Jaroslav and Alžběta Hofrichter: the enduring power of love

Alžběta and Jaroslav Hofrichter, photo: David Vaughan

A few years ago I spent an unforgettable day with Jaroslav and Alžběta Hofrichter. It was 2013, Jaroslav was 93, Alžběta 91, and they were living in sheltered accommodation for Second World War veterans at Prague’s Military Hospital. I was there to hear their life story, a tale of courage, resilience, a touch of luck and, above all, of the enduring power of love. The Hofrichters were known by their many friends as the “turtledoves”. Having met them I could see why. If there is an elixir for a happy marriage, they had found it. Jaroslav spent four years serving in Britain’s Royal Air Force along with some 2,000 fellow Czechs and Slovaks, nearly a quarter of whom never came home. At the end of the war, he returned to Czechoslovakia as a hero, but before long, his record with the RAF became a thorn in the side of the new communist regime. For most of the next four decades he and his wife Alžběta were treated with constant suspicion. Here, in their own words, is the story of Jaroslav and Alžběta – or Elizabeth – Hofrichter, first broadcast in December 2013. Both have since died, but they are remembered with great fondness.

Alžběta and Jaroslav Hofrichter,  photo: David Vaughan
Jaroslav: My name is Jaroslav Hofrichter. During the war I served in the 311 Bomber Squadron. In 1943 I went from Bomber Squadron to Coastal Command. I have a total of 580 operation hours and I never had any trouble in those operations. I received three Czech Crosses.

Alžběta: “My name is Elizabeth Hofrichter.”

And how long have you been married?

Alžběta: “We have been married for 55 years and I must tell you that I met my husband and we married after six months.”

It was love at first sight.

Alžběta: “Yes, I honour my husband very much.”

And you’ve been happy ever since.

Alžběta: “I must say yes, very happy. You know, we are now in the military hospital because of our age, but when my husband was able to walk, the whole time he brought me flowers. I had flowers on my table the whole year, from the first to the last day. I admire my husband very much.”

And so, what is the secret of your happy marriage?

Alžběta: “Tolerance, in the first place, and that one must honour the other.”

You got married at a very difficult time. Your husband had come back from serving in the Royal Air Force in Britain and when the new regime in Czechoslovakia was very unsympathetic towards Czechs and Slovaks who had flown in the RAF.

Alžběta: “Yes, it was really the hardest time. I am from Ostrava and I came to Prague for a job, because at that time I could speak several languages, German, Russian, some French and of course English. So I came to Prague and I met my husband and we married.”

A bomber crew of No. 311  (Czechoslovak) Squadron RAF
Did you always know you wanted to fly?

Jaroslav: “For me flying wasn’t a job. You just can’t imagine what it’s like, when you’re up there on your own, no one’s bothering you, all you think about is the flying itself. That was probably the worst thing that the communists took from me and the others. Whenever we got together, all the lads used to say that if only we could, we’d all fly again. After the fall of communism, in 1990, we were taken in a military plane to a commemoration in Spain, and I just couldn’t help going to the cockpit to join the lads who were flying the plane. You know, I first joined the flying club in Plzeň when I was fifteen. When the war came, 90% of us smuggled ourselves out to fight for our country. If you look at the lists of who fought in the 312 Czechoslovak Squadron, you’ll see that 90% were from Plzeň.”

Alžběta: “I’d like to add something about my husband’s friends. In the worst period in the 1950s they were all persecuted and locked up, but I’ve never encountered anything like the camaraderie that existed between them. They would have done anything for each other.”

Do you still sometimes dream of flying?

Jaroslav: “I’m always dreaming of flying, and whenever we all used to meet, we’d start the conversation with flying and end the conversation with flying, because it wasn’t a job. We lived for it.”

How did you come to be in the Royal Air Force in the first place?

Jaroslav: “I escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1940. Poland had already fallen, so the only way was via Slovakia and Hungary to Yugoslavia. And then, on a group passport we went on to Greece.”

And I should imagine that at that time it must have been dangerous.

Three Wellington Mk ICs of No. 311  (Czechoslovak) Squadron RAF
Jaroslav: “It was very dangerous, but I was lucky. Some of my friends were caught three times and sent back to the border each time… I had some Hungarian currency, which I’d exchanged with Hungarian workers in Plzeň. I managed to cross the border from Hungary to Yugoslavia near the town of Subotica. Luckily, I’d done lots of cycling with my father as a child and he’d taught me how to recognize the different directions. The main thing was to keep the Pole Star right behind me. I crossed a kind of ditch that marked the border. A Yugoslav policeman called out, “Who goes there?” I said, “I’m Czech!” He took me to the police station, where they gave me plum brandy, rakia and a meal. They drove me to Belgrade and at each police station the policeman explained that he was taking a Czech to fight the Germans. I was given somewhere to stay in a school with other Czechs who’d escaped, and it was great. For the first time I really felt I was someone. We waited for a group passport. They always sent people in groups of thirty. We went right through Yugoslavia, then through Greece and Turkey, and on by boat to Syria. But then Italy joined the war, France capitulated, so we continued via Beirut to Palestine, where we registered with the English.

“The embassy gave us military passes, as if we were in the army, and we waited at the airport until there were enough of us to be flown to Port Said. There we had to wait for a ship, and in the end we sailed to British Somalia, South Africa and then to West Africa, where we weren’t allowed to disembark, as there was some kind of epidemic. We ended up travelling, via Halifax in Canada, with a convoy to Britain. It was 1941 by the time we finally docked in Glasgow.

“From there we went on to the Czechoslovak Air Ministry in London. Before the war, I’d joined the project “Action for a Thousand Pilots”, which had aimed to provide Czechoslovakia with enough qualified pilots, but I hadn’t clocked up enough flying hours and I was told I would have to go through further training. Instead I took up the offer of becoming a radio-operator and gunner on Wellington bombers. So I became a gunner and they moved us to Coastal Command at Talbenny in Wales, and there we went into action protecting convoys and looking out for German submarines. In 1943 we were provided with Liberator bombers, so I was put on a course to become a flight engineer on Liberators, and that’s what I did till the end of the war.”

A Liberator crew of No. 311  (Czechoslovak) Squadron RAF
Given the huge casualty rates among crews, were you afraid?

Jaroslav: “I believe in one thing. Your fate is set out for you. You can spend your whole life avoiding danger and then you fall off a chair and break your neck. All the other lads wrote letters, in case they never came back, to give to their parents after the war. If a crew was lost, the priest would come round and take the letters. That never even occurred to me. I was a hundred percent convinced that nothing could happen to me. And touch wood, I’ve now reached 93. I’ve had several operations, but I’ve always pulled through. It’s like they say in India, that everyone is born with his book of life. For some of us it’s shorter, for others longer, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I had a friend who was off duty and didn’t have to join the flight, but when he saw his crew getting ready, he swapped his shift with another crew member and he never came back. He didn’t have to go, but he wanted to be with his crew. And that was that.”

Alžběta: “I’d like to add that my husband is a person to whom nothing has ever happened. Whatever has been going on around him, somehow it has always passed him by. No matter what it was.”

With the end of the war, Jaroslav Hofrichter returned home in August 1945, together with other Czechoslovak airmen. He discovered that his parents had spent the war in prison. During the German occupation this was a typical punishment for relatives of people who had gone abroad to fight. But he says that they felt proud of him, without a hint of resentment. He rejoined the Czechoslovak Air Force and served in its transport division until 1949. After the communist coup of 1948, he had the opportunity to flee to the West, as many of his fellow airmen did, but Jaroslav was not going to leave his parents to their fate for a second time. As with so many others who had fought in Britain, his days in the armed forces were soon to be numbered. The military authorities found out that on his regular flights to Britain, he was still keeping in touch with the pilots who had fled.

Jaroslav Hofrichter,  photo: David Vaughan
Jaroslav: “Well, I was sacked. They declared that I could only work in mines, steelworks or agriculture. Everything else was out of bounds. Well, I’d been trained as a mechanic, even before the war at the Škoda works in Plzeň, and I was given work in a state-owned factory. And that proved to be my greatest stroke of luck – the fact that it happened to be a state-owned company. Some three weeks later we were all arrested. There were people like František Fajtl and Ota Hrubý, in all there must have been forty of us. What was interesting was that it wasn’t a real trial. There were six men sitting there. They would summon us. They’d ask things like, “Where do you work?” Those who worked for someone privately or were employed by some government department were sentenced, but there were about four of us – I remember one of the others was called Benda – who worked in state-owned factories. Benda was at the steelworks in Kladno. They told us that they could see we had a positive attitude to the new people’s democracy. All the others were sentenced to hard labour at Mírov prison. What’s strange is that it wasn’t a proper court at all. There were just six guys there, asking completely arbitrary questions, shooting from the hip. There and then, they said how many years each would get. But I just carried on working at the Tesla electrotechnical company. And I stayed there till I retired.”

Alžběta: “I was sent to work in Prague, at the Agriculture Ministry. At that time, in 1953, there was no one around who spoke English, so I began to work at the Agricultural Institute, which measured agricultural productivity and compared it with results from all over the world. They received material in English, so I translated it for them. Then I got to know my husband. But because he’d been in the West he was persecuted and as a result, so was I. I’d wanted to go to university and had even begun to study, but the moment I married my husband, I was immediately thrown out. But they couldn’t sack me from the ministry, because no one else spoke English. When I retired, three people took my place. I’d done the work on my own, for a quarter of what they were paid.”

And did you ever feel bitterness towards friends or former friends of yours who collaborated with the regime?

Jaroslav: “You know, it was difficult. Some were simply given the order that they must join the party. But what was worse was when somebody joined the party and then betrayed his own friends.”

Alžběta: “I wanted to add that, when we got married, I was living in a hostel and my husband at a friend’s flat. When his friend got married, we were both able to move into the flat. The trouble was that, because the authorities knew my husband had fought in the West, everybody who came to see us had to be officially announced and the cleaner, who cleaned the staircase in the building, would come into our flat and we had to show her what food we had bought and how much, what clothes we have. We had to show her everything. People started avoiding us, so my husband and I had no one but each other. Even old friends would cross to the other side of the street. My husband and I were always alone together, but it didn’t matter. We got on so well.”

Official badge of the No. 311 RAF Squadron
And you didn’t have children.

Alžběta: “How could we have? When we were first married, for a long time my husband was living with a friend and I was in the hostel. By the time we got the flat I was already thirty-eight. We tried, we both went to see specialists, but it was too late.”

Many couples live for their children, but it seems that you have a lot more to live for.

Jaroslav: “We just live for each other and, to be quite honest, these days I can’t even dress myself. My wife baths me, washes me. The top half of me is fine, but my legs… I’m afraid that I’m going to be in a wheelchair soon, because my legs get worse every day.”

Are you afraid of that?

Jaroslav: “No, I’m not afraid. You know, I didn’t expect to live to 93. It doesn’t bother me if it happens tomorrow. I can look anyone in the eyes, I feel that I’ve done what I had to do and there were occasions when doing that saved the lives of the other lads.”

Alžběta: “We don’t worry about our age, but we try to make the most of what we have. We like to go to the mountains for Christmas – we don’t ski any more, but we like it there, we go to the spa, we take a week’s holiday in the summer. We do what we can…”

Jaroslav: “Thanks to the Defence Ministry, the World War Two veterans have the right to go the spa every year and they pay for it, which is fantastic. It’s one of the things that keep us going, and they’re always brilliant to us.”

Alžběta: “I’ll tell you one thing. I have such a beautiful marriage and that is all I live for. Through all the awful, difficult times, we were happy. We used to go for walks in the woods. We couldn’t have a beer because it cost 1.60 crowns and we only had 1.40. But we were always happy together. In the worst times, we’d shut ourselves up at home and talk together. We get on fantastically and that means a lot.”

Jaroslav: “My mother said that each of us is born with a candle and that the candle starts to burn. And when the time comes for life to end, the candle goes out. Everyone is born with his book of life and each day a page is turned.”