Dagmar Russ (born Dagmar Bičíková), 1929
Dagmar Russ was born in Prague in 1929, an only child to parents Antonín and Emílie. Her father was an assistant director at the Post and Telegraph Ministry, while her mother stayed home to raise Dagmar. Dagmar says that she had a large, close extended family and regularly saw her grandparents and other relatives. She loved going to Sokol and attended a high school for girls called rodinná škola [family school]. After graduating, she found work as a draftswoman for TESLA. Dagmar has particularly strong WWII memories of the Prague Uprising and the liberation of the city by Russian troops.
Dagmar’s husband, whom she married in 1949, had flown with the Czechoslovak squadron of the RAF during WWII. In March 1950, he, along with other ex-RAF pilots who now worked for the Czechoslovak State Airlines (ČSA) and were concerned for their future in the communist state, planned an escape which saw three planes take off from Bratislava, Brno and Ostrava and land at the American air base in Erding, Germany. Dagmar, who was with her husband on the plane leaving from Bratislava, says that the journey was well-planned and fairly uneventful.
They stayed in Germany for a few weeks and then moved to London where their first son, Tom, was born in September. In November 1951, the family moved to Toronto where Dagmar became active in Sokol. Her younger son, Michael, was born in 1952. After eight years in Canada, Dagmar and her family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in search of, according to Dagmar, ‘a better life.’ She bought a dress shop in San Francisco and ran it for several years. Dagmar married her second husband, Rudolf Russ (also a Czechoslovak émigré) in 1965. She says that the pair had a ‘busy life’ and ‘grouped up with [other] Czechs.’ Dagmar returned to Czechoslovakia several times after her escape. Today she lives in San Mateo, California.
Dagmar says that her childhood was ‘beautiful’
“We were a big family. Both my parents had lots of siblings and we were a very, very close family, so everybody had birthdays and, in Europe you celebrate name days, so we usually got together. And because it was such a large family it was always fun. I remember when my grandmother, my mom’s mom, had a birthday or whatever, all of us kids stood in line and everybody had to say a rhyme and hand her a bouquet of flowers. My other grandma, my dad’s mom, she absolutely insisted that we come to see her once a week, and that was usually Wednesday, so she always had some little pastry or something. I had a beautiful, beautiful childhood. Everybody loved everybody, and we were very, very close with all my cousins and aunts and uncles.”
In March 1950, Dagmar and her husband escaped from the country as part of a triple hijacking
“There were three planes; one from Bratislava, one from Moravská Ostrava and one from Brno. Most of the crew was RAF. I got to the bus which takes you to the airport. When we got there – of course this I found out later on – they were already searching with the radar for the two planes from [Ostrava sic.] and Brno. They were out of radar contact and we were the last ones to take off. On our plane was the wife of the American ambassador to Prague and a few people, some of them who didn’t want to be found. My husband told me ‘We didn’t even warm up the engine. We had to take off right away because we didn’t want to be caught on the ground.’ So, without warming up the engines, they just took off. We had to fly about an hour and a half over the Russian zone which was very dangerous at that time. So then he told me that they asked the Americans to give us an escort. We were very high so that we would be out of the radar, but still they asked for an escort so they wouldn’t shoot us down. So that was cool.
“I was okay. I was a little… when you are 20, you don’t know fear. It was funny; on the plane in front of me, there were a bunch of guys from Bratislava and they liked to eat klobásy (sausages) and have slivovice [brandy]. So they said ‘Oh miss, come join us. Have a drink with us. Have fun!’ I said ‘No, no. Thank you.’ They were having a great time. As we were closing – we ended up in Erding – they said ‘Oh, this doesn’t look like Prague’s airport. Where are we?’ And then they saw ‘Oh look, there are planes all around us with a white star!’ and those were the escort planes. But it was cool with them; they didn’t cause any problems. However, when we landed, there was one guy who pulled out his pistol and he went to the cabin where the crew was. Luckily, they locked themselves in because they anticipated this. So they locked themselves in the cabin because he was going to shoot them because they took us to the wrong place, because there were all these MP and Jeeps and American soldiers. It was the American zone where we ended up.”
As a result of her escape, Dagmar’s parents experienced some hard times
“My father was demoted. They shoved him down, and they were interrogated. They took my mom to one room and him to the other room and they were interrogating him [about] what they knew. Luckily they didn’t know anything so it was good, but they still kept bothering them a lot. So they suffered. Not only because of his demotion from the job, but also psychologically because it was hard for them. I was the only child so they didn’t have anybody, even though they had oodles of nephews and nieces, but still… If your child leaves, it’s another story. But I kept corresponding with them.”
Dagmar and her family eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and joined the local Sokol
“Not only physical. It was cultural. We had a busy, busy life here. We had a beautiful Sokol hall on Page Street in San Francisco. It was a great big hall and we put on shows. There was a guy, he’s long gone now, but he was the orchestrator of all these shows. For instance, on New Year’s Eve, we were dancing can-can one year; the next day we were doing hula. Plays, we put on plays. It was very active. Very active. And we took trips together to lakes north. We always kind of grouped up with the Czechs, so it was good.”
Category: Bay Area, Oral History