Joseph Masin (born Josef Mašín), 1932
Joseph Masin was born in Prague in 1932 and was raised nearby in the Czechoslovak military barracks at Ruzyně, where his father Josef was an army commandant. With the outbreak of WWII, Joseph’s father became a leading figure in an anti-Nazi resistance group called the Tří králové [The Three Kings]; he was arrested in 1941 and executed by the Gestapo one year later. Joseph’s mother, Zdenka, meanwhile, was interned in Terezín concentration camp. Joseph and his brother Radek spent most of the War in the spa town of Poděbrady where, says Joseph, the pair carried out a number of anti-Nazi actions, for which they were decorated by Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš after the War.
Upon graduation from high school, Joseph found himself unable to pursue his education further. He became a truck driver in Jeseník, North Moravia. During this time, he and his brother Radek headed a small, nameless anti-Communist group. In 1951, the group decided to escape Czechoslovakia and make contact with the American Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) in Berlin; the initial plan was to return to Czechoslovakia and work from inside the country to undermine the Communist regime. The escape, however, was foiled and both Josef and Radek were arrested, with the latter spending two years in prison. Joseph says he was unable to locate his brother during this period. During Radek’s imprisonment, Joseph made plans for a second escape attempt; he and members of his group held up a payroll transport and took hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovak crowns.
Upon Radek’s release in 1953, the brothers set out with three friends to contact the CIC in Berlin. They decided to go through East Germany as the border with West Germany was almost impenetrable by this stage. What was supposed to take around three to four days took one month and saw thousands of East German Volkspolizei [people’s police] mobilized to hunt the group down. The group was involved in a number of shoot-outs and two of its members were captured and later executed.
In Berlin, Joseph and Radek signed up for the U.S. Army. They did not return to Czechoslovakia, as they could not agree with the CIC on terms for doing so. Upon discharge in the 1960s, Joseph settled in Cologne, Germany, and established first a business selling stuffed crocodiles imported from South America and then a flight school at which military pilots retrained for a career in commercial aviation. He subsequently moved back to the United States and today lives in Santa Barbara, California. In 2008, Joseph and his brother Radek were awarded a Prime Minister’s Medal for their actions by former Czech premier Mirek Topolánek.
Joseph says his grandmother and the family maid raised him when his mother was arrested in WWII
“Our mother, she was jailed twice, and she spent a long time in German jails, and during that time our maid was still with our family and also our grandmother, who came also from a family which was German speaking, so she was looking out for us and actually, it was our grandmother and our maid who saved us when our mother was taken prisoner, when she was in the jail. So, she saved us from going to be reeducated and re-assimilated into the German folks. Our grandmother went to the authorities and she said, when they wanted to take us away, she said ‘look, I am going to look after them, I am German and so I am going to bring them up in the proper frame of mind so don’t worry’ and this is how we were kind of saved.”
Joseph remembers the Soviet troops in Poděbrady at the end of the War
“The Russians were very, very friendly, very nice. We just loved them, everybody threw flowers at them, because we were all allies, we just did not recognize… they were our brothers. And as a matter of fact, the first troops which came to Poděbrady, who stayed there, we were so friendly with them. In the evening, they used to dance kozáček and they used to sing and they used to play harmonicas and us kids, we just loved it. And they had the troops… they had women soldiers also and officers were women also and sometimes they even had kids – not their own kids, but somewhere in Ukraine or Poland they were abandoned, orphans, these kids – so they took them with them and they were moving with them. So for us it was all new and they would share their food with us because there was no food, it was a pretty bad situation. So, initially it was all very friendly, it turned 180 degrees later on.”
Joseph and his brother received a bravery medal from President Beneš after the War
“When the Germans were emptying some of the concentration camps, they were moving these Jews in open railroad cars during the winter time. And when these people, when they froze, their co-prisoners, they just threw them out of the railroad cars. And these guys, there were two guys, who simulated being dead. They were thrown out and they came through this Colonel Vaněk, they came also to the place where our POW, the Russian guy, came to [a hiding place made by the brothers inside one of the walls of their home].
“And as a matter of fact, before then, I don’t know if you have any experience of this, but kids when they are in their teens, 12, 14, everybody was playing clubs – so we had a club and our club, we dug a hole. Near our village, there was a little patch of woods and a sandpit, and in the sandpit there was a bunch of rabbits and these rabbits, they dig holes, and we enlarged one of the holes and made a kind of cave underneath, and it was our clubhouse. And as a matter of fact, in our clubhouse (because we did not have any place to keep our POWs) after we moved him out of our house, we moved him and these two Jewish ex-German prisoners; they were moved for a certain period to our clubhouse. So we kept them there. We were getting food to them also, because as kids we were not very obvious, we could carry the food and deliver it to them.
“And we have also, at that time through Poděbrady near the place we used to live, German military supply trains used to move and for example, they were moving fighter planes on these supply trains, on flatbed cars. So we went on these flatbed cars with hammers and so on, and we were damaging these fighter planes so that they could not be used elsewhere. But it was not that simple, because when they were moving these military freight supply trains, there was always anti-aircraft… there was the last car and the car right after the steam engine, they had cars with anti-aircraft guns and military guards. But these guys sometimes… either they were drunk or towards the end of the War, the discipline was not what it should have been, so they have not noticed or something and so we were able to do those things. And for these activities after the War we got this medal from Beneš.”
Joseph remembers when the escape plan began to unravel in East Germany
“It was raining, it was freezing, it was snowing. We were wet, our navigation was pretty bad because things in East Germany were not what we thought they would be. We decided… especially Zbyňa [Zbyněk Janata] was nudging us to move quickly, and so we decided to carjack, do carjacking, get a car and move to Berlin on four wheels.
“On that occasion, Radek let his gun… because Zbyněk wanted to have a gun there so just, he let him have the gun and he, for no reason, just to scare people, he fired the gun. And other people traveling on the road, which was the road by Freiburg going up north towards Berlin, other people started stopping, having heard the shotgun. Other cars started to stop and we had to abandon the effort. Because the fellow who was driving the car – it was a Volkswagen, an amphibious Volkswagen, and there was not enough place even in that vehicle for all of us, but when we pulled him out and Radek gave him chloroform, so before then, he pulled the key out of the ignition, and we had no way to start the car. We started to look for the keys, Zbyněk fired the gun and so there were about five, six people all of a sudden, several cars… before then, no cars stopped, but at that time all the cars started to stop and there and they started to chase us through the woods and Zbyněk sprained his ankle real bad.”
Neither Joseph nor his brother visits the Czech Republic today
“Why we don’t go there? Because it’s not the country we fought for. In the army, in the U.S. Army, we had Slovaks, good Slovaks, there was a fellow; his name was Pokorný – he used to be a lieutenant in the Czechoslovak Army and he was in Special Forces, there were a couple of other Slovaks. We fought, we wanted to fight for something for Czechoslovakia, united Czechoslovakia, democracy and everything. None of this happened.”
Joseph says it is dangerous to take democracy for granted
“Democracy is not to drive a Mercedes, svoboda [freedom] is not to go to Cuba on vacation, or to the Caribbean or Mallorca, you know? It takes a little bit more; it’s a frame of mind.”
Category: Oral History