Robert Budway, born 1928
Robert Budway was born to a Czech mother and Canadian father in Oak Park, Illinois in 1928. He became estranged from his father when the latter traveled West to find work during the Great Depression. In 1931, Robert moved to Czechoslovakia with his mother, Marie, who had decided to return to the family farm in Těchonice, western Bohemia. He says that the following year was ‘when his life really began.’ Robert attended school in the village of Plánice. He says his education was intensely patriotic, and that he has been a ‘Czechoslovakist’ ever since, but that at school his accent and American-sounding name marked him out as foreign. Robert refers to his childhood as ‘happier’ than he believes it would have been in Chicago during that era.
Robert remembers the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia during WWII as a traumatic time, and says that his life was greatly complicated following the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, as it was then that local authorities realized that he was an American citizen. He was unable to continue with school and was sent to work at the Hotel Centrál in Klatovy. Towards the end of the War, he was sent to a labor camp in Silesia, where he worked digging ditches.
Robert returned to the Hotel Centrál after the War, but says that the atmosphere there grew hostile on account of his American citizenship. He says he was warned by local policemen that he was in Czechoslovakia ‘illegally’ and turned to the American Embassy in Prague for advice. In 1947, he was issued an American passport and told to report to Marburg an der Lahn in Germany where he could join the U.S. Army. Robert failed the entrance test and spent a number of months wandering around West Germany destitute. He was picked up by military police in Frankfurt and sent to basic training – this time, his written test was postponed until he had learned more English. Robert subsequently spent four years in the US Army in Germany. He came to the United States in 1951 and settled in Washington, D.C. He worked for the American Red Cross and then George Washington University and the YMCA.
In 1957, Robert visited Czechoslovakia for the first time since leaving. He returned to the country in 1959. On his third visit in 1962, he was arrested on charges of espionage and subversion (three years previously, he had been handed a stone which he was told was uranium, and which he took to the United States for further examination). He was sentenced to four years and nine months imprisonment, though he only spent six months in jail. Robert was released from Pankrác prison in Prague in February 1963.
He returned to Washington, D.C. and there met his Moravian-born wife Maria. The couple had two children, one of whom now lives in Prague. Robert says his experience inside Czechoslovak jail ‘made him more American,’ but that he continues to feel a strong sense of Czechoslovak patriotism.
Robert remembers his schooling in Plánice
“The Czech teachers – at that particular time the country was still very young – their aim was patriotism; in Czech it was called vlastenectví. And the patriotism, the Czech patriotism, became my forte. I would be reciting the poem ‘I am a Czech and I always will be Czech,’ (in Czech it was ‘já jsem Čech a Čechem vždycky zůstanu’). I would be singing all these Czech patriotic songs like ‘Čechy krásné, Čechy mé’ – ‘my Czech land, my Czech land.’ And I became… And somehow people said only ‘that must be his American heritage. That’s something in him that [makes him] so outspoken and take an interest in everything.’ And so they actually shaped very much my character. Because then I had to act as an American without knowing how Americans really act. You know, Americans were supposed to have been daring, so if I did [something] then that’s what Americans would do in the West, you know, so I did get quite a reputation and this American stuck with me, so I was always the American, although I tried to be a Czech.”
Robert says his mother wanted him to be politically aware as a child
“The first Czechoslovak mobilization, when it looked like the Czechs would really go and defend themselves against the Germans’ aggression, happened in May. In that village there were maybe only five radio receivers, so we did not have a radio, I mean the communication was not what it is today, and what it was even 50 years ago. And she took me suddenly one afternoon to a pub, which was called in Czech a hospoda, and lo, there were more than about a dozen people sitting around a table. I was the only child. I was the only child sitting around and listening to President Beneš. We had declared the first mobilization of the Czech Army. And I’ll never forget that moment when it was over and the Czech national anthem was played, everybody stood on his feet, so did I, except one character did not get on his feet, and he was a German. He probably didn’t understand anything that was going on. But when the national anthem was over, the young guys certainly took that poor German and they really shook him up. I won’t talk much about it, but I believe up to today that he didn’t know what was really going on. But I certainly knew that the time, the situation, was changing.”
Robert’s American citizenship became more of a problem following Heydrich’s assassination
Every house had to assemble and present their so-called in Czech kmenový list, which means – it was at that particular time a record of who lived in the house; who was there, when were you born. And they looked of course at our house when they came to our house. My mother was so much concerned with her butter and cream and cheese and whatever was hiding, because she felt that they were coming for that, but they were coming for a control to see who lives in the house and if there is any incriminating evidence which would link that thing to the assassination which took place in Prague. That was the objective of that raid.
“She forgot that in her best room she had displayed all her knick-knacks from Chicago. And there it was, a pillowcase which probably she bought some place in a dime store with terrific loud, clear colors which Americans love so much: ‘Our Hero, 1927, Charles Lindbergh.’ Then she had another pillow which apparently had the beginning of the Gettysburg speech of Abraham Lincoln. And then she had George Washington, again, our first president. I recognized when I came back to the United States after a couple of years that they were still having souvenirs like that at dime stores. But these souvenirs, as soon as the gentlemen arrived, they were hit by all of that – it was very openly displayed. And then, what is this Robert Budway, born in Oak Park? That brought the show down.
“She had to produce her travel documents, which were confiscated immediately. Fortunately, somewhere along [the way] she didn’t surrender my birth certificate. So that was a fortunate thing. She was taken then to the city of Klatovy, to the Gestapo, there apparently interrogated for a few hours. She stayed with somebody there for a second day, went to the German so-called Oberlandrat, which was a regional office by which Germans controlled the region. And somewhere along [the way] she came up with new documentation for me.
“I had a passport. The passport was in German and in French, and it was a passport which declared me without citizenship, without a country. It only listed that formerly I was North American. From that moment I was a marked person. Everything about me began… when I was dealing with the official bureaucracy I was referred to someplace else, my ration cards issues were different, a different amount. I had to every six months apply for permission to stay on the territory of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. I was restricted to ever go anyplace else – I could not go anyplace else.”
At first, Robert was not accepted into the US Army
“I came home and I never said anything to my mother that I was not successful. I just packed up my suitcase and left again, and wandered through Germany about for three months before my situation became so hopeless. Then suddenly, totally destitute, hungry, [in an] absolutely desperate situation, I was picked up at Frankfurt railroad station by the [American] military police, and when they looked in my pocket and found an American passport, they were shocked. They were shocked, and of course the Germans were shocked too, because the German police were along with.
“They were shocked that here is an American; [from] a country of plenty, and look – he’s worse off than Germans! My situation changed so fast, so quickly – the Army classification test was postponed and I was used as a poster boy in the Frankfurt headquarters, pictures and publicity which I still have today, and in no time I found myself back again at Marburg for basic training, and it was the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had. Everybody was helpful. From the fellow soldiers with whom I had to take basic training – because most of them came from very much the same situation in Europe. They were coming from Norway, from Denmark, from Germany, from Holland, England; they were all expatriate Americans who actually were in the same situation.”
Robert was arrested in Plzeň in 1962
“I was then taken to some interrogating place in the city of Plzeň, right in the center, which was formerly Gestapo, I knew it too, where I was. And then subjected to about 78 days continuous interrogation. The sessions were long, and to share and to talk about them – that’s a book by itself. And all my history, all my connections with anyone I have ever met in that country, outside of the country – anyone I met in any country, any place, anything I have said – here was an open book to them. They had an incredible dossier on me, they had confiscated a great deal of mail already. They made a number of house searches in places of my friends and others. So, they had so much evidence which they construed the way they wanted. I simply was the enemy of socialism; I did not deny that I did not support socialism… And then of course, their aim was, they knew very well about my upbringing in the First Czechoslovak Republic. I was what they would today call Czechoslovakist. I believed in the ideals of democracy, Masaryk, Beneš and Štefánik, and I could repeat their quotes left and right. They knew my feeling, and that I was down deep a Czech and not some imperialist American spy. But what incriminated me was of course the Army – that I was in the unit which was actually involved in the gathering of information and intelligence.”
Robert remembers his diet in jail
“When I finally had a cellmate, one of them was very experienced; at first I suspected that he might have been put there to find out something from me, so I was very careful, but anyway, I found out that he was not. You know, the city of Plzeň is known for beer – well known Pilsner beer – and the Czechs say ‘it is because of our good water.’ Well, we did not have a faucet, a water faucet in there; there was only water out of the toilet. And believe it or not, we drank that water from out of the toilet. And he made it palatable, my cellmate, by saying ‘after all, they make beer out of it in Plzeň, you know?’ So that was so-called, Czechs call it šibeniční humor [gallows humor] – it is a humor which you use when you are in jail or things like that. And part of it was educational, and certainly I learned a lot, and at times there were moments of amusement too.”
Prisoners at Pankrác were sent to factories to work, says Robert
“I came into some industrial hall, and we were supposed to work on little flags, little paper flags – pasting little paper flags which, when let’s say Leonid Brezhnev visited the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, kids would stand on the sidewalk and wave. But we had a quota of how many flags to do. I believe my quota per day was around 1,500 flags – to paste them up. And somehow along [the way], a few of those prisoners who were around me; they noticed that when they asked me something, I had a little accent. And I made one big mistake: instead of the Czech rádio, I said radio [in an American accent]. And their antennae were up, you know?
“Well, I said that I am a tourist, and they had incredible fun. ‘We have a tourist! From where?’ From America. ‘Oh! We have an American tourist!’ It was a sensation. It went so quickly through that hall and some gypsies came around and brought me an onion. You know, I don’t know where he got the onion but I took the onion, because by that time I no longer had so much pride. There I said ‘thank you very much.’ But anyway, he was practicing his English on me; he kept saying ‘okay! Hokay!’ It was all very amusing.
“First of all, it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to meet my quota. But see, the prisoners started to make my quota. It was a sensation, and of course the guard knew immediately that they have to take me out of there, because I created – I stole the situation. ‘We have an American tourist!’ And, of course, there was lots of joking – ‘how’s your hotel room?’ And things like that. If it was two years and nine months of this fun, it would have been fun!”
Robert calls America ‘a land of tremendous opportunity’
“I accomplished education. Something my mother really treasured. And my children have an education, really, and they did not have to beg anybody, you know, to recommend them to the Party. I got an education and I did not have to degrade myself, to the Party, to any line of anybody, you know. And I had the opportunity to travel, to read, to meet people. This I think would have not happened in my time if I lived in Czechoslovakia. It is different now. It is different, but it would be too late for me. I caught everything in time.”
Category: Oral History, Washington D.C.