Juraj Slavik (born Juraj Ľudevít Ján Slávik), 1929
Juraj Slavik was born in Prague in October 1929, son of the then-minister of the interior, Juraj Slávik. In 1936, Juraj’s father was sent to head the Czechoslovak diplomatic mission in Poland, with whom relations were strained because of both countries’ claims to parts of Upper Silesia. Juraj attended the Lycée Français de Varsovie [the French School in Warsaw] but, in light of heightening tensions, was sent to school in Switzerland just before the outbreak of WWII. After a brief spell in Belgium, Juraj spent the War in Britain, first with his parents in London (where his father was a member of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile) and then as a boarder at Magdalen College School in Oxford and the Czechoslovak State School of Great Britain in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales.
Juraj returned with his parents to Czechoslovakia in 1945. One year later, however, Juraj’s father was appointed Czechoslovak ambassador to the United States and so the family left for America. Following the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, Juraj’s father resigned from his post and the family decided to stay in the United States. Juraj’s siblings Dušan and Taňa remained in Czechoslovakia, where Dušan was subsequently arrested and spent 11 years in jail.
Juraj studied philosophy at Dartmouth College and then volunteered for the draft, serving in the U.S. Army between 1953 and 1956 as a translator debriefing Czech and Slovak refugees after they crossed the border into West Germany. In 1960, Juraj married his wife, Julie Bres Slavik. The couple have two children. After a successful career working for the U.S. government’s cultural exchange Program, Juraj, now retired, devotes much of his time to Slovak and Czech organizations, including Friends of Slovakia and the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU). In 1990, Juraj returned his father’s ashes to his native Slovakia. He has worked with Slovak and Czech historians to have his father’s letters published. In 2006, a book about Juraj’s father, titled Juraj Slávik Neresnický: od politiky cez diplomaciu po exil 1890-1969, was published in Bratislava by Slovak historian Slavomír Michálek.
A Russian named Paul Gorguloff once tried to assassinate Juraj’s father
“Being minister of the interior, he was in charge of police issues. And the commissioner of police for Prague was, I don’t remember his title, but it was Doležal. And Doležal came to my father and said that they had a report that there was going to be an attempt to assassinate the president, Masaryk, but that they had no real solid information about it, it was just hearsay. But what should they do? Masaryk was supposed to speak at the Obecní dům in Prague…
“The bottom line was that they decided to flood the place with secret police, or tajní, as they used to call them – mufti – in civilian clothes. And the way they identified where they were was to put potted palms in this meeting hall so, beside every potted palm was a policeman out of uniform. And the guy who came to assassinate Masaryk must have sensed this police presence and decided he wasn’t going to try it, it was too much of a chance… So the president was saved and so this guy, whose name was Gorguloff, a Russian terrorist – today, you would call him a terrorist – decided who was to blame and he said ‘Slávik’s to blame, because he is the head of the police system!’ So he came after my father in Schnirchova – that was the name of the street in Prague.
“And he came to our apartment in Schnirchova on the pretext of presenting a book to my father. And so my father – in those days you didn’t think about these things or security – so he agreed that he would meet. It was easier to meet at the apartment than at the office. So, this man Gorguloff came to the apartment. It was fairly recently after my birth. My mother didn’t know that he had a guest. In the deposition that came out later, he said that he had this book for my father to initial or sign, and under the book he had the pistol. And he was going to wait until my father looked down into the book to sign, and he was going to shoot him. And at that point my mother happened to, not knowing that there was a guest, open the sliding doors, somehow she had me in her arms. The guy took one look at her and ran out. Later he said that he had seen the Madonna – so that became a family joke, because they said ‘Who do you think you are?’ And I said ‘I don’t know!’ The bottom line was that later he settled in France and shot the French president, Paul Doumer.”
Staff at the Czechoslovak mission in Warsaw refused to hand the building to the Gestapo in March 1939
“The instructions came from the minister of foreign affairs, Chvalkovský, to the embassy – to the mission, because it was not an embassy, it was the mission, the legation, or whatever its titles were – to turn over the legation to the Germans, since they were now the new Protectorate and they had the right… With the exception, probably, of one individual, the embassy staff said no. It was decided that it would not be turned over. The Poles by this time were beginning to be a little worried. They said, you know, it’s an extra-territorial problem, we really can’t get involved in the middle of this. My father at one point had a phone call, which he says was a muffled voice, which he thought he recognized as being Ambassador von Moltke, who was the German ambassador, who was a good friend.
“The warning was that the German Gestapo had gained keys to the Czechoslovak legation and were coming to take over. Do something about the locks… so they put sand and paper and junk into the locks and so the German keys did not work and the Poles had insisted that the takeover be without violence. So the German Gestapo departed the scene, you know, and left without the embassy. And it was used as a focal point for all the Czechoslovaks who were escaping across the border from Czechoslovakia and Slovakia into Poland and where perhaps the nucleus of this potential legion, which took a while to get approved, and so by the time they were approved, it was too late.”
The Slaviks’ butler Tony Mach saved many of Juraj’s father’s precious documents from the Nazis
“Tony Mach packed up some papers of my father’s and took them back to his father’s farm in Volhynia, including a suitcase full of my father’s dressier things like the smoking, the dinner jacket, the white tie, tails, you know – the formal dresses, his decorations, his sashes – you know, ambassadors used to wear these formal decorations. And he took them all to his father and mother’s farm in Volhynia, where he spent the war working in a German factory, going back to his parents on weekends, taking out the clothes, brushing them to get rid of the moths, cleaning them up, and keeping them safe, including the papers. Had the Germans found the papers on that farm, it would have been the death of all of them, I mean, it was just that kind of situation.
“Many years later, my father has just learned that he is going to be ambassador to the United States, and about a day or so later, there was this movement of the Volhynian Czechs – they had been brought back into the German Sudeten areas. And the people in Volhynia were told ‘You can opt, you can stay here and become a citizen of the Soviet Union,’ which was expanding into Poland, ‘or you can go back to Czechoslovakia which is no longer subject to counter-reformation practices.’ So, they opted to go back to Czechoslovakia after 300-odd years of emigration.
“And so Tony… they put everything onto horse carts and ox carts and whatever, and the doorkeeper at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Černín Palace, comes up to my father’s office and says ‘Mr. Minister, umm, there’s a man here with a horse cart, and he says he knows you, he’s got some things of yours.’ And so my father says ‘Oh my God!’ So he goes downstairs and there’s Tony Mach, our butler, with all these things of my father’s! And he had brought them on his way from Poland to wherever they were going in the Sudeten area. And so, of course, the irony of it was that my father’s shape had changed over time. Most of the things didn’t fit anymore. But the papers… so half the papers were saved this way – that’s why my father was able to write his memoirs!”
Juraj spent World War II in Great Britain
“Rosslyn House had a phenomenal view of London. So of course we watched the Battle of Britain from our windows, when we were not in the air-raid shelter. Although I tended to sneak out and try and watch, because I could see the fires and the German bombers, you know, illuminated in the searchlights. That was real heady stuff, you know! Later, or actually not later – earlier – there was one day that I remember I was in the garden, and there was this roar, and I looked up and a German Heinkel was coming and I could see the pilot with his goggles and his head, looking out, and he was obviously trying to get his bearings, because I thought he was going to hit the hill, I mean, it was just round… And about 30, no it couldn’t have been 30, about 10 or 15 seconds later, two Spitfires were barreling exactly on the same path! That was all the noise! And of course they started, I could hear them shooting, and eventually there was a plume of smoke, so you know they got him. So this would go on, you know, and it was watching the dog fights during the day, because you were wondering, was it one of ours or one of theirs? You know, they’d come plummeting down with smoke trailing and stuff like that. And that was, as I say, very heady stuff.
“And then going to school was fascinating, because there was a lot of shrapnel on the road, and it was suggested that it would be helpful to collect the shrapnel, so we had bags or buckets or whatever, putting the pieces of shells in to collect so that they could melt it and shoot it back. And the prize collection was always the fuse – the shell fuse, which was the settings for the explosion at a certain altitude – so that was, those were real collector’s items, those you could trade, and so it was great fun collecting. Of course it also meant, because the air-raids would come in the morning, we always hoped it would be in time to slow us down on going to school! Because then we could do the collecting of the shells, the ammunition, the spent shells, the shrapnel and be late at school, so that was a benefit – and do a good deed by turning it in, and then in the evening, we’d spend the night in the shelters, because they would do some bombing at night.”
Juraj served in the U.S. Army debriefing Czech and Slovak refugees near Nuremberg
“There were some cases that were pretty horrendous. I don’t think it’s a classified one – one border guard shot the other border guard who was patrolling with him, they were covering the border security, you know the mined area and stuff like that, the barbed-wire fences and the machine gun sectors and stuff like that. And this guy was on the border, was on a patrol with his buddy, and he shot him in the back, killed him, and then escaped. He said the reason he shot him was it was the only way he could feel secure to effect his own escape; the Czech authorities said he was a murderer and had escaped in order to escape punishment for his crime. Two different stories – one the government’s, one this ordinary border, pohraniční stráž guy’s – we were hard put, because obviously, if it was murder and escape from the penalties of murder, he should be returned. If he had in effect gotten out because he had killed a guy in order to effectuate a successful escape, that was another question. The question of course immediately comes to mind ‘Why didn’t he just knock him in the head and pass him out, and then make his way out?’ The question there was ‘How long would it have taken him to get out?’ He had no way of knowing how long it would take to effect his escape, whether the guy would recover and call the alarm before he could… you know, so there was a real judgment… I had to take him to Frankfurt for a lie-detector test that we did, and the lie-detector operator said ‘I believe his story checks out, his escape rationale, however, I would not like to be his mother and tell him no about having a cookie!’ So, we sort of knew how amoral this individual was.”
Juraj’s brother Dušan spent 11 years in jail in Czechoslovakia after the 1948 coup
“At one point he says he was visited by a couple of secrets, tajní, you know, and they said ‘Would you write a letter to your father to tell him it’s okay to come back to this country?’ You know, ‘Everything will be forgiven’, and Dušan said ‘What do you mean, forgiven?’ And they sort of negotiated this. And he said ‘Look, I can’t see my wife, I can’t see my child, I don’t have anything to read, I can’t write, everything is forbidden. Forget it!’ And they said, ‘Well, if we were to give you some of these benefits, would you consider writing a letter?’ And he said ‘Consider? Of course! Sure!’ And so of course then he did write a letter, and he obviously put in little references which they didn’t like. So they never sent the letter, but they did give him the freedom, and they asked him what did he want to read? And he said ‘I want to read Karl Marx, Das Kapital.’ They said, ‘Why do you want to read that?’ And he says ‘To learn how you think so I know how to fight you!’ So, he said ‘I figured I was in for a beating’, but he said they only tried to do it once. He was big, much bigger than I am, heftier, and he said the interrogator came at him, and he said he took the chair he was sitting on and pinned the guy against the wall and he said ‘You try and do that again and I’ll kill you, I have nothing to lose!’ And they never beat him after that.”
Category: Oral History