Paul Ort (born Pavel Ort), 1936
Paul Ort was born in Prague in 1936. His father, Miloslav, was a surgeon, while his mother, Ludmila, stayed home to raise Paul and his two older brothers. When Paul was three, his parents divorced and his mother soon remarried. In 1942, Paul’s family became involved in the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich when his grandfather, a lay official of the Russian Orthodox Church in Prague, helped hide his killers – Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. Paul’s grandfather was executed by the Nazis, and his grandmother, mother, and stepfather were sent to Terezín and Mauthausen, where they died. Paul and his brothers went to live with their father, who later married their governess. At the age of 15, Paul was sent to work at a chemical factory in the small town of Křinec for one year. He then attended gymnázium in Nymburk. Paul was admitted to the medical school at Charles University and graduated in 1961. He worked for one year as a trainee in orthopedics in Teplice.
In 1962, Paul received a tourist visa for a trip to Tunisia. While on the beach with his tour group, Paul left the group and hitchhiked to Tunis where he made contact with a diplomat from the West German Embassy who helped him claim asylum. Paul eventually received permission to immigrate to the United States and, in 1963, moved to New York. He took a qualifying exam which would allow him to work in the United States, and then traveled to Venezuela to visit family members. While there, he was offered a job as an expedition doctor, and spent one year in the Venezuelan jungle. Paul returned to New York in 1964 and completed an internship at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center. When Paul was offered a residency in orthopedics at Bellevue Hospital (in conjunction with NYU), he moved to Manhattan. He worked as an orthopedic surgeon for 30 years and, in 2005, was offered the job of chief of orthopedics at the VA NYC Medical Center. Paul believes that his career has flourished thanks to his move to the United States.
Paul’s first visit back to Czechoslovakia was after the Velvet Revolution; he says that his acquaintance with Václav Havel (with whom he attended elementary school) prevented him from being allowed to return under communism. Since his arrival in the United States, Paul had been involved in the Czechoslovak community in New York. In 2011, he served as president of the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens. Today, he lives in Manhattan.
Paul’s family helped hide the parachutists after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942
“Her portion of the family became involved in the Heydrich affair. My grandfather was a lay president of the Russian Orthodox church in Prague and it was really his idea to hide the parachutists who killed Heydrich in the Russian Orthodox church in Resslova Ulice. So the Heydrich assassination took place in 1942 and the whole portion of my family on my mother’s side perished. My grandfather was executed shortly after the assassination. There was a mock trial staged by the Nazis where all the members of the Russian Orthodox church were sentenced to death and they were shot in Kobylisy, and my grandmother and my mother and her new husband, they went to Terezín, and from Terezín to Mauthausen, and my mother perished in Mauthausen.”
So your grandfather was an activist.
“My grandfather was an activist in the sense that he was a patriot. He was a member of Sokol and similar nationalistic organizations, and because of his involvement in these organizations he was approached when these parachutists who killed Heydrich needed to be hidden or sheltered. He provided the shelter in the Russian Orthodox church, which is now a museum.”
Paul says that he and his brother were also in danger following the Heydrich affair
“They not only killed the people who assisted directly, but also the family members. Often people ask me how come I survived and my brothers, and the only reason why we survived was because my parents were divorced. So even though it was a painful thing, it really saved our lives. My mother remarried and her husband also perished. The Gestapo did come a few times to our house, but my father, who was educated under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, spoke German and he always managed to turn the Gestapo away. Sometimes he claimed that we were sick with infectious diseases which the Nazis were afraid of. Three times, he said that the Nazis came to get us as children, but he always managed to turn them away.”
Paul talks about his memories of the Prague Uprising and the end of WWII
“I do remember the revolution. I was nine years old. I remember we didn’t go to school because there was already some unrest, but we went to the island Žofín, which is right near the Národní divadlo [National Theatre]. We were there with my brothers and then we saw that people started to hang Czech flags – the tricolore – and so my oldest brother, who was 14, said ‘It sounds like trouble,’ so we ran home, and the shooting started. I remember there was a Protestant church right across from the house where we lived and one of the Nazi snipers holed himself up in the tower of the church and was shooting at people, but eventually he was also annihilated.
“But then I have memories of driving through the streets of Prague and there were Nazi sympathizers. I remember a woman walking barefoot with a huge picture of Hitler hanging from her neck, covering her entire body, and she was holding a wooden pistol, like a mockery, and pointing it to the picture of Hitler. So they tortured her, humiliated her, etc. And then I remember the Nazis hanging from the lampposts. As a nine-year-old I was very impressed by that picture, even though as soon as we passed that kind of scenery, my father pushed my head down under the car seat.”
As a teenager, Paul experienced a hiccup in his education
“When I was 15 years old, the communists decided that I couldn’t continue my education. It was interesting because I lived in a neighborhood where also lived the later president [Václav] Havel. As a matter of fact, we were classmates in the same public elementary school for five years. That was a fate that I shared with Havel. He was in the same predicament when the communists came; he was also not allowed to go to school, and he worked in a brewery from what I remember. I think for a while in a chemical factory and later in a brewery. Some of his plays refer to this.
“When I was 15, the communists said that my education was finished and my parents – my father and my stepmother – they put up a tremendous fight. Everything failed, but then of course my stepmother prevailed because she figured out a way to move me out of Prague and to the village where she was schoolteacher and she knew everybody and everybody knew her. I worked in a chemical factory too, in a lab, Spolana Neratovice, a chemical factory in a small town called Křinec. I worked there for a year and, after a year, I was no longer a bourgeois element, but the working class decided that I needed to further my education, so they sent me to a gymnázium. But the only concession I had to make was that I couldn’t return back to Prague, so I went to a gymnázium in Nymburk.”
In 1962, Paul went on a tourist trip to Tunisia with the idea that he might escape to the West
“We were 400 Czech tourists and we didn’t know who was an agent. Probably for every bus there was an agent, or maybe two, so I didn’t know if it would be possible to escape. But then one day, they took us to the beach, which of course was a tremendous treat for all of us who grew up in a landlocked country, and then at the beach I decided that I’ll make my escape. I felt the agents lost control of us – who was in the water, etc. – so I left from the beach, and because I was afraid that I would be conspicuous I didn’t have anything with me except my pants and a shirt and a bathing suit. So I made a clean break. The communists gave us pocket money worth six dollars, so I had less than six dollars because I already spent a little bit of it. Even though I brought my diploma onto the ship, at that point, when I was on the beach and I felt I had the opportunity to leave, I didn’t even have the diploma.”
Recently, Paul served as president of the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens
“It’s very interesting because here we decided not to split into two nations. Even though the official name of that organization is the Bohemian Hall, we feel that Slovaks are our brothers, and I always felt that they should be encouraged. As far as I’m concerned, we didn’t split; I consider it still a Czechoslovak organization. Naturally, there is some conflict and controversy about that too, because there are people who perhaps don’t like the Slovaks and there are some Slovaks who don’t like the Czechs, but as far I’m concerned, it’s one nation.”
Paul thinks about what his life would have been like had he stayed in Czechoslovakia
“In my opinion, it would have been a horror. I mean, I did experience it a little bit in Teplice, where I worked after my graduation. But the subservience that we were forced into, the insincerity, the inability to trust anybody, to be able to speak freely; in my opinion, it was horrible. Destruction, really, of a human spirit. This is why I treasure this country most because, quite to the contrary, it encourages you. And I would say I am probably a little bit of an individualist, but this country kind of appreciates it.”
Category: New York City, Oral History