Jan Smudek - the real Laszlo from Casablanca

Jan Smudek, photo: Public Domain

In one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed films, Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart finds himself torn between choosing to be with the woman he loves, or helping her escape with her Czech husband Victor Laszlo. The latter’s story may have been inspired by a real man - Czechoslovak resistance fighter Jan Smudek, whose story is no less adventurous than in the famous picture.

Jan Smudek,  photo: Public Domain
A wanted member of the resistance escaping the Nazi secret police through Casablanca to get back onto allied territory and continue the fight. These are the stories of both Jan Smudek and Victor Laszlo. Although the magnificent romance is missing and the final destination for both protagonists is different, some believe that it was in fact Smudek who inspired the character whose beautiful wife Humphrey Bogart lets go for the greater good.

Idealistic patriot

Smudek was born in the West Bohemian town of Bělá nad Radbuzou in 1915. A member of both Sokol, a Czechoslovak gymnastics movement associated with Czech nationhood and of Junák, the country’s Scouts branch, Smudek seems to have been a patriot and reportedly swore an oath of allegiance with his fellow Scouts at the portrait of first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk either on the day the Nazis occupied Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939 or soon after.

He and his friends would end up joining one of the country’s leading resistance movements called Defence of the Nation (Obrana národa) sometime during the spring of that year.

Aside from apparently acting as a communicator between the organisation’s base in Prague and the town he resided in, Smudek was also encouraged to find weapons for the resistance movement. This he managed to do in the spring of 1939, when he stole the pistol of a drunk German non-commissioned officer at a party in Prague.

He planned to do the same with his friend that same year in June in the Central Bohemian town of Kladno, this time choosing to rob a German policeman of his gun during the night. The man in question was a police chief sergeant called Wilhelm Kniest.

However, as historian Petr Koura from Charles University told Czech Radio Plus, the plan did not work out exactly as the duo had expected and Smudek ended up shooting the policeman, thereafter becoming a hunted man.

“I looked into it and I think it happened more or less by chance. Smudek was trying to get his weapon, which was a sort of ticket into the resistance. It was late in the night and the policeman was drunk and Smudek shot him in a mishap.”

Three shots were fired at the policeman in the incident, one seems to have been by accident when Smudek was trying to take Kniest’s gun and that was likely the fatal head wound which killed the German. Smudek, possibly in shock, ended up running away from the scene, forgetting to take the man’s weapon.

Wanted man

A scene from the film Casablanca
The two perpetrators were lucky to escape from the scene unnoticed, as the action took place on one of Kladno’s frequented streets. Kniest’s body was discovered soon after by one of his colleagues who heard the pistol shots as he was laying down to bed.

By the early morning hours a special Gestapo investigative commission was on the spot and the chief of the Nazi police Heinrich Himmler was informed about the event. Some 100 of the town’s resident’s, including the mayor, were arrested as the Nazis were committed to crack down on the sign of dissent.

The Germans were worried that the Czechs were planning to rise up against the new protectorate order and that the killing was a signal for a sort of equivalent of the famous St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 16th century France.

Undiscovered, Smudek meanwhile finished his second year of studies at the Kladno School of Engineering and then travelled to the town of Domažlice in his native West Bohemia for the holidays. Needless to say, he continued there in his resistance activities and established further contacts.

After the Second World War broke out the Domažlice resistance group increased their efforts and were planning to blow up an ammunition train. However, the plan would be discovered and a hard crackdown on the local resistance fighters followed.

In 1940, through interrogating his contacts within the Domažlice fighters, the Germans found out about Smudek and his actions the previous year and informed the Gestapo in Kladno. Historian Petr Koura again.

“They came to arrest him. He injured one of them seriously and managed to escape. By some strange decision he tried to cross the border into Germany, but he was surprised there by two members of the German customs guard who arrested him. They made the odd mistake that they did not search him and he shot them both as they were bringing him to the local station and managed to flee back home.”

A popular legend began forming about Smudek as he continually managed to avoid the authorities and he became known as “Nepolapitelný Jan” (The Elusive Jan). “There are clear signs that Jan Smudek is being propagated by parts of society as a national hero”, one contemporary Nazi document reads, going on to say that “it has also been found that many in the nation are willing to help in hiding him”. According to one informant, a high ranking Czech policeman was even urging his subordinates to help Smudek in his escape, or to shoot the man instead of arresting him so as to prevent him from having to betray his colleagues to the Germans if he were found.

Other Czechs however, sought to use the Germans’ eagerness to catch Smudek for their personal profit, vengeances, or simply to mislead the police and the Gestapo would receive many letters informing them of individuals who were helping hide the wanted man. These would often result in fruitless police raids.

Smudek’s accomplice in the killing of Wilhlem Kniest was also caught by the Gestapo and he was sentenced to death on June 12, 1940, just over a year since the act took place.

“Elusive John”

By that time, Smudek was already outside of the Protectorate. Crossing the border into Slovakia, the fugitive continued through Hungary into friendly Yugoslavia and then on through Lebanon in the Middle East to France, where he joined the Czechoslovaks fighting on the side of France. He was injured and fell into Nazi captivity, although his true identity was unknown.

However, not ready to give up, Smudek managed to escape again and it was during this time that the Czech resistance fighter stayed for a while in Casablanca, although using the pseudonym Charles Legrand, rather than Victor Laszlo.

From there, Smudek traveled through Martinique, the Bermudas and Canada to eventually reach Britain, where he enrolled into the Royal Air Force and fought on.

His extraordinary tale was used by allied propaganda, namely the Czechoslovak section in the BBC which broadcast this message back home in 1942.

“You will hear the story of the Czech student on whose head the Gestapo wrote a large reward and who, despite this, managed to escape. We will call him Jan Koranda. Today he is with the Czechoslovak Army in Britain, where he is fighting in the British air force and avenges German injustices on our people.”

Why the pseudonym Jan Koranda? Petr Koura explains.

“Why the editors chose the name Jan Koranda is perhaps understandable. Smudek had become famous and there was a fear that he could be assassinated, that some German spy could try to kill him.

“Even within the RAF he used a pseudonym, namely Karel Doubek, the name of one of his friends from the Scouts back in Domazlice, a real historical figure that he could use in case someone asked him for details from his life. The secrecy within the RAF is understandable although those who were listening to the broadcast would all have known who the radio was really referring to.

“The name Jan Koranda itself is of course symbolic - it refers to a famous radical Hussite priest Václav Koranda who joined the movement’s military leader Jan Žižka in their camp in Tábor. It is a reference to Hussite warriors”

It was not only to the Czechoslovak audience that Smudek was known by now. His tale had become famous in many parts of the globe, according to historian Petr Koura.

“His escape was truly dramatic and his tale echoed through the whole of Europe, even throughout the world. We find footprints of his tale in the Soviet Union, for example in the [1943] Georgian film Elusive John, all the way to the famous [American] film Casablanca.

“I am convinced that that character in the famous romantic movie by Michael Curtis is based on Smudek. He is a resistance fighter. Although he is given a Hungarian name, Victor Laszlo, he declares in the film that he is a Czechoslovak, that he is escaping through Europe from the Nazis and that he is a leader of the resistance. The inspiration from Smudek’s story is clear. It should also be said that even a comic series was created on the basis of his tale [called Wanted ByThe Gestapo]."

Jan Smudek’s specific role within the RAF seems to have been as a navigator in one of the bomber squadrons. This is also where he found Margaret Bush, a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, whom he would marry a few days after the end of the war.

Escaping Czechoslovakia again

As with so many Czechoslovak pilots, Jan Smudek’s tale has a rather sad ending, although less tragic than that of some of his colleagues.

Petr Koura described Smudek’s story after the latter returned home following the Second World War.

“He tried to get into politics. He ran for office in 1946 for the Czechoslovak People’s Party [the predecessors of the Christian Democrats] and had an anti-communist stance.

“The party hoped that he would attract young voters as he was supposed to be the sort of archetypal hero who had picked up arms in defence of his homeland. However, he did not get elected.

“After the Communist coup d’etat in February 1948 moved into exile in quite dramatic fashion. The State Security services were looking for him. It seems he then worked in exile structures, but then focused on some sort of business activity.”

Smudek seems to have been the subject of a deception plot organised by Communist secret services before he left in 1947. These tried to fool him by posing as anti-communist activists and requesting he move them over the border into the West, possibly in order to incriminate him. However, at that time, the Communists still did not have full control over the intelligence services and another branch intervened, spoiling the plot.

Smudek was arrested that same year for trying to cross the border and sentenced to two weeks in prison. This led his wife and two daughters to move out of Czechoslovakia.

He followed them a year later, again unnoticed by the security services who were watching him and were only able to report that he had not been inside his flat for some time and was seemingly abroad in November 1948.

Living in France for much of the Cold War, Jan Smudek did eventually return to the Czech Republic in the 1990s and died a largely obscure man in a village near Domažlice - the town he knew so well. As a bad example in Cold War Czechoslovakia, his story was suppressed and largely forgotten among Czechs by the time he returned.