Paul Ort: Three times the Gestapo came for my brothers and me – three times my father fobbed them off

Paul Ort, photo: Marie Tomanová

Dr. Paul Ort’s mother and grandfather were murdered by the Nazis in reprisals that followed the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. A childhood friend of Vaclav Havel’s, the then Pavel Ort escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia via Tunisia after securing a medical degree against the odds. He went on to have a very successful career in the US, where he is still practising at the age of 82.

Paul Ort,  photo: Marie Tomanová

Dr. Paul Ort has enjoyed a great career as an orthopaedic surgeon since settling in the US in the 1960s and says the Communists did him a major favour by making him leave Czechoslovakia.

As he tells it, the former Pavel Ort was forced to dissemble for many years before his escape to freedom.

His grandfather and father were also doctors and he had to conceal his middle class origins if he was to follow in their footsteps under the Communist regime.

In addition, he was afraid to speak openly to friends during his student days in Prague for fear of denunciation.

Before that he spoke German in public as a child during the war to increase his chances of survival. And with very good reason: His mother and grandfather were among the hundreds murdered in the wake of the assassination of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich.

When I met Dr. Ort at his art-filled home in Manhattan, I first asked him about this chilling episode in his young life.

“I was six years old in 1942, so I don’t have any first-hand recollection, but of course I was interested in that story and learned about it from my father and my stepmother.

“My maternal grandfather [Jan Sonnevend] was a lay president of the church where the parachutists were hidden. In fact it was he who arranged it.

“He was approached by another member. They were all members of Sokol and different nationalistic organizations.

“This Brother Fafek approached my grandfather asking whether he knew of some shelter and he suggested the church where the guys who killed Heydrich hid, and were betrayed, unfortunately.

“My grandfather was a lay president of the church where the parachutists were hidden. In fact it was he who arranged it.”

“Then there was a public trial of all the members of the church and they were sentenced to death.

“My grandfather was executed by firing squad in Kobylisy. Today there is a very interesting memorial in Kobylisy, where my grandfather, the bishop and the priests are memorialised.

“My mother and step-father were taken to a concentration camp, first of all Terezín and from there to Mauthausen, where they were executed with the entire group of families and whoever helped the parachutists.

“Around 270 people were executed.”

Some people say that the price was perhaps too high for the assassination of Heydrich, with what happened afterwards. What do you say to that?

“Well, I was lucky that we survived. But in retrospect, and reading so much about it, in my opinion it was the right thing to do. They were heroes.

“Whoever perished, or their families, may feel differently. But I consider them heroes.”

The Nazis were famously vengeful. How come you survived? How come they didn’t come looking for you also?

“They did come looking for us. But what saved us was that my parents were divorced.

“We were three sons and my father had custody of all three of us. My mother remarried and even her new husband perished with her.

“But because we were somewhat removed we survived, although the Gestapo came three times to our house to pick us up.

“But my father was a product of Austro-Hungarian education, spoke perfect German and always managed to send the Gestapo away, explaining that we had scarlet fever and giving different reasons.

“So three times they left and after a while they stopped bothering us.

Paul Ort with his father,  photo: archive of Paul Ort

“Although my father made us speak German in public. In the streets we spoke German so we would show our loyalty.”

I know you heard about the details second-hand, but still you were six years old and your mother was killed. How did that impact you?

“Even though I have fragmented recollections of my mother, we did used to come to visit her.

“I remember her giving me a little present on one occasion and I still have it here in the United States.

“It was a kind of a toy set of porcelain dishes and that’s what I played with in our house, so I have a sort of a souvenir from her.

“But in terms of the impact, our father sheltered us very carefully. He never spoke about it.

“At some point after the assassination there was a lot of tension, we were told we couldn’t visit the grandparents and mother, so he sheltered us from this impact of my mother’s death.”

On a happier note, I guess, one of your friends in school was Václav Havel. What kind of stuff did you guys get up to as kids or teenagers?

“We did go to elementary school together in Prague.

“We all went to public schools so we lived in the same neighbourhood, in the proximity of the National Theatre, so we belonged to the school district.

“That’s how we were classmates. We were exactly the same age. We were both born in 1936.

“We participated in different physical activities. We ice skated on the river Vltava, which used to freeze at that time. And that we usually did it right in front of the house where he lived.”

What was he like as a boy? Was he polite? Was he mischievous?

“He was very quiet. He was always reading, from what I remember.

“Our friendship or relationship actually continued. He happened to know my first wife, who was Czech, and in 1968 when he was allowed to come to New York to visit [actor and director Jiří/George] Voskovec he came to our house and we had dinner.

“I functioned as his friend, taking him around New York.

“Havel and I ice skated on the river Vltava, which used to freeze at that time. We usually did right in front of the house where he lived.”

“I was raving about New York and the United States, which I think was exaggerated, and he was a little taken aback that I was so enthusiastic about it here.

“Eventually I dragged him all to the north of Manhattan to the Cloisters and I think he was so sick of the sightseeing that he just sat there on the bench and contemplated the Hudson River.

“So that’s my recollection from 1968.

“There was one other recollection. My oldest daughter graduated from Harvard University and Havel was the commencement speaker at the graduation.

“He was given an honorary doctorate and it was the same year that my daughter graduated and it was kind of a nice touch.

“From his speech I remember that he said his mother had always urged him to study at Harvard and he had got his doctorate there.

“And he said, Well, I didn’t even have to study for it.”

Getting back to your story, by the time you were leaving school the Communists had come to power. How were you able to study medicine given that you must have been considered bourgeois?

“When I was 15 years old the Communist Party decided that I couldn’t continue school.

“It was the same as what happened to Havel – we were that generation who got caught.

“It wasn’t really to punish us, it was to punish our parents. My father was devastated that his son wasn’t going to be an educated person.

“He tried everything, people who the family knew and every connection and nothing worked.

“But my step-mother came up with this scheme that I went to work in a chemical factory in a small town [Neratovice] where she used to be a school teacher and where she knew a lot of people.

“So I worked for almost one year in the chemical factory and at the end of the year the factory sent me to further my education to the gymnazium in Nymburk.

Paul Ort,  photo: archive of Paul Ort

“The concession I had to make was that I couldn’t return to Prague, not to irritate the Communist officials.

“So I studied at the gymnazium in Nymburk.”

And you got from there you got into study medicine?

“Well it was also somewhat tricky, but I was lucky that that particular year the Communists, in order to attract people with some intelligence, made a rule that whoever had straight A’s could go to the school of their choice, without any political investigation.

“I was raised in Prague and in Nymburk the quality wasn’t perhaps as high and I did manage to get my straight A’s and I started my medical school in Prague.”

I expect if anybody was studying the humanities, for example history or sociology, that would have been deeply influenced by Communist ideology. Were your medical studies influenced in some way by ideology?

“Definitely, they were.

“I would say that the prevailing feeling that we had at that time was fear.

“We were afraid to talk to our friends. I was afraid to talk to my best friend because our relationship could break down and he could denounce me and I wouldn’t be able to continue.

“At that time we were also going through the uprising in Hungary and the approach was to expel a few students as a preventative measure – to intimidate us.

“So basically going to school was living in fear as to whether I would be able to continue and finish.

“It certainly contributed to my decision to leave the country.

“I couldn’t envision living in fear for the rest of my life.”

“It wasn’t really to punish us, it was to punish our parents. My father was devastated that his son wasn’t going to be an educated person.”

How did you eventually get out of the country?

“After I finished medical school I was given a position in the periphery of Bohemia, which was also on purpose – that we would be in what used to be the Sudetenland.

“From there I applied for a trip to Tunisia. It was a tourist trip.

“The local people didn’t know my background so well and I was trying to behave and be cooperative.

“So I was allowed to go on this trip.

“There was also a little episode at that time that I like to speak about: My chief called me in and said, I hope, Paul, that you’re not going to forget yourself there.

“I had just got a raise, about 50 crowns – my salary was 950 crowns a month – and I said, Sir, how could I do something like that when I got this raise in my salary?”

You were on holiday in Tunisia and basically ran away?

“Yes. It was more complicated.

“We travelled to Odessa, to Russia, by train and in Odessa we embarked on a Russian trip named Pobeda.

“That gives me a lot of pleasure, because Pobeda stands for victory. So for me it was kind of symbolic.

“We were 400 Czech tourists and we didn’t know who was an agent among us and who were the tourists.

“In order to obscure my intentions I befriended somebody who worked at Czechoslovak Television.

“Also when we had a stopover in Kiev I went to the hospital and to the orthopaedic department.

“Then also the fact that I was interested in the woman from the television, who was someone older than I was, also kind of hid my intentions.

“When we arrived in Tunisia we had around five days and they showed us the sights.

“It was the last day before we were supposed to return when they took us to the beach.

Paul Ort,  photo: archive of Paul Ort

“And for the Czechs the beach is an incredible experience, because Czechoslovakia was a landlocked country.

“I felt the agents lost control of who was in the water and who was on the beach.

“I also felt that I should say something to that woman from Czechoslovak Television, so I said that I was bored on the beach – which was a big lie – and that I wanted to see a few more sights.

“Luckily she didn’t volunteer to go with me.

“So I walked away from the beach.

“By the same token, I didn’t have anything with me. I didn’t have one bag or anything. I just had my pants and a shirt and a bathing suit, which I stuffed in my pocket.

“On a nearby road I hitchhiked and somebody took me back to Tunis.”

Eventually you ended up coming here to the States. Tell us about your beginnings here.

“I started to prepare for my return to the profession already in Tunisia.

“I had a relative in England who was a nurse. I contacted her and she told me about certain books that were used to prepare for the examination for foreign doctors, which I actually secured.

“I travelled across the ocean on a ship and on the ship I was already studying for my examination.

“So that was very intense.

“I studied for seven months for this exam and I was lucky that I passed it on the first attempt.

“And once you secure that degree nobody really asks you any questions. It’s kind of proof that you know something about medicine.

“So I embarked on the standard training in the US. I did an internship and a residency.

“I was already interested in orthopaedics from the Czech Republic. And I embarked on my training.”

You also took an unlikely sounding, to me, detour when you went to Venezuela, where you had relatives, is that right?

“Yes. I did have another part of my family in Venezuela.

“I contacted them and they were very kind and sent me some money. That was how I was able to support myself while studying for this examination.

“We were going through the uprising in Hungary and the approach was to expel a few students as a preventative measure – to intimidate us.”

“My uncle was a very smart Jewish businessman. He was married to my father’s cousin, so it was not a direct relationship, but nevertheless they treated me as family.

“And he gave me the best advice. I didn’t have any idea of where to settle, whether in Venezuela or any other part of the world, but he didn’t want to reject me.

“So he said, Come to Venezuela for a visit, but emigrate to the US.

“That was invaluable advice and I am grateful to him to this day, especially with the way the situation is in Venezuelan right now.

“The adventure in Venezuela already started a little bit in Tunisia, where actually it was the Germans who took me under their protection.

“I did tell them about my mother and my grandfather and they respected it and were helpful.

“They took me to some social functions and at one of them I met the mayor of Cologne.

“The mayor was a very humanistic person and talked to me actually, even though I was a complete reject at that time.

“He said, If you are ever in Cologne, make sure you say hello to me at the rathaus, the city hall.

“Actually a few months later I happened to be in Cologne, on my way to Venezuela and the US, and one day I decided to visit my friend at the rathaus.

“Again he was very humanistic and supportive and said, While you are in Caracas say hello to my nephew, who is the director of the zoo there.

“So a few months later I was in Venezuela and decided to visit the zoo.

“The director said to me, Where have you been? My uncle wrote to me and I have a job for you that you cannot refuse.

“It was a job as a doctor with a geographical expedition. Local doctors didn’t want that kind of a job – six months in the jungle.

Paul Ort,  photo: archive of Paul Ort

“But I was 27 years old at that time, so I took it with all enthusiasm. I knew I would never have that kind of experience again.

“I spent six months in the jungle, more or less providing first aid, but it was a great experience.

“I learned about tropical diseases. I had to practice general medicine and even pulled some teeth.

“Actually the training in Prague was extremely helpful. We were trained in every branch of medicine and I put that to work.

“So that was my detour in Venezuela.”

During all of your years here, while communism was still in place in Czechoslovakia, did you ever visit? I guess you could have, if you were a US citizen?

“No. I was strictly forbidden to visit. I learned this later, during the Prague Spring.

“When I tried to contact my family my stepmother investigated and they said, Paul Ort can never return to Czechoslovakia because of his acquaintance with Václav Havel.”

How much have you been involved over the years with the Czech community here in New York?

“I joined the Czech community almost immediately.

“Of course it was an exile community, not like now.

“At that time the centre of the Czech community was in Astoria: the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden.

“I joined the organisation and I have been a member ever since. Eventually I became president of the organisation. I served for one year.

“That was sort of a little bit of repaying to the Czech community.”

I see some work here by another member of the Czech community in New York, Peter Sis. There’s one of his works on the wall here.

“Well, if you look around there must be about 20 drawings and pieces by him.

“But you are right. Peter is probably one of my closest friends and I value his friendship tremendously.

“And that whale in shape of Manhattan is actually the original for the poster that he made for the subway.

“He gave me the original and the other pieces. We see each other frequently.”

You’re an orthopaedic surgeon. What has been the focus of your medical work?

“Initially I practised as a general orthopaedist. I always had an interest in hip joints and I became interested in repairs of broken hips.

“I was lucky to be at the birth of a device that became extremely popular for the repair of broken hips.

“I was invited by the company that produced the implant to Memphis, Tennessee and we made educational movies about how to perform the procedure.

“We perfected the device and it turned out that it became extremely popular.

“It’s still used today and for a device like that to be still used after 30 years is extremely unusual.

“My interest in replacing hip fractures led to my interest in hip replacements – and I do that operation to this day.”

“My uncle said, Come to Venezuela for a visit, but emigrate to the US. That was invaluable advice and I am grateful to him to this day.”

You’ve had a fabulous career here. Do you ever think about what kind of career, or life, you might have had if you’d stayed in Prague?

“I think it would have been horrendous. I always say that I think the Communists did me a great favour by chasing me out.

“Even though it was not always easy, eventually everything turned out to be OK.

“One reason I left was because I couldn’t envision that somebody would do the same thing to me that the Communists did to my father – in other words, to persecute my children because I was a physician.

“I couldn’t envisage raising a family and being a pratcising physician in a Communist country.

“Then I also felt, based on my upbringing and background, that the system was malignant – and I didn’t want to live under that kind of malignant system.

“So I felt if I ever had an opportunity to leave I would take that opportunity.

“And that’s what I did.”

My final question is, you’re 82 years old, you were telling me you have two jobs, you’re still working and you’re super fit – what is your secret?

“I enjoy what I do, my profession. I am a professor at a university and I am the head of the orthopaedic department at the Veterans’ Hospital.

“So I am involved in training the doctors who are training to be orthopaedic surgeons.

“My work and my contact with that generation of extremely bright young people keeps my spirit up, I would say.

“In order to be able to function I exercise vigorously. As long as I am physically able to do it, it probably helps my mental state too.

“And I am able to do it so I keep doing it.”