Today I honor my late husband Charles Novacek’s uncle Josef Robotka and am posting an unedited paper Charles wrote about him. The paper was eventually incorporated in Charles’ memoir, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Ten21 Press, 2012.
Sixty-four years ago on November 12, 1952, at 5:40 a.m., Josef Robotká was executed at Pankrac Prison in Prague, Czecho-Slovakia. He was 46 years old. Josef was a leader in the Czech Resistance during World War II and the Cold War. He was arrested in 1949, stripped of his civil rights, made to forfeit all of his property and imprisoned for nearly three years before his execution. Josef was hanged by the Communist Party for the alleged crimes of espionage and treason through his leadership in Rada Tri and other organizations fighting for freedom from oppression. I regret that I could never meet Josef, but am thankful to have the good fortune to meet his widow Helena. She was also a brave resistance fighter and loving mentor for Charles. The above plaque is posted in Josef’s hometown of Velka Bites, Czech Republic and honors him for his service to his country.
THE LAST TIME I SAW UNCLE JOE
by Charles Novacek
I received a message to meet Uncle at the open vegetable market – zelný trh. He wanted to see me. His instructions to me were to meet him at the pharmacy at one o’clock. A few days before our government had sent him to Russia as the military attaché representing the new Czechoslovakia. I wondered what had happened. I had just finished my first year of law school, including all associated exams, and felt like celebrating, but this meeting clouded with secrecy made me apprehensive. For some time I knew Uncle was organizing new resistance against the Communists. That was the reason he had sent me to Zanzibar. It had taken me almost three weeks to make that trip. I hadn’t realized he would be involved in the resistance so soon.
I knew that one o’clock was precisely the moment he would be passing by the pharmacy at the corner. From a distance at exactly one I watched him to see a sign, known just by us, telling me I should approach him. He kept on walking between two buildings around the corner into an alley, crossing his thumb with his forefinger, a sign for me to meet him at the crosswalk out of sight of the market. This meant he was being watched from the market place! I crossed around the old buildings, and when I was out of view of the open plaza I ran to the end of the walk where he had entered through a large wooden gate into a decrepit, dirt covered drive. By then I was at his side and went with him into a garden surrounded by an old stonewall. There we sat. After a short pause he told me what had just happened and what needed to be done.
Uncle Joe always treated me as an adult, even when I was 12. Since the last time I talked to him his face had aged and I read fear in it. At that moment I felt like I had in Slovakia 10 years before when the Germans took over our country. Uncle was very serious, and I could detect uncommon emotion in his eyes – he was on the verge of tears. He looked like my father back in 1938 when he told me that he was wrong about my never having to go fight in a war again.
Uncle Joe started to say that he had been sent to Moscow as a military envoy but had never arrived there. He was arrested in Lvow and sent back to Czechoslovakia in chains where he found himself under a new officer directed by an NKVD agent from the Soviet Union. There he had been demoted, stripped of all his rights as an officer of the General Staff, and released into civilian status. He knew they were following him expecting he would lead them to others in the resistance. He had to see me, he said, to arrange for my way out. I must go to Prague and join Professor Kominek – he already was waiting for me. I would have to arrange with friends, family, and acquaintances to say that I was in Slovakia or elsewhere in the country if they are questioned. If the secret service, like the two that were trailing him then would see me talking to him, I would be followed and eventually arrested. Uncle said this would probably be the last time we would see each other. He wanted me to work for Kominek as I had worked for him. The necessary paperwork at the Masaryk University in Brno was arranged to provide me with a student status at the Charles University in Prague with a student job at the Ministry of Interior. I should stay with Kominek as long as I could. Should I lose my cover, I must leave this country, change my name, change my nationality, and establish a new life somewhere else, forgetting all about the old world!
All this sounded ominous, and I was petrified. He then hugged me, (first time he ever did that), said how much he respected and loved me, and warned me to be on the lookout for a short – about 5’ 5” tall – Far eastern cross-eyed men with short, rounded noses, well-built, strong, with remarkable fists. There were many men like this here already, he said. They were agents of NKVD, (KGB) and I had better be afraid of them, because they were the best. He would, he said, go back to the Green Market so the two men who were trailing him could pick up his track again. I could watch from the other side of the square so I could learn to identify them.
This was the last time I saw Uncle. It was very emotional. I just asked why the Soviets did this to him? After all we had fought the Germans like they had, why? He explained that the Communists wanted him to declare publicly that our underground resistance was Communist motivated and that we all were Communists. He wouldn’t agree to make such a public statement. All who were in R-5 (the name of the resistance group) during the war would suffer the same fate; therefore, he wanted me to leave as soon as possible. I left the garden through the back to reenter the square from the other end so I could see the men who trailed Uncle. As he had said, I couldn’t miss them. They stood out in the crowd.
I liquidated my belongings and packed a small bag. Then I went to the post office with many post cards addressed to my sister, my friend Jiři, the clarinetist and another friend in the Symphony Orchestra of Brno where I had played the violin. I dated these cards progressively with my handwriting and mailed them to Etelka asking her to put the cards in the mailbox with corresponding dates so they would arrive in Brno as if sent by me from Slovakia. This would make it appear as if I was in Slovakia and would give me time to avoid the state police while in Bohemia. From the post office I went to our contact at Masaryk University who already had prepared papers with my new cover name. I was to be Karel Zpívák, of Husovice, Brno, a student of Masaryk University, finishing my first year of history, with which I would enter Charles University, History department, and live in Mala Strana, Prague.
In those days there wasn’t fingerprinting for identification purposes, and I was safe for the time being as I entered my one room apartment on the second floor in Malá Strana. Professor Kominek had arranged the rent with an elderly widow. The room was simply furnished with enough space for my books, notes and extensive maps of Prague, which I studied very carefully. I had two exits from here in case of an emergency. One was the window, which faced the maze of passages between old buildings, intricate rooftops and side streets. The other exit from a small corridor led to a narrow medieval street overcrowded by street vendors and parked vehicles. It took me several days to get acquainted with this labyrinth. From my apartment, the network of the political organizations and offices were just 20 minutes away.
Professor Kominek assigned me to the Ministry of Interior to collect data about the movement of agents, plans for arresting citizens, and learning how the Communist party would overpower the government. I had my hands full, because all this required the careful approach of a young student of history who was pretending to learn how to be useful to the Socialist regime. I had a good chance to succeed by approaching my job in this way. There were employees who liked to speak about their work and often good information came my way. I was a good listener and soon, mainly the young generation of various departments in the Ministry, appointed to execute tasks for the senior staff, became my best informers, not even knowing it. Eager to advance on the social ladder many of them talked about their duties with their friends and often secret information leaked out. They liked to show off their assignments and I was happy to admire them for being in such an important position.
Prague, during my first days carried me into medieval architectural treasures as if carefully assembled just for me and as I always imagined them. That would have been enough to sustain me with its magic and beauty, but it wasn’t why I was here. I was caught by insensitive times numb to the beauty and magic that Charles IV planted in the city many centuries ago to illuminate nations with the splendor of the arts and sciences.