Barbara Skypala was born in Ružomberok, Slovakia, in 1930. She lived there until the age of eight, when she says the family was expelled from Slovakia due to her father’s Czech nationality. The Pellers spent WWII in Brno, where her father worked as a district attorney and her mother made money embroidering. Barbara says she knew the War was coming to an end thanks to the BBC and because ethnic Germans started to leave town before Soviet troops arrived. She remembers stray animals on the street at that time and says her family came to inherit a canary when it flew in through their window and into an open cage they had hanging in the house. The Peller family left Czechoslovakia in April 1948 when a warrant was issued for Barbara’s father’s arrest. They took a bus to Znojmo and crossed the border into Austria, where Barbara says her family was ‘smuggled’ into the American zone with false papers provided by locals. She spent time in St. Johann im Pongau refugee camp near Salzburg before being sent to boarding school in Switzerland with her sister, which she says she disliked, as she was used to much more ‘emancipation.’ Barbara came to America in the fall of 1949.
Upon arrival in the United States, Barbara attended classes at St. Teresa’s College in Kansas, while her family settled in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1950, she gained a scholarship to study at the University of Kansas. She moved to St. Paul upon the death of her father some two years later, and started taking classes at the University of Minnesota in the evenings after work. After a short stint in New York City (where she met her husband Vaclav Skypala), Barbara moved to Chicago with her family in 1953. Her first job in the city was as an administrative assistant at the Container Cooperation of America. In Chicago, Barbara and Vaclav raised two children, Christine and Madeleine. Barbara gained a master’s degree in theology and began to work with the Archdiocese of Chicago, specializing in religious education. Now widowed, Barbara lives in Elmwood Park, Illinois. She enjoys traveling to Europe and has recently visited Tibet and China, but she says that Elmwood Park is now her home.
“I am from the pre-communist generation, and there is a huge difference… I feel it even here in the Czech church. We are so different from the ones who were raised under the Communist regime.”
“Well, it’s different because when we had an enemy; it was someone German speaking in a gray uniform. But with the communists, it could be anybody; your neighbor, your family. You did not have the sense of ‘us’ being in the right. I mean you may have felt it… I really thought it was destructive to the soul of the people. You had to be forever on the watch. It was also that way, I mean, I remember the War very clearly; I was a teenager and I was 15 years old when the War ended, you knew where your safety was. I don’t think the generation that was raised under communism (I mean people my age or a little older who stayed) they did not have that security. They had to learn how to float between all the negatives and all of that.”
Teen in WWII
“Well, one thing is, we were fairly well sheltered in that we had strong family units. Secondly, I was in a gymnázium, I was in a secondary school. We had brave, imaginative teachers. I did not have history in school, but my mom got history books, and every day I would have to sit by the table and read for an hour, we allowed for that. There was bombing, and the city was burning, and I think there was snow outside. But by golly, on Friday, we went to dancing lessons! There were the gentlemen, and there were the ladies, and you learned how to dance because, we learned that not doing things and giving up would be giving in. And dong things stubbornly… My first formal [ball gown] was cut from three different dresses. We never gave up and I think that was the strength. And even as youngsters, we picked it up.”
“We didn’t have any plan. We needed to leave to save our lives. So when we came, the Austrians hid us in a jail when we crossed because there were agents that would come and kidnap people. In Vienna, my sister and I could not speak to each other in Czech; we spoke German because people were kidnapped. This was the beginning; this was a question of pride for the regime. So, we were brought to Vienna, and there, again, gave us false papers to get into the American zone because we were in the middle of the Russian Zone. They hid us in a jail and they transported us.”
“The first thing when we came to a camp, someone came from the village, said they heard there was a little child. So they took my sister to school. Nobody asked, and they gave her free lunch. It was kind of funny, she came home to the camp and she said “Mom! Guess what! I get a free lunch, I am considered poor!” My mother cried for three days and my sister thought it was just peachy! They only took families. They had the openings so they took us. They were so well organized; Of course they refused to go to Tito, that’s why they remained in exile. They were so well organized, that we had services in Sunday, and they had the army cook who was horrible, but we ate, and we were warm. And someone from the village sent skis to me. We went skiing believe it or not. I mean they were kind of rinky-dink skis, but they were good to us. And of course it was so beautiful. St. Johann is just down the stream and down the valley from where Silent Night was composed. So it’s that kind of a thing. On Christmas, they had the whole orchestra, and you came to church. And there were skis in the snow banks all around.”
“Well the first thing of course was, watching out of the train. And, I come from the Tatras, and around Brno. It was hills and trees, and here I went through this plain. Here and there I would see black people working in the fields. It was different. My family was wonderful, but what I missed most was the age of the buildings. Everything seemed so rinky-dink. Not in a bad sense, just so temporary. The first Sunday, I was loaded into the car, and we went to Independence [Missouri]. And when we came to Independence, we parked the car, and we started walking. And we came to this house, and there was a presidential flag, and an American flag, and one U.S. marine. We walked right up there and nobody stopped us. Here he [Harry S. Truman] was at home. Now that impressed me. You know, being used to castles, and moats, and fences. That impressed me. We went in, and me and Willy, (my father’s friend, Willy and Gilda) took a picture of me with the marine, and nobody stopped us, he just stood there. And then we left, so that was kind of cool. I don’t think that would happen today anymore.”