pictures of the annual celebration show war-vintage military vehicles. Rudolf wasn’t able to tell us how the village came into possession of them, if they purchased them from surplus after the Soviet break-up, or were able to hide them all those years, or what.
The Czech people love – let me put that in caps – LOVE the Americans. At least the ones we met in the small towns where few Americans show their faces. We are invited back to join the festivities and plan to do so in a couple of years when Czech and Ukrainian victory celebrations combine for a long weekend.
Ejpovice is a beautiful little town, clean and well-kept. The narrow lanes are probably much like they were 70 years ago, except probably more are paved now. The population is numerically close to what it was in 1945, and the current residents are mostly from families that have lived in the area for a very long time.
Ejpovice was not “occupied” by the Germans during the World War II. That does not mean they were not affected by the war, though. Their Jews either fled, went into hiding, or were removed by the German army. One non-Jewish woman who hid some Jews was also taken away by the Germans and never returned. Rudolf did not know what happened to her. The biggest invasion of Germans that took place were those who were surrendering to the Americans.
Using the photos we took of the photos Rudolf had, and those we took of the village, we compiled a photo album for my Dad. It included the photos of Dad and of Vera. It also included many photos of the village from the Liberation and those buildings today, the current residents who are still living in the village, the monument, and the current celebration and parade. We presented it to Dad on his 90th birthday in late June. He was overwhelmed. Later, he looked though the photos and was amazed at the memories and how the Czech people revere Patton and his boys.