Total Solar Eclipse Experience – Once in a Lifetime?

eclipsetotalityIt seems everyone’s gone crazy over tomorrow’s total eclipse. The program director of the National Science Foundation has said, “There’s never been an event like this in human history where so many people could participate and with such unique technology.” It’s the celestial event of a lifetime in the U.S.!

To avoid chaos, the library where I work has turned away scores of people trying to register for our total eclipse event on the 21st. We ran out of certified eclipse-viewing glasses over a week ago, but the phone keeps ringing with people asking where they can purchase them because TV, social media, and the Internet are filled with warnings for eye protection, recommendations for the best locations to witness “totality, etc.

I’ve read sky-gazers will see an 80% total eclipse from my workplace site near Detroit. It will begin around 1:03 p.m. when the moon will begin moving in front of the sun. It should peak around 2:27 p.m. and will be over around 3:47 p.m.

I will miss most of it, especially if I can find a parking spot at work tomorrow. Yes, can. Because as usual, I’m scheduled to work inside at one of the library information desks while everyone else is outside (except for the hardcore computer users) watching the eclipse. I’d still like to witness tomorrow’s event, however, because like snowflakes I’m sure no two eclipses are alike!

Yes, lucky me! Lucky us! Charles and I saw a total eclipse in 1998 in Venezuela. It was nearly 20 years ago, yet I  still remember how acutely our senses were affected. It was a whole body experience – humbling, mystical, and magical.

In February 1998, we were at our house on Isla de Margarita, Venezuela for one month. Before we left home in Detroit we knew there would be a total eclipse of the sun. Interestingly, Charles’ sister in Brno, Czech Republic had written us about an expedition being organized to see the total eclipse in Venezuela by an observatory in Upice, near her home. She read about it in an article by a professor from the Brno Institute of Technology (where Charles went to school during World War II).

This news excited us! After we reached Venezuela, Charles made devices for us to use to protect our eyes. We mapped out our route for February 26th the day of the eclipse. We wanted to be on a quiet, deserted beach so our strategy was to drive from our house near Bahia de Plata around 11:00 a.m. and head south of Juan Griego on the Avenida Simplicio Rodriguez along the north coast of Isla de Margarita on the Caribbean Sea.

playaparguitoWe arrived at our destination as planned with no one else in sight. It was just the two of us. Gradually the clouds lifted and soon after everything around us began changing – sounds, colors. . .The sky turned a bluish color and later pink. Birds sang. The temperature dropped and the winds shifted. The sky didn’t look right as it started to turn dark at the top. The moon took a bite out of the sun. The sea even changed color from blue to green and there was darkness. There was a sliver of light sparkling like a diamond ring. The moon was passing between the earth and the sun covering our closest star.  By about 2: 00 p.m. totality was in progress and the sun’s corona came into view – large and bright. The horizon was pink. Then before we could actually figure out what was going on it was over. The fleeting beauty lasted a few minutes.

Charles and I were overcome with emotion by the event. We hugged each other as if we knew we had experienced something we would never experience again.

A Sister, an Architect, and an 80 Year Old Building

vlastaswimsuit1crI keep thinking about Charles‘ sister Vlasta Marie Nováčková Jakubová (1925-2017). Sadly, she died this year at the age of ninety-two. Vlasta was three years older than Charles and started her work in the Czech anti-Nazi resistance at age fourteen during World War II. She worked for her uncle Josef Robotka’s Rada Tri (R-3) guerilla organization. She became a courier on bicycle and on foot. Little more than a girl, Vlasta wasn’t suspected of performing undercover activities and so she succeeded in carrying messages between agents, penetrating communication blocks and accomplishing other tasks that had proved impossible for male agents.

Following the war, Vlasta rejoined the resistance when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia. Under her uncle’s direction, she gathered and delivered military, industrial and economic information to agents within the country as well as to resources outside the Czech borders. She was trained to work with ciphers, so she was able to draft her messages in code, using invisible ink; for direct communication, she was also trained to use signals and sign language. Vlasta feigned a relationship with a man in the Netherlands to get the letters delivered to the resistance working from there.

On July 7, 1949, Uncle Josef was kidnapped, interrogated and imprisoned for his resistance activities. A month later on August 6, 1949, Vlasta was arrested at a factory in Brno, where she worked as a secretary. She was seized by the StB, a plainclothes secret (political) police force controlled by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia from 1945-1990. They served as an intelligence and counter-intelligence agency, dealing with activity that could be considered anti-state. The StB forced confessions by means of torture, including the use of drugsblackmail and kidnapping

alfapassage1The StB had been monitoring Vlasta for a long time and often waited for her to leave or return to her apartment in Alfa Passage in Brno. She didn’t get scared and started playing with them. The building had multiple elevators and flights of stairs that the agents didn’t know about so when Vlasta saw the agents she would go in the opposite direction and enter or leave her apartment – another way of outwitting the agents. On August 6, 1949, the StB decided to keep watch on her at work, an easier place to apprehend her.

After her arrest the StB took Vlasta to her apartment at Alfa Passage. There they searched for subversive materials, confiscating her typewriter, chemical matches, chalk, papers, travel card, air mail envelopes and her passport. They also seized, according to records, a “workbook of Karel Nováček No. 280511723.” Hoping her fiance would it, Vlasta secretly wrote a message on her bathroom mirror with lipstick, “I’ve been arrested.” Then the authorities took her to jail on Orli Street in Brno, where she was interrogated, tortured and placed in solitary confinement.

The mirror message failed. Vlasta’s fiance didn’t see it or it was wiped off by StB agents. Six weeks passed before anyone realized her situation; friends thought Vlasta was traveling out-of-town.

alfapassage2crThis year the modernist building  Alfa Passage celebrated its 80th anniversary. A Brno newspaper wrote a series of short articles about people and events connected with the structure. Among the people were Vlasta and Bohuslav Fuchs, the principal architect of the building.

The multi-purpose complex of the Alfa Passage was built on the site previously occupied by Baroque aristocratic houses. The property was purchased in 1930 from the owners by Brno architect/builder Frantisek Hrdina, who had the aging buildings demolished. He approached architect Bohuslav Fuchs with a request to design a grand apartment block with a retail arcade and a cinema. Fuchs’ design involved a turret in the corner, opaxite cladding and horizontal segmentation of the structure using ribbon windows.

But Hrdina had Fuchs’ design re-worked. It was said the builder was enchanted by the idea of having the first American-style skyscraper in Brno and decided to raise the corner tower up to 14 floors. However, strict regulations and stability issues forced creation of a more moderate nine floor structure. The construction of the building progressed in several stages up to 1937. The first film screening took place earlier at the Alfa Cinema in the basement in 1932. The structure became both a popular shopping center and center of entertainment soon after its completion.

The Alfa Passage complex consists of a single-level commercial hall with a gallery sheltered by a glass roof; the gallery is, at the upper levels, connected to the residential wings with three yards. The commercial areas have large display windows and the arcade contains eight entrances to approximately 180 apartments of many different sizes equipped with central heating and accessible by elevators.

Originally, Alfa Cinema in the basement seated 800 viewers and housed the Metro-Hall dancing bar. A spacious café which, according to Fuch’s design, should have included a pool room, chess room and club room, was situated on the mezzanine level of the commercial arcade. Today the former Alfa Cinema, open until 2003, houses the HaDivadlo theatre, and the original café is used for commercial spaces.

The Brno newspaper marking Alfa Passage’s 80th birthday interviewed Vlasta about her life in the building. She remarked, ”To live in Alfa Passage was something!” Vlasta sent greetings to all residents of the building and extended the hope that they would never have to experience what she did.

Walking in Charles’ Neighborhood: The Water Tower

elmoorewatertower1

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. I’ll start slowly and follow Charles’ pathways through this neighborhood. This is where he wrote his memoir and where he fought PTSD as he remembered. Walks through the neighborhood helped to ease his anxiety and got him back to writing. Maybe they’ll help me, too. 

As he took long walks in the neighborhood, Charles used to see this 80’ metal structure on the roof of an Albert Kahn building that became Dalgleish Cadillac. When the dealership went out of business, the ingenious Tom Brennan rescued this 80′ tall water tower and had it transported 1.5 miles. Now it’s now 1.5 blocks away and being repurposed as the entrance to the El Moore public gardens.

I love it and I know Charles would, too – Adaptive reuse and flowers!

Silkworms, Gobelín Tapestries, and Detroit

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Hank’s Silk Mill. Source: Mansfieldct-history.org

I’m forever finding connections between people, places, and things. This time it’s silkworms, Gobelín tapestries, and Detroit.

It all started with childhood visits to Greenfield Village, an outdoor American history museum in the Detroit, Michigan suburb of Dearborn. Daytrips with family, a weekend with my Girl Scout troop, my high school prom, and lantern-lit holiday nights. All fun. All memorable.

An early favorite attraction of mine was Hank’s Silk Mill, c. 1810 with its thousands of silk worms and cocoons. I became interested in silk in my childhood when my beloved Uncle Gede sent my mother yards of colorful silk while traveling in Asia. Mom said that silk was rare and special and must be stored in a safe place. I knew where that place was and sometimes without permission I removed the silk and wrapped myself in it, imagining I was a fairytale Silk Road princess.

How excited I was to discover Greenfield Village’s relocated silk mill built by Rodney and Horace Hanks. This last silk mill in the U.S., was moved to the pastoral Greenfield Village from Connecticut in 1931. The first power driven mill in this country, it was converted from water to electricity.  Here, the Hanks brothers produced silk thread for sewing that they proudly called “the oldest and best brand of silk on the continent.” 

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Hank’s Silk Mill, Greenfield Village.

The mill I remember looked like a wooden garage with hand-blown glass windows and a grove of mulberry trees standing behind it. It had its own resident expert who shared stories about the historical significance of the mill and did demonstrations showing how silk thread is extracted from silkworm cocoons.

Of course, the expert explained how the process all starts with the silk moth that lays hundreds of pinhead-sized eggs put in cold storage for months until mulberry trees start to bud. After incubation the eggs hatch and the baby silkworms grow quickly living off of a diet of hand-picked mulberry leaves until they become very fat. Someone said that “when you walk by the mill you can hear the sounds of heavy paper being crinkled as thousands of silkworms eat their weight in mulberry leaves.”

When it is time to build their cocoons, the silkworms produce a jelly-like material which hardens after coming in contact with air. For three or four days they spin a cocoon around themselves until they look like puffy, white balls. After eight or nine days in a warm, dry place the cocoons are ready to be unwound. I was always amazed to hear they are steamed or baked to kill the worms and then placed in hot water to loosen the tightly woven filaments. The filaments are unwound onto a spool and twisted together to make one silk thread. Finally, the thread is woven into cloth or used for embroidery.

At the Hanks Silk Mill I could actually see the silk making process at work!  They even had cocoons for sale so I could take one home with me!

When Charles Novacek, my late, Czechoslovakian-born husband and I visited Greenfield Village for the first time together in the late 1990s I suggested we visit the silk mill. To my surprise he had his own “silk” story to share which he eventually wrote about in his memoir Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Ten21 Press, 2012. There he talks about his family’s move to the village of Hrachovo in Slovakia when he was seven years old as described in this excerpt: 

“Hrachovo had about 400 inhabitants – mostly small farmers and a few tradesmen.  The only significant institution was the Gobelín tapestry school that rivaled the Gobelín works in Paris. . .”

Charles continued, “In the park of the Gobelín school many mulberry trees grew.  We picked the fruit from the trees and collected the leaves to feed our silkworms.  An entrepreneur from the city organized and recruited children throughout the country, where mulberry trees grew, to earn money by producing silk cocoons.  He gave us a starter tray (about four square feet) of worms, trained us how to maintain them, and enlarge them into several trays. I needed many mulberry leaves to feed my silkworms.  When the worms matured, they attached themselves to branches I placed in the trays and began to form cocoons.  This process lasted a few days.  I had to pay attention and ask my father in time to place all the cocoons on a pan to bake them in the oven.  I was not allowed to do that. The worms inside the cocoons had to be killed to stop reproducing themselves into silk moths, which would have eaten through the cocoon, cutting the continuous silk fiber and making it useless. The same man who brought us the starter trays came to the Gobelín school to collect the cocoons from us and paid us for them.  I produced about a pound of cocoons and additional worms to continue the production.  I received about 20.00 Crowns (before WWII in Czechoslovakia $ 1.00 was equivalent to about 5.00 Crowns.)    

Charles’ story fascinated me especially when I remembered that I was seven when I first visited Hanks Silk Mill – the same age as Charles in his story. Once when we traveled to Slovakia Charles showed me the building where he remembered the Gobelín school to be. He also told me that four years after moving to Hrachovo when the Nazis occupied part of Czechoslovakia in 1938, his family was forced to move to the region of his father’s birth to the town of Namest nad Oslavou. The town had (and still has) a renaissance castle with 24 Gobelín tapestries dating back to the 16th through the 19th centuries. I have toured the castle and seen the Gobelíns with and without Charles – most recently in 2015.

When I was in Paris in 2012 I remember riding by the Manufacture des Gobelíns tapestry factory at 42 avenue des Gobelíns, near the Les Gobelíns métro station in the 13th arrondissement. It is best known as a royal factory supplying the court of Louis XIV and later monarchs; it is now run by the French Ministry of Culture. It is open for guided tours, but was unable to visit.  

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Tapestry, The Whitney.

I made another Gobelín discovery here in Midtown Detroit. Not far from me is the David Whitney mansion built in 1890, now The Whitney restaurant. I’ve read that lumber baron David Whitney, Jr., the richest man in Detroit at the time of his death in 1900, had a secret vault in his residence to store the family’s most valuable treasures. To hide them, he commissioned panels by Parisian artists at the Gobelín Tapestry Works.

When I visited The Whitney for brunch in December I briefly examined some of the tapestries on the walls. I’m not sure whether these were the original or are reproductions. My future research will be to verify the origin of these tapestries and to do more research on the Gobelín School in Slovakia back in the 1930s.

Blank Book Campaign Restores War-torn Library

bilalcover1The book pictured above arrived at my home in Detroit around Christmastime this year. Below is the story behind its being sent to me.  

Wartime adversely affected my late husband Charles’ dream of going to art school and becoming an artist when Adolf Hitler closed all art schools in Czechoslovakia during World War II.

Last year I read about Wafaa Bilal, another young man who dreamed of becoming an artist nearly 50 years later in his homeland of Iraq. He was deterred in Iraq because of his family’s opposition to Saddam Hussein. Bilal studied geography instead and continued to create political art. His work was confiscated by the police and he was arrested as a dissident for his work critical of Hussein. Bilal refused to participate in the invasion of Kuwait and organized opposition groups. He eventually fled the country in 1991 and lived in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp teaching art to children.

Wafaa Bilal came to the United States in 1992 and studied art at the University of New Mexico (BFA 1999) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he earned an MFA in 2003. His brother was killed by a U.S. missile strike at a checkpoint in 2004 which intensified his denunciation of the Iraqi War.

Last January 2016 through Ontario’s Art Gallery of Windsor (across the river from Detroit) I found out about a Kickstarter campaign for a project Wafaa Bilal called 168:01. Through the project he highlighted and acknowledged the destruction of the cultural history of Iraq while enacting a process to rebuild it and move forward. The project appealed to me because of my interest in art and opposition to the Iraqi War. But the greatest appeal was because I’m a librarian and know the importance of books for learning.

168:01 consisted of a simple installation of blank white books gesturing to the loss of the entire library at the University of Baghdad, College of Fine Arts where 70,000+ books were destroyed during the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. These white books functioned as a way to rebuild the library through a system of grassroots support. The artist made white books which were to be exchanged for the gift of a lost book or a donation to the 168:01 Kickstarter campaign. As a result the project would replace over 1,000 lost books to the University of Baghdad.

The title of the project and the blank white book installation also alluded to the 13th century Mongol siege of Baghdad. At the time Baghdad was home to the largest library in the world, the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom. The siege resulted in the destruction of the House of Wisdom. Wafaa noted, “According to legend, the library was thrown into the Tigris River to create a bridge of books for the Mongolian army to cross. The pages bled blue ink into the river for seven days, after which the books were drained of knowledge. 168:01 takes its title from this story of loss, representing the first second after 168 hours (or seven days), which signals the beginning of rebirth and process of moving forward to rebuild.”

Bilal’s exhibition at Ontario’s Art Gallery of Windsor, opened January 29, 2016 and featured a 72 foot bookshelf holding 1,000 blank white books. The white books were gradually replaced with the art textbooks purchased after funds were raised through a Kickstarter campaign. The first 200 people who donated received a white book signed by Bilal. At the end, all the real books were shipped to the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad.

I’m honored to have received my white signed book pictured above and to have helped to restore the collection of the College of Fine Arts Library in Bagdad. I’d love to visit there some day.

Happy New Year!

christmascard2016

Pictured above is Charles (Karel) Novacek on wooden skis made by his father Antonin Novacek. Slovakia, 1932.

Honoring Czech Resistance Leader – Josef Robotka

josefplaquecolorToday 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 bcjosefcroppeddays 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.

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World War II Silk Escape Maps – Ingenious and Colorful

silkmap2crWhile doing research for BORDER CROSSINGS: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, I read that during World War II, the United States and Great Britain manufactured silk and cloth maps. The maps were issued to RAF paratroopers, Special Forces, and members of the Nazi resistance in case they were shot down or trapped behind enemy lines and needed to escape.

World War II British escape maps were the creation of Christopher Clayton Hutton, an M19 British Army officer who was the genius behind many James Bond style inventions which are still in use today. MI9 was established in December 1939. Among its functions were to facilitate escapes and the return of escapees and evaders to England.

Hutton persuaded Bartholomew’s a famous map making company to waive their copyright on maps for the war effort. He had the maps printed onto pure silk (on both sides) because it was an ideal material for an escape map. Silk was quiet and didn’t rustle. It was lightweight and thin. Pectin was added to the dyes so they wouldn’t run when wet. The maps could be used to filter water or make a sling and they could be folded up very small and easily concealed inside a cigarette pack or heel of a shoe. They could be sewn inside the lining of a uniform or other clothing.

Escape maps were also made of rayon, nylon, and a tissue made with mulberry leaves — all very durable

Many of the escape maps were smuggled into German POW camps by way of Monopoly game boards, chess sets, and packs of cards. The Germans did not allow relief groups to send games to the captured Allies, so Waddington, the makers of monopoly in Britain, printed the maps on silk and inserted them in an indention made in the game board. The indention was then covered by the paper of the playing surface.

The maps were also useful after the war ended as there was a shortage of fabric and rationing of it continued. People turned to using surplus escape maps to make clothing – blouses, dresses, shirts, skirts, etc.

Several hundred thousand silk maps were produced during World War II. It is  estimated that of the nearly 35,000 Allied troops who escaped from behind enemy lines, more than half used a silk map. Many of these maps have survived and are now quite collectible.

Among my most prized possessions are two colorful silk escape maps, my favorite being Map 43 E-F which includes the countries of Germany (includes Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia), Italy, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Croatia, and Slovakia.

Hoffer Celebrated, Novacek Remembered

erichoffercigar400Today is the birthday of Eric Hoffer (1898 – 1983), working-class philosopher, migratory worker, and longshoreman. He became a social writer, grounded in the practical experience of the common worker, and was the author of ten books. Hoffer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983. His first book, The True Believer (1951), was widely recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen.

In 2013 The Eric Hoffer Book Award Committee announced Charles Novacek’s Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance was winner of the 2013 Eric Hoffer Award of Honorable Mention in the category of Memoir. Border Crossings was also named a Finalist for three other 2013 Eric Hoffer Awards:The Montaigne Medal for most thought-provoking book, The da Vinci Eye for best cover art, and The Eric Hoffer Grand Prize Award.

The Eric Hoffer Book Award was established internationally in 2001 to honor Hoffer’s memory. “The Award honors freethinking writers and independent books of exceptional merit. Many other top literary prizes will not even consider independent books, but “the Hoffer award continues to be a platform for and the champion of the independent voice.”

The judging committee commented: Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Charles Novacek, 1021 Press – In this well-articulated memoir, Charles Novacek pays tribute to the heroes of his past. “My country comes first,” is the lesson young Charles learns from his father. Courageous and inquisitive, our hero comes to age through the horrors of World War II, spends his tumultuous youth fighting Communism, and finds peace in a land away from home. Like many before him, coming to America becomes an act of self- preservation, not an abandonment of the homeland. Part memoir and part history lesson, this book captures a time long gone, with moments of normalcy and love in the midst of suffering and struggle. The passage of years fails to erase the author’s memory of remarkable events, which he recounts in captivating detail. This book makes an important contribution to the literature of World War II and communism in Eastern Europe. Kudos to Sandra Novacek, the author’s “last love,” for entrusting this remarkable personal account to the printer.”

Picnic in Czechoslovakia

novacekfamfriendspicnicrevcrSelf-confined to my air-conditioned condo in the city this morning, I look at old photographs and write, determined to escape the heat.

One photograph set in the Tatra Mountains of Czechoslovakia in 1931, soothes me. It captures a happy moment of my late husband Charles Novacek and his family picnicking in a scenic place, surrounded by their friends and nature.

It looks like everyone has enjoyed a delicious meal and are now relaxed, focusing on each other and the beautiful day – probably wishing it would never end.

I would love to be there – the location, the company, the food. I wonder what they had to eat and drink.

Perhaps, rezeň, a breaded pork steak/schnitzel. Or baked smoked pork (pečené údené bravčové mäso) with horseradish sauce. Or stuffed cabbage (holubki) and homemade sausage (kolbasi), potato dumplings with sauerkraut (Halušky), cucumber and vinegar salad (Uhorkovy Salat), and rye bread with caraway.

Beer (pivo). Wine (vino). Mineral water (minerálka), or sheep milk (urda). For dessert maybe kolache or a cherry cerešňová or blueberry (čučoriedka) bubble cake (bublanina).

The image inspires sweet thoughts of joyful conviviality.