“So they stood us up against the wall, and my little cousin, who was about 6, she saw her father. … She jumped off and went to him, and this guy said ‘We are ready to shoot, what is this, the kid?’ So the German commander said ‘Oh for heavens’ sakes guys, they’re just children and women, so why are we going to shoot them? What’s the sense of it? Let’s go.’”
— Klara Sever, recalling her experience as a Jew in the Slovak Republic during World War II.
CEDAR RAPIDS — Czech and Slovak Americans remember food shortages, forced labor and the horrors of concentration camps as part of their homeland experience during World War II.
Oral histories recorded as a project for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library will shine a spotlight on that history during a special Veteran’s Day event from 2 to 4 p.m. on Nov. 11. Since 2009, the museum’s oral history project has captured the stories of Czechs and Slovaks who fled their homeland during the Cold War.
Now, they’re going back further into history and turning their focus to World War II.
Rosie Johnston, oral history coordinator for the museum and video editor Katie Shaffer combed through 540 hours of interviews to find excerpts to be used in the Veteran’s Day presentation at the museum.
So far, Johnston, who is fluent in Czech, and her team have interviewed 250 Czechs and Slovaks in Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco and will soon start work in Florida.
Some were too young to remember the war, leaving about 180 interviews to research for the World War II excerpts.
Funding for the oral history project, through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, was initially for two years, but has been extended through September 2013.
Oral histories focusing on everyday life during the Communist era will be used in a permanent exhibit next summer at the museum’s post-flood location at 1400 Inspiration Place in Czech Village.
Shaffer and Johnston were searching the interviews to compile footage for the permanent exhibit when they realized how many people had shared World War II experiences.
“It’s a recurring theme,” Johnston says. “It was then that we realized this was something we hadn’t delved into.”
Marie Cada of Cedar Rapids, who died this year at age 92, recalled having to work for the Nazis sewing soldiers’ uniforms.
“The insights people have shared with us are fascinating,” Johnston says. “It’s still very emotional for lots of people.”
One of Johnston’s favorites came from Zdenka Novak, who recalled young women’s attempts to look fashionable even in the midst of war shortages. That reminded Johnston of her grandmother, who had done the same in Scotland during the war, by using an eye pencil to draw a line up the back of her legs to give the illusion of wearing nylon stockings.
“It’s surprising,” Johnston says. “Some people were almost nostalgic for that time. This was their teenage years — their youth.”
Others, like Klara Sever, a Jew born in Trebišov, Slovakia, recalled living in several locations until her family was forced to go into hiding from the Nazis in 1942. Sever remembers being discovered by a troop of Hungarian soldiers who wanted to capture the men and shoot the women and children. At the last minute, the commander stepped in and saved their lives.
Video excerpts of the interviews are available on the museum’s website, as well as photos and biographies of the subjects.
“Some were totally unimaginable,” Johnston says. “Stories about spending World War II in hiding, in theory, not existing for four to five years.”
Full-length interviews are available at the museum for research and a traveling exhibit has been shown in New York, Chicago and Des Moines.
What: “Remembering World War II”
When: 2 p.m. Nov. 11
Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
For more information: (319) 362-8500 or Ncsml.org