Ludvik at Hubcap Heaven in 2010
Ludvik Barta (born Ludvík Barta), 1945
was born in the town of Liberec, northern Bohemia, in May 1945. His mother, Anna (maiden name Biedermann), was a Sudeten German, while his father, Ludvík, was a Czech who narrowly escaped execution after working for the Nazis as a translator during WWII. Ludvik’s father became a member of the Communist Party in 1936, but changed his views completely in the early 1950s in light of the high-profile political trials taking place at the time. Shortly before his father’s death, when Ludvik was 12, he says his father urged him never to join the Communist Party. Later on in life, Ludvik followed this advice.
When Ludvik was 17, he went to the local technical school to train to be a bricklayer. After two years he put his studies on hold to do his military service. Just before leaving for military training in Turnov, Ludvik married his wife Lenka in June 1964. The couple soon had a daughter, also named Lenka. Upon return from military service, Ludvik became a successful builder, and constructed the family’s own apartment. In August 1968, his wife Lenka finally had a chance to visit her father - who had left Czechoslovakia in 1948 - in his new home in Cleveland. When Lenka returned home, shortly after the Soviet-led invasion, the family decided to move to the United States. However, while arrangements were being made, the Czechoslovak government changed its passport requirements, which nullified the family’s existing travel documents. It subsequently took Ludvik and his wife 11 years to come to the United States. When they did, they had to leave their daughter behind. Two years later, having established residency in the United States, Ludvik and Lenka petitioned the Czechoslovak government to allow their daughter to come to America. The family was reunited in 1981.
Today, the Bartas still live in the Cleveland area and are owners of ‘Hubcap Heaven’ - an emporium of wheel covers for automobiles.
For many years Ludvik worked for a firm called ‘Pozemní stavby Liberec’. He did well there, being promoted from a bricklayer to a foreman in charge of 26 others:
“You have to check the blueprint for them, talk with them, you have to order materials all the time – order windows, doors, ceilings, and everything – and in advance you have to order trucks and cranes. And everything was too much pressure. Communist members didn’t like this kind of job because of all this responsibility. But they checked my job all the time because you know you cannot be against the government. And when I went one step up and had the 41 guys, this was really too much of a headache for them, because you have to have the knowledge and bricklayers – they can fool you, they can do something on purpose and you can be in trouble. And this knowledge I had from the base, because I was a bricklayer, then a foreman, then a supervisor. They don’t like this kind of stuff, they like easy jobs. But I still had to be careful, I could not be over the line and say something that was bad against the government, because you can stop in the office one day and have no chair and have no desk. They can say you have to go back and be a brick layer. But I was not afraid, because I finished up at my desk at 3:00 and then I always worked a second job as a bricklayer because I needed extra money.” Top of page>>
Ludvik’s father-in-law fled Czechoslovakia in 1948, subsequently settling in Cleveland. His wife (and Ludvik’s mother-in-law) Božena Podzimková once attempted to follow him across the border with the couple’s two children, but gave up given the difficulty of the journey. She remained in contact with the guide who had shown them the way. This guide was later arrested and identified his associates, which led to Božena herself being summoned by the police:
“She was living at this time 20 miles from Liberec and one day she received a paper saying ‘can we talk to you?’ And what happened was she told a neighbor ‘can you watch my children?’ My wife, she was four years old and her brother was six. ‘Can you watch them?’ she said, ‘I’m leaving the city at eight o’clock and I’ll be back on the bus at four o’clock’. And she was back four years later. What happened was they charged her with talking with someone who crossed the border, the judge said ‘you are a traitor. I’ll give you 25 years’. She was in Rakovník, the city of Rakovník. They made tiles, which was a very rough time, they did everything – the ceramic tiles, they even made them in the factory at this time, which was the 1950s, and they even put them on the train. With her in jail were a lot of famous ladies, like movie stars who did something against the government, but, who she said were really the best in there with them were the prostitutes. They were living with them, of course, because they put everyone in the one room. But she had respect for them because if the political prisoners messed up something, the prostitutes – they took the blame, because they knew somebody else could be more punished. So a lot of those ladies said ‘I did it!’ because they knew the prisoners in there against the government would be treated worse and that’s why they took this stuff on and said ‘I did it’, and they were not punished.” Top of page>>
Ludvik was 23 at the time of the Prague Spring in 1968. He remembers a new freedom in what could be written and said:
“We had some history books in the school always, and on the front of the history books was a tank, a Russian tank, with a flower and it said ‘we liberated you’. And I found out in 1968, which was the Prague Spring, I bought every week a Slovakian magazine called Expres
, and they started to put a lot of stuff in, and I found out the southwest of our country was liberated by General Patton! For 23 years I never knew it because, why? My father told me just this stuff about the Communists, but my mum, she was so scared she never… she knew it, but she was so scared I could talk and she would be punished! That’s why I had to find out when I was 23 years old, in 1968 I found out our country was liberated by General Patton! That’s why when I came to the United States I saw the General Patton movie about five times!” Top of page>>
On August 21 1968, Ludvik remembers going to wait for his ride to work early in the morning and seeing blood on the scaffolding surrounding Liberec Town Hall. Men leaving a bar had got into a skirmish with lost Soviet troops in the early hours and had been shot. After work that day, Ludvik says he witnessed another shooting when unhappy Czechs started throwing tomatoes at the occupying troops:
“When I saw the blood and everything, I had a motorcycle, I drove home and I visited my mother in law and said ‘What do we do now? The situation is bad.’ She said, ‘You know what, go buy the main things’ - like milk, bread and this stuff, we had to support ourselves because nobody knew what would happen. So I went to the grocery store for this stuff and when I stood in the line I heard a gunshot and a lot of noise. And after I went back to the city (I brought the groceries home and said ‘Can you stay with my daughter?’), and I came back to the downtown, and what had happened was that they were still going the wrong way. Streetcars have steel tracks on the ground, and a tank had slipped on these and there was an underpass, where you walk under a building. There was a pillar and the tank had hit this pillar and the whole section fell down. And a lot of guys standing under this were killed. But we saw how people can really use their hands, they started pulling the bricks out and pulling people out. And the tank started moving out, the idiot who was leader of the tank said ‘Move out!’ And people said ‘Stay! Stay!’ because behind were the emergency ambulances. They said ‘Stop!’ and they almost killed a nurse and people there were mad. And they guy used a gun and shot in the air and said ‘Move, move, move!’ He was so scared too, and he started moving the tank finally out and there was big damage. And at this place there was another nine people killed. We had, they said, about 16-18 people killed and a lot of people injured.” Top of page>>
In 1971, Ludvik and his wife obtained passports to leave Czechoslovakia, but their daughter did not. They decided to emigrate and then send for Lenka. The process took two years:
“At this time she was 14 and a half, and I even told her… I said ‘Honey, I’ll tell you one thing very serious – we are going to the United States, if the situation there is a little bit better, we’ll stay over there. But don’t listen to the people around – we haven’t forgotten you. You won’t be forgotten. We care about you. Stay here, we’ll do everything that we can to move you over there.’ She says ‘Okay Dad, okay, I trust you.’ And two years later, when I received a green card, I visited the Czech Embassy in Washington and it was Mr. Safka or whatever, he smelt of alcohol. But we visited him, we showed him the green card. They said ‘Write down everything about your daughter’. And we wrote where she went to kindergarten, when she was six and a half what kind of school she went to. They checked our papers and Mr. Safka said, because we asked him how long she can be over there, what kind of chance we have to see her, and he said ‘We signed the Helsinki Agreement, and when we talk about putting families together, we have to stick with that.’ We were really pretty surprised because really six months later we saw our daughter.
“Those two years were very tough. Mostly for my wife because she said ‘Did we do wrong, did we do right?’ And I said ‘No, no! It’s the United States and I think this is good we have to just be tough. But we have to look to the future, we have to look to the future!’ It was a tough two years, but, you know, everything is a risk and we are here.” Top of page>>
Joe Kocab is the head of Karlin Hall in Cleveland. Each year on October 28, he gives a speech to commemorate Czechoslovak Independence day. Ludvik says that in the late 1980s, it became apparent there was a spy amongst the Czechs in Cleveland, passing recordings of these speeches to the police back in Czechoslovakia. When the Czechoslovak ambassador visited Cleveland following the revolution in 1989, Ludvik and his friends asked the embassy to help find out who this was. Ludvik recalls the problems Joe had as a result of the smuggled recordings:
“When [Joe] was in 1987 at the police station, they told him, ‘We’ll treat you very nicely and fairly, but tell us where you go – two days there, three days here, and everything – but we’ll give you some advice, we don’t want any problems.’ He says, ‘I won’t give you any problems’, and the guy who was in charge, some major or someone in some pretty nice position, says ‘Mr. Joe Kocab, we know about you very well, more than you think!’ He says ‘What? I haven’t said anything!’ The major says ‘You know what? You want to hear something? Come on over here.’ He says ‘Come on, follow me into this room’. He went to another room and he pushed the button and his speech was on the tape! This was 1987, the speech was made two years before. The major said ‘Whose voice is this?’ Joe said ‘That’s my voice; I had a speech ’85 or ’86 in the Czech Hall.’ And the major told him ‘Your speech is not for the Communist government, it is against us. Watch yourself, we don’t need problems, that’s why we know about you more than you think.’
“When Joe Kocab told us, our people here, what’s going on, we told the ambassador and Martin [Palouš] ‘Can you do us a favor, can you find out – somebody from our Czech environs has to be a black sheep who taped this stuff! Somebody amongst us had to have taped it, because it was all Czech people here at the speech. Somebody had to make the tape and donate the tape to the Czech Republic, to the Communists! Can you find out who is the guy, because he can’t be with us any more! Because we cannot do this to the United States government, especially with this Reagan stuff, you know, we owe them, with the FBI, the CIA, we can’t play this sort of trick.’ And they told us; ‘Oh, we have a problem, they are destroying all of the documentation that they can.’ This was a big shock for us, because we thought, finally, they cannot punish somebody, but we can punish somebody who worked with them. Because we thought this would be our duty to punish somebody who worked with them, because this was terrible, what they did. But we still don't know, who was the guy!” Top of page>>
1968 emigrant/refugee; Family life; Forced labor; Military service; Prague Spring, 1968; Prison; Sudeten Germans; Warsaw Pact Invasion, 1968.