Karel Ruml (born Karel Jan Ruml), 1928
Karel Ruml was born in Prague in 1928 and grew up in the nearby town of Nymburk. His father was a lawyer while his mother stayed at home, raising Karel and his younger sister, Eva. Throughout his childhood, Karel was an active member of the Sea Scouts, which were outlawed in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during WWII. He and fellow crew members of the homemade boat Vorvaň (meaning ‘sperm whale’ in Czech) began to engage in anti-Nazi resistance, monitoring troop movements on behalf of the local partisans and disarming explosives planted by the Germans in the last days of the War. In 1947, Karel began his studies at Charles University’s Law Faculty in Prague. For reasons of his class background, he was expelled from school in 1949, one year after the Communist coup. He went to work in a knitting factory in the North Moravian town of Frýdek-Místek, where he was approached about becoming a courier of secret documents from the nearby Polish border to Prague. Karel says he was trained by a man called Paul in ways to avoid detection and target shooting.
After about one year in northern Moravia, Karel moved back to Nymburk, but continued to work as a courier, using frequent visits to his uncle in Bohumín as an excuse to travel to the Polish border. In 1951, he received word that other participants in this network had been arrested and that he should escape Czechoslovakia as soon as possible. Through a crewmember of the boat Vorvaň, Karel learned of a plot to hijack a train and drive it over the border into Western Germany.
On September 11, 1951, Karel and a number of other hijackers did successfully tamper with a passenger train’s brakes so that it hurtled across the German border, carrying them and a number of civilians, many of whom chose not to return home. The event was widely reported in the Western media and the locomotive in question was quickly dubbed ‘The Freedom Train.’ Those who escaped on the train spent some time in Valka Lager refugee camp in Bavaria before, in most cases, emigrating to Canada.
Karel settled in Toronto where he lived until 1961, when he moved to California. His work in the insurance industry brought him to Ohio in 1978. After a time spent in Chicago establishing a new insurance company in the mid 1980s, Karel returned to Ohio, where he currently lives with his wife. They have one son. In 2001, Karel published a book about his experience of leaving Czechoslovakia entitled Z deníku vlaku svobody [The Freedom Train Diary].
Karel spent his childhood in Nymburk, near Prague
“We lived, initially, on the town square, where granddad had his law office. Dad had his law office together with granddad. And we lived on the same floor as the offices at the back. And my first childhood memory of that place was an explosion in the bathroom, where somebody was cleaning clothes using some explosive thing and somebody else lit the light for the water heater and the thing exploded. But the building was so solid that the outside walls didn’t fly out, I just remember as a little kid climbing over bricks in the hallway. We all survived except the nanny, poor soul, who was the one who lit the match. She survived and I believe that dad looked after her, because she was disfigured, I believe.”
Towards the end of the War, Karel became involved in anti-Nazi resistance
“We had, we were forced to accept the German commandant of the small garrison they had in Nymburk – he lived in our house. He was actually a fairly pleasant guy as it turned out in the end. He could hear the BBC bim bim bim bim, because granddad was hard of hearing and upstairs he was listening to BBC. The German never said a word, except he mentioned to my dad that he was a reservist and really in real life he was an attorney in Hanover someplace.
“At the same time – this is in the dying days of the War, I was already 16 – we had an underground Sea Scout group. It was all illegal of course, scouts were not allowed. And we formed a… it was a dangerous endeavor because we connected with the partisans that were in the hills of Loučeň, north of Nymburk. And we were supposed to keep an eye on German military trains and road transports. To do that, we posted lookouts in the highest point of Nymburk – that was the cathedral… the major church.”
Karel and a friend were taken for questioning by the Germans. It did not deter them, Karel says
“Then the last act of our wartime experience with the Germans was at night. A small group of us climbed under the main bridge and removed the German dynamite which was installed to blow the bridge to protect the German rear as they were retreating. And that was a foolhardy thing to do, because we didn’t know the first thing about disarming explosives. And all we had was just pliers to clip the wire, you know, hanging. And we didn’t blow ourselves up and the bridge survived the War.”
Karel says law students were sent to dig trenches at a camp near Kladno following the coup
“A very strong recollection from those days was a brigade, a working brigade, of the law students. The centuries-old law students club was called Všehrd, and Všehrd had a compulsory work brigade in Kladno, in the area of Kladno. Not in the coal mines, but something else that struck me as nothing short of horrendous. It was, we were transported by several buses from Prague to Kladno, without being told what we were expected to do. We were issued shovels and so on and marched outside town, where there was a newly constructed concentration camp – barbed wire around. And we were supposed to dig a trench on one side. It was in a sort of flood-prone area, so this was some sort of trench for the water. And it gave me hours… of course, we worked at a tempo of one shovel-full a minute, maybe, or every five minutes. We worked as slow as we could.
“We kept our eye on the occupants of the camp behind the barbed wire, and it was heart-rending. There was a lot of old people, a lot of young ones. There was one obviously feeble-minded youngster, who was making faces at us. I’ll never forget that face. It sort of dawned on me then that in a communist society, people who were not healthy and capable of physical labor for the state were not expected to live very long. And I remember the trip back to Prague on board the bus, I mean we were all joking on the way out, on the way back there was not a peep on the bus. We just sat there in shock.”
After Karel became a courier of secret documents, he was arrested once with a friend in Nymburk
“We were marched to the county office, which was also the headquarters of the police. And there sitting in an interview room – not an interview room, a waiting room – were all the members of Buna’s group, some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn’t know. And the other scout and myself were the only two outsiders, because we were only brought in because we were seen talking to him. So, we were the first ones, I guess we didn’t have to wait very long, because we were all seated far enough from one another so that, you know, no information could be exchanged. And one by one we were marched in this room, which was very small, and sat there with lights in our eyes, and it was a communist-style interview with hands – with spread fingers on top of a desk, and during the interrogation, something sharp like a pencil was stuck in the table between our fingers, sometimes hitting it, sometimes not hitting it – you know, it was just like some sort of Russian roulette with a pencil or some sharp object, you know, you were not allowed to look at it, you had to look in the bright lights in your eyes.
“And they couldn’t get anything out of me, because luckily they didn’t ask any questions having anything to do with my underground activity. They would have then gone, of course, to more severe torture immediately – this was just simply to make sure that I was not a member of this group, which I very clearly was not. So I was let go. And then, I remember walking across the bridge home, it was just almost like a rebirth. From that point on, my belief in what I was doing was so much stronger. I knew then that this was something that had to be fought and I did all the damage I could.”
Karel’s task on board the Freedom Train was to guard the handbrake
“I stood there with my back against the handbrake, hoping to make it invisible, and sort of studying the people on board, most of whom were actually high school students returning home to Aš, which was the town on the border – high school kids – and then the train started accelerating instead of slowing down. We could see the machine-gun towers, the minefields with the barbed wire around, all the beautiful sights of a police state. And me standing there alone, watching the beautiful hills, actually, other than that on the border.
“It was so close then, from that point to the border, there wasn’t much time to think of anything else. This enormously fat policeman approached me and tried to push me away from the brake, whereupon I jammed the gun in his stomach and tried to use him as a barrier between myself and his colleagues who were behind him, praying to God that I wouldn’t forced to pull the trigger. But the guy turned cowardly like all the defenders of totality and didn’t do anything, just stood there giving me a horrible look of hate. I could smell his breath smelling of beer and onion and buřty [sausages] and that’s how I crossed the border.”
Karel says his mother was ‘brilliant’ at tricking the authorities following his escape
“My mum was brilliant. I found that out later from [my sister] Eva. When we embraced for the last time, and she watched me drag my suitcase to the… She didn’t go with me but, I guess that either the same day or… she got on the phone to the police and said that she is worried. No, it couldn’t have been the same day, it must have been the next day that she [said] she’s very worried about her son who’s been depressed for a long time, and he’s now missing and she would like some help in trying to locate him because she’s afraid that he might want to commit suicide.
“And that was beautiful, when finally I got connected [with the Freedom Train], initially I’m certain that thanks to the Americans I was not connected, but unfortunately they would have to be absolutely stupid not to connect me with the press in Canada, which was only a month and a half after the escape. But by that time, it was on record that my mum reported me missing and… I was depressed then in Canada, but for different reasons!”
Karel explains why he published a book about his experiences on board the Freedom Train
“You know the main reason was that after a few trips to Prague, I came to the realization that the younger generation in Prague had to know more about the horror at the beginning of the communist era. They all knew a lot about the end of it. But the beginning was a terra incognita to them, they didn’t know bugger all, as they say. And already a lot of cynical people were discounting anything that really was horrible in the first years. It was just beyond description, the arrests, the concentration camps, and so on.”
Category: Cleveland, Oral History