Ivo & Jindriska Syptak - Part One

Dakota DC-3
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Anyone who has ever spent a few days among Czechs in Toronto will have probably heard of Ivo and Jindriska Syptak - one of the most amiable and dedicated couples in the city's Czechoslovak community. In their sixties, Ivo and his wife regularly bring together Czechs and Slovaks, regardless of whether they've been in Canada for three months or for thirty years. As you'll find out, they have remarkable stories too. Today: Ivo's parents, Ivo's childhood during the war, and one of the most dramatic escapes from Czechoslovakia ever. Tomorrow: Jindriska and life in Canada.

Ervin Syptak
The story of the Syptak family is very much the story of Ivo's father - Ervin - born in 1910. A prominent businessman and an important member of the Czech Sokol movement in Prague, Ervin Syptak refused to be broken by the Nazis after they invaded Czechoslovakia. Following March 1939 he took an active role in hiding Jews who would otherwise have faced certain death. Ivo Syptak tells his father's story:

"He was in the underground movement. He lost his restaurant, it was taken over by the Nazis, his other businesses too, and that was mostly because they suspected him of transporting Jewish people - his friends - to Hostalkova. Then they would go up into the hills and hide there. They were living there with the partisans, there were partisans in those hills. Lots of 'samoty': places that were quite hidden, quite out of the way. His principles, I guess led him to do this, the friendships, most of them went back way before the war. It was the commitment that he had to his friends and he was a Christian and also a Sokol. The first organisation that was banned by Hitler in Czechoslovakia."

But, says Ivo, his father's selfless dedication soon landed him behind bars, at the 'mercy' of his German interrogators.

"First he was in Pankrac, which is a prison in Prague, he was interrogated many, many times there. Then he was sent to Terezin concentration camp. He spent about three-and-a half years there. My mother spent most of her time in Prague trying to get my father out of prison of course, so she would be in Prague, she would be in Terezin looking for him, he was moved to different prisons for a while, too. And so they shifted me to Hostalkova - that's where my dad was born - so I stayed with my grandmother, or my uncles, and I spent my youth sort of being hidden away there."

Hostalkova was the town in eastern Moravia where many friends of the family and family members hid. Though Ivo himself was just a few years old at the time, there were some moments he could never really forget:

"There were times when there was nothing to eat, you know, the Germans came and they would take everything that we had, all the food. So, I remember Grandma going to the fields, trying to dig out a few potatoes after the field had already been dug. It was during the winter, they had been frozen, and that's all we had to eat. I also remember the partisans coming into town and asking for food too. So, there was a bit of hunger."

Even more horrifying were Nazi atrocities on the local square:

"There were a few times, I remember as a child, we were forced out onto the square, and I witnessed people put into lines, and every tenth person or so was shot. I was just a little boy at the time, but I witnessed this."

Eventually, as the war dragged on, the Syptak family returned to Prague. An uncle took part in the battles on the barricades in the war's final days. Once it was over Ivo's father, too, returned home: he had survived.

The Syptaks: Ervin, Jindriska and Ivo
"When my dad came back I didn't recognise him, you know, I saw a skeleton pretty much, and I hid behind my mother. I was only six but I regret that to this day. I just remember my dad's hands reaching out and I was hiding from him."

Did your father talk about what he had experienced during the war?

"No, he couldn't. He didn't talk too much about that."

Still, it didn't take long for Ervin to find his old roots. Ivo says the next few years were industrious ones and that most Czechs, including his father, looked to the future with a measure of guarded optimism.

"My dad got to work right away: as soon as he got his health a little bit together he opened 'Cerna Ruze", that was one of his restaurants - and he got his life together very quickly and was enterprising and very successful again."

Tragically, Czechoslovakia's renewed freedom would not last long. By February 1948 the country had fallen to a Communist take-over and by March that same year the country's beloved foreign minister, Jan Masaryk, was found dead below his second-story bathroom window. To this day most Czechs still believe he was murdered by the KGB.

"The Sokol movement went to the Castle to protest the killing of Jan Masaryk: so they were 'marked men' right there. The next day they took over my dad's businesses: he couldn't go to the bank, he couldn't go to his home. My dad was in denial more or less, and actually his cousins who had more of an overview of everything - what could happen - convinced him that we should leave Czechoslovakia right away. Within three days we stole a plane, a Dakota DC-3, that took twenty-one people, which was more than capacity for that plane. It belonged to a Czech general, Husak. This was arranged in three days."

The plane flew from Bratislava to Prague and was boarded by the Syptak family, including six-year old Ivo, who naturally had not been told a thing. He held excitedly onto a favourite book and a small ball.

"They told me to be quiet and we had to cut a hole in the fence. But, there we were met by some of the guards of the airfield. This had been pre-arranged by my cousins, and most of the guards who were guarding the airport came with us. Karel Stastny and another uncle, Eman, flew the plane. We were supposed to fly to Paris, but they decided to continue to London."

Ivo says he learned only much later that they were in fact followed by fighter planes ready to take the stolen jet down.

"My uncle said a few planes had been looking for us, right over France they violated international air space. We heard planes all around, they used all the clouds that they could. Once we over France they had to give up the search."

By then they were almost free at last, but there was still the problem of fuel: there was barely enough. The pilots were forced to make an emergency landing, barely reaching the English coast. They landed in the sand.

"It actually landed quite well, except the propellers were busted, the under-carriage was busted, but we got out of the plane with no injuries. In Great Britain they welcomed us with open arms and the reaction in Czechoslovakia was pretty awful. The first thing they did is sentenced everybody in absentia to death, death by hanging, they even specified that. The second reaction was that they wanted their plane back. Well, the British government had actually fixed it and the Czech government had to have that plane back. They were really furious at what happened. This was the first plane, there were several planes after that that also escaped, we set a precedent maybe! {laughs}"

In Part Two: From dramatic escape to a new life: the Syptaks in Canada and "meeting Jindriska". Be sure to tune in.