Savoy Horvath (born Savoj Horváth), 1933
Savoy Horvath was born in 1933 in Brno, Moravia. Six years later, his family moved to Hradec Králové where his father worked at a German airport as an interpreter and accountant for the Nazis. Savoy’s father was also the leader of a Czech resistance group called 777. Immediately following the War, Savoy’s father was given management of an ESKA bicycle factory in Cheb, a city in the Sudeten region close to the German border. Savoy remembers being active in politics as a young teenager and, as a supporter of the Czech National Socialist (or Beneš) Party, clashing with his peers who held communist views. Savoy went to trade school and began an apprenticeship at his father’s factory, where he became friends with a number of Yugoslav workers. In 1948, he helped a couple of them across the border illegally and, after one escapee changed his mind, Savoy says he was in danger of arrest. Convinced that he must leave the country immediately, Savoy crossed the border into Germany in April 1948.
After time spent in a series of refugee and holding camps, Savoy joined the French Foreign Legion. Because he was only 15, he lied about his age. As a legionnaire, he traveled to North Africa for training and then to French Indochina, before deciding to leave the service. He returned to Germany where he was sent to Aglasterhausen Children’s Center and then to Bad Aibling Children’s Village. Savoy recalls the 10 months he spent at Bad Aibling as extremely enjoyable; he started a Scout troop, made many lifelong friends, and met his wife, Nadia. Savoy’s uncle signed an affidavit which allowed him to come to the United States in December 1949. He lived on his uncle’s farm in upstate New York until settling down in the Chicago area with his parents, who had escaped from Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1949 (his father had been working for the OSS, collecting information and escorting Czechs across the border). Savoy and Nadia married in 1953 and they had four daughters. He became an American citizen in 1956. He worked as a sheet metal fabricator for the Ford Motor Company for 32 years, and spent 12 years in the Illinois National Guard.
Savoy is a member of the Society for Czechoslovak Philately and has traveled back to the Czech Republic several times in this capacity. He also has one of the largest collection of letters sent to and from Czechoslovak labor camps during the 1950s, and was interviewed for an exhibit at the Museum of Exile in Brno. Upon retirement, Savoy built a house in Readstown, Wisconsin, where he now lives with his second wife.
Savoy’s family harbored a Russian refugee at the end of WWII
“We were in the woods gathering firewood and a stranger approached us, and he was an escaped Russian major – NKVD political officer – and he wanted to get out to the West. And my father hid him until the war was over, gave him one of his suits and everything, because he was really taken in by the man, and then in May ’45 he delivered him across Czechoslovakia to the American lines and, somehow, he wanted to get to the OSS section and that’s where he ended up, and that’s how my father got the OSS connection with Donovan. And as soon as the Iron Curtain fell he automatically worked for the Americans.”
Savoy moved to the border city of Cheb in 1945
“For Czechs right after the war, to go live in the former Sudeten area was like moving to the Wild West.”
Why do you say it was like the Wild West?
“Well, because the inland was more peaceful. Over there, with kids, we go out hiking or something, we find an anti-aircraft machine gun, we find piles of ammunition and rifles. I remember we found an abandoned Tiger tank and about 15 of us started carrying ammunition and just dumping it in the open hatch – this was deep in the woods – and then we emptied out big shell casings and made a long path of gunpowder that went about half mile away, and lit it. What a bang. That was the entertainment for after the war for kids.”
Savoy helped some friends illegally cross the border
“When the Iron Curtain fell in ’48, I got to be real good friends with them because I was the only Czech in town that spoke Yugo, and they knew my political views too, because a lot of them were not Communist. Three of them asked me how to get across the border to Germany. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll take you.’ And I did, and one of them had a change of heart, came back, and turned me in. I was 15 then, and I’m going to school and a couple of my friends said ‘The state secret police is waiting for you. You better not go to school.’ I did go back home. There was nobody at home. I left a note that I’m leaving, that I have to leave. I didn’t have time to go into detail because I was really, really shook up. I had a gold coin collection. I taped it to the soles of my feet with some kind of tape. I took all the money that I had saved up with me, and I took my little briefcase with school books and everything, just in case I got stopped by the border patrol – ‘I’m visiting my friend that lives down over there…’
At age 15, Savoy joined the French Foreign Legion
“So they shanghaied me on a ship. Two days later we’re going through the Suez Canal to Hai Phong. Well, that was French Indochina then. And from Hai Phong we were put on a train to Hanoi to pick up French wounded. I was assigned to one wounded guy that I had to take care of. Back on a train, back to the harbor, back to the ship, and all the way to Marseille, and then I just walked away from it. So my stint, it was a good adventure, because, just stop and think, not 18, I’d seen Africa, North Africa, I’d seen Indochina.”
Savoy arrived at his uncle’s farm in upstate New York in December 1949
“And they were poor. I thought I lived much better in Czechoslovakia then he did in America, and once I got there, I knew I did. First thing he says, ‘We got electricity six months ago.’ Outside toilet, phone on the wall with a crank. My uncle, they looked at going to the movies as the devil’s work. They wouldn’t let me listen to popular music, I had to listen to gospel, or…They were fanatical religious.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History