Lubomir Chmelar (born Lubomír Chmelař), 1935
Lubomir Chmelar was born in Zlín in 1935. His parents both worked for the Bat’a shoe company, his father, Josef, as an executive and his mother, Anna, as a designer. His mother would eventually start her own fashion design business. At the age of one, Lubomir moved with his parents to Baghdad, where his father was tasked with opening a Bat’a factory. The Chmelars lived in and socialized with the small Czech community there. In March 1939, Lubomir’s father finished his work in Baghdad and planned toreturn to Zlín; however, the day they arrived in Trieste, Italy, and planned to drive to Czechoslovakia was the same day that Hitler occupied the country. They were instead sent to Serbia for a short time before moving to Kenya. Lubomir lived with his parents on the outskirts of Nairobi until he went to boarding school in Britain following the War. He attended Oxford University where he studied civil engineering with the intention of starting an engineering design consultancy in Kenya (where his parents would remain for the rest of their lives). After a two-year apprenticeship in London, Lubomir planned to seek out jobs in Canada and Mexico before returning to Kenya; however, while in Toronto, he met his future wife, Tiree, and, in 1962, the pair married and moved to New York City.
Lubomir and his wife bought a run-down townhouse in the Chelsea neighborhood which they restored and raised their four children in. Lubomir says that this project and his neighborhood piqued his interest in historic preservation. He worked as a civil engineer and developer in New York before retiring in 1990. Lubomir first returned to Czechoslovakia in 1961, but a visit in 1987 led him to found Prague-Vienna Greenways, a group of hiking-biking trails connecting the two capitals. The project progressed to include the restoration of the gardens at Valtice, a palace and estate in Moravia, and has focused on partnering with artisans, restaurateurs, and bed-and-breakfast owners to support community and heritage building along the trail. Prague-Vienna Greenways is now administered by the Environmental Partnership for Central Europe in Brno, and Lubomir heads the Friends of the Czech Greenways organization. He owns a 15th-century house in the Moravian town of Mikulov and has restored several other houses there. Lubomir lives in Manhattan; however, he frequently visits his native country and enjoys traveling there with his grandchildren and sharing his heritage with them.
Lubomir’s family was scheduled to return to Czechoslovakia in March 1939
“We were in Baghdad and my father was recalled back to Zlín. He had finished his work in Baghdad, which was the setting up of a factory and he was going back to his new job in Zlín. So we packed up our things, my mother, my father, and I – I being an only child – and set off in this very beautiful car. It’s an old 8-cylinder Packard. It was a lovely ivory color with green leather upholstery. They had bought it for each other as a wedding present way back and had it shipped out from Czechoslovakia to Baghdad. The car was then driven from Baghdad to the port of Beirut. In Beirut, the car was put on a platform, covered in a canvas and hoisted onto the front deck of this boat which was called the S.S. Jerusalem, and off we sailed to go to Trieste. Trieste being the point where we were going to land and then drive the rest of the way through the Balkans and up back to Zlín.
“The journey was uneventful; when we arrived in Trieste, the crane began to unload the car, and as the crane was lowering this car on its wooden platform with a canvas cover, about four feet above the quay, one of the ropes broke and the car slid sideways and fell, sustaining damage. This was terrible for all of us – we weren’t expecting it. My father ran to the telegraph office and cabled back to Zlín saying ‘Looks like I’m going to be quite delayed. Car severely damaged in fall from crane.’ We went off, had coffee, had to plan what we were going to do next, waiting for the telegram. The return telegram came back – and I need to know the timing of this, but I’m going to tell you what I think is right. The telegram came back and said ‘Don’t you read the papers? Don’t you know what happened at 4:00 this morning?’ And it was Hitler marching into Prague. ‘You stay put until further instructions.’
“Well, it transpired that as a result of our staying put, for whatever it took – I don’t know, a week or so – to repair the car, my father was not taken back into the Czech Republic by the company, but they set him up in Serbia and, from there, Kenya. And as a result of that, our lives were all outside the terrible horror that so many of our relatives and so many of the countrymen of those nations that were first under Nazi rule and then all those years under the totalitarian state suffered. We, by the skin of our teeth, our lives were changed.”
After being warned not to enter Czechoslovakia, Lubomir and his family traveled to Serbia
“We first briefly went to a place called Borovo in Serbia where there was a Bat’a factory, and then my father was asked to work with the people in Zlín who were given carte blanche by the Wehrmacht to make shoes for the German Army. They were not going to close that place down. So the Czechs then had to bring in raw materials – rubber from Malaya, various hides, this kind of thing. So there was an import/export business going on between Zlín and various parts of Czech investment, and my father was told ‘Look, you’re going to be an import/export person, but one of the things, but one of the things we’re going to be doing is using you to get certain people out. So you’ll be able to petition for, let’s say, a doctor.’ And many of the doctors were Jewish. Many of the Bat’a doctors, and there were quite a huge number of them, maybe 20 or 30, working exclusively for Bat’a in Zlín. Zlín was an enormous population of Bat’a employees. Many tens of thousands. So he had to be very careful because there were quite a few sympathizers in this Borovo factory with what was going on in the Sudetenland of Czech. So he had to be very careful how he got people out and brought them to Borovo, where he was able to transfer them to various parts of the world. One of the lovely things is that the doctor he brought to Kenya, a man called Sanyi Gellert whose daughter became a doctor, they looked after my parents to their dying day. So in a way, it was a give back for this extraordinary time when the Nazis were already occupying Czechoslovakia, but still people could be brought out.”
Lubomir’s first language was neither Czech nor English
“I went to Iraqi school; my first language was actually Arabic. Sadly, it’s gone out of the window supplanted by Swahili which is kind of a coastal Arabic.”
Yet you retained your Czech.
“My Czech, wonderfully, was spoken at home around me all my life and so I’m very grateful for that. That way I was able to go back after the [Velvet] Revolution and spend easy times becoming accepted in the various groups that I had to work with. Had I just come there purely as a Czech in name and not in language, it would have been much more tricky.”
Lubomir talks about his first trip back to Czechoslovakia
“My first time back, after my very early departure at the age of one, was in 1961, just before I came to the States. I suddenly had an urge to go there, and I borrowed a little Lambretta motorbike and, with virtually no luggage, I went zooming off. It was okay; I was able to go through Čedok, but I had to stay at given designated place, and of course I didn’t, so I went to stay with relatives. I didn’t realize that this was a terribly silly thing to do. So on my way back, I stopped at the front and they said ‘Ok, fine. Let’s see your passport. These are the designated [places]. You never stayed there; I don’t see the stamp.’ I said ‘Well, you know, I have relatives and I was staying with friends.’ So I was held for a day while they verified all this. So I went back and it was very, very dark times. Very gray times.”
Lubomir and his wife founded the Prague-Vienna Greenway
“1987 is the time that I saw the possibilities there of a lovely countryside for walking and biking and ecological tourism. So then when ’89 occurred, I’d already been thinking about setting up a trail, but of course, until communism fell it wasn’t practical. And in ’89, I got the idea of bringing the Hudson River Valley Greenway trail concept to a Prague-Vienna greenway trail, as basically a walking and hiking trail from castle to castle, from historic town to historic town, between these two lovely capitals. Got the idea, put it before a lot of funders and they loved it, particularly people like Rockefeller Brothers, German Marshall Fund, American Express Philanthropic. A very important fund was an environmental group called the Hickory Foundation. And so on and so on. We began to work with the World Monuments Fund and they used us and our office in Valtice to start their program. So that kind of snowballed into greenway, restoration of this very important landscape which later became, through World Monuments Fund efforts, a UNESCO designated landscape – the whole thing, 200 square kilometers. And then, from that time, which was about 1992, my wife and I went there and we lived there every year for six months. From 1992 until 2004. That was the period when it really bloomed into a growing thing and spread into neighboring Poland, Slovakia, and it’s now in Bulgaria and Romania. So it’s really a very flourishing concept of biking and hiking trails. But really it’s not so much the tourism, it’s also about community building and supporting heritage, so when you come to a town on the greenway trail, you can go to the local glassblower, artist, meet with them, go behind the scenes, so to speak. And it’s all about that.”
Although Lubomir left Czechoslovakia very young, he holds great admiration for his birth country
“That’s entirely due to my parents who left when they didn’t want to leave, adored – absolutely adored – their motherland, and if you think of the era of their upbringing, it was immediately after WWI; the first Czech[oslovak] Republic was created; the country was full of hope and vision, and industrious, successful; people were well-educated. What I call First Republic Czechs – a certain type, my father’s contemporaries – they’re wonderful. They have a particular quality to them.”
How would you describe that quality?
“Well, without sounding elitist, they’re very intelligent. They study, they read, they love music, but also they can garden, they can grow turnips. They’re rounded people. And it was a period of little Czechoslovakia industrializing itself. So many industrialists were also very rounded people. Many Czechs that I know of my father’s era had hobbies. Everybody had a koníček, as they call it. My father’s hobby was filming. And they became real experts on geology, anthropology, local law, that sort of thing. So they were very interesting people. Maybe I just hit the mother lode, but other Czechs I’ve spoken to remember this era.
“So then I’m abroad, and there are my parents talking about this place that I come from, over and over again. Showing me photographs; my mother, a lovely cook, teaches our African cooks to do vepřo zelo knedlo [pork, dumplings and sauerkraut], all the local Czech goulashes and stuff. I lived in a funny way in a Czech culture. We spoke a terrible patois at home, of Czech, English and Swahili all mixed up. So it was logical that when this place suddenly got its head above water that something inside me said ‘Come on! See what they were talking about.’”
Lubomir enjoys traveling with his grandchildren
“I have these ten grandchildren and my mission with them is to demonstrate that life doesn’t end at Montauk Point. So each year I take pairs – never three, you always get a triangle – you take them in pairs and they have to be pushing ten. We go to my place in Mikulov and we spend ten days there, basically meeting little Czech kids, swimming, there’s a little horse riding, bike riding a lot, eating fried cheese which they love (very unhealthy), and then we go to Vienna where I have friends. We stay with friends for three days, and then we go to Venice and stay there for three days. They have to keep a diary and have a little camera and take photographs, and I’ve got through six. This year I’m taking the two boys. I only have two boys, and eight girls. Amazingly, they remember everything.”
Category: New York City, Oral History