Oral histories share story of Czech and Slovak immigrants

CEDAR RAPIDS - Karel Ruml's life story reads like a spy novel.

Born in 1928 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Ruml worked in the resistance movement in the waning days of World War II, monitoring troops and disarming explosives planted by the Germans.

He became a courier of secret documents after the Communist takeover, until hearing his fellow spies had been arrested.

Escaping from Czechoslovakia, Ruml and other hijackers tampered with the brakes of a train, sending it hurtling across the German border.

'He was sort of like a James Bond character,' said Rosie Johnston, 26, oral history coordinator for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids.

Ruml's daring story is among dozens now available to a broad audience, thanks to the museum's oral history project, which aims to capture the pasts of Czechs and Slovaks who fled their homeland during the Cold War. The project is focusing on the stories of Czechs and Slovaks in Chicago, Cleveland and Washington D.C. because those three areas are the home to large immigrant communities.

'We're committed to preserving these stories,' said David Muhlena, 44, the museum's library director and oral history project director.

Video excerpts of the interviews are available on the museum's website, as well as photos and biogra­phies of the subjects.

Muhlena said full-length interviews will be available at the museum for research, documentaries and future uses.

The oral histories also will be used in a permanent exhibit in 2013 after the museum, which relocated to 87 16th Ave. SW after the Floods of 2008, reopens at a new site.

It was the flood that brought Johnston to the project. A native of Scotland, Johnston was working for Radio Prague when she interviewed museum director Gail Naughton after the flood.

Naughton invited her to apply for the position.

Muhlena noted that the $116,699 matching grant for the project, from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, was initially awarded just after the floodwaters receded.

They were able to postpone the start until some of the flood recovery was completed. Johnston began her two-year post in September 2009.

The goal is to interview 150 firsthand witnesses to historic European events during the last century.

'Our agenda is to record everything we can,' said Johnston, who studied Czech and is fluent in the language and speaks with a Scottish accent.

Interviews are conducted in person by Johnston and a few others with Czech expertise.

As of this week, nearly 30 stories had been posted on the museum's website, with videos on YouTube.

Johnston did some sleuthing to track down Ruml in Ohio, where he had been living a quiet life as an insurance agent. Ruml had a fabled reputation in the Czech Republic, she said.

Radek Masin has a similar story.

As a youth in Czechoslovakia, Masin and his brother sabotaged German fighter planes traveling by train during World War II and helped a pair of Russian POWs escape.

The brothers' escape from Czechoslovakia to meet with the American Counter Intelligence Corps sparked a national manhunt and resulted in several bloody shoot-outs.

Vladimir Maule, born in Prague in 1952, represents the younger interview subjects.

His father was part-owner of Prague's Savoy Hotel until the Communist coup in 1948, after which he was arrested and sent to work as a laborer at a paper factory.

When Czechoslovakia was invaded by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, Vladimir's parents decided to flee, using faked exit permits that cost their life savings.

Now owner of a filmproduction company called Filmontage, Maule lives in Naperville, Ill.

The oral history proj­ect started locally with Marie Cada, who moved to Chicago before settling in Cedar Rapids.

Now 91, Cada was a teacher near Prague during the Communist takeover in 1948. Her fiance, Vaclav, convinced her to escape with him.

They fled with three other men, and with Marie on the floor of the car, were stopped four times before having to run across the Czech-German border under gunfire from their own countrymen. A German border patrol put an end to the shooting by noting that they were on his side of the border and waved them off, an irony that Cada notes to this day.

Cada said she rarely thought about the escape before being interviewed for the project.

'This is kind of in the past,' she said, adding that she would like to see the other interviews.

Johnston said Cada's story is a prime example for the reason behind the oral history project.'It's showing people in our midsts have extraordinary pasts,' she said. 'It's important to preserve these firsthand stories while we still can.'

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