Great Plains Wondering: The story of Frantisek Vondracek
Author's note: On Memorial Day weekend, we take time to remember those who have gone before us, our ancestors, particularly those who fought in wars and gave all or parts of their lives to military service. I think of my great-uncle, František Vondráček, who composed the following letter in about 1965 and submitted to an unknown magazine in his native land. At the time, Czechoslovakia was in its 17th year of communist rule. The original letter was written in Czech, which I translated with the aid of Google Translate, my own limited knowledge of Czech and assistance from my cousin in Horky, Czechia, Radka Tmejova. The introductory paragraphs refer to my great-grandfather, Josef Vondráček, who emigrated from the Bohemia region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Wilson, Kansas, as a 17-year-old boy. After arriving in Kansas, Josef lived on a farm with an uncle and his family in nearby southwestern Lincoln County and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in that county in 1901. Bracketed comments are my own and are intended to clarify certain passages of the letter. Portions of the letter that were confusing or otherwise unclear were omitted. Following are the words of František:
"I would like to write something about myself. I am 82 years old, a trained shoemaker from Čermná u Chocně [town in Bohemia, which was a region of Czechoslovakia after the country formed following World War I].
"I had a brother [Josef Vondráček] who fled to the United States in 1893 to avoid military service [for the Austro-Hungarian Empire]. I accompanied him as a 13-year-old boy to Mittenwalde in Germany. He worked as best he could in America. He had a farm [the farm was located near Corwin in Barber County], which he handed over to one of his two sons, and then he worked for many years as a retired laborer in a mill. He retired and died in 1962 at the age of 85. He left behind a widow who is 92 years old this year . When my nephew [my grandfather, Charles Vondracek] wrote to me about my brother's death, he wrote: He did not die of illness but he died because he missed the work. When I read the letters from the readers [of the magazine which this letter was submitted to], they want to visit their hometowns once more. I would like to tell this longing for home about myself. Just as a hare still returns to the places where he was born (for example a dog has driven him a few kilometers) so a person returns to the place of his birth, even though he had it better in the world and worse at home; it is simply given by nature. Listen to my story of longing for home.
"It was in 1914 that it broke out: the war and I was as a midfielder called up for war. Sent to the Russian Front, I was captured in 1914, like thousands of other Czechs and Slovaks. There were 120,000 of us in Russia. So we bravely defended our empire, Austria. We were spread across the whole Russian empire to different jobs. As you know that our man is a good laborer, when a foreigner commands him, everywhere people do well. I got to the oil fields near Samarkand/Tashkent; there were several Czechs with me. Everyone did the work according to their skills. I serviced the reservoirs with the oil, discharging the oil pipeline to the rail as needed. I operated electric motors and the like. It was not bad if we had a meal. We had tobacco and we cooked homemade distillate [probably alcohol].
"The year 1918 came. A year later, the signing of the Peace Treaty of Brest-Lithuania and some returned home without mention. Several of us decided to run home across Persia [now Iran]. The distance from Persia to the Samarkand, it is same as to China — it was a hundred kilometers. From thought to action there was no more [the thought was realized is Radka’s explanation]. We dried our bread on the way; we dried tea to the tea bag, a blanket, everyone had some money, and we disappeared from the camp one by one in one free day. 26 of us met behind the hill. Nobody had a map or compass.
"Someone found out how to go to Persia via Karakum. At night we wandered on the road, went and went, still and still in the bigger hills to the horizon there were yet mountains. The sun was rising in the west instead of in the east. Then we came to the desert, where only sand and worst of all was water nowhere and [we were] so tired sitting in a crowd and here we see two people and a dog on the horizon. When they came closer, we identified a Slovenian prisoner who was somehow late, followed us, got lost at night, came to Kirkiz's hut and begged him to show him the way to Karakum. When they met us, we asked first: 'Is water here?' He said it is. He led us to a place where a small stream of water seeped through the sand. I dug a hole and drew precious water from it in the cup.
"We immediately negotiated with Kirkiz whether he would lead us to Karakum. 'How much would you give?' he asked. 'We'll give you 100 rubles each,' we said. He agreed. The more careful of us said, 'We'll give him 50 and the other when he takes us there.' And so we went and went. The moon came out. Kirkiz fell to his knees, beating his chest, at, every blow he said, Hasan ali, at the second Hasan begi and he repeated it many times. The prayer ended and we went on.
"In the morning at dawn on the horizon he showed us a group of trees and said, 'There, that is Karakum,' but further than that he would not go. We gave him another 50 rubles. I cut the blanket. I gave him half and we went in the direction he showed us.
"We finally came to a group of barracks, where a man with a white beard came out to meet us and greet us with the words: 'Greet your companions, where are you going?' 'To Austria,' we said. We didn't know who it was. He took us to the teahouse, ordered us tea, there was boiled rice to buy, which was eaten by the hands, so we had a rest after the way.
"Suddenly in the afternoon we hear the thud of horses and say: 'Go to the circle!' We were encircled by Circassians, armed to the teeth, who stood against us with bayonets. The commander's first question was: 'Do you have guns?' 'No!' The second order was, 'Whoever has any money with him, whether Soviet or Tsarist, hand it in!' Everyone reached into his pocket for money and threw it into the cloak of the soldier who collected it. Third order: 'I will do a search for you and whoever I find money from, I will kill instead!' I had a crooked bag with tsarist rubles and threw it in the collection. We had nothing. Commander said: 'Let's go.'
"They took us to the fortress and locked us up. The next day came the commander, who took us, for he needed two men, using the money which they took from us, to buy food for cooking at the market. And so we cooked and rested. At that time, questions were asked if we had done something somewhere else and what to do with us. When the matter was investigated, the commander came, and he threw the money on the floor, saying, 'Please take it, you will go back to the factory. A train with a load of wood will leave in an hour, so you will get on it.' The train arrived and we went back after the trip and the desire for home did not come true.
"In the morning they called: 'Vondráček, to the office!' I went. [The Commander asked,] 'Why did you run away? Don't you like this place?' I said, 'We want to go home. I have children at home.' They said: 'And what about the children, we bring them here to you?' My wife died in 1916. 'I'm not going to the factory anymore, I'm a shoemaker.' They said, 'It is great! You will go to the shoe workshop.' So I managed the shoes. There were no nails for shoes. I made them by hand.
"At that tour on that run, I took home a scorpion in alcohol as a souvenir, a venomous spider, and a cracked cotton berry, and I threw it all into the soldier’s bag. It wasn't until 1920 that we were let home, so we took a train to Riga, Estonia, and then a boat to Hamburg. I came home after six years of captivity. There were old parents who moved in with us. And since it is written in a holy song that it is impossible to be a man alone, I got married and started farming again from the beginning on seven acres of land."