Twenty-two years ago, on September 21, 1951, at the time of the most brutal communist repression, a driver of a personal train was traveling from Cheb to Aš alongside the German border. Just before reaching Aš, Jaroslav Konvalinka switched to the adjacent track and continued in the new direction until he reached Selb-Ploeszberg in West Germany, which was about 35km from Hof. The train supposed to stop at the border station, but it didn’t. Instead it broke through the Iron Curtain and earned the name the “Freedom train.” It arrived in Selb with the train staff and 111 passengers, who had no idea about the change of the travel plan, and majority of them returned back to the Czechoslovakia. The Toronto Telegram, on October 26, 1951, described this change of the travel plan “as one of the most spectacular escapes from tyranny in modern history.” What the group did, as the Telegram described it, “was stealing a Communist train at a gunpoint and high-balling it from Prague’s Woodrow Wilson Station right into the lap of the Allied soldiers in Wildenau in West Germany.” The escape was planned by the driver, Jaroslav Konvalinka, another train employee, Karel Truska, law student Karel Ruml (he arrived with a pistol and his job was to guard the hand-brake) and a deputy inspector of Prague police, Václav Trobl, who the Communists quickly dismissed. Trobl (accompanied by his wife Vlasta and son Zdeněk) was seen by the others as the real hero of the escape. He played the main role in planning the theft of the train, and it was Trobl, who issued the order to break through the border. If they had been caught, they all would be sentenced to death and hanged.
Among those who returned home, was the brakeman, who said that he couldn’t stop the train because the emergency brake was “mysteriously” broken. Another returnee was a 16 years old girl, Zdeňka Hyblová, who returned to Czechoslovakia two days after her arrival in Selb. It was a brief return. Shortly after she got back, she escaped (and this time her escape was intended) again with two friends, 18 years old Milena Poláčková and 16 years old Kamil Kvapil, and she told the story of her return to Czechoslovak refugees in camp Valka. After she returned back to Czechoslovakia, she was questioned by officers of STB along with other returnees. Some of the questions she was asked deserve repeating: “You were beaten in Germany, weren’t you? You had nothing to eat, didn’t you? Have the Americans used force to keep some of the passengers in Germany? How did the Americans behaved themselves with girls?”
Among those who did not return were, of course, the planners of the escape Jaroslav Konvalinka, Karel Truska and other members of the train staff. All of them were invited by the U. S. Union to come to the USA, and they all accept the invitation. They were joined by Karel Ruml. The Trobl family chose Canada, arriving in Halifax on board of an old ship “Goja” and two days after reaching Halifax boarded a Canadian train – in their honor also named “the freedom train” – which took them to a small Ontario town called Ajax. The head of the family, the hero of the escape, Václav Trobl, is no longer with us. But his son, Zdeněk, is (after all, he is still a man in his best years). And so is Václav’s widow, Vlasta. And Vlasta will, on October 29, celebrate her 100th birthday.
Not surprisingly, she had experienced many a thing since October 24, 1951, when she first saw the country called Canada. I had the pleasure of chatting with her (and her son) in her lodging in an exceptionally fine home for seniors in Etobicoke (in western Toronto). We started talking about things that happened to her long before October 24, 1951. She recalled an incident, which occurred more than 98 years ago. At that time she was around 20 months old. Her father and his brother, who was visiting them at that time, were sitting in a room that she was entering. Her uncle called her to come to him. Vlasta started to run, but instead of running to her uncle, she went to her father. Perhaps she felt how deeply her father loved her – he and his wife already had three sons and he longed for a girl. Soon after he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and he never returned. Then Vlasta recalled her French teacher at the school she attended many years later. Her teacher adored the first president of Czechoslovakia, T. G. Masaryk, and she passed this love on to her students and Vlasta as well.
Vlasta’s son, who visits her every day, sees her as a practical and adaptable woman (he sees himself as a sentimentalist). He may have a point. When I asked him about his first impressions of Canada, he described, quite poetically, the overwhelming beauty of Newfoundland, then the welcome from the dolphins, and never ending greenery he saw from the train from Halifax to Ajax. When I asked his mother the same question, she thought about it a few moments and said very simply “That I couldn’t speak English.” From Ajax (they didn’t stay there even overnight) they were taken to Toronto. Both mother and son have pleasant memories of the 14 days they spent in a “guest house” (they don’t remember its name) on Jarvis Street but they know that the building is now gone. After 14 days they were told that hey were on their own. They visited – as most newcomers before them – the Masaryk Hall on Cowan Avenue. The building is still there and is still called “Masaryk.” Vlasta recalled that the long-time president of the Masaryk Memorial Institute, Gustav Přístupa, gave her work in his tailor’s shop. Her first job was sewing on buttons. No problem there. When she finished that job, Mr. Přístupa seated her next to a huge sewing machine, she had never seen before. She was asked to stitch together two pieces of cloth. It came out crooked. Mr. Přístupa acknowledged that it wasn’t really her fault, but Vlasta lost her job anyway. Then Dr. Hradská, who played an important role in the community (and, particularly, in the Masaryk Institute), found Vlasta a job with a doctor’s family. Everything was going well until Vlasta placed a bucket filled with water, behind the door in the hall and as the doctor’s wife was leaving home, she tripped up and kicked the bucket quite violently and the water splashed all over her and she was all wet. Vlasta never went there again. Then Dr. Hradská found a job for her with a well known Slovak Kerney family and that was the perfect combination. Gizelle Kerney (we have seen her two weeks ago on the Toronto Czech television Nová vize) and Vlasta Troblová liked each other from the start and Vlasta worked for Gizelle the next 32 years. The family called her “Aunt Vlasta” and Aunt Vlasta once almost started a linguistic war, when Gizelle taught her son Peter that the word “blood” means – in Slovak – “krv!”, and Peter retorted that couldn’t be right, because Aunt Vlasta called blood “krev.”
Teta Vlasta did in her life many good and useful things. She didn’t miss a single meeting of The Women’s Council of the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada, working faithfully with its presidents, Ruth Petříček, Erica Wiezner and Blanca Rohn; she baked and cooked at balls and dances, both at the Masaryk Memorial Hall, and the St. Wenceslaus Church, with Mrs. Bernstejn as chef, and Mrs. Bílčik; she remembers with affection every individual person at the church and particularly that wonderful man, Jaroslav Janda: at one time, when the ladies were asked to cook practically every third day, and didn’t like it, Rev. Janda offered each of them 20 dollars for each dinner they cooked – every time Vlasta donated 10 dollars to the church and offered the other 10 dollars to Rev. Janda. Janda kept refusing it, but when Vlasta persisted, Janda accepted it with: “I’ll pay my debt.” For her voluntary work Vlasta was honored by the Province of Ontario.
Vlasta hurt her body (I have no idea how she treated her soul, we didn’t get around to it) fairly often. Twice she managed to break her arm: once she fell from stairs (that time her arm grew together fine), the second time she fell on ice. Her doctor didn’t set her arm correctly and didn’t send her to have the fracture ex-rayed. She has problem with this arm to this day. She was already past her 80th birthday, when she fell while getting on a bus. Her son is still trying to figure out how she managed it. According to the established account, she fell backwards, her skirt rolled up to her neck, she hit the pavement with the back of her head, the pavement didn’t suffer too badly, her head wasn’t pleased, however Vlasta survived. But a little earlier (but I do get easily confused, it could have been a little later), while crossing Royal York Road, she collided with a motorcycle, ridden by a doctor’s son, who obviously had poor brakes and Vlasta suffered a bad shock. Even at that, she was lucky; she could have been killed.
She survived everything: loss of her homeland, a family tragedy, a fractured arm (twice, once poorly healed) etc. True: she has problem walking, so she does a great deal of sitting, and because she sits in the chair long hours, the part of her body most intimately collaborating with the chair, occasionally hurts. But: her eyes are brighter than mine – and she is twelve years older; she remembers what happened 98 years ago; her hearing is perfect; and she talks so fast I have difficulty keeping up with her. She laughs a lot and when she does, she looks at most 89.
I forgot to ask her two important questions: 1. Was it worth it? 2. Would she like to repeat it? So I asked her son to ask her these two questions for me. Vlasta answered them both in one sentence: ”It could have been worse, but I wouldn’t want to repeat it.” That clarity of thinking! That directness of speech! That economy with words! I feel that all of us should try to convince her to run for a high office. The higher, the better. I am already looking forward to her speeches.
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Před 22 roky, 11. září 1951, uprostřed nejbrutálnějšího období komunistického režimu, strojvůdce osobního vlaku na cestě z Chebu do Aše blízko německých hranic, Jaroslav Konvalinka, těsně před Aší odbočil na postranní kolej a pokračoval v jízdě do Selb-Ploeszbergu v západním Německu, asi 35 km od Hofu. Vlak měl zastavit v pohraniční stanici, ale nezastavil: jednoduše prorazil železnou oponu. Bylo mu dáno jméno ‘Vlak svobody’.
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