Barbara Reinfeld (born Barbora Koháková), 1935
Barbara Reinfeld was born in Prague in 1935. Her father, Miloslav, was a journalist who had also worked as a parliamentary stenographer for the National Socialist (or Beneš) Party. Her mother, Zdislava, who studied in the United States for two years, taught English and physical education before Barbara and her older brother, Erazim, were born. In 1941, Barbara’s father was arrested for resistance activity and sent to Pankrác prison for one year. He was then sent to Mauthausen concentration camp for the remainder of the War. Barbara’s mother was taken to Terezín in 1944. While both of her parents were imprisoned, Barbara lived with her mother’s brother in Prague. Barbara’s parents survived Nazi detention and returned to Prague at the end of the War. In 1947, Barbara’s father, who was active in the YMCA, was sent to the United States on a goodwill mission. Soon after he returned, the Communist coup occurred and Barbara’s parents decided to leave the country. In March 1948, the family traveled to Kvilda in southern Bohemia where they met a guide and other escapees. They crossed into Germany on foot and were sent to Regensburg refugee camp. Barbara’s father, with his connections through the YMCA, secured an apartment for the family in Munich where they stayed for almost one year while waiting for permission to immigrate to the United States.
In August 1949, Barbara and her family sailed to New York City. They were greeted by their sponsor, Mr. Sibley, whom Barbara’s father had met while on his mission to the United States. For a few months, Barbara’s family lived on a farm owned by Mr. Sibley in upstate New York. In 1950, Barbara’s father got a job with Radio Free Europe and they moved to the borough of Queens in New York City. Barbara attended Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn and then Carleton College in Minnesota. Meanwhile, Barbara’s parents moved to Munich where her father continued his work with Radio Free Europe and her mother became a librarian. Barbara received her master’s degree in history from Columbia University and began studying for her doctorate. She married and had two children. Barbara returned to Czechoslovakia twice in the 1960s. She finished her dissertation on the Czech writer and journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský and received her doctorate in Czech history from Columbia in 1979. Barbara taught history at the New York Institute of Technology and Hofstra University for over 25 years. In 2007, she took a group of students from Hofstra to Prague where they took classes and experienced the culture. Barbara has been a long-standing member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU). In her retirement, she volunteers at local landmarks and is looking forward to traveling to her home country once again. Today, Barbara lives in Carle Place, New York, with her husband, Bob.
It was during WWII that Barbara first started school
“What I remember about school is that the first day of schooling, my official first school experience, was that we had to Heil Hitler when we first started the school day. So these teachers who are all Czech patriots would always do it funny. They wouldn’t do it right, and then the principal would walk down the hall and if he saw a teacher doing it wrong, they could be reprimanded. But they’d do that as a gesture of anti-Nazi [sentiment].”
And the principal was a Nazi?
“No, no, just a Czech that was concerned that a Nazi might be looking over or some inspector would come and see this. The other thing we did was we had to learn German, so as a point of patriotism we made sure we didn’t do well. So I could have very good German, but I don’t because of this. We’d come back with a C [grade] and the parents would say ‘Great! You’re doing great.’”
Barbara’s parents were both sent to concentration camps during the War
“My mother, at the end of the War, came back first, and I was living with an uncle of mine. I was so happy to see her; I said I wanted to go home immediately, so we went out on the street and we hailed a truck, and this truck took us home and I was so happy. It had to be one of the happiest days of my life. And then from that point on, everyday my mother would go to meet the transports to see if my father was on a transport coming back from Mauthausen, and for days and days she came back with nothing, so I kind of thought ‘Well, that may be it,’ but then one day she found him.”
Barbara’s father traveled to the United States on an official mission in 1947
“My father, in 1947, came to the States on a mission connected with the YMCA, because he was involved with the Y. He went back [to Czechoslovakia] thinking he had done his mission which was to explain to the Americans that Czechoslovakia was going to be the bridge between the two, between East and West. So it might be communist, but it wouldn’t be anti-American, because the Czech communists were different. Bad idea, but at that time he was operating on that idea.”
Did they believe him?
“Well, some people did because Czechoslovakia had been liberated by both, Russians and the Americans, so on that basis there was this thought that it could be the bridge between East and West. And my father believed it at the time. So he made a tour; it was two months or so. And he thought the tour went well as far as getting the idea across, that Czechoslovakia was not part of the Soviet bloc.”
Shortly after the Communist coup, Barbara’s parents made the decision to leave the country
“My father, I think, was very conscious of the fact that he wouldn’t survive another concentration camp or another prison. My mother was aware of that as well. So no, he did not hesitate at all, because other people were already getting arrested. And, actually, when he was being interrogated by the communists, it just happened that this guy came in and he said ‘Oh, you’re here’ and my father said ‘Yes, I was asked to appear at some hearing’ and this guy said ‘You come see me after you’re finished at [a] room’ in this office building. So my father went there and this guy said ‘You remember me?’ and my father said ‘Of course I remember you.’ It turned out that he had been in Mauthausen with my father but he was a big communist now and he told my father ‘Get out as quick as you can,’ so we did. But even if that hadn’t happened, I think he would have gone, because my father felt so strongly that he couldn’t survive another thing like that.”
Well that’s very kind of the communist.
“See the reason he did that is that my father had been very good to him in the camp. He would always give him an extra roll or whatever because he liked him as a human being. He was always very cooperative and very kind. He was a nice guy.”
Barbara says that her family had almost no communication with relatives once they left Czechoslovakia
“There was always that fear that we would get them in trouble, so we never wrote, and I think at some point they must have found out where we were, but there was no contact. Except one time. One time, the uncle that I used to live with during the War – he was a doctor – he did get out for a conference in Munich and my parents were in Munich. He wrote them, or they were somehow able to communicate and he said ‘Is there anything you want that you left behind?’ Even though we hadn’t told anybody, my mother did tell him that we were going to leave, and he said ‘If there’s anything you really want, bring it to our house and we’ll keep it for you.’ So when my parents asked if there was anything we really wanted to have if we ever came back, I decided to pack up my glass menagerie and it was taken to my uncle’s house, where I lived during the War. Then in the early ‘70s he was able to get out of the country to go to a medical conference and he was able to go to Munich. Somehow he was able to communicate with my parents and he asked ‘Is there anything I can bring?’ They said ‘Bring Barbara’s menagerie if you can’ and he did. So this is extremely precious. And now I’ve added to it a little bit since, and now my grandsons adore this menagerie and they’re so good. They just kneel and look and study and gaze at these wonderful blown-glass figurines.”
So these are examples of Czech glass.
“Exactly. Well, now there’s some other things in there now, but mostly they’re Czech blown glass.”
Barbara describes her first trip back in the 1960s and a subsequent trip
“The general atmosphere, even though it was hopeful, seemed grim to me and the conversations sounded like conversations I remembered after the War, like ‘This person’s coming back from prison;’ ‘This person’s being arrested by the communists;’ ‘This person’s being somehow mistreated.’ It sounded so similar that I decided I wouldn’t go back until things really changed. Then it looked like things were going to change, for the better obviously, but that got completely nixed by the Soviets, so then it was another 20 years. I didn’t go back until 1990 and then I started going back a lot. And then in 2007, I had a wonderful swan song of my career. I took 20 Hofstra students to Prague. I was the director of the whole program.”
What was the program?
“Hofstra University in Prague. They got credit for history, art, architecture… We had about five or six courses, they could choose three and they got nine credits, and we also did a trip to Auschwitz. It was wonderful. These kids were so wonderful. I was so proud of them. They were great.”
Category: New York City, Oral History